You Don't Have to Be French to Be Sexy

Pop quiz: If a woman looks old + sexy and no one is around to validate her, does she still emit a breathy whimper? No really, in order to be sexy, who has to "agree" that you're sexy? Any passing stranger? A panel of Russian judges? The answer is one person, and one person only: You. The rest is sexy magic. And you don't have to be French.

First: I like a broad generalization as much as the next gal. I also like French culture. Like anyone, I swoon for existentialists in berets smoking cigs and reading. But I get tired of hearing reflexive French superiority theories. You know, French women don't get fat, and are cooler, and wear scarves better, and are instinctively better parents because they ignore their children, yadda yadda. They are also "allowed" to be sexier for longer, whereas American cooch dries up at 29.

The piece is called "Why Are French Women Allowed to Age and Still Be Sexy?" and it says:

The latest Louis Vuitton campaign features two iconic French women: actress Catherine Deneuve and It-girl/model Caroline de Maigret. The former is 70-years-old and the latter is reaching a sudden peak as she is about to turn 39. Both share the same sultry eyes, bed hair, and undeniable sex appeal.

Although in fashion, youth never gets old, French luxury brands have tend to choose models that are a tad more mature. Recent examples include 47-year-old actress Sophie Marceau wearing nothing but bed sheets and a Chaumet watch for the brand's campaign or a seemingly topless 46-year-old former French first lady Carla Bruni for Bulgari.

Not only are these women closer to the customers' age, they also mirror the local belief that seductiveness and sexuality don't go down the drain after the age of 40. In fact, Gallic culture is peppered with post-menopausal bombshells. Take fashion: 59-year-old Carine Roitfeld (no need to introduce her) stills rock her stilettos and slit skirts; former model and Schiaparelli ambassador Farida Khelfa (51 years old) continues to close Jean Paul Gaultier shows.

The same goes for many actresses who still appeal to the entire nation as the years go by. Isabelle Huppert, age 60, specialized in provocative, controversial roles in The Piano Teacher and Ma Mère, where she played a mother that introduces her own son to S&M sex. As for Catherine Deneuve, she has a raunchy lesbian encounter with her maid in Eight Women.

All the women mentioned here look terrific and that's great. But even French sexiness is defined in a pretty monolithic way. These are older women, yes, but they are mostly white, thin women rocking a pretty conventional version of sexy (skirts + stilettos + come hither + few or no wrinkles). That's great! It's fun! It's one kind of sexiness. Again, all these women look fantastic, no doubt. And while I agree America has a lot to learn about what sexiness is in terms of media depictions, I think it's important to remember that you don't need a media depiction to give you "permission" to be sexy. And it's not a competition among nations. And comparing one nation's ladies to another in terms of who gets to be more sexy just frames the whole issue to sound like it's simply a matter of getting the green light from…a magazine? Movies? American women WOULD be so sexy if our menfolk and leaders would JUST notice, and JUST let us…emanate.

It's definitely a kind of progress to show older woman as sexual, given that many women are said to feel invisible in middle age. But sexiness as an aspirational goal tends to be a doubled-edged sword — it doesn't mean much at any age if it doesn't come alongside being actually valued and paid and respected in the same ways men are, and some women enjoy getting the sexy heat taken off them even at 30, as the author in this piece meditating on her 30th birthday felt when she wrote:

Drinking the countless cocktails with which I solidified professional relationships, I got used to dreading propositions. When I stopped getting them, the delight of being equal, rather than just fuckable, hit me like a kiss.

You could flip the point around to illustrate the way sexy pressure can be less than awesome: In France, you feel pressure to still look sexy until you drop dead, but at least in America you get to pull on some sweats and crawl into a hole when you turn 30.

I'm not arguing that nothing happens to women as they age, or that the media's stamp of approval for women of all body types and ages and skin colors and abilities wouldn't be rad. But until that day comes, there can be no doubt that the most important thing a woman can do, not to mention rad in its own right, is define sexy on her own terms, in ways that feel authentic to her, and that are not about winning the perceived wink of world leaders or magazine approval, which is about as narrow as it gets — pun intended.

Sexiness is a moment, an experience, a gesture, not a permanent state we should all be hustling to achieve 24/7 'til death do us bonerkill, and it's not an official designated title issued by someone else, no matter how powerful their readership. Speaking of media, if that's all we're looking to on the French sexiness issue, what about the presence of greater numbers of women over 40 on television in the States, being sexy, or the countless aging actresses in luxury ads in fashion magazines? Did they get special permission or what?

And then there's this:

"Sex appeal doesn't go away because we don't have such a precise definition of beauty. Quirkiness and charm are more valued than a static idea of perfection. In the United States, beauty is almost mathematical and can only be achieved in your 20s," says Laurence Vely, an editor at Vanity Fair France, who feels a lot of women become more attractive with age. "Once you hit 40, you finally know yourself and what suits you. [You] have real confidence."

I dunno, you guys, I'm not into this to be all go-America, but for every Carine Roitfeld, Catherine Deneuve, and Isabelle Huppert, I'd raise them a Diane Keaton, Sharon Stone, or Susan Sarandon. Yes, France is not America, so let's concede that there is something more freeing about France's attitude toward sex and sexuality and affairs and overall sexiness. America has a notoriously conflicted identity as part lurid pornographer, part Puritanical pearl-clutcher. We could learn a thing or two from any view that is more laid-back. And yes, let's champion the directors and magazines who tell more sexy-diverse kinds of women's stories. But until then, who is waiting to be "allowed" to be anything?

Besides, even in France, where the sexy older ladies roam so wild and free, there is an effort trying to get more women buried at the Pantheon, the place where only great men like Voltaire and Rousseau are buried for being geniuses. The only lady buried there on her own merit? Marie Curie. But was she sexy? Couldn't say we should give a shit.

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