samedi 5 janvier 2008

Déjà vu.

Whenever I peruse the cartoons at Slate it‘s always a sure bet that, when it comes to portray France and the French, I will meet 5 permanent fixtures cartoonists all over the world resort to:

1°) The Eiffel Tower.
Well, nothing wrong here, it helps to settle the setting. A bit repetitive but, well, no doubt, we’re in Paris, France.

2°) The béret.
Well, why not? Although it’s meanly worn on the country but I can see some in Paris too. Spaniards also wear the beret and much more than the French.

3°) The baguette.
It’s one among many other products bakers make and sell and one that is essentially to be found in Paris. But then again, it’s OK.
Now, this is really much more surprising. Where does that cliché come from? No French that I know of or see in the streets, on flicks or ad posters never wear striped jersey.

I once thought that it was a souvenir of Auguste Renoir’s painting at the time of Guy de Maupassant, but after I checked, the jersey wasn’t striped. Les Frères Jacques? Nope!

It eventually dawned on me that it had to do with le Mime Marceau (the upper part of his costume) who obviously made a smashing impact on the perception Americans in general seem to have regarding the French. 

Because I’m positive on this: Next to no French ever wears a striped jersey, even on the beaches in July/August. But never mind…

5°) Napoléon.
There seems to be a real obsession with this historical figure, and not only among American cartoonists. You can be sure to find him in cartoons from Germany as well as Norway or India, Brazil or wherever.

Whichever French politician is portrayed, he’s entitled to his caricature as Napoleon. Be it De Gaulle, Mitterrand, Chirac and now Sarkozy, all French leaders are would-be Napoleon. Like every new Russian leader is the new Tsar of all Russias.

Let me tell you, if there’s something the French don’t exactly mull over it has to be Napoléon.

Of course 2 or 3 of these clichés are often to be found in the same cartoon.

My feeling is that cartoonists the world over haven’t much idea of what modern France and the French are and they all have to use again and again worn out clichés. On the other hand that’s what caricatures are made of: clichés and prejudice. 

If only they could be funny…

20 commentaires:

Flocon a dit…

Of course, this is an easy read post.
And certainly not meant to suggest French cartoonists are any better. Quite the opposite, they're even worse.
As a matter of fact, there are next to no cartoons relating to foreign affairs in the French press.
Save for G.W Bush and Putin, I can't think of any other foreign politician (Frau Märkel is hardly mentioned and never made ridiculous) or any foreign group that are used by Plantu (the most famous French caricaturist) or Cabu, Wolinsky (a complete zero).
Nothing abobut Americans in general, or Chinese, Japanese etc.
Why is that? i'll have to think about it...

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…

Hi Flocon,

According to this article in Indopedia:

"Dressed in striped shirt and beret, riding a bicycle hung with onions, the Onion Johnny became the stereotypical image of the Frenchman, who was in the past probably the only contact that the British had with France."

This seems to make sense because "chandail" comes from "marchand d'ail". Per wiki:

Par métonymie, de l’abréviation populaire marchand d’ail, désignant aux Halles de Paris les ouvriers du marché aux légumes

The striped shirt is known as a Breton fisherman's shirt:

Also, Jean Paul Gaultier didn't help matters as you can see that he is depicted wearing this striped shirt at the Grévin Wax Museum in Paris.

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…

Per the Breton Fisherman's Shirt link:

Le chandail marin trouverait ses origines en Bretagne. C’est la contraction de marchand d’ail, nom dont les navigateurs qui se rendaient en Angleterre pour y vendre leur production d’ail et d’oignons se faisaient affubler au XVIIIème siècle. Dans les années 70, ce vêtement est vite adopté par les officiers de surface avant de devenir la tenue de travail des marins.

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…

As for the baguette, well I even spotted a dog in Normandy with a baguette.

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…

After reviewing many articles online, I am convinced that the Americans get their stereotypes of the French from the Brits.

For the British, the typical Frenchman remains seated upon bicycle, beret on his head, striped shirt across his chest, a string of onions as his garland

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…

Okay, now I'm sure that it was the Brits who came up with this stereotype...

Pull Marin

Les anglais ont compris depuis longtemps, faisant du français type soit un gars avec baguette et béret, soit beaucoup plus classe, avec pull marin et un bracelet d'ail. Il restait à inventer les fameuses rayures horizontales

Flocon a dit…

Waoh! That's a thorough research you've conducted here Joann... ;-)

I think you're right about the English origin of the striped jersey cliché.

Regarding Jean-Paul Gaultier, I didn't think of him in the first place but I have a feeling he wanted to play with the stereotype. And particularly so because he was aiming at his American clientele.

I don't say this famous striped jersey doesn't exist but it's only to be found along the Channel and Atlantic coasts probably. Very marginal. And to be found in other mediterranean countries also.

I suppose it's like this specific ties some Americans wear in Texas. A New-Yorker of a Chicagoan for example would be surprised to always be caricatured wearing such attire...

It only goes to show how cliches and prejudice thrive and flourish and survive all along with sometimes a very tiny, thin basis in reality.

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…

I suppose it's like this specific ties some Americans wear in Texas. A New-Yorker of a Chicagoan for example would be surprised to always be caricatured wearing such attire...

Indeed! This is one of the most common complaints from Americans who feel that Europeans who are familiar with a few states or a certain region of the country then feel that they understand completely all Americans.

As for the beret...

Americans are well aware that the beret is a silly stereotype..

Here is a clip from European Vacation with Chevy Chase. This scene is making fun of silly American tourists in Paris who are making fools out of themselves because they're not aware that the beret is just a stereotype and because they don't understand one word of French, and yet they are so proud of themselves.

Demonstrates that we Americans know how goofy we can be and that we can perfectly well make fun of ourselves ... ;)

And here the Americans are stereotyping themselves. Afterall, have ever seen an American in Paris wearing a beret?!

Obob a dit…

we brutally sterotype our own in the States.
Italian-American: mafiaso
African American(black): you can dance and are athletic
Irish American: cop/drunk
Asian American: smart
Paki or Indo: run a convience store (Sen. Biden & Clinton there)

or geographically
New Yorker: criminal
Georgia: redneck
Florida: retired
Texan: cowboy
Indiana: Basketball freak
California: hippie/beach bum/celeb
Kentucky: married to your sister
Utah: polygamy

and so on.

Obob a dit…

"Kentucky: married to your sister"
I meant that as in brother and sister are married to each other in a disturbing incest way.

Flocon a dit…

"we brutally sterotype our own in the States.
Ethnically/// or geographically"

It's universal; no doubt about it...
I guess the Chinese from the north do the same with the Chineses from the south and conversely...

Anonyme a dit…

OT, but this repetitive image of Napoleon as the paragon of Frenchness, which i deplore too (but other brands like Astérix or Jeanne d'Arc don't turn me on as well, and who knows Vercingétorix?) stirs a few reflexions.

Isn't Napo a not-too-bad compromise, since prejudice prevails anyway? Better that than no image at all, in this modern world. Why are they so interested in France and dig out worn out clichés all the time about the French? Would they be interesting?

Napoleon was certainly a troubling figure. It's use throughout world media is ambivalent, as is Uncle Sam, John Bull, the Japanese sumo wrestler or a few others. The first has existed, the others are collective and unhistorical characters but don't they all rejoin in the end?

All bear both powerful/dangerous, benevolent/menacing national images whether in the country where they originated or in the rest of the world, and with comparable pros and cons.

Napoleon (which, en passant, i dislike without even arguing as the symbol of one of the poorest political system ever created) was this ambivalent. He is not so bad rated in France. I'm pretty sure that at least in the UK too, though i don't know the stats, he is seen both as a military genius and a most hazardous guy on the continent at a time. Not as freaky as Adolf, but a tough challenge. Whichever opinion, he is the one to watch, anyway, which also means that - despite his frivolous life and his poor hygiene - there's something to be learned out of him. This is also more or less the general approach in the US (imho).

In the rest of Europe, he seems also typical of some very rare species of typically French "grand homme" - which includes both folie des grandeurs and raw foolishness. By comparison, Bismarck, a German-made "grand homme" does not garner the same glamour. Uncle Sam has a ridiculous costume and stands for the menacing character of each-and-every country in the world in the cartoons, while John Bull is ugly and grumpy. John Bull's real-life character appears as a humorous but stiff bowler-hatted and stern black suit-dressed gentleman. Not so gorgeous, and certainly not very sexy.

Napo isn't such a bad cliché, after all. It stresses the fact that modern French politicians do not live by their ancestor's standards, which is true. Better than the Aussies systematically posing as dressed kangaroos or Germans in Lederhosen, a Pickelhaube on their head and a beer at hand - when it's not some politician with Adolf's moustache.

As you say, a problem certainly lies in the lack of imagination or laziness of the cartoonists or columnists. Sarkozy seems to be the #1 caricatured and ridiculed these days. It serves him right. They should paint him in a Napoleon in rags, or better, a mere playboy in a sportscar... If they see him as a "chance", they're a more in trouble than i thought.


Flocon a dit…

Funny clip. I didn't know this Chevy Chase.
The theme of making fun of foreigners because of their ignorance of our language is as old as the world (I was around...)

The Monthy Python used it twice as far as I remember. Once it was in a Faulty Towers episode, the victimes were German tourists.

The other one was some sort of Bulgarian tourist misreading his English phrase-book.

And Borat more or less resorted to the same inexhaustible theme last year.

I'm following your advice: I no longer post each day but at least every other day or 3 times a week.

Flocon a dit…


C'est vrai que si Napoléon est constamment présent sous la plume des dessinateurs du monde entier, c'est que cela a un sens, ce sont les réflexions que tu suggèrent.

L'ambivalence est reine ici me semble t-il. Particulièrement de la part des anglo-saxons chez lesquels la part d'envie n'est peut-être pas la moins importante dans cette fascination que leur inspire le personnage.

Il faut reconnaître que nous avons plusieurs symboles identitaires immédiatement reconnaissables (ceux que j'ai indiqués, entre autres) quand je ne vois pas ce à quoi peuvent recourir les caricaturistes pour les Italiens à part les gondoles (les spaghettis?) ou les Espagnols si ce n'est les toreros... Quant aux Allemands? Et les autres européens?

Comment Wolinsky (qui est une nullité à mon sens) dessinerait-il les Chinois ou les Japonais si ce n'est avec les yeux bridés? Ou n'importe quel autre caricaturiste du monde entier?

Et comment signifie t-on que ce sont les Américains qui sont en scène dans une caricature si ce n'est en recourant soit au symbole $ soit au Stars n' stripes? Et les Russes? Un ours!

Au fond, nous sommes très bien servis...

Ah... grandeur et misère du dessinateur de presse...

KD a dit…

Excellant little post you have created. Anajo has done her research. I have to say that I can recall watching late night TV with Brit Comedians and they placed thoughts in my head what French was suppose to be. But I do recall a few cartoon figures with red berets, black and white strip shirts, black pants, black pointed mustache, and carrying a painting.

Well, I have to say, one postive thing from the cartoon was I thought the french much be very good artist and could paint anything.

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…

I'm following your advice: I no longer post each day but at least every other day or 3 times a week.

Actually, that was my friend, DAD, who recommended that...

Flocon a dit…


Welcome to "Shall we talk?"

As Joann suggested earlier, American perception of anything French owes much to the Brits...
Hey, they still have to forget about Yorktown...

But every cloud has its silver lining as your example proves once again...

Flocon a dit…

A wise recommandation that was in fact. The less one says, the less non sense is uttered... ;-)

Anajo/Anijo/JoAnn a dit…


Welcome to "Shall we talk?"

I wish that my friend, Dad, had recieved such a welcome... :(

Ari a dit…

This post is how I came to be here, and a wonderful one it is. I suppose we can all say that the one thing most of humanity has in common is the desire to not spend any time really understanding people or other cultures. Here in Texas, there are many cows and horses too, but I don't ride one to work. :)