Translated from French by John Fleming
Let’s examine a living specimen of the American praying mantis. From an early age, the little female shows an instinct to dominate in relation to developing males. In classes at school it is she who speaks up, organizes the games and decisively settles the problems. Her contacts with the other sex are frequent, since they share everything--family, school, sports. It is all put together without any questioning.
In processions, parades and demonstrations they walk as a couple, but she is always the one who chooses her partner. The adults, their educators, put them side by side, though they would rather be grouped by sex. They organize costume balls, dances and parties for them, and it is always necessary that they choose for them a chaperone of the opposite sex. The little girl quickly shows resoluteness, which the little boy lacks; “take me dancing,” she says, “and carry my school bag.”
On Valentine’s Day, students “flirt” at all American schools, even at the kindergartens. They actually like the custom too. They exchange chocolate hearts, sugar hearts or hearts of ribbons or sequins and they rub the tip of their nose in them to try them for size. The student who remains aloof is held to be an anti-social being.
The attraction of the opposite sex thus does not have a guilty flavor, which would make it all the more sought after as forbidden fruit, but even to educators it appears to be a normal appetite which needs to be encouraged a little. They say to the American girl, “hug the little boy,” as we French say “eat your soup.”
From the Earliest Age
At high school the coming together of the sexes is dictated by propriety. In the same way a French girl never goes to the movies, takes a walk, goes skating or walks to the corner pastry shop without her girlfriend, the bobby-soxer does not leave without her boyfriend. Parents willingly invite in this young beardless suitor with rosy cheeks, who has a gluttonous appetite, as much for candy as for the little girl. The popularity of a girl is measured by how many suitors she has and the pace at which she renews this little masculine entourage.
Boys and girls are well-acquainted with each other. They enter into competition in class as they do in the gym. They know how to measure their intellectual vigor the way they gauge their muscular vigor. The most complex and secretive aspects of sex are, quite simply completely revealed to them in sex education.
Obviously this direct, unequivocal attitude toward the mythology of love takes all the poetry out of it. Does this not do something to the exhausted equilibrium, the anemic romanticism? They add it to the menu the way you fortify white bread and milk with vitamins. Even in high school they organize dances almost weekly, where romanticism is absolutely necessary: long dresses, soft music, filtered light, exchange of flowers, dance cards or other sentimental souvenirs. Even the ugly girl with glasses or the pimply boy, thanks to the soft light and slow tenderness, have to show amorous emotion at all costs, in a subtle, sneaking way. If they do not succeed on the first try they force it a little on the next chance according to the game of love.
As a teacher at an American high school, I had to be on duty Saturday night as a chaperone at the “flower ball,” “Valentine’s ball” or “ball of stars.” As a French woman I remember my astonishment at this mimicry of love. The balls were ridiculous and as devoid of meaning as a tender scene from the time of silent movies, or as empty as the love affairs of Polichinelle in the puppet theater. [Polichinelle is a grotesque character in the Comedie Italienne.--J.F.] I remain dumbfounded by these little beings that are still asexual, fluttering their eyelashes, casting their eyes downward, holding each other by the waist and dancing cheek-to-cheek. In the game of love it only lacks one thing—love.
But it is certain that each lets himself be caught at the game and that appearances become reality, for Monday morning in a higher grade a playful girl of 15 or 16 years sometimes finds me at the edge of the platform to announce to me in the most natural way in the world, “I got married during the weekend, so could you change my name in the register?”
Sometimes there is an error in the real intentions of the young couple, and they quickly divorce. My brave little high school, in the far-off state of Idaho, is proud, like all the little high schools in the U.S., of several divorcees in white anklets, and additionally, happily for the demographic statistics, the happy little studious moms apply themselves and again suck their pencil.
Later I taught at a university. The game of love there is practiced according to the same rules. The partners here are adults, physically if not also in spirit. The married, the fiancés, and the inveterate singles are found side-by-side without being able to break off their behavior. Everyone in class, in the gym or at the library ignore the presence of the other sex. The boys survey with one eye the strands of blonde hair of their pretty neighbor. But Saturday night they stare eye-to-eye in the moonlight, sitting on a bench in a garden bathed with the sweet music of a sorority giving the ball. Everything in its place.
The American woman is strict about the game’s rules. It is she who gives the signal. So when she goes in white socks (worn daily at the university), or in Bermuda shorts up to the knees, during the sportive or “relaxed” weekend, the red light comes on. They would be going against the norms. But if she harnesses up in a tight corset or petticoat, in artificial flowers and faux diamonds, it is the green light. It would be wrong not to court them.
I knew many young couples entirely representative of the “genial middle,” the ideal of American standardization and homogeneity. They all present the same characteristics. They are social couples. They conform statistically to their desire at such-and-such an age.
To be married, when to have children, such-and-such a bank account, such-and-such taste and leisure. It is a “social contract” which unites them, more than love does. Each works, frequents clubs, visits friends, but they have in common a roof, a refrigerator, a name, a certain number of children. The love felt by the wife for her husband is the same that the husband feels for his wife. They are interchangeable, indifferent and asexual, and, like their other activities, professional, social and artistic.
The Marriage Manual
Once married, the American woman is sometimes harassed: “Well, now there it is, the game of love is finished. Flirting is over, flowers, stolen kisses on Saturday evening at the door at one minute to midnight. What’s left of it?”
It is that which starts the second stage--conjugal love. Very quickly advice is offered, which she may procure as well in any good library or drugstore in the manuals which regulate her married life (for more details, see the report by Kinsey and other similar studies). While she is obedient and wants to conform in every standard respect of the ideal American couple, she follows scrupulously the advice of the precious book. Love is treated like a precise science, like a diet, another science she takes to heart. Her stomach and her heart are treated in the same manner. This and that book teach them to count the culinary or romantic calories, which are to be distributed according to the days, weeks, months and ages; and teach them to avoid excess, indigestion or feebleness, and to follow the rational portions of hors-d’oeuvres and the main dish, without omitting any part of the meal. She conforms to all the prescriptions.
But it can happen that her share or that of her husband turns deviant, becomes fatigued, owing to an anemia of love, to a lack of evident appetite. In that case, she will discover in the manual some proven remedies. Coquetry is the most standard. Journals for women teach, as does publicity, every means of increasing the appreciation of her charms: a thin robe, risqué lingerie, a new hairstyle and sexy make-up. If buying a transparent negligee or rouge in a raspberry shade does not suffice to stir the dormant heart of the husband, what is required is the “manner.” At a charm club, she learns sophisticated behavior that is typically feminine. Her walk copies Marilyn Monroe, she bats her eyelashes like Marlene Dietrich, and pouts like Rita Hayworth, all recognized seductresses. At this point the husband passively succumbs. If however he still resists, the wife resorts to the grand means. She registers in a strip-tease school, uniquely reserved for neglected wives.
In this battle to recover the negligent husband, not for a moment does she think of simple and less expensive, yet so effective, means of showing her charm (the feminine trump card): considerateness, tenderness, flattery, weakness or even extravagance, imagination--for it is easier to change his exterior self, say to turn red, than to change his soul, to play weak, for she is convinced that his sex is the strongest. Also, it is not necessary to astonish him into believing his efforts are in vain or carry only passing or ephemeral results.
Moreover, the behavior of the husband in this respect will be like that of all the other men, his colleagues, superiors, friends and neighbors. All the equal treatment, with the respect due to his competence, intelligence or his responsibilities, is no more. In the U.S. the look of a man never shines with unexpected splendor in meeting that of a woman; never does a man demonstrate gallantry, or woman that charm and that special seduction reserved for masculine company. It is bad taste to modify his attitude according to the sex of the person he speaks to. The indifference is thus passed into the mores. By indifference, I wish to indicate a sort of neutral gentleness, universal and worthwhile in any circumstance.
To be continued...