Sneaky Sexism: Elle n’est jamais beau et il n’est jamais belle.

Sneaky Sexism: Elle n’est jamais beau et il n’est jamais belle.

Not So Popular's Caroline Dormor compares French with English, in her poignant deconstruction of gendered language. She discusses the meaning behind 'raping oneself' and the sneaky sexism hidden in our languages.

As part of international women’s week, I attended a projection of a documentary-film entitled “Sois belle et tais-toi”, which translates as “Be beautiful and shut up.” In the discussion that followed, one woman brought attention to the difference in French between “elle se fait violer” et “elle a été violée”. Violer, in French, is the verb to rape, so the second phrase is simple to translate into English: “she has been raped”, but the first does not translate as easily.

Se faire is reflexive and implies doing something to oneself. Reflexive verbs are not as common in English as in French, but it their use is appropriate and understandable when talking about things like washing (se laver) or showering (se doucher) and waking up (me reveiller). I wash myself, I shower myself, and I wake myself up, while a little awkward and over-emphatic in English, makes sense and, more importantly, is true. To translate se faire violer, however, we must write something like she got herself raped. Unlike se laver, this use of a reflexive verb is not appropriate or true. The implication is clear in this construction that the woman is at least partly responsible for her own rape because the verb is reflexive and thus suggests an action done to oneself.

'elle se fait violer' (1958), director  Marc Allégret

'elle se fait violer' (1958), director Marc Allégret

My inability to simply translate se faire violer triggered a further reflection on the differences between English and French. At the very basic level of adjectives, the French language distinguishes between male and female; elle est belle et il est beau. The difference can be partially expressed in English by saying she’s handsome and he’s beautiful, but these expressions are not grammatically incorrect. Calling a woman handsome perhaps expresses a sense of masculine beauty, while a beautiful man suggests a feminine quality, but it is not a grammatical error. In French, you cannot tell a woman she is beau or tell a man he is belle. It simply sounds strange.


There is a different sound which is built into the language where female adjectives sound different to masculine adjectives, because typically, one adds an “e” to the end of an adjective to give it a feminine ending and thus the final letter is pronounced. Intelligent becomes intelligente, and amusant becomes amusante; a copain is a male friend, but a copine is a female friend, an étudiant is a male student, but an étudiante is a female. As an English native-speaker living in France and learning French, this is a sense I am beginning to acquire, but because genders do not exist in English, it is a completely foreign concept to me. I do not have a sense that a tree and a desk are male, but that a guitar and a lamp are female.

The gendering of nouns causes further problems in French in reinforcing stereotypes, because there are certain professions which have a masculine form, but not a feminine form. For example; professeur (university teacher) and médecin/docteur, (doctor) have a masculine form which does not change to indicate a female in the same profession, while secrétaire has a feminine ending which does not have a masculine form. This is not to say that French speakers must automatically be more sexist that English speakers. As an English speaker, I am still able to recognise the stereotypes being fixed in a linguistic form; men are teachers and doctors while women are secretaries.

Even though there is no easy formula to translate se faire violer in English, I know exactly what the implication is and I immediately relate this expression to the sickening culture of victim blaming which exists in English just as much as in French. The difference between the two languages truly highlights the importance of our attention to language when fighting sexism. In English, I can say that a woman is handsome and that a man is beautiful, and thus suggest women and men can have male and female qualities. Granted, I don’t really escape the binary opposition of male-female, but perhaps this is a first step.

French-born naturalist, Jeanne Villepreux-Power invented the first glass aquarium in 1832. Read more  here.

French-born naturalist, Jeanne Villepreux-Power invented the first glass aquarium in 1832. Read more here.

Through paying attention to language and playing with formulaic expressions, I can challenge stereotypes. Instead of seeing the existence of genders in French and many other languages as an impossible frontier, a linguistic binary which will always enforce a male/female opposition, we can take it as an opportunity to demonstrate and challenge stereotypes. For example, on my fridge there are a collection of magnets which present a succinct campaign against stereotypical professions: l’invinteur de l’aquarium était une invintRICE (the inventor of the aquarium wasn’t a man, but a woman). The French gender system can be used to advantage to express an entire politic and feminist movement, just by changing a word ending, (-eur to -rice), where in English we would need several words to express the same idea.

Language plays a fundamental role in the way we relate to the world around us, but we often take this for granted. When we form a sentence, we are forming a relationship with things and people around us. Language has never been and never will be static. This means it intrinsically carries the potential for change, evolution and advancement. We need not simply to just watch our words, but to get creative; to play with them. So, let the games begin.

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