so i’ve written about valérie trierweiler a couple times now. first, in the immediate aftermath of the clusterwhoops with françois hollande back in january, looking at what was going on there with the meanings attached to the position of first lady. and again in september, when it was revealed that she had a memoir and the french were freaking out.
why am i writing about her now? because trierweiler’s memoir is coming to england.
the daily mail‘s headlines are always so good at summary because they include nearly every detail of an article, so let’s start with them:
so this is interesting. not all that unexpected for, as someone writing about first ladies, i’d argue there is a stink of misogyny about the whole institution at this point, but interesting.
the daily mail report is basically a transcript of her interview with the BBC, wherein she was asked, “is france misogynist?” the daily mail‘s recap of the response:
and OF COURSE they put that above a picture of her leaning in for a kiss.
*sidenote: if you followed the link and read the whole article, did you notice this claim… “Ms Trierweiler also claims in the book that Mr Hollande instructed for her to be given high doses of tranquillisers shortly after they had broken in order to keep her in hospital and out of his way”??? an accusation that doesn’t seem to be getting as much airplay yet… hmmm….
the gossip buffet is a bit richer over at the guardian, where there’s a discussion of all the secrecy surrounding the production of her book: “Only four people knew that Valérie Trierweiler, the former first lady of France, was writing a memoir: her literary agent, two employees from the publishing house and Trierweiler herself. The secrecy was such that Trierweiler had to conduct the whole operation as though starring in her own cold war espionage drama.”
srsly. remember when katie holmes left tom cruise and there was all that talk of burner phones and scientology and there was a (legitimate?) belief that she needed the press around her in order to keep her alive?? REMEMBER THAT? this gave me warm memories of that truly ridic summer of 2012 when it was like GOSSIP EXPLOSION. sigh.
anyway, guardian = richer buffet because they also got an interview with trierweiler herself and they bring actual introspection and critical analysis to the table, which the daily mail does not.
make no mistake, the book- entitled thank you for this moment– appears to be a scathing indictment. the guardian‘s summary:
And what a book it is. I have never read anything quite like Merci pour ce moment (Thank You for This Moment). It is 300-odd pages of deliciously backhanded barbs, sentimental hand-wringing and vicious putdowns, seasoned with large dollops of self-justification. Trierweiler is forever dashing into bathrooms and collapsing while Hollande is an unfeeling prig who either ignores her or tells her to stop being so melodramatic. Several pages are devoted to Trierweiler’s humanitarian work, where she describes herself bringing light and meaning into the lives of countless destitute individuals and disabled children. Hollande, meanwhile, is shown mocking the poor, insulting Trierweiler’s working-class family, struggling with his weight and swearing on her son’s life that he was not having an affair with Gayet. Once they’d broken up, Trierweiler writes that he bombarded her with loving texts when he should have been concentrating on meetings with Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.
which is all a bit fifty shades of diana: her true story, non?
yeah, i just really wanted to get andrew morton’s 90s hair up in here… but it strikes me as an easy, if not entirely legit, comparison, because the french- certainly the establishment- probably perceive this book as a similar betrayal to that of diana’s book.
(and yes, yes, not everyone knew diana was involved in morton’s book for certain, but it was the general consensus, even at the time, that she had to have played some role because, after its release, she went and kissed carolyn bartholomew’s baby in full view of the press…
ok, moving on…)
since the book’s publication, the guardian notes, “Trierweiler has been accused of everything from anti-feminism to bringing the presidency into disrepute. She has been pilloried as the scorned woman and the vindictive harpy. Worse still, some French critics sniffed at her grammar.”
to the guardian, she calls the book “a cry from the heart”. the guardian‘s reporter, in turn, declares her “magnificently unrepentant”.
i’mma skip loads here, to get to what i want to get to, but you should totally read the full article because it is fascinating. but i want to get to this:
“It’s difficult to be a woman. It’s very, very difficult to be a woman in politics – I am not one, but I have seen it. It’s a milieu that is very macho. But at least female politicians have the legitimacy of election. For me, the complicated bit was to sign up to a role where I had nothing to say any more. I no longer had any legitimacy. I had been a political journalist for 20 years and I still had that critical eye but [as first lady] I was no longer allowed to express an opinion. The most difficult thing was to do nothing, to be the trophy wife. I found myself the only woman in France who no longer had the right to work, to speak or to not be married.”
first ladies, ya’ll.
do you watch scandal?? if you watch scandal, you probably don’t watch it as “research” to see all the things they’re saying about first ladies but, if you watch scandal, start paying attention to the work they’re doing with first ladies…
there is now, in writing critically about first ladies, the sense of writing at the twilight of a phenomenon (not, mind you, about the twilight phenomenon). because, if not in the next presidential cycle, surely surely SURELY before i die, a woman will be president (and let’s go ahead and all be mindful that when a woman is president she will NOT be “a lady president”, mmkay?), at which point this position will undergo a revolution and it will be legitimized and made to look like a real job. it won’t be all about surfaces and sleeveless dresses. it will be made to be real.
because it is quite clear that a man must be paid for his work. it is women’s work that we are still unclear on. it is traditionally the work that women do that we have failed to value.
i’m writing about jackie’s purchase of midi dresses, which has quite unexpectedly brought me into a maelstrom of autumn 1970 feminist frustration.
i’ve written before of how HRC reminds me that we have not come as far as we would have liked to think we have.
that paragraph from LIFE september 1970 does the same. it was “nothing short of appalling that great inequalities continue to exist in 1970.” how appalled should we be now?
we have not come as far as we would like to think we have. first ladies remind us of that as well.
the president is generally believed to have the hardest job in the land. why would it not then ring true that his wife’s job is- if not equally difficult- at least pretty damn close? not just because she shares his burdens but because increasingly in modern times she is engaged in them as well. (we forget that rosalyn carter sat in on cabinet meetings…)
scandal. again. (which, fyi, michelle obama has confessed to binge-watching.)
a few weeks ago, an earlier reagan-esque president died and his wife came to the white house and stunned melly grant by admitting that she had done all the things her husband hadn’t gotten credit for, she who had gotten the people in the room and brokered the peace accords. this character was epically amazing.
and she said the most amazingly profound thing: that her husband would be remembered for the peace deals and she would be remembered “for being married to a man who did something with his life.”
that is everything.
do we remember jackie because she was wicked smart and made her own life? or do we remember her as someone who wore a pink suit and whose husband died?
why are all of these women, so many women, so easily eclipsed by being married to a man who did something with his life? and why does that preclude recognition of the fact that she did something with her life too- beyond being married to him?
why do you have to dig so deeply into these women’s stories to see that they were people in their own right?
there’s a reason for this. it is because this is the way we write women’s lives, where the climax lies within marriage and they then fade quietly away, their relationship with the man they married overriding everything else they ever do.
this is, in huge part, why i’m a biographer. because i think you have to start rewriting the story in that way, at that level, you have to start portraying women in biographies as people who had lives of their own, in the hopes that at some future point, this will be the way our culture tells these stories from their beginnings, at the level of media and everyday discourse.
this is, admittedly, something in which i am emotionally invested. as an unmarried woman, by this standard, my life has no meaning and it has yet to begin. you can see the wrongness, right?
watching PBS’s “jfk: a man like no other” recently, i was stunned by how efficiently jackie was diminished.
we were informed that the production of profiles in courage involved a small staff of aides and secretaries. um… no, it did not. as my dad would say, “WRONG-A-DOODLE.”
it MASSIVELY also involved his wife, getting books for him and making notes and doing colossal amounts of research without which it could never have been written. he was almost entirely incapacitated from back surgery. her assistance was not inconsequential.
and her efforts of reaching out to ethnic voters were hugely important. yet, in this telling, in this documentary, she vanishes at this point.
good on him for winning, but the picture changes radically when we remove her from it.
it takes a great man to win, yes. but ain’t no man going to win the presidency in 1960 without a wife.
he needed a wife to be electable. she is, therefore, essential in the story of how he got to where he was. it is historically wrong to pretend she was not necessary or to casually leave her out. in so many ways, there would be no JFK without jackie.
in a documentary about how he won, it is bunk to discuss his win without his wife.
in the lives of women, yes, the man is all, is everything. the main event, becoming the whole point of her.
but we aren’t accustomed to thinking of women as events in the lives of men.
most often they are accessories, accoutrements.
trierweiler has certainly been portrayed as a hindrance, and the fact that she and hollande weren’t married rendered her position even more tenuous, leaving her to fight for office staff and admin help.
again, shades of diana. echos of the panorama interview and “i will not go quietly,” but it’s a parallel only in the sense that both princess diana and trierweiler are now associated with books in which they appear as “women scorned.” to compare a royal princess to a first lady is to draw an inaccurate parallel. so let’s go back to first ladies.
it’s hard to critique the position from within its confines. michelle obama has probably been more vocal than most, but gently so. and even laura bush, in the aftermath of her husband’s term, has been adamant that changes need to come. she doesn’t think the job needs to be salaried. rather, she sees the question as: “Should she have a career during the years her husband is president in addition to serving as first lady?”
as obama said this august:
being President doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are. And that’s true for first spouses as well. You come to this with a temperament. Some people are shy and never want the limelight; other people are much more outgoing and maybe a bit more aggressive and able to withstand the heat of the spotlight that shines on us. But I think that all of us, we have to bring what is uniquely us to the table and work within that. And that’s sometimes what people around the world don’t understand. First spouses, we don’t choose this position, we just happen to be in it…
the difficulty being that, though they didn’t choose it, they’re thrust into a position that is highly representative and meaningful for those people around the world.
this lack of choice is significant. laura bush quipped somewhere that she was only elected by one man, meaning her husband- or in trierweiler’s case, partner- picked her. the people did not. he, in turn, chose to run. and maybe she had some say over that, yes, but the position that came with his choice probably wasn’t entirely hers.
per trierweiler: “For me, the complicated bit was to sign up to a role where I had nothing to say any more. I had no more legitimacy.”
“In the name of what must a woman abandon her job?” she asks. a legitimate and provocative question, the power of which the guardian softens by establishing that “she asks [it] with a rhetorical flourish, letting the question float unanswered amid the chintz.”
“What man would accept to play the role that a woman plays? To smile, to stay silent, to walk several steps behind his wife? Not one man would do it. Mr Merkel does not do it.”
the guardian notes that “She raises some important issues but her points are undermined by the book’s relentlessly score-settling tone”, thus “her opinions are more easily dismissed as the ravings of a vitriolic jilted woman.” but that’s too quick and casual a pivot, no? she’s raising important issues. why can’t we talk about those?
“Why would an intelligent, sophisticated woman, and a former political journalist to boot, write a book that causes random harm to so many, including the author, and does such a great disservice to women?” kim willsher asked upon the book’s publication in september. “Why become the living, breathing embodiment of the sexist old adage about hell and a scorned woman’s fury?”
elizabeth day, the reporter here, throws that back at trierweiler, who responds: “These people want to say that the dignified woman is the woman who shuts up,” she replies. “Is that how we serve the cause of women? I don’t think so. Is it OK to be mistreated by a man without saying anything? No.”
she says herself that the book is basically an exorcism, trying to get this love story out of her life, an effort to reconstruct herself. which on the surface appears somewhat disingenuous but how extraordinary if her doing this, writing this memoir, could result in a proper discussion about these “important issues” she has raised? rather than a conversational entrenchment in the disconnect between the “important issues” and the breakup.
that is my reading of what trierweiler wants- if she didn’t discuss those issues (feminism, equality, etc.) explicitly within the book itself (though it sounds like she at least hits upon them through the stories she tells) then to leverage the book into discussion of them. it is telling that when day repeats the accusations, trierweiler shifts the discussion to these important issues and day notes that “It is the most animated I’ve seen her throughout the interview.”
i find that one of the fundamental problems of not just feminism or first ladies but really anything, even something so big as life, is the notion that there is one way that it has to look. that there is a template for what a first lady or a powerful woman or a good woman or a good president must be.
last june, again in the guardian (which, btw, isn’t the only site of these conversations, it just happens to be the one i’m running with today), jess cartner-morley wrote about hillary clinton’s scrunchie and, in the course of that, observed that “At the heart of the eternal debate and fascination around Hillary’s image is the fact that we simply have no template for how a clever, serious woman should look.” which is something i take exception with.
because we need role models, yes. i would not be who i am today without jackie onassis and hillary clinton, the writing of t.s. eliot and wayne koestenbaum, and the fictional characters scarlett o’hara, mary richards, and dr. quinn. but this notion of a “template” suggests conformity, it suggests one overriding image of how a clever, smart woman should be. like there should be a powerpoint on how to be.
i am intrigued that so much of the response to trierweiler’s having written a memoir is that she shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have said it. the return of this string of adjectives always applied to jackie- class, dignity, grace, style- and, to trierweiler now in the negative: not classy, dignified, graceful or stylish, but “a fragile, insecure and hyper-jealous woman.”
there is here, the implication that “an intelligent, sophisticated woman, and a former political journalist to boot” should have known better. that this is not the type of writing we want “intelligent, sophisticated” women to perform. “why would anyone want to make their jealous rages public in all their ghastly, intimate detail?” willsher asked.
um… the answer seems profoundly obvious: she’d been made to shut up.
to dismiss her as a woman scorned is both a gross oversimplification and an irresponsible evasion of the obvious.
“the dignified woman is the woman who shuts up,” she said.
can we all please dispense with dignity now?