Emily Shuman

The Search for Cultural Identity: What it Means to be French or American

If countries were people, France and the United States would undeniably have the biggest personalities. Each nation is heavily stereotyped; everyone has their own opinion of France which usually includes red wine, berets, mimes, and a pencil thin mustache while everyone has their own opinion of America which usually includes cowboys, country music, and ignorant tourists with fanny packs and disposable cameras. Yet despite these stereotypes, there is no clear, dictionary definition of what it means to be “American,” or is there one for what it means to be “French.” If I have learned one thing from this seminar, it is the subjectivity of cultural and national identity. Much as the individual is preoccupied with the search for self over a lifetime, nations are preoccupied with their own search for identity over the course of their histories. These elusive cultural identities allow us to recognize ourselves as “American” or “French,” and they influence how other nations perceive each other. Therefore, both the United States and France are concerned with the search for their own national identity just as much as they are concerned with understanding and defining each other’s identity.

If anything can be truthfully said about the United States, it is that it is unique. As James Baldwin asserts, “America’s history, her aspirations, her peculiar triumphs, her even more peculiar defeats, and her position in the world – yesterday and today – are  all so profoundly and stubbornly unique that the very word ‘America’ remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans” (137). America is portrayed as a society of individuals; it is a true struggle to find any characteristics that universally apply to Americans. The term “American” remains utterly ambiguous and even Americans themselves cannot define their own identity. In our newness as a nation, we lack any stratification or sense of status to characterize ourselves. Baldwin hypothesizes that in a nation such as America, “man may become uneasy as to just what his status is” (139). Our freedom and lack of tradition make us so hard to define. What can be said about America? Are we democratic and free? Are we nothing more than a mass culture of consumers? Are we hardworking capitalists? Are we ignorant, self-centered, and individualistic? We are a nation heavily criticized and praised for our views and our ways of life, but what exactly are these traits that make us all American? Are there any universal traits that make us American? As Baldwin states, “The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here” (142). Despite the perceptions of other nations, perhaps the people most concerned with what it means to be “American” are the Americans themselves.

Similar to the Americans, the French, “have become preoccupied with the question of who they are” (Kuisel 4). In response to the influx of American cultural products stretching from cars to washing machines to Coca-Cola to McDonald’s, the French have become increasingly paranoid about retaining their cultural identity. But what is French cultural identity? The French have desperately clung to their notion of civilisation. They pride themselves on their food, their clothing, their art, and their wine. France’s identity lies in its tradition; their way of life has thus become the main factor in the way they define themselves. As Kuisel states, “National identity is formed through negation, by establishing a counter identity, by construction a ‘we’/‘them’ dichotomy” (6). The French have attempted to define themselves as exactly what the Americans are not. The French have resisted mass society and materialism. They pride themselves on their artisans and their creativity. French culture has been romanticized and idealized in many ways. It brings to mind wine, lights, Paris, food, fashion, art, taste, and intellect all at once. The art of living in which the French pride themselves eludes definition. What is civilisation? What is the meaning of “French”? France, like America, sees itself a culture to be copied: the model of the ideal nation. But what is there to copy? The French themselves cannot provide you with a set of instructions of how to be French. Their national identity is entirely an illusion; there is nothing concrete about it. The true, universal definition of what it means to be “French” remains a mystery that the French themselves cannot solve.

Each nation has made numerous attempts to define the other and each nation has a unique perception of what the other nation is. Alexis de Tocqueville attempted to put into words the concept of what it means to be American in his work, Democracy in America. Tocqueville saw American democracy as a promoter of mass societal mentality, asserting, “In the United States, the majority takes upon itself the task of supplying to the individual a mass of ready-made options, thus relieving him of the necessity to take the proper responsibility of arriving at his own” (501). To him, Americans are nothing more than carbon copies, ready to make the easy choices that the majority creates for them. They lack intellect and a school of thought of their own. But is that true? Are we all just mindless, unthinking products of democracy? Tocqueville further saw Americans as perfectionists. In his eyes Americans have an insatiable need to constantly improve themselves and everything around them so they can be the best. He states, “aristocratic nations are by nature liable to restrict too much the bounds of human perfectibility while democratic nations stretch them sometimes to excess” (523) While this may be the French view of Americans, are we all career-obsessed workaholics whose sole aim is to improve ourselves? Tocqueville also categorized Americans as a people who love to fulfill their slightest needs with material possessions. In his opinion, “the love of comfort has become the dominant taste of the nation” (624). The French, who see themselves as pursuers of fine art and haute couture, see Americans as a people in pursuit of Snuggies and recliner sofas. In addition to being pursuers of comfort, mindless followers, and perfectionists, Tocqueville also saw Americans as ambitious and restless. To him, the American, “holds his soul in a sort of ceaseless nervousness which leads him perpetually to change plans and location” (624). Yet just because a Frenchman came to our country and defined us as such, are we all unreliable and ambitious to the point where we cannot focus on a single goal? How can an outsider define our national identity if we cannot define it ourselves?

Just as the French have attempted to define the essence of what it means to be an American, Americans have attempted to do the same for the French. In French Ways and Their Meaning, Edith Wharton defined French culture in four words: glory, love, voluptuousness, and pleasure. She thought those four words summarize the romance and art that Americans envision when we think of France. Wharton further categorized the French as defining their main focus as being on, “routine, precedent, tradition [and] the beaten path” (32). Coming from a very young country, Americans often see France as a place of history, royalty, and aristocratic tradition. These traits correspond very well with the French notion of civilisation, but they still do not adequately define French life. Wharton also saw the French as masters of taste, stating, “French people ‘have taste’ as naturally as they breathe” (42-43). France is defined as a nation of supreme taste in fashion, art, food, and culture. Perhaps civilisation is the natural ability to appreciate the finer things in life. Wharton also perceived intellect as a key part of the French character. To her, “the single superiority of the French has always lain in their intellectual courage” (59). While the French philosophes may have paved the way for modern rational thought and Paris Fashion Week is considered the pinnacle of fashion, are the French truly a superior culture? Certainly there are exceptions. And even if these words and customs apply to French life, are they enough to truly capture the essence of French culture?

Over the course of this semester I have learned through the numerous texts we have read that cultural identity is subjective and ambiguous. While authors stretching from Fitzgerald to Baldwin have attempted to capture the essence of Paris and French culture, the true meaning of “French” is indefinable. Cultural identity is constantly in flux; it changes based on our interactions and our perceptions of others. What is true about one Frenchman will never be true for an entire nation just as what is true about one American will never be true for the entire nation. Our nations are imagined communities; there are no concrete traits that describe us all. Our feeling of connectedness and identity is entirely based on our own lives and experiences. While it has been fascinating to learn about French culture and how it has influenced some of America’s greatest writers, it has not helped me define what it means to be French. France remains a feeling I have, an instinctual notion that I cannot put into words. After this course I am still as in love with France as ever, yet I have abandoned any hope of ever being able to verbalize the term “French,” just as I hope one day the French will stop trying to define what it means to be “American.” We are never going to be able to fully define ourselves nor will we ever be able to define each other.

Works Cited:
Baldwin, James. “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” “A Question of Identity,”  “Stranger in the Village,” [first published in Notes of a Native Son, 1955] “The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” [first published in Nobody Knows My Name, 1961]. From Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998.

Kuisel, Richard. Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization, 1993.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America, 1835.

Wharton, Edith. French Ways and Their Meaning, 1919.


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