A bestselling novel forces France to reckon with the #MeToo movement | France
A The novel illustrating the #MeToo movement in France by French punk feminist writer Virginie Despentes, irreverently titled Cher Connard – which roughly translates to Dear Arsehole – has become a bestseller, sparking a debate on sexual harassment and equality in the age of social media.
The story begins as Oscar, a novelist in his forties, insults an actor on Instagram about how she has aged. Movie star Rebecca sends a furious response just as Oscar is accused online by a young publicist of sexual harassment years earlier.
Oscar’s dismissive approach to what he calls “this #MeToo thing” and his initial misunderstanding of being “#MeToo-ized” triggers an examination of modern French society through the alternative viewpoints of l accused, actor and young accuser, as they write or post online. It takes place against the backdrop of Covid lockdowns, Zoom meetings and addiction.
The novel has been hailed as an exploration of France’s sometimes difficult relationship with the #MeToo movement. Sexual misconduct accusations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 have prompted women around the world to speak out.
France has launched its own response #Balancetonpig (#Squealonyourpig) but also went through a row when some public figures, including actress Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter criticizing the “new puritanism”.
Since then, high-profile men have faced allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, including TV presenter Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, who has denied wrongdoing and sued for defamation against 16 women.
Despentes’ position on the matter was eagerly awaited. After bursting onto the literary scene in 1994 with her first novel, Baise-Moi – a rape revenge story she began writing at the age of 23 – she redefined French feminism with her manifesto from 2006, King Kong Theory, in which she recounted being raped at 17 while hitchhiking with a friend.
Daughter of postal workers in Nancy, in the north-east of France, Despentes has become the “voice of the marginalized” of French literature. His most recent work, the scathing Parisian trilogy Vernon Subutex, earned him the title of “rock’n’roll Zola” after the French novelist Émile Zola.
Literary critic Elisabeth Philippe said of Despentes on the French radio program The mask and the pen: “He is the French writer who best understands our time.”
Critics were surprised that Despentes gave voice to a fictional male character accused by #MeToo, but Philippe said his talent was to “get inside the most unpleasant characters” and explore the “nuances” and contradictions. The French newspaper Le Monde described the book as “bright” but also dense with ideas.
There was a surprise last week when Despentes’ best-selling novel was not selected for the Grand Prix Goncourt. Organizers hastily said she was excluded because she had been a long-time jury member in the past. She should instead win the Nobel Prize, said the president of the Goncourt jury.
In her only television interviewDespentes said his writing is always about trying to “understand the violence.”