Julia Child: In America, A Feminist Icon; In France, Not So Much

Thanks to motion picture hit “Julie & Julia,” Julia Child’s image has been experiencing a feminist revival, as reflections on the movie have meditated largely on what the “French Chef” did not only for American cuisine, but also for the women who cooked it. True, there’s no denying Child was a woman who made a huge impact on domestic society. Yet, I’ve had to take issue with the quick compulsion by reviewers and blogs to laud her as a “feminist icon,” where the term refers to her as someone active in the women’s movement. To be sure, Child can now be classified as such for the overarching effects of her career, but promoting women wasn’t her original goal. It was to cook, write her book, pay homage to her beloved France, and find success. (If you read her autobiography, My Life in France, you know that after the publication of her cookbook she was actually quite conniving by choosing not to disclose much of her subsequent work to her female colleague, Simone Beck.)*

This week “Julie & Julia” came out in France, and The New York Times highlights an illuminating (and perhaps not greatly considered in this feminist dialogue) point—the French are excited about this film, but the draw has nothing to do with their own country and its cuisine. It’s all about Meryl Streep. Julia Child could not be farther from a feminist icon there.Interesting point … would we be so in love with Julia now were it not for Meryl Streep’s adorable and witty take on the woman? Perhaps it’s Streep’s portrayal that will now cause French people to look at Child differently, because up until this point she was hardly known in the country. Streep said it herself in a recent interview: “What surprises me is that the French don’t know her at all. While for Americans, she was one of the best ambassadors of France … since Lafayette!”

But for those who do know her, some don’t think kindly of her. Reports the Times, “French food experts are divided about Ms. Child and her cooking. Some say she caricatured French cuisine in her book and cooking show, making it seem too heavy and formal.” One French cookbook author, Julie Andrieu says disparagingly of Child, that her “cuisine is academic and bourgeois…it shows that in America, the cliché of beef, baguette and canard farci remains.”

Then again, even if some French cooks would blame Julia Child for the bastardization of their cuisine, does it really matter to us? Probably not. [NY Times]

*Disclosure: I’m not at all a Julia Child hater. In fact, I have a huge, heartfelt admiration for her as we both graduated from the same college. I just happen to find the new feminist dialogue about Child fascinating.