Tuesday 6 April 2010

La Ville au Feminin

The number of specialist websites and travel agencies geared towards women has exploded recently, and Paris has not been overlooked in this revolution. What exactly are women looking for when they use these services though and what role do they play in Paris? I discussed the subject with Doni Belau, founder of the GirlsGuidetoParis website and Sophie Caudroy of Les Grandes Girafes.

Can a city have a sex, and if so, what would Paris be? "A woman" says Doni Belau, founder of the GirlsGuidetoParis website. “London and New York are male, but Paris is definitely female” she continues. Belau is a dynamic ‘mid-west American’ whose passion for Paris led to her moving to the city for a six year stint, and who created the GirlsGuidetoParis website after a period of intense market research.

The layout of the site, a selection of guides, tips, interviews and online shopping, reflects many of the desires women expressed during this market research. “The idea behind the website was to make it as personal as possible” Belau explains. “Women look for one-to-one advice, and want insights from other women who experience the city on a daily basis. To answer this need, we recruited a network of local female bloggers to keep visitors up to date with what’s hot in Paris”.

To some extent, the site is also aspirational. A regular series of interviews called Parisian Women portrays successful ladies – roughly a 50/50 split between French and expatriates - who have forged an identity and a place in the city. Belau has also reinforced this initiative by including visits to the homes of some of these ladies during the women-only group trips she organises to Paris.

Is hers a purely Anglo-Saxon model? It would be tempting to think so. Doni Belau’s research in the US pointed out that women travellers are the fastest growing sector in travel, but with the launch of services such as Les Grandes Girafes in France, it seems that women-only travel and leisure is a far more widespread movement today.

Launched by Sophie Caudroy and Cécile Greth in September 2009, Les Grandes Girafes is an agency that organises women-only events in and around Paris for groups of up to 12 participants. Interestingly, Sophie Caudroy sees Paris not as a woman, but in fact as the perfect couple. “The atmosphere, sparkling, futile and glamorous is certainly feminine” she suggests. “However, the architecture and the Haussmanian avenues are masculine - protective, large and strong!

Nevertheless, activities organised by Les Grandes Girafes are purely women only, a decision which involves a certain militancy. For Les Grandes Girafes, the idea of offering completely up-to-date activities is also crucial. “In Paris everything changes so fast” says Sophie Caudroy. “Women want up to date information about where to go and what to buy. Each month we create new products according to those trends and try to predict what women are looking for”.

But what exactly are French women looking for, and are they different from their American or English counterparts? “We always try to keep an eye on feminity and lightness when creating our products, but we certainly don’t want to be too girly” explains Sophie Caudroy.

Superficially, the desires of French and Anglo-Saxon women may be similar, but the reasons that women from these cultures decide to spend time together, and what they hope to get from the experience is to a large extent different. Debra Ollivier, an American writer living in Paris described these differences in a recent interview published on the girlsguidetoparis website.

I think French girls could benefit from learning about American-style sisterhood—not in the feminist sense of the word, but in the social sense. French women are generally far more distant than American women and harder to get to know. What they perceive as superficial bonding is often a genuine sense of connection that many American women feel among one another”.

American and English women have a long history of gathering in single sex groups to pursue common interests or leisure activities. In these markets, the travel agencies and specialist websites are simply an extension of this. French women on the other hand are less comfortable in these situations. Sophie Caudroy describes the services provided by Les Grandes Girafes as being “still avant-garde for French women”. Their clientele, aged on average between 40 and 60, are looking for “a well-adapted activity which meets women’s needs”. It is the activity itself therefore and not the ‘sisterhood’ which is important.

In many respects, both GirlsGuidetoParis and Les Grandes Girafes operate at the high end of the market, and it could be argued that the singling down of their services to one particular sex is a way of making them appear even more exclusive. The lack of any particular feminist angle and a selection of offerings which remain in the fairly classic domains of shopping, culture and gastronomy, also points to a certain lightness, but is it the role of such organisations to provide anything more political? As the song says, ‘girls just want to have fun’, and it would seem that this is especially true in Paris!

What do you think? Are you happy to participate in single-sex activities? Do you think French women and their anglo-saxon counterparts (or any other culture) differ in this respect? Do you think there is a need in Paris for specific women-only information and activities?


PeterParis said...

As you ask... No, I'm not interested in any only-men associations! Appreciate women too much for that! :-)

Vagabonde said...

I have been reading your blog for quite a while but this is my first comment (I saw your name originally in Peter’s Paris.) I read your post on Cara Black and was intrigued by her Parisian mysteries so I got Murder in the Marais. I started it and am on page 73. The story looks interesting but there is one thing that takes me away from the story. I don’t know if you are French, Belgian, Swiss, American, English, Australian or as Peter, an expat speaking the language as I may have missed when you mentioned it, but I am French, expat living in the US. I hope you understand French, voila ce que je veux dire. Quand je lis un livre j’aime bien me perdre dans ce livre. Well, it is difficult because the author uses last names that really are not, comment dirais-je, “neutral.” She has someone called “Quimper” then another cordonnier named “Javel” and now a guy called “Rambuteau.” It sounds like the author did not know what last names to use so used the name of a touristic French town, a well-known French brand and a street in Paris and it takes me out of the story. It is like if I read a French author having a mystery set in Georgia and the last name of the policeman was George Savannah, the shoe repairman was Jim Kotex or Tampax and another guy was named Henry Peachtree (a famous name here in Atlanta.) Vous comprenez ce que je veux dire? Now for English speakers, that maybe OK, but for me it really takes me out of the story. I shall continue reading it, but now I feel like it is “a book” you see, I am not “into” the story. Oh, one more thing, on page 56 she is talking about the people being at a party, drinking wine, talking and joking, and in the background the orchestra was playing “La Marseillaise.” Well, I have never heard La Marseillaise being played as a background music in a party, and a party made of government people. First of all, it would not be polite, then it is not the kind of romantic, slow movement type you might like while making a joke and eating une petite gourmandise ou un canapé. I wonder if in London or New York City they have government tea parties with God Saves the Queen or the Star Spangled Banner playing softly in the background ? Sorry, this is long but I never wrote a comment before. I may be sensitive but I have been reading mysteries for decades and love the genre. (I was raised in the 9 arrondissement, près du square d’Anvers, en bas du Sacré-Cœur et ma mère a habité de nombreuses années rue des Archives, dans le 3ème.)

Anonymous said...

I think Girl's Guide to Paris is not necessarily exclusive and non-feminist - it's simply bringing together the passions and personal recommendations of women who love Paris. It makes sense! If there was a book - I'd buy it!

Ruthie Collins said...

I love the Girl's Guide to Paris and joined after I got engaged in Paris this NY and had a truly inspirational time there. I adore the city, and find the tone of the site suitably feminine, well-informed and fabulous! I spend my time in Paris writing and look for inspirational places to visit - it's perfect.
Ruthie Collins
The Hip Girl's Guide to Being an Entrepreneur

Adam said...

Vagabonde: Welcome! Very interesting comments. In all honesty, there were some things that grated a little for me too when I read some Cara Black. However, the reason I wanted to talk to her was because of the way she was interacting with Paris, and because she had introduced a kind of character to the city that didn't previously exist.

Adam said...

Anon, Ruthie: I hope this post doesn't read as a criticism of GGtP in any way. I like the website and think it has some interesting content. The reason I wanted to write this post was to understand what I saw as a rapidly growing sector, but the more I looked, the more complex it became. This is of course a vast subject, and one I've only scratched at here. This is also why I asked the questions at the end, because one thing I'm sure of is that I (perhaps also because I am male) do not have the answers!

Gina V said...

I, for one, can't see myself participating in any activity with a group of women, french or otherwise - it would be too distracting and chatty from the activity at hand!
I have hung out regularly with female friends and clients in Paris, and honestly find that one woman at a time is more than enough!!... [because really, in Paris, I would much prefer to be with a man!!!]

Nathalie said...

Mmmmh I love girls (I have three sisters and have always enjoyed it) but yes I think Paris is best shared with a lover or with a group of friends.

I'm not too keen on the "girls only" thing that is predominant in the anglo-american culture (and which has a male equivalent in the club/pub/barbecue/beer/sports arena).

It's a separation of sexes that the French have never seen the need for. French men enjoy the company of women, French women enjoy the company of men. I personally hope it stays this way.

Now if girls need advice on the best shopping venues, sure they will get it from other girls but hey I don't give a damn about shopping. I'd rather meet YOU for an insider's tour of Paris ;-)

Give me a mixed company of people, that's what I like best.

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