by Daniel Radosh
As the rest of this month's STIM makes plain, most Americans view the French as fascinatingly bizarre creatures from an alternate universe: just enough like us to be familiar, but different enough to render them both hilarious and a little frightening. While real world encounters (i.e., World War II) may justify such xenotyping, Internet ones do not. Judging from a sampling of French home pages, French folks on the Web have far more in common with Americans on the Web than ordinary French people have with ordinary Americans. Web culture, such as it is, trumps national cultures to produce a harmonious, multi-lingual brotherhood of geekdom.
When I set out to explore the French side of the Web, I tried to avoid the official and quasi-official cultural ambassador-type sites, consumed as they are with their missions to share the history of warm cheese or show what the Eiffel Tower would look like if it were a rocket ship. Instead, I wanted to see what average French citizens had to offer.
At first the long list of names in "Divertissement: Pages personnelles" at Yahoo! France confused me: all those Christophes, Laurents, and Jean-Philippes. I thought maybe I'd mistakenly called up "Business and Economy: Hairstylists." But when I started reading the summary descriptions of these personal pages, I found myself on familiar ground.
"Des mangas," "Le cinéma de Hong Kong," "Apple, Atari, X-Files, Java, sexe," "Cyberculture, mythe de Cthulhu, X-Files et plus," "Des images de Pamela Anderson, Demi Moore, Gillian Anderson et Teri Hatcher," "Un fan de mathématiques," "Magic, Blad Runner, Alien, Pulp Fiction," "Deepy solver de Super Mario." I had a Blad Runner once. Couldn't get off the toilet for a week.
But seriously, with the exception of a few conjunctions and articles, these could be the contents of good ol' American home pages. There was even that Web standard, "Les dangers de la scientologie". Poor Scientologists. Even the French think they're creepy. But where were all those French idiosyncrasies you find in the real world? Did they really have no place in cyberspace?
To find out for certain, I enlisted HotBot, a slow but thorough search engine that allows you to confine your search to an individual country. That's where I confirmed it: there are a scant twenty-one French pages that mention Jerry Lewis. What's more, if you filter out all references that occur as part of descriptions of Eddie Murphy's NUTTY PROFESSOR remake, there are fewer than half that. And as far as I can find, there is only one French Web page devoted to a serious discussion of Jerry Lewis as auteur. Could I possibly have the wrong country?
A little more searching found only two French listings for "frog's legs" and eighteen for "adultery." I was scared to even try "Gauloises." More shocking than any of that, there are almost four hundred mentions of "soap."
Who are all these Frogs who are so dedicated to cleanliness? Hell, "soap" isn't even a French word. As it turns out, one "soap" page does qualify as stereotypically French. It's a set of instructions for washing lingerie. But the rest of the soap siteseven the ones that don't have to do with proper hygieneclearly mark their creators as Net nerds first, French citizens much later. If the desire to catalog Fetish Soap Guns isn't a hallmark of Web culture over national culture, I don't know what is. (By the way, the guns are made of soap, they don't shoot it. They have also been magnetized for luck by a Comorea Islands witch doctor before he "succumbed three years ago to the irresistible appeal of an occidental metropolis lifestyle and chose to become an accounting software designer.")
French home pages reflect Web culture in so many ways, from the universal (and pointless in any language) Under Construction signs to the self-indulgent visit counters with the same embarrassingly low numbers. Even the lame jokes are all the same, probably because the French, like the Americans, feel compelled to fill their Web sites with whatever crap they find in alt.humor newsgroups. Maybe the French humor pages are slightly funnier, but only because their attempts at English translations make them so: "Cared: Alls jokes from internet, a bit Hard/Dirty/Tasteless!"
Actually, this same quirk also makes the French nudie sites slightly less dull than their U.S. equivalents. "Hey! here are the girls comin from outer street!" blurts one site. "And you know what?? Ther's adresses for the girls with naked men!"
Of course, most French sites don't make an attempt at bilingualism, but the gist is never hard to figure out. Let offline France make its decrees against English word corruptionon the Web, dumb-blonde jokes are de rigeur.
Interestingly, the only Web sites that seem genuinely interested in promoting French culture are maintained by Francophile foreigners (if you can imagine such a thing). The British site Belles de Jour: Actresses of Contemporary French Cinema taught me that once the rest of the world casts aside Emmanuelle Béart and Juliette Binoche, the French are ready to come back with more than a dozen other tedious pixie moptops with the same deadly lack of charisma. In other words, you can badmouth Web culture all you want, but if it does away with French pop culture, it's to its credit. </end>
Daniel Radosh is STIM's very special Webster columnist and a freelance writer. He lives in Manhattan.