How to be a total bitch – en français!

One of the weirdest language teaching books I possess (and believe me, I have many) happens to have been written by Barbara Woodhouse. Unless you weren’t born or were totally off your face on Soda Stream, you’ll remember Barbara from the early eighties, when she had a ratings-topping TV series on training dogs (and people have the nerve to complain about the “vacuous” TV of today. Thirty years ago we sat around for hours watching laboradors being told to sit down. Believe me, whatever you think of TOWIE, things could be so much worse).

Barbara’s catchphrase was “walkies!”. It doesn’t sound hilarious now, but back then, we were all saying it (I guess you really had to be there). But that’s not the end to Barbara’s linguistic talents. Back in 1961, she authored a series of phrasebooks in French, German, Italian and Spanish. I possess the French and Spanish versions and consider them, in some perverse way, to be works of genius.

A particular USP of these books is that they’re targeted at middle-class married women. Middle-class married women of fifty years ago, that is, so totally unlike their modern counterparts, with their careers and their nannies and general Polly Filla-esque hatefulness. These are “proper” housewives, teetering on the brink of the sexual revolution but not yet corrupted by its evil forces. The Daily Mail would love them. I, on the other hand, can’t help feeling that if they were anything like these phrasebooks suggest, said housewives were complete and utter bitches from hell.

Women who bought Barbara’s books didn’t have nannies but they had au pairs. This was why they were learning French or Spanish or whatever it was, depending on whichever hellhole beyond dear old Blighty their “foreigner” (Barbara’s preferred word) came from. Not in order to have pleasant chats or charmingly cultural meetings of mind, you understand. Simply in order to tell their “foreigners” to bloody well get on with the cooking, cleaning and childcare, thus leaving the actual “housewife” time to, um, “run” the household.

It’s interesting to see this in the context of all the venom directed at middle-class “career women” in 2012. The latter, if both certain feminists and the right-wing press are to be believed, are inadvertently responsible for creating the further exploitation of other women, merely offloading their drudgery onto another woman rather than truly challenging an exploitative system. It’s an interesting, if essentially sexist, criticism (since the work offloaded should not in any case be viewed as the original woman’s alone). It’s also bollocks because middle-class women have always been exploiting other women, just as middle-class men have always been exploiting practically everybody on the fucking planet (apart from upper-class men, who never seem to get criticized by anyone, presumably because even their exploiting activities have been “outsourced” to someone else). I’m not saying this is right. I’m just suggesting that perhaps feminism, while it could and should do more, is not the originating factor in this.

From within an aggressively “traditional” 1960s set-up, Barbara’s books enable the “housewife” to tell the “foreigner” what to do, what to say, what to eat, when to speak, all in a way that’s utterly hateful. I can’t be arsed to learn your language properly, but look, I’ve learned to say “Je ne peux pas vous laisser sortir aujourd’hui”, just so you know the important things. It’s not the language of a business relationship, it’s a lesson in how to treat another human being like shit. In addition to the linguistic stuff, Barbara even offers practical advice on ensuring that the “foreigner” does not end up a bit of a porker: “smaller helpings at meals can do wonders in this direction”. You don’t say, Babs. All in all, I find it strangely fascinating, and utterly depressing.

I don’t think housewives in the 1960s were anything like the women Barbara conjures up. I think they were probably just your average flawed, semi-selfish, semi-kind human beings, and were probably a bit pissed off with life, and probably a bit pissed off with being advised that the only way to deal with the limitations in their own lives was to impose further limitations on the lives of others. And perhaps that’s part of what triggered a new wave of feminist progress, albeit one which still hasn’t sidestepped the trap of class exploitation (I say, rather circumspectly, as that’s an awful lot to read into a very thin, obscure French phrasebook, given the amount of historical context I could look into but, um, haven’t).

Anyhow, even if everything else I’ve said is crap, I think you’ll agree that I have some really weird language books. Next week: Deutsch heute. Altogether now:

Findest du Vox Populi einfach klasse?


2 thoughts on “How to be a total bitch – en français!

  1. Toll (?e) Post. I’ve Germanicised “post” by adding a capital letter 🙂 I was never v good at grammar, perhaps Barbara could teach me some?
    Loved the “off your face on Soda Stream” comment, we should’ve been so lucky. Our cousins had one and it was much envied by my sister and me.

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