In Vino Veritas: Little Sexist Tableside Truths

[5 minute read]

It truly amazes me just how subtle manifestations of sexism in allegedly progressive societies can be. We may not even notice them unless someone points it out to us. Although as women we experience subtle and not-so-subtle sexism on a daily basis, we often take societal norms for granted without pausing to think about their frequently problematic origins.

Take France for example. 96th percentile in women’s financial inclusion. 223 female lawmakers out of the 577 new deputies elected into the French Parliament in 2017, pushing the country from 64th to 17th place in female parliamentary representation globally.

Then, there’s the ever-present stereotype of the French woman, embracing her sensuality and demanding respect. French women themselves certainly find their brand of feminism to be as (if not more) successful than the American version, less aggressive yet effective.

In 1947, describing her visit to the United States, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “Relations between men and women in America are one of permanent war.” That perception holds true today as the French, even in casual conversations, approach American feminist initiatives such as #MeToo cautiously, wary of potential excesses.

I first arrived to France with the image of French society as somehow freer, but also better-mannered and more refined. I assumed men here would respect me, as a woman, and I found the idea charming. And for the most part, they have. Alas, the devil is in the details.

When going out to a restaurant in France, you can observe a very particular serving etiquette. As your food comes out, the waiter will always serve the women at the table first. True, this behavior may easily be attributable to coincidence. Except for many waiters’–particularly of the older male variety–tendency to gleefully announce, “Les filles!”* as they place your food before you. (I also have a lot to say about the general tendency of adult men everywhere to address adult women as “girls” but more on that another time.) In fact, I went out with my study abroad group in Bordeaux once, and a waiter actually reprimanded one of the guys for accepting a plate before a girlfriend of mine.

An informal poll of my French acquaintances produced a uniform response: “It’s the polite thing to do.” This is where you may be thinking that I’m being absolutely ridiculous and creating tensions where there really are none. But fear not, table sexism strikes again! This time, it’s about the drinks.

Provando_o_Vinho_(século_XIX,_escola_inglesa)
Man enjoying some wine at a time when women certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to taste it first. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When you order wine in a French restaurant (or any restaurant, really), the waiter will normally pour a small amount for one person at the table to taste and approve. This is a sound principle, as you don’t want to pour out an entire bottle of wine before finding out that your customers hate it and want to try something else. It’s who the waiters always choose to taste the wine that makes this interesting. It’s the man, as you may have guessed. Unfailingly, the French waiters will climb over chairs or ask the surrounding guests to nudge their table a few centimeters to let them pass… all to ensure that they pour that first portion of wine for the man at your table.

This used to make sense to me when I traveled with my family and the waiters poured wine for my dad first. He ordered the wine for us, so he got to taste and okay it. Fine. But in the six months I spent in France, never once did a female get to taste the shared bottle of wine if there was a man present at the table, regardless of who made the order. Just this weekend, I went out with a group of students and ordered a bottle of rosé for four. The waiter showed up with a tray full of drinks, and after I told him that it was me who ordered the wine for the group, he proceeded to walk around our entire 10-person table to pour a glass for the guy sitting directly across from me. And then stood there expectedly, waiting for the only man in our group to approve my selection. I hardly find that polite. Why do this? Are my female taste buds not refined enough to adequately rate the wine? It feels like an anachronistic leftover from the time when men ordered for women. So, if in 2018, we all agree that I, as a woman, am capable of making my own order… why can’t I taste the wine? “That’s just how it’s always been,” is a terrible justification for any practice, from wine-pouring norms to legal discrimination.

Am I making a big deal of a very minor cultural quirk that ultimately does me no visible harm? Maybe. But there is something particularly degrading about the small ways these old-fashioned cultural practices infantilize women. Do you remember the frustration you felt as a kid when you would try to buy a candy bar or ask for directions or pet someone’s dog, and the adult would look down on you and ask, “Are you old enough to be out by yourself, kid?” Except I’m not an 11-year-old running around the neighborhood by myself. I’m a grown ass woman. But that’s what it feels like when the waiter refuses you the courtesy, the dignity, of tasting the drink you ordered and hands it over to the man. Because long ago, society decided that the man knows better, and we still cannot shake that idea.

We live in a world that saw its first female winemaker, Hannah Weinberger, break into the wine industry in Napa Valley in 1882 and where Lynne Levine, owner of LEVIN Wines in France’s Loire Valley, bottled a vintage aptly named “Madame L” in 2010 in honor of the modern woman.

Just let me taste the wine I ordered, sir.  

What do y’all think, should we actively seek to eliminate generally harmless yet irritating sexist cultural norms dating back centuries, or should we just let them die a natural death, however long it may take? And all my 21+ readers out there, is this a phenomenon that happens in the U.S., too?

*Girls!

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