The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
1949 (2010 translation)
I had some criticism for de Beauvoir in my previous post, but she makes a lot of arguments that I really love. My favorite moment is this one:
The day when it will be possible for woman to love in her strength and not in her weakness, not to escape from herself, but to find herself, not out of resignation but to affirm herself, love will become for her as for man the source of life and not a mortal danger. For the time being, love epitomizes in its most moving form the curse that weighs on woman trapped in the feminine universe, the mutilated woman, incapable of being self-sufficient. (708)
By this point, she’s made several arguments about love. She’s interested in the circumstances under which love can be meaningful and authentic and those in which it cannot. One of her arguments here is that, when women’s social and economic existence depends on love, it can be neither authentic nor freely chosen.
She gives examples of young women pushed into marriage by their parents or waiting for a man to come and save them from the monotony and powerlessness they experience at home. Essentially, this is “someday my prince will come,” and any prince who serves his function adequately will do. It doesn’t really matter who he is. On the other hand, if he does not come, she is in a very bad position because she cannot do anything else with her life; de Beauvoir draws a picture of women of her time who do nothing, have no interests, pursue no serious course of study, and acquire no practical skills. If he does,she has the opportunity to play “the woman in love,” one of the roles available for women. The woman in love, as described by de Beauvoir, is also in a bad position because it is in her interest to define herself entirely according to her relationship to the man involved, perhaps going so far as to remake portions of her personality, while he does not reciprocate to the same level (after all, he has other things to accomplish in his life) and ultimately becomes tired of the excessive attention.
I should note there that de Beauvoir seems to refer mostly to middle class women, as I’m sure that lower class women could not afford to spend all their time doing nothing and focusing all their attention on men, and she does address this to some extent in earlier chapters (in a way that raised my eyebrows, yes, but she did address it!). On the whole, I’m a little suspicious of de Beauvoir as a historian, just as I am suspicious of her as a biologist, an anthropologist, and so forth—she’s a philosopher, so I take all her extra-philosophical assertions with a grain of salt. I have, however, observed that this is often how it works in popular culture, where women serve primarily as love interests. Closer to the time period when de Beauvoir was writing, Isaac Asimov wrote that women should be excluded from science fiction because love did not belong in these stories (it apparently did not occur to him that falling in love actually isn’t the only thing that women care about in life, or that other things could be depicted in literature). I’m guessing this is generally less true in real life today… but I know there are aspects of our culture that encourage girls to think in this way.
I’ve always felt that approaching love as a necessity is bad for love. It’s not very meaningful to love someone if one needs to do so, whether that need arises from economic circumstances or social ones, and is constantly searching for someone to fill that need. It’s very distinct from loving a person for who he or she is. I believed this from a very young age; in fact, as a child, I was something of a hardliner and believed that the same was true of friendships. I thought that in either case, relationships with other people are good and important and meaningful only if they are based on the person as a person. For that to happen, they need to be freely chosen, and they are not freely chosen unless solitude is an acceptable option.
As this belief saved me from feeling bad about not making friends with people who were mean to me, I think it is a useful one.
Today, I realize that this is easy for me to say, since I am insensitive to loneliness to the point where some people have suggested that I may be on the autistic spectrum. If this is the case, it’s certainly made my life easier. Since then, I’ve formed close relationships of both kinds (love and friendship), and I think they have been good for me, but it’s also been very beneficial to think of them as something I can either choose or reject, and something that I can take when I have the opportunity without having to spend my life searching for it. This is specific to me, and it feels like a type of privilege, even if it isn’t necessarily considered the privileged category—it puts me in a better position, and maybe not everyone has the luxury of this approach. So although it was very exciting to me, I’m not sure that is really what de Beauvoir was going for.
However, she does make an excellent point that it’s an easier position to adopt when there are other things that are important in life and can be pursued.