Tag Archives: The Second Sex

The Second Sex: Posts Not Written

Cover image for The Second Sex

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

1949 (2010 translation)

HQ1208 .B352

Just to give some idea of how big this book is, how dense, how many ideas one can encounter in it, here is a list of things I considered writing about but did not. I realize that theoretically this is my blog and I could, if I so desired, use it to write about nothing but The Second Sex for the next several months, but there are other books I’d like to write about here! So, in no particular order…

  • De Beauvoir’s righteous takedown of literary writers, especially Montherlant. I particularly like the section on him because she shows that when one group oppresses another and attacks it as weak, the oppressive group is actually attempting to show that it is strong, but actually it demonstrates the opposite.  This is described as “pissing on caterpillars;” he can easily terrify a small insect, but the fact that he is spending his time intimidating a being less powerful than himself shows only that he does not feel capable of facing his peers. Similarly, in the works that de Beauvoir eviscerates, the main character seeks out women that he can easily bully in order to show that he is awesome. She’s not impressed.

 

  • De Beauvoir’s explanation of how movie stars and other visible, glamorous women function as hetaeras.  I hadn’t heard of hetaeras before; I looked them up and they seem a little like geishas—well-educated performers, whose role has a certain sexual cast to it, whether it actually involves sex or not. (Geishas, of course, could also be men, or so I’ve read; I’m not sure how this ties into de Beauvoir’s argument.) Learning about history is always exciting, and I’m intrigued by the comparison, though I’m not sure whether I buy it or not.

 

  • Her description of the unproductive tedium of a housewife’s life.  I’m not convinced that it is really more repetitive and ephemeral than, say, assembly-line work, and I don’t think she gives enough credit here to the importance of women’s work when she talks about, for instance, making jams and jellies.  This is real work with actual economic value and I don’t think it should be dismissed so easily. On the other hand, I’m glad she is describing the tedium that many women felt, quite some time before Friedan discovered it.

 

  • Her powerful argument for comprehensive sex education.  It’s funny, because she claims that she is not making an argument for sex end and that better education wouldn’t solve all the problems she describes.  But when she writes about the ignorance of girls concerning their own bodies, or the unbearable pressures on sexually inexperienced, newly married men and women, or the lack of respect for consent that results from both this lack of education and a general perception of sex as something that women tolerate—the result is a very eloquent argument for better sex education.  (If I were making the post, I’d also write about how it is a little frustrating that de Beauvoir goes out of her way to explain why women don’t experience sexual enjoyment under circumstances that I would certainly describe as rape –surely this is obvious?—and how pleased I am that we don’t really use this concept of “frigidity” anymore.)

 

  • The actual discussion question about de Beauvoir’s famous anti-essentialist argument that- “one is not born but rather becomes a woman.” What I find interesting is how carefully she defines what she means by becoming a woman.  In some ways it seems less like a description of a category of people and more like a shared idea (although she doesn’t exactly say that explicitly and I’m aware we’re coming soon to writers who do). In any case, it seems there are degrees to which one can resist the process of becoming a woman, or at any rate the process of being identified with “Woman.” And here I’m getting into issues of the translation; apparently the earlier translation used “a woman” where this one sometimes uses “woman,” and from what I’ve read, there’s some controversy about it. I don’t really read French,  especially not with that level of nuance, so I don’t feel qualified to evaluate which translation better expresses the meaning of the French text—but I am detecting that it matters.

 

  • The relationships between The Second Sex and other books we’ve read earlier in the Year of Feminist Classics, especially A Room of One’s Own, which I think has goals substantially similar to de Beauvoir’s but approaches them much less directly.  The Second Sex is more literary-academic than the others we’ve read so far and includes citations to just about everything.  Of course, it’s also true that many of her references are to books in French, so they’re less familiar to an Anglophone like me.

Those are just the things I considered writing about—there are very many more I didn’t consider writing about but perhaps should have.  I haven’t seen too many posts about The Second Sex—it’s a difficult book to get through—but I’m hoping more show up as there is really a lot to say.

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The Second Sex: What Love Means

Cover image for The Second Sex

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

1949 (2010 translation)

HQ1208 .B352

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.

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The Second Sex: Shared Experience

Cover image for The Second Sex

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

1949 (2010 translation)

HQ1208 .B352

I finally finished reading The Second Sex.  It’s a big book that took me about a month to read and there are so many different ideas in here that it’s a little difficult to know where to start.

The Second Sex is broken up into two sections, the first describing cultural and historical narratives about womanhood and the second providing a narrative of its own that describes all the pressures and restrictions that influence how women live, and, consequently, what they are like.  This second section includes both a summary of a woman’s life from childhood to old age and some chapters devoted to “justifications,” that is, roles that women can take on to justify an existence in which they actually accomplish nothing (“The Narcissist,” “The Woman in Love,” “The Mystic”).

Let me begin by saying that I’m skeptical of this approach on its face.    De Beauvoir criticizes Freud’s explanation of female development because of his failure to take into account social forces and because he lays too much emphasis on sexuality. She remarks that the Freudian perspective is self-fulfilling: “if one is determined to describe a particular case from a Freudian perspective, one will find the Freudian schema as the background behind it” (54).  But the critique she doesn’t make is that Freud assumes a single trajectory of emotional maturity for all “normal” human beings, which has the effect of marginalizing those who don’t fit (for an obvious example: Freud used monogamous heterosexuality as the ideal model and thus pathologized every other form of human sexuality that exists).

That’s a roundabout way of saying so, but I have a reflexive problem with generalizations about What People Are Like, and generalizations about What Members of Particular Groups Are Like.  Much of the time they are prescriptive, like my example above—this is what one must do, because that is what humans do.  When this isn’t the case, they tend to center a particular type of experience. These arguments have been used against me often enough that I am suspicious of them even when I identify with them.  So when de Beauvoir writes:

What I will try to describe is how woman is taught to assume her condition, how she experiences this, what universe she finds herself enclosed in, and what escape mechanisms are permitted her.  Only then can we understand what problems women—heirs to a weighty past, striving to forge a new future—are faced with.  When I use the word “woman” or “feminine,” I obviously refer to no archetype, to no immutable essence; “in the present state of education and customs” must be understood to follow most of my affirmations.  There is no question of expressing eternal truths here, but of describing the common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems. (279)

…I can’t help raising an eyebrow, despite the disclaimer. Is there really a “common ground from which all singular feminine existence stems”?  A common ground that cuts across experiences and economic and cultural and psychological factors? Of course, de Beauvoir understands that women are different people and does at times make these distinctions, but she is at the same time putting together a narrative that is intended to explain the effects of her culture on women.

There’s something to be said for this approach.  It’s difficult if not impossible to build resistance if the oppressive circumstances under which a group labors cannot be identified and described.  To establish sexism and lack of opportunity as problems for women , de Beauvoir needs to show that the circumstances  under which women live have detrimental effects on them.  She does not gloss over the fact this is a difficult task and acknowledges several times that women do not have a class consciousness precisely because their lives are often very different from each other and the groups with which they associate themselves are determined far more by their class than their gender. Still, when she writes about women feeling humiliated by sex (while using several examples, many of which are actually rapes), or mothers’ resentment or appropriation of their daughters, I find myself wincing. I simply can’t believe that a generalization so broad is accurate, valuable as it may be rhetorically. As a result, I feel very strange when I come across the swaths of the book with which I identify; the chapter on “The Girl” feels astonishingly familiar to me, and explains so well what adolescence was like when I went through it.  Is this really the experience that everyone* has? Or, just this time, do I happen to fall into the category that is considered to be standard, of interest, worth describing?

Tangent time: how depressing it is that any description of female experience written in 1949 should so well describe my experience in the 1990s.  There is a lot that has definitely improved, of course.  For instance, while sex ed in the United States has all sorts of problems, the total lack of it that de Beauvoir describes is both hair raising and difficult to imagine.  Did young women really not know that menstruation existed before it happened to them? Really?

Back to the post: I have some reservations about the way the book is laid out and some distrust of de Beauvoir because of it.  But there are also so many moments when she makes these arguments that I’ve always wanted to make but couldn’t properly articulate, or when she brilliantly demolishes male-establishment authors or commonplace beliefs. I’ll get to these in my next post.

*Whatever definition de Beauvoir is using of “everyone;” again, I am skeptical of this concept.

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