The Second Sex and the Construction of Gender: Becoming Woman by Society’s Standards

The question of what it means to be a woman has been floating through society for ages with any sort of permanent or universally accepted answer remaining elusive. It is a constantly changing definition in which traits appropriate to the time are assigned to the female form as a means of capturing the meaning of being a real woman. Labels such as being obedient, submissive, weak, and well-behaved have been assigned alongside abilities such as being a talented cook, an excellent child rearer, as well as an efficient housekeeper. Stereotypes of inabilities based on gender have arisen as well, such as that women do not have the mental capacity of men and that they cannot work important or difficult jobs. Simone de Beauvoir, however, rejects these labels completely in her philosophical text The Second Sex and identifies the idea of the proper woman as a socially constructed concept. She questions what a woman is and what it means to identify with the word, if anything at all. While the distinction between men and women exists today, this difference was attached no meaning to begin with and is one that has been built throughout history. Woman has reached her status in society by means of man attaching meaning to her being, and the idea of the real woman has become a daily role that is played and an ever-changing mask that is worn. For these reasons, the social concept of gender is one influenced by external factors that have resulted in the development of an accepted and executed idea of the female form and sense of self.

To begin, Beauvoir identifies that the concept of gender is one that is constructed by society and rides completely on the existence of women being different and therefore lesser than men. Beauvoir addresses this in the statement, “‘A man’s body has meaning by itself, disregarding the body of the woman, whereas the woman’s body seems devoid of meaning without reference to the male. Man thinks himself without woman. Woman does not think herself without man.’ And she is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called ‘the sex,’ meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex” (Beauvoir, 6). Gender as an idea falls upon the subordinate group in the sense that without women there would be nothing to question or compare men to, but the existence of men is not questioned because they hold the dominant position in society. Male domination has come to mean that women are identified as separate, different, and nothing without their male counterparts. Without said counterparts, however, femininity cannot be identified and has no existence. Thus, the sense of self that has been forced upon women relies on the external classification of gender as specifically referring to the female body and form.

Similarly, the separation of woman from man by her socially fabricated gender results in her labeling and treatment as an Other as man in return adopts the position of the superior figure, or One. Beauvoir first approaches this topic with the testimony that, “No group ever defines itself as One without immediately setting up the Other opposite itself” (Beauvoir, 6). This is the case because in order for one identity to be clearly dominant, the Other must first be isolated and then must recognize and submit to their position as the Other. Beauvoir argues that existence precedes essence in the sense that although female and male bodies are different, this difference held no meaning at the start. The development of the Other vs. the One, however, has resulted in the creation of a society in which supremacy is a craved and natural feeling, as Beauvoir states, “One of the benefits that oppression secures for the oppressor is that the humblest among them feels superior […] The most mediocre of males believes himself a demigod next to women” (Beauvoir, 13). This desperate need to identify a ruling class has played a major role in the formation of the sense of self that women possess and society possesses surrounding women today.

In addition to this, Beauvoir addresses that there is nothing strange about the human desire to define and separate based on difference, despite that these distinctions may only exist within the heads of those who have noted them. She shows that to recognize these differences is simply a part of the human condition in the statement: “The category of Other is as original as consciousness itself. The duality between Self and Other can be found in the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies; this division did not always fall into the category of the division of sexes, it was not based of any empirical given […] Alterity is the fundamental category of human thought” (Beauvoir, 6). Through this it is implied that identifying diversity among beings and then attaching meaning to these differences is an inherently human action, as these types of differences are not ones that could ever possibly be derived in nature. Essence has still, however, been understood and implemented by mankind throughout history and without it gender differences would have remained meaningless. Consequently, every concept of self that surrounds the female form is one that is constructed upon the external factor of mankind’s need to attach significance and implication to every existence and to identify a dominant and ruling species.

Beauvoir also argues throughout The Second Sex that a woman is in a constant state of “becoming” and that only by succumbing to a state of “being” shall she be trapped in her status of alterity. She expresses, “When an individual or a group of individuals is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he or they are inferior. But the scope of the verb to be must be understood; bad faith means giving it a substantive value […] To be is to have become, to have been made as one manifests oneself. Yes, women in general are today inferior to men; that is, their situation provides them with fewer possibilities: the question is whether this state of affairs must be perpetuated” (Beauvoir, 12). In this she addresses that today women are provided with fewer opportunities than men, but only for the reason that the social order has made them this way. Sex exists and must be recognized as an essential part of human biological function, but it should not be allowed to define the way things must within society. Sex is an accidental trait, such as class, race, or sexuality. The concept of gender, however, is not accidental and has been established only on the basis that to some extent the state of becoming has yielded to a state of being. In this cessation of “becoming” society’s ideal woman, the feminine form has reached a condition of existence that fits society’s predetermined idea of female identity. In short, she who was once “becoming” has reached a state of “is” and this state has been adopted and maintained by the external in a way that is known as the standard behavior, appearance, and intelligence of women.

In response to this Beauvoir states, “Clearly, no woman can claim without bad faith to be situated beyond her sex” (Beauvoir, 4). This idea of bad faith refers to one who is unable to acknowledge their given situation and is therefore unable to move past their current self. This is important as Beauvoir stresses an idea of transcending the physical body as fundamental to overcoming the current restraints put on the feminine form by society. She addresses that biology of the body has been stressed as a point for determining difference as a means of defense against females competing with males when she states, “Women were becoming dangerous competitors […] To prove women’s inferiority, antifeminists began to draw not, as before, on religion, philosophy, and theology but also on science: biology, experimental psychology, and so forth. At most they were willing to grant ‘separate but equal status’ to the other sex” (Beauvoir, 12). Beauvoir argues, however, that biology does not equal destiny and should not be allowed to be used as a means for defining a human’s existence. Furthermore, she stresses that one cannot be separate and equal in society and that this has been an excuse used for many different cases of minority subjugation as she states, “This convergence is in no way pure chance: whether it is race, caste, class, or sex reduced to an inferior condition, the justification process is the same. ‘The eternal feminine’ corresponds to ‘the black soul’ or ‘the Jewish character’” (Beauvoir, 12). She asserts that this mindset is nothing other than a tool that has been used throughout history in order for the One to maintain control over the Others and to force them into specific roles, thus creating an artificial sense of self that is reflected both by the Others onto themselves and by society onto the Other.

The sense of self that the feminine form holds today is one heavily constructed on the external pressures of society that result from the aspect of human nature that gives meaning to otherwise meaningless characteristics such as sex and gender. Additionally, while sex is a reality that is formed around the biology of the human body, gender is an idea that has been created solely as a method of undermining and locking the Other, who in this case is woman, into a role in which she is inferior to the One, who is a man. This processing of othering is exercised as a method of maintaining power and control as well as insuring that the One is never under threat of becoming the subordinate party. In addition to this, the submission to a state of being from the state of becoming has resulted in a development of society’s picturesque idea of woman. For these reasons, the accepted idea of the female form is one that has been built on outside influence and exterior concepts of gender.

Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Chevallier. New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.

The Confusion of the Biological and the Social in The Second Sex

Although Simone de Beauvoir is widely considered a primary influence on contemporary feminism, she notably criticizes women in her most famous book, The Second Sex. In illustrating the history of female oppression, Beauvoir emphasizes all the deficiencies of character that result from ill treatment. She accuses women of narcissism, irrationality, indecision, emotionalism, and selfishness. Despite raising such harsh criticism of her own sex, Beauvoir goes to great lengths to argue that it is a woman’s situation, and not her essence, which is responsible for her inferiority. Women suffer from these character flaws according to Beauvoir, because male dominance has prevented them from developing normally within society. Although woman is a “free and autonomous human being” like man is, male-dominated society forces her into the role of the Other. Her liberty and her chances of success are limited, and she is thus forced into immanence. Despite her emphasis on social causes, Beauvoir’s explanation for the flaws in the female character appears inadequate in light of her biological arguments. Reading The Second Sex, it becomes clear that Beauvoir considers nature to pose a serious disadvantage to the female sex. She establishes that menstruation and childbirth temporarily incapacitate women and that they confront their bodies as something other than themselves (20, 29). If, as Beauvoir asserts, the body is a principal tool for transcendence (38), then it is difficult to accept her claim that women can become equal to men. Despite the lucidity of her arguments on gender relations, Beauvoir does an inadequate job of separating a woman’s social difficulties, which are remediable, and her biological ones, which are irremediable. Thus, Stevie Smith is correct to assert, “it is soon clear that she does not like them [women], nor does she like being a woman”(xiv). Although she attributes the inferiority of women to their situation, Beauvoir expresses several doubts about the possibility for female transcendence. The woman that Beauvoir describes in The Second Sex is never in full control of herself. Unlike that of the male, the female body suffers periodically and presents several obstacles to transcendence. Beauvoir argues that menstruation and childbirth inhibit a woman’s labor capacity to some extent and that naturally a woman has less control over her emotions than men do. “From puberty to menopause woman is the theater of a play that unfolds within her and in which she is not principally concerned,” Beauvoir writes (27). Thus, it is difficult to distinguish between the effects of societal oppression and those of biology in explaining the female character. Throughout The Second Sex, Beauvoir declares that women are alienated from their bodies in a way that men are not, but if this is true, this alienation must hurt women psychologically. If the body is a principal means for transcendence according to Beauvoir, then it becomes impossible for women to face the world with confidence. Thus, The Second Sex questions women’s capacity to achieve transcendence despite claiming to do otherwise. Although Beauvoir downplays the role of biology in explaining female inferiority, she notes significant natural disadvantages for women. Beauvoir stresses that the nature of sexual intercourse cements the inferiority of the female. She writes, “Even when she is willing, or provocative, it is questionably the male who takes the female- she is taken” (21). Beauvoir argues that the act of penetration asserts the dominance of the male. Although the female is equally important as the male for fertilization, the latter plays the more active or transcendent role during intercourse. Because the nature of coition plays a role in establishing female immanence (22), it is difficult to accept Beauvoir’s claims that a woman’s situation can explain her passivity (597).This feeling of acquiescence is responsible for the irrationality of women and prevents them from attaining transcendence according to Beauvoir. She contends that both a woman’s biological and social situation causes her to believe in magic instead of reason. She asserts that “the world does not seem to women an ‘assemblage of implements’ intermediate between her will and her goals…it is dominated by fatality and shot through with mysterious caprices” (598). In Beauvoir’s view, women go through mysterious experiences that confirm their passivity. Like a divining rod, a woman’s physical presence activates an inexplicable force that attracts the male sex. Beauvoir affirms that pregnancy is another mystifying experience. Although a woman engages in sexual intercourse, the development of a child inside her womb appears mysterious to her (599). Thus, a woman’s passive role in life causes her to believe in magic instead of reason and has deleterious effects on her character. Having an aversion to masculine logic, she accepts authority without question. This affinity to male power causes women to be conservative in politics and to submit when faced with difficulty. Beauvoir avows that women worship the government and law almost to the extent of fanaticism (600). Thus, Beauvoir believes that although they may complain about male dominance, women lack the conviction to challenge it (617). She sees that the contradictory nature of female behavior causes their immanence. Because the female admires male transcendence, she is prevented from turning her complaints into action. Describing women’s contradictory attitudes toward men, Beauvoir writes “Doubtless he is a child, a necessitous and vulnerable body, he is a simpleton, a bothersome drone, a mean tyrant, a vain egoist; but he is also the liberating hero, the divinity who bestows values” (617). Because Beauvoir confuses the natural and social factors affecting a woman’s character, it is difficult to discern her attitude toward women. Although she detests their belief in magic and blind reverence for male power, she establishes that the awkward relationship between women and their bodies is partly responsible for these deficiencies in character. This fact suggests that the irrationality of women is partly inherent and thus demonstrates Beauvoir’s aversion to her own sex. Because women cannot change the male-dominated world, they are irrational in action as well as thought in Beauvoir’s view. She argues that women behave emotionally and engage in impotent displays of protest. “The fact is that woman is always prepared to take an attitude of frustration toward the world because she has never frankly accepted it,” Beauvoir writes (608). When presented with injustice, a woman cries and her tears offer her consolation and some satisfaction if they annoy men. When tears become insufficient to express their resentment, women resort to ineffectual displays of violence according to Beauvoir (609). Their theatrical attempts to inflict pain on the male result from their inability to exact actual revenge for their subordination. Unable to enforce her will on others as males do, women express their negative feelings toward their situation through tantrums and fits. Overall, Beauvoir believes that these forms of protest show the theatricality of women and affirm their self-indulgence. In her view, women feel that the display of protest is more significant than its results. Supporting this claim, Beauvoir points to the fact that although suicide is more common in men than women, attempts at suicide are more prevalent among the latter (609). Beauvoir claims that although women may complain about their situation, they do no want to separate themselves from it. Women choose to continue in a life that hurts them, because they do not desire “definitive solutions” like men do (610). Like with many of her criticisms, Beauvoir gives natural and social reasons for the impracticality of women. Beauvoir believes that both education and inferior nervous control affect their emotionalism. She focuses on the effect of education by pointing out that it was common for men to cry in past (608). Despite the reasons for female emotionalism, Beauvoir describes woman as a child and thus shows her desire to escape from her own sex. Forced to accept a situation with which he disagrees, a child resorts to crying and theatrical forms of protest. Often, this protest achieves nothing and only serves to demonstrate his powerlessness relative to the people who make the rules. Like other faults in the female character, Beauvoir emphasizes that the self-indulgence of women has its roots in their social situation, particularly their childhood. Whereas a little boy identifies with his penis and makes it a symbol of his autonomy, a little girl associates herself with a passive object, the doll. Just as a little girl dresses up the doll and admires its beauty, she too wants to be admired according to Beauvoir (278-9). To satisfy the male sex, women learn that they must give up their autonomy and turn themselves into beautified objects. Thus, narcissism arises in females, because they have been taught to please others since childhood. By dominating his fellow men and conquering nature, the male feels that his body affirms his own transcendence (280). In contrast, the female thinks of herself as the “Other” who the male dominates. Her body does not represent strength, but acts as a “living doll” (279). Beauvoir asserts that women cannot produce work of great value until they give up their self-indulgence. “Of the legion of women who toy with arts and letters, very few persevere,” Beauvoir claims, ” and even those who pass this first obstacle will very often continue to be torn between their narcissism and an inferiority complex” (706). She argues that instead of using art to reveal some truth about the world, women treat art as a means of self-expression. Their focus is not on the art itself, but rather on the recognition that it brings. Thus, female writers lack the single-mindedness to contemplate the world in the same way that Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Leo Tolstoy do. Beauvoir even claims that the novels of female writers such as Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen are inferior compared to those of great male authors (709). Although Beauvoir disapproves of narcissism and its effect on women’s work, she labors to point out that the situation of women causes their artistic inferiority. She argues that the inferiority of women in the past reflects their situation and not their essence. But, Beauvoir’s quickness to dismiss female authors and her criticism of the superficiality in women’s literature indicate the dislike of her own sex. She argues that once women are liberated that they will produce transcendent work. However, she also notes that their biological disadvantages are a significant source of their subjugation.Along with her confusion of the biological and social, Beauvoir takes on a strange perspective when writing The Second Sex. Beauvoir criticizes women assuming that she is separated from them. To some extent, this separation is necessary in writing a book about the history of female oppression and its consequences. If Beauvoir were guilty of the narcissism, irrationality, passivity that she finds in other women, then she would discredit her own work. However, the notion that she is a unique woman who has overcome social difficulties confirms her dislike of her sex. Commenting on female writers, Beauvoir writes “women do not contest the human situation, because they have hardly begun to assume it…their works for the most part lack metaphysical resonances and also anger…they do not ask it questions, they do not expose its contradictions” (711). Although she does not do so explicitly, Beauvoir refers to the aims of The Second Sex in the quote. It is thus evident that Beauvoir sees herself as separated from typical women in terms of intellectual capacity and freedom. In raising her criticism of the female sex, Beauvoir does not refer to herself as being affected by a woman’s alienation from her body or by male dominance. Perhaps, she leaves out any personal references to give The Second Sex a sense of objectivity and accuracy. However, Beauvoir’s choice to separate herself from other women makes her criticism more malevolent and indicates her dislike of being a woman. Although Beauvoir dislikes qualities that are exhibited by all women, she criticizes certain women more harshly than others in The Second Sex. Beauvoir thoroughly disapproves of women who are capable of improving their situation, but chose a domestic life. Discussing the French Revolution, she asserts that upper-class women chose to protect their economic privileges instead of fight for equal rights (112,626). In her view, women could have approached equality if the more political females of the working class had power (110). Talking about the present, she refers to upper-class housewives as “parasites” and asserts that they demoralize women who aspire to be independent (699). According to Beauvoir, their comfortable status tempts the independent woman who faces the difficulty of making her own success. She claims that this temptation of foregoing independence for a domestic life prevents women from having any great achievements. Because Beauvoir believes that most males find an intelligent female to be unattractive, women are caught between expressing their ambition and their femininity. This indecision causes them to make half-hearted efforts at succeeding in a career, because they do not want to lose the possibility of becoming a housewife. Beauvoir writes that “she [woman] goes forward not with her eyes fixed straight ahead on a goal, but her glance wandering around her in every direction; and her gait is also timid and uncertain” (699). For this reason, Beauvoir believes that women will be satisfied with mediocre achievements rather than great ones. Unable to pursue their goals with confidence, most women will be content with attempting something rather than excelling in it (701). Thus, Beauvoir believes that upper-class women inhibit more independent women in their struggle for transcendence. Because it is more difficult for women to dedicate themselves to a task, the achievements of great women pale in comparison to great men (702). Although Beauvoir denounces upper-class women for their negative influence on others, she accuses all women of having character flaws in The Second Sex. Her attitude toward different social classes affects some of her criticism, but does not alter her general dislike of feminine qualities. Beauvoir begins The Second Sex by discussing the biological differences between men and women. She notes that although women are physically weaker than men, this fact does not explain their social inferiority. Beauvoir dismisses biology as an “abstract science” and asserts that society determines the significance of physical ability (38). Beauvoir is correct to claim that the importance of physical strength depends on the laws and customs of a society. However, mental disadvantages can hinder women regardless of their social situation. Thus, Beauvoir is too quick to dismiss the biological effects on a woman’s character. Beauvoir establishes that women are alienated from their bodies in way that men are not (20). If the body is “the instrument of our grasp on the world” and a “limiting factor for our projects,” this alienation would hurt women psychologically and diminish their possibilities of attaining transcendence (38). It is understandable that Beauvoir would downplay biological consequences in explaining the problems of the female sex. If the deficiencies in the female character are natural, then they are also permanent. Writing The Second Sex, a book that hopes for the equality between men and women, would be an unproductive exercise. But, despite Beauvoir’s aversion to biological arguments, she returns to them frequently throughout The Second Sex and they underlie many of her criticisms. Thus, although Beauvoir outlines the injustice that women face, she has doubts about whether a woman’s bad character has natural or social causes. This confusion causes her dislike of women and pushes her to separate herself from her sex.