Simone De Beauvoir
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.
Simone De Beauvoir’s Contribution To Philosophy And Ethics
Simone de Beauvoir’s most notable works include ones that focus on ethics. Ethics based writings include The Ethics of Ambiguity: Bad Faith, the Appeal, the Artist and Pyrrhus et Cineas. Beauvoir’s earliest work Pyrrhus et Cinéas written in 1944 examined ethical responsibility and existentialism. This philosophical essay was well known because it spoke to France in the midst of World War II. It addresses key ethical and political issues. This essay unpacks the motives of action and why humans act at all. Pyrrhus et Cineas has two sections the ﬁrst is the elements of individual human existence and the second connecting human existence and relationships. Beauvoir believes humans are transcendent beings meaning that humans are compelled to pursue further projects rather than this first initial motive. Human beings can never be fixed in a moment because the brain is constantly transcending. Beauvoir believes transcendence is apart of the human condition and is the reason it is hard for humans to have fixed knowledge of ourselves or others.
The self-oher relation is another concept in the second half of the essay understanding the relationship between self and other. Questions like how do humans see each other in relation to themselves. In The Ethics of Ambiguity Beauvoir explains that human existence is ambiguous. Humans live a dual reality, we relish in our freewill yet are shackled by the rules that restrict our freedoms. We live existences that connect us in certain aspects and pull us apart in other aspects. We dwell in a conscious reality where we perceive ourselves possibly different than how others perceive us and that reality is finite for everyone. Beauvoir suggests that the crux of our human reality is that we are autonomous and reliant on others. In Pyrrhus et Cinéas and The Ethics of Ambiguity, Beauvoir develops many concepts, such as the human condition, ambiguity, and the self-other relation.
The Second Sex is Beauvoir’s greatest contribution to philosophy written in 1949. Many of her viewpoints are fundamental ideas in feminism today. This book looks at the status of women from the beginning of civilization. Beauvoir believed that women have been forced into submission, therefore, taking a secondary status in comparison to men. She explains that the human condition is made and viewed for males. Women were voluntarily excluded because women were seen as “ the other “. Beauvoir addressed three viewpoints to explain her statements. Historical materialism, existentialism, and psychoanalysis are the three angles she writes about to make her case. The dependence of men can be seen in every aspect of life. Society insured women had no real power and were treated as minors. Men were in control of all levels of society whether that be economic, political and social. History has been influenced and recorded from the male perspective. Beauvoir also constructs females through an existentialist framework. At birth, humans are not instilled with specific values and create unique identities as an outcome of their circumstance.
Women’s femininity is constructed as she goes through life because of socialization, not nature. Beauvoir’s most famous quote “One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman”. She describes womanhood as a socially constructed idea that is imposed on women because of how a girl is raised and treated by society. Women have been shafted as the “other” meaning separate from humans. Society constructs women as the other because they are only compared to men. Women are attached to people within their life like objects. Women are objects for men to sexualize and objects for reproduction. The Second Sex uncovers the cultural understanding of femininity. The definition of femininity is a myth constructed by males and making women’s sole purpose to nurture misogynistic values and be passive when men wanted to possess them. The Second Sex argued for women’s equality and brought about change. Beauvoir believed it was immoral to make women inferior because of their sexual difference. Beauvoir is credited by some for the birth of feminism. She was ridiculed by many for writing The Second Sex because she brought this debate into motion about a topic most people did not speak about. Twenty-first-century people studying her works might say Beauvoir stated obvious opinions about women in society.
Furthermore, Simone de Beauvoir understands oppression through The Ethics of Ambiguity and The Second Sex. Oppression aims to minimize the oppressed to the status of an object and to exclude them within society. She understands oppressed individuals are considered as the “other” in our society. She brings forth women’s oppression as her main understanding. Beauvoir believes it is complicated for humans to connect and understand other people’s action because of oppression. She believes that oppression has more than one aspects. To unpack oppression humans have to look at all forms of oppression. She believes humans do not know the limitation of freedom because the situation appears natural to them. One can live within a situation feeling free because the oppression has enclosed them. Members of oppressed groups have a difficult time gaining real freedom.
Society has made oppression seem natural because of oppressors making it appear that way. The oppression of women is one group of people that differ from other oppressed groups because there is no historical start point. She unpacks this idea through the concept of women having no social location other than gender that has oppressed them. Beauvoir largely surrounds oppression with the concept of “ the other” and how oppression has been rooted in women and many other marginalized groups throughout history.
The Role of Existentialism in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex
While Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is known primarily as a feminist text, it is Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy that influenced Beauvoir’s writings. As existentialists, these philosophers argue that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject and not the thinking subject alone. Sartre argues that philosophical thinking starts with the acting, feeling, living human individual. For an existentialist, the starting point of a being is when one senses disorientation or dread when looking at the world. For existentialists, it is the individual and not society that determines and is responsible for the meaning of their own life. Beauvoir takes existentialist philosophy and transforms it into a discussion on feminism, racism, motherhood and many other topics. In this essay, I will show how Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy influenced Simone de Beauvoir’s theories on feminism. It is through Sartre’s use of the character, Inez, in “No Exit” that show how existentialist philosophy’s role is played in the discussion of Hell. It is Sartre’s thoughts that influence Beauvoir’s thoughts on topics in this life rather than in the afterlife. In Margaret A. Simons’ book, Beauvoir and The Second Sex: Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism, the ties between Beauvoir and existentialism are laid out and offer a good understanding and interpretation of The Second Sex and its role as a feminist and existentialist text. When reading The Second Sex, one can discern that the text is simply an expression of Sartrean existentialism in the form of the question of women, displaying Beauvoir as a philosopher first, and secondly as a feminist as she transforms Sartre’s philosophy and creates her own.
While Beauvoir plays a major role in Sartrean existentialism, it is important to look at Jean-Paul Sartre first. In his play, “No Exit,” Sartre’s philosophy is displayed well through the use of the character, Inez. Sartre’s philosophical views are embedded in his characters as they play an integral part in portraying an existentialist view in the play. Sartre uses the characters’ personal attributes to demonstrate existentialist thought. Each of the three characters display characteristics of sexual perversion and interaction with the consciousness. Sartre explores many existentialist themes, most noticeably, “No Exit” focuses on the ideas of consciousness and freedom. While the play’s setting is Hell, the characters are taken into a room with no mirrors, no windows, only three sofas, a paper knife and a mantel piece leaving the characters exposed, raw, and bare to the reader. It is Inez that brings forth the notion of consciousness to the play. Inez’s first thought about Garcin provides a great example of the distinction between knowing something and being conscious of something, Sartre writes, “Garcin: I beg your pardon. Who do you suppose I am? Inez: You? Why, the torturer, of course” (8). Without the knowledge that it is in fact Garcin and later, Estelle, that is her torturers, Inez’s misconception is actually hitting at the truth. Inez offers many existentialist thoughts on consciousness. Sartre believes that consciousness is painful and he argues that humans spend much of their time with unreflected consciousness. Inez expresses this when she says, “I’m always conscious of myself – in my mind. Painfully conscious” (19). For Sartre, an existentialist must know that existence precedes essence meaning that an individual must act as an individual. Inez realizes this in Hell when she says, “So I’m done with the earth, it seems. No more alibis for me! I feel so empty, desiccated – really dead at last. All of me’s here, in this room” (29). In this quotation it is seen that Inez realizes that it is she who determines her own fate. She is solely responsible for ending up in Hell. This is what being an existentialist means. An existentialist has the freedom to determine their own fate and to also take responsibility for their decisions. So it is seen in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” what it means to be an existentialist. It is this groundwork that provided Simone de Beauvoir with the ability to expand and transform existentialist thought in The Second Sex.
In Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, she takes Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and transforms it into her own. Like Sartre, Beauvoir puts a lot of thought into the human struggle for freedom. The Second Sex lays out the groundwork for the second wave of feminism. The second wave is concerned with sexuality, family, and reproductive rights, among other things. This relates to existentialism in the way that existentialists worry about achieving freedom, or the ability to choose for themselves in good faith. In Margaret A. Simons’ Beauvoir and The Second Sex : Feminism, Race, and the Origins of Existentialism, the first line of the second chapter reads:
The question of the influence that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre had on one another’s work during the fifty years of writers analyzing their relationship has seldom been posed in a rigorous fashion…feminist philosophers who consider The Second Sex (1949) to be merely an application of Sartre’s perspective are similarly reminded of Beauvoir’s philosophic differences from Sartres when their analyses confront the sexism and limitations of Sartre’s understanding of woman’s situation…(Simons 41)
Simons is saying that people who read Beauvoir without a feminist lense, see Beauvoir as merely a reiteration of Sartrean existentialism. For Simons, one must recognize Beauvoir as a philosopher along with being a feminist. A man who is limited to the knowledge of being a man is more likely to see Beauvoir as an imitator of Sartre. Beauvoir writes, “man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male” (Beauvoir). This again provides an existentialist reading of the text, as the men are taking on the role of telling the woman how she should and should not be; this gives the woman the sense that she is not in control of who she is. This shows that if someone is taught her entire life that to be a woman, she has to act or look a specific way, be submissive, and work only certain jobs, it is going to affect her sense of freedom and authenticity. Beauvoir writes on the domineering role men take when it comes to women, “the whole of feminine history has been man-made. Just as in America there is no Negro problem, but rather a white problem; just as anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem, it is our problem; so the woman problem has always been a man problem” (Beauvoir). She is saying that men are the people with the problem when it comes to women’s issues. For Beauvoir, men have created the problems that women face. This makes life hard for a woman that identifies as existentialist. So if this is the case, for Beauvoir, being known as the woman who followed her husband’s thoughts would be incredibly difficult.
While many feminist writers before Beauvoir took the form of literature, Beauvoir was among the first to view feminism in a philosophical manner. It is this form that Beauvoir takes that distinguishes her from her contemporaries, including Sartre. Beauvoir not only examines existentialist theory but takes it and applies it to the question of women. Simons writes, “an obvious question for a feminist philosopher is whether the same process has been at work in philosophy…The Second Sex reveals that is has” (Simons 101). Simons is saying that Beauvoir is creating a new way to discuss feminism that must be read and understood differently than a work of literature. Beauvoir not only contributes to feminist thought but adds on to Sartrean philosophy in a way that Sartre, as a man, never could. Simons writes, “The Second Sex is important not only for its contribution to feminist philosophy, but for its more general contribution to existential moral and social philosophy and to our understanding of the social construction of knowledge” (Simons 101). Simons continually emphasizes Beauvoir’s influence on the wider spectrum and not feminism alone. Simons successfully displays that Beauvoir is in her own right, a pioneer of the existentialist movement. Simons later shares on page 101 that for Beauvoir, The Second Sex is the combination of existentialism and feminism. Beauvoir shares that the self needs someone acting “the other” in order to define itself as a subject. By saying this she says it is necessary for the constitution of the self as a self. This is where the two come together. As the woman acts as “the other,” this provides the reader with the perfect example for understanding Beauvoir’s view on otherness and existentialist thought on how the otherness affects everyone. Simons perfectly describes Beauvoir’s position on feminism. Beauvoir is writing as a philosopher. She is examining the entire world of existentialism and human existence and takes these thoughts and turns them into a conversation on feminism. This was on of the first philosophical texts written about the female. While her views remain true to Sartrean philosophy, she expands it into a conversation that has never been done before, that of the woman.
Through understanding Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy, understanding Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophical writings, and being able to view the differences, one can conclude that not only is Beauvoir’s writing her own but it takes the influence of Sartre’s thought and transforms it into a new while still maintaining the foundations of Sartre’s philosophical thought. This distinction is important to understand because it provides Beauvoir with not only the mind of a woman writing on feminism but the mind of a philosopher writing on the thoughts of all human beings. Feminism through the philosophical view of existentialism provides a unique understanding of the problem. This is the understanding that the individual woman should be able to decide her own fate. Beauvoir expresses her belief that it is men that have created the problem for women and it is exactly through her discussion on individual freedom that expresses this. Reading The Second Sex as an existentialist text provides the reader with an even richer understanding of Beauvoir’s thoughts.
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.
The Politics of Knowledge in Feminist Literary Theory
To a substantial degree, the political system of patriarchy is dependent on the manipulation of knowledge. The biological, psychological, and economic discrimination against women, as well as other marginal groups, has relied upon the establishment of a singular construction of “truth” that is fundamentally exclusionary, yet regarded within the system as natural and objective. What is considered “outside” or “other” than the dominant notion of “truth” as defined by this patriarchal system is regarded as inferior and secondary. The political situation of women, as marginalized outsiders, has thereby relied upon a system of misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Feminist theory has thus been concerned with unraveling this long history of discrimination through the re-appropriation of knowledge by and about women. This project may sound straightforward, but the nature of knowledge for feminist theory is problematic on many levels, from linguistic and psychological to social and historical. This process of rebalancing the politics of knowledge involves validating female literary production, battling basic binary oppositions such as male/female that have been internalized by women themselves, breaking down representations of women based on such binary oppositions, and finding an authentic female voice and language that is not marked by the psychological and social conditioning of patriarchal society, among others. These goals and projects are crucial if a knowledge emptied and freed of patriarchal influence is to be found and established.
The beginning of the problematizing of knowledge within a political context can be said to begin with Virginia Woolf’s seminal work, A Room of One’s Own. Woolf points to the persistent suppression of female literary production, as women are kept from learning and confined to the roles of wife and mother. If a woman in Shakespeare’s time had comparable genius, she “would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at” (Woolf, 75). Despite holding potential and capability, and without social and economic freedom, or “a room of one’s own,” women are kept imprisoned by ideologies of what a “woman” is. In this way, Woolf recognizes that gender identity is constructed by “law and custom” and can consequently be challenged. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir further elaborates on the constructed ideologies of womanhood that are regarded as natural and true. De Beauvoir points to how “man defines the human, not woman, in an imbalance which goes back to the Old Testament… Woman is riveted into a lop-sided relationship with man: he is the ‘One’, she is the ‘Other.’” Such modes of representation are fundamentally political, as “man’s dominance has secured an ideological climate of compliance: ‘legislators, priests, philosophers, writers and scientists have striven to show that the subordinate position of woman is willed in heaven and advantageous on earth’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 119-120). Such supposed “knowledge” of the meaning of womanhood has been used for centuries to keep women subjugated to men.
Following from Woolf and de Beauvoir’s recognition that the “knowledge” of gender identity is in fact socially constructed is the exploration of how these constructs are formed and maintained. For a number of feminist literary theorists, language is a primary source of this construction. Semiotics has taught us that our ideas are not linked by any natural means to the words that are meant to represent them. That is, “the bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary” (Saussure, 272). Further, as poststructuralism has demonstrated, this process of signification is fundamentally unstable. Signifiers are not naturally linked to what they signify; rather, they “lead a chameleon-like existence, changing their colours with each new context” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 145). This context through which language is formulated is historical, social, and ultimately political.
According to Michel Foucault, “what is ‘true’ depends on who controls the discourse’ (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 121), “discourse” being defined as what “determines what it is possible to say, what are the criteria of “truth”, who is allowed to speak with authority, and where such speech can be spoken” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 147). In a patriarchal system, it is men that hold this authority. They control meaning, being the arbitrary relations between signifiers and signifieds. For feminist literary theory, this has meant a long history of negative representations of women, from Aristotle’s contention that “the female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities” and John Donne’s reiteration of Aquinas’s notion that “form is masculine and matter feminine: the superior, godlike, male intellect impresses its form upon the malleable, inert, female matter” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 115). Women are seen as passive, weak and inferior, while men are seen as active, strong and superior, among a great number of binary oppositions that comprise perhaps the strongest binary opposition of all, that of male/female.
The discourse of patriarchy has thus kept women in a secondary state, beneath that of the dominant social group. According to this “symbolic order of culture” women “do not speak, desire, or produce meaning for themselves, as men do, by means of the exchange of women.” Recalling de Beauvoir’s observation of woman as the symbol for “Other,” women are only considered human beings insofar as they are like men. In short, the “human subject” can only be conceived as male (de Lauretis, 298). In this sense, the “domination of discourse” by men “has trapped women in women inside a male ‘truth’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 121). The challenge for all women is how to break free of this knowledge system, and by extension, the repressive political order that is supported by it.
This challenge begins with an understanding of male “knowledge” as a system of constructions that keeps women oppressed, and efforts to recover alternative truths written by women themselves. Kate Millet’s work, Sexual Politics, was pivotal in solidifying the notion that patriarchy is a pervasive “political institution” that “subordinates the female to the male or treats the female as an inferior male” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 123). Borrowing from social science the difference between sex and gender, where “sex is determined biologically but ‘gender’ is a psychological concept which refers to culturally acquired sexual identity” she attacks “social scientists who treat the culturally learned ‘female’ characteristics (passivity etc.) as ‘natural’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 124). Millet privileges literature as a space in which the culturally imposed knowledge that is keeping women politically repressed can be and has been challenged. However, given that men have long shaped “literary values and conventions,” it is “possible for the female reader to collude (unconsciously) in this patriarchal positioning and read ‘as a man’” (Selden; Widdowson; Brooker, 125). That is, while breaking down the illusionary knowledge that supports patriarchy is certainly fruitful, it is difficult to remove oneself entirely from the system whilst working within its confines.
Elaine Showalter refers to this practice of deconstructing the ideology underlying “the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions and misconceptions about women in criticism, and women-assign in semiotic systems” as “feminist reading or the feminist critique” (Showalter, 459). While this work is certainly illuminating and rewarding, it is limited to merely “redressing a grievance” and building upon “existing models.” Showalter argues that this “feminist obsession with correcting, modifying, supplementing, revising, humanizing or even attacking male critical theory keeps us dependent upon it and retards our progress in solving our own theoretical problems”. As long as feminist literary theorists “look to androcentric models for out most basic principles—even if we revise them by adding the feminist frame of reference—we are learning nothing new”. Beyond merely revising male-centred discourse, what feminist criticism needs is to find “its own subject, its own system, its own theory, and its own voice” (Showalter, 260). This involves rejecting the male canon in favour of literature by women, through which the formerly male human subject can be conceived as female as well.
Showalter’s concern with finding alternative methods of reading and interpretation is echoed within the work of French feminist theorists such as Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva. Both attempt through their writings to subvert and reorder the symbolic order that keeps women politically repressed. In “Castration or Decapitation?” Cixous focuses on the masculine economy of power that keeps women passive, silent, and powerless. According to Freud and Lacan, woman is “outside the Symbolic, that is outside of language, the place of the Law, excluded from any possible relationship with culture and the cultural order” (Cixous, 483). This is because she lacks the “transcendental signifier” of the phallus, which orders masculinity. Without this lack, she cannot participate in the construction of meaning, leaving her outside the masculine economy. The masculine economy is defined by the concept of debt, wherein “the child owes his parents his life and his problem is exactly how to repay them.” This obligation is threatening to man, who wants to “hastily… to return the gift, to break the circuit of exchange that could have no end” in order to “owe no one a thing.” Difficulty arises when this system is confronted with love, which is “hard to give back” since it is in a sense a gift, but one that has no definable way of repaying; it is open-ended. Woman, as the object of love, is consequently “the place of this mystery” and “stands in the place of not knowing” as her role as “Other.” This dynamic enables man to define his masculinity, “to keep overcoming, dominating, subduing, putting his manhood to the test, against the mystery he has to keep forcing back” (Cixous, 485). In this masculine economy, woman is kept passive and silent. Cixous then explores the notion of an alternative economy wherein women regain their voice and power, affirming their difference and creating their own knowledge, thereby rejecting the knowledge of the masculine economy in which woman only exists in relation to man. For Cixous, this requires allowing women to speak and to write, but not to produce writing “that’s in effect masculine.” Here, language stands on its own as being masculine or feminine, so that the gender of the text does not determine which economy it is representing. A true female text is “an exploration of woman’s powers” that is fundamentally political and defined by a “female libidinal economy” based on the fullness of the “gift” that is not withheld. The feminine text is overflowing in its openness and ability to cross limits, in contrast to the closed and incorporated masculine “system of returns” that is marked by withholding and resolving debt (Cixous, 489-490). In this way, Cixous challenges how ideas of “woman” have been constructed within patriarchal culture, offering a way for women to re-imagine and re-construct their own textual representations, and ultimately gaining the power that comes with such knowledge.
In “Stabat Mater” Julia Kristeva similarly explores the notion of a “feminine text.” Stylistically, her essay is non-linear and decentred, retaining an open discourse that consciously subverts that of Cixous’ closed, masculine economy. The work consists of a dialogue between abstracted idea of mother, versus the mother as an actual, individual woman, that is, between the Virgin Mary and Kristeva’s own experiences as a mother in the twentieth century. In this way, Kristeva challenges the abstracted fantasy of idealized motherhood as represented by the mythical Virgin Mary, seeking a more authentic representation not just for herself, but also for all mothers. Kristeva deconstructs and exposes the historical roots of the symbolism surrounding the “virginal cult in Christianity” (Kristeva, 188). Aside this linear narrative is a poetic and openly personal description of the experience of childbirth and motherhood. The result is both an explanation and a demonstration that motherhood “today remains, after the Virgin, without a discourse” (Kristeva, 202).
While the radically non-linear linguistic explorations of Cixous and Kristeva are certainly fruitful, they also risk moving away from the important political aspects of overcoming such conventional representations of women. Where ‘woman’ is recognized as “not a physical being but a ‘writing-effect’” feminist theory may become overly abstracted from the quite physical and embodied focus of its analysis. What is important to many theorists is maintaining the contextual and political aspects of the discourses within feminist theory. That is, ensuring that above all that feminist literary theory contains a social critique, despite ontological difficulties “about the nature of speech [and] about the status of significance” which “forces us to reconceive the very concepts and relations of ‘self’ and ‘world’” (Con Davis; Schleifer, 569). This raises a new debate about the political ramifications of the nature of perception and the possibility of an exclusive female subjectivity. This is in many ways a return to a central conflict within feminist thought: namely, who is it that is said to “know” and what power does this “knower” hold?
Diana Fuss addresses the problems raised by the idea of an inherent female subjectivity in “Reading like a Feminist.” She asks, “What is it exactly that underwrites and subtends the notion of a class of women or a class of men reading?” (Fuss, 581). To assume that women hold their own particular way of reading and writing is an “essentialist” viewpoint, essentialism being “what is taken for granted, assumed, or presented as ‘natural’ in discourse (Con Davis; Schleifer, 566). In this sense, to assume the existence of a female subjectivity as many feminist theorists is to move away from discipline’s social constructionist roots, whereby terms such as “woman” and “feminist” are themselves arbitrary and politicized distinctions.
Fuss argues that the construction of “a class of women” based on “‘essence’ or ‘experience’” leaves no space for “the real, material differences between women” such as “class, race, national, or other criteria”. Where in such categories are the differences between “ ‘third world’ readers, lesbian readers, and working-class readers?” Given their “generality”, essentialist categories such as “‘the female experience’ or ‘the male experience’” are ultimately of “limited epistemological usefulness” because their reference point is one that is continually shifting and far too diverse (Fuss, 583-585). Fuss supports this viewpoint using Lacan’s poststructuralist psychoanalytic theory of the unstable subject, whereby the “‘I’…is not given at birth but rather is constructed, assumed, taken on during the subject’s problematic entry into the Symbolic”. It follows that “the question ‘who is speaking’ can only be answered by shifting the grounds of the question to ‘where am I speaking from?’” (Fuss, 586). In other words, subjectivity is always determined by the social, historical, and political position from which one speaks or acts. There is no intrinsic “feminist approach to reading”; rather, “ways of reading are historically specific and culturally variable, and reading positions are constructed, assigned, or mapped”. Essentializing notions such as “a shared woman’s experience” or “a female reader” are thus inaccurate theoretical grounds. The only stable essence within feminist theory, Fuss concludes, is politics, as “politics is precisely the self-evident category in feminist discourse—that which is most irreducible and most indispensable” (Fuss, 589-590). In this sense, essentialist categories such as “class” and “women” are political constructs that should only be used sparingly and strategically for political ends as “determined by the subject-position from which one speaks” (Fuss, 587). For feminist theory, this means that the essentialist category of women as a class” should be retained only “for political purposes” so that “politics emerges as feminism’s essence” (Fuss, 590).
In “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” Cora Kaplan also emphasizes the need for feminist theory to maintain its own “radical social critique” in order to remain connected to the very social processes from which it arises. Kaplan argues that feminist criticism is “implicitly conservative in its assumptions about social hierarchy and female subjectivity, the Pandora’s box for all feminist theory” (Kaplan, 593). Like Fuss, Kaplan focuses on the need for feminist criticism to attend to social and historical context: “…“without the class and race perspectives which socialist feminist critics being to the analysis both of the literary texts and of their conditions of production, liberal feminist criticism, with its emphasis on the unified female subject, will unintentionally reproduce the ideological values of the mass-market romance” that “tends to represent sexual difference as natural and fixed”. Kaplan outlines three strategies which feminism has employed to deal with the problem of “the concept of the inner self and moral psyche”. Firstly, “women’s psychic life” was deemed to be “essentially identical to men’s” although “distorted through vicious and systematic patriarchal inscription”. The second strategy seeks to validate women’s psyche as inherently different from men, and often “in direct opposition”. The last strategy refuses to acknowledge the issue of gender construction in this way, viewing the notion of psychic difference as ideological (Kaplan 595-596). Kaplan rejects all of these strategies. Rather than seek out a unified female subjectivity through a common method reading or writing, or through the commonality of the body, her strategy is to distance any such universal representations of women’s experience as a source of fact. Instead, Kaplan argues in favour of the inclusion of additional social categories such as class, recognizing that there is a “fusion of class and gender meanings” in literary representation (Kaplan, 602-604). It is this particular sort of historical understanding of the female subject that “we must uncover and consider”. As opposed to seeking stable, transhistorical answers to questions of what characterizes femininity or female textuality, Kaplan proposes that the psyche be redefined as “a structure, not as a content”. In that way race and class are included in feminist politics, and it is through the analysis “of how these social divisions and the inscription of gender” surrounding the historical subject “are mutually secured and given meaning” that “we can work towards change” (Kaplan, 609-610).
In “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault” Judith Butler, like Fuss, resists the notion of a female essence. Drawing on Beauvoir’s statement that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” Butler assumes that “become” means “purposely assume or embody”. She then asks the question, “If genders are in some sense chosen, then what happens to the definition of gender as a cultural interpretation of sex, that is, what happens to the ways in which we are, as it were, already culturally interpreted? How can gender be both a matter of choice and a cultural construction?” (Butler, 612). The answer to this question rests on the manner in which the body and embodiment has been culturally interpreted. That is, the binary in which men have been associated with “the disembodied or transcendent feature of human existence” while women account for the opposite, representing the “bodily and immanent feature of human existence”. Since in this symbolic order women are the “Other” for men, it follows that in order to “safeguard” their disembodiment, men have needed to keep women embodied (Butler, 615). Following from the Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, man is considered master of the bodily sphere, having transcended it, while women are kept enslaved within the body (Butler, 616). This cultural interpretation of the body demonstrates that “natural sex is a fiction” and what may be considered “distinctly feminine” is merely a historical development with the end cause of men holding authority over the female body (Butler, 620). Butler concludes that women do not “belong in the order of being”, rather they are locked into “a mode of becoming that is arrested prematurely” by the “reductive imposition” of a category that decides what she is supposed to mean in relation to men. To overcome this categorization, “the task is not simply to change language, but to analyze language for its ontological assumptions, and to criticize those assumptions for their political consequences”. In sum, it can be concluded that “women have no essence at all” since they have no true signification beyond the role as symbolic “Other” within patriarchal discourse. It follows, then, that women have “no natural necessity” as well, for “what we call an essence or a material fact is simply an enforced cultural option which has disguised itself as natural truth” (Butler, 622). In this sense, Butler’s conclusion can be seen as the culmination of the criticism of Fuss and Kaplan, wherein retaining essentialist categories such as “women” or “femininity” that suggests a unified female subjectivity must be rejected entirely in order to break free of a politically repressive, male-dominated discourse.
A central concern of feminist theory is the importance of locating and tearing down the systems of knowledge that support patriarchy. Recognizing that it is through the unnatural constructs of what is considered inherently “female” that women have been politically repressed, feminist theory is faced with the formidable political challenge of breaking free of this male-dominated discourse. This project has meant denaturalizing and deconstructing the “objective knowledge” that has justified patriarchal oppression and attempting to regain control of the meanings and representations associated with “female.” The manner in which this occurs, however, is very much disputed.
The viewpoints of Fuss, Kaplan and Butler contrast on several levels with those of Showalter, Cixous and Kristeva. Where the latter strive to uncover what it is that makes women “different” through their language and literary history, and by exploring the possibility of a “woman-text,” the former resist ascribing women with any such “essence” at all. The problem with re-interpreting and re-presenting what is considered “female” can be seen to rest on conceptions of difference. Early theorists have sought to validate “female” difference while remaining within an essentially male-dominated discourse. Many insights have come from deconstructing male representations of women and re-imagining how “woman” may be freely expressed in text. However, this feminist discourse is fundamentally reactionary as it retains the male/female binary opposition. Seeking the “essence” of the “female” effectively validates this binary. To be “gynocentric” or “woman-centred” implies that the binary of centre/periphery has merely been redrawn, shifting the terms of inequality rather than eradicating them altogether. The work of Fuss, Kaplan, and Butler demonstrate that such binaries should be surpassed altogether. Affirming the fundamentally political nature of feminist discourse, these theorists renew feminism’s focus on the social and historical contexts in which knowledge is formulated. Like the work of earlier theorists, the notion of singular or universal “truths” that are removed from time or place is problematized. Such notions lead to a privileging of some narratives over others; focusing on the contextual differences between all narratives neutralizes this conflict. However, this later feminist theory does not concern itself with replacing old representations of “woman”; rather, it focuses on the variety of social, historical, and political differences that have been marginalized by male-dominated discourse. The new discourse encompasses a range of knowledges that surpass that of generalized “woman” to include class, race, ethnicity, homosexuality, and many others, in a process that is materialist, political, and revolutionary.
Judith Butler. “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, and Foucault” in in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 612-623. United States: Longman, 1998.
Helene Cixous. “Castration or Decapitation?” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 479-491. New York and London: Longman, 1989.
Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, Editors. Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition. United States: Longman, 1998.
Diana Foss. “Reading Like a Feminist” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 581-591. United States: Longman, 1998.
Cora Kaplan. “Pandora’s Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 593-610. United States: Longman, 1998.
Julia Kristeva. “Stabat Mater.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 2nd edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 185-203. New York and London: Longman, 1989.
Teresa de Lauretis. “Semiotics and Experience” in Contemporary Literary Criticism: Literary and Cultural Studies, 4th edition, edited by Robert Con Davis and Robert Schleifer, pp. 297-318. United States: Longman, 1998.
Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson, and Peter Brooker. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, 5th edition. Great Britain: Pearson Longman, 2005.
Elaine Showalter. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Robert Con Davis and Ronald Schleifer, pp. 457-478. New York: Longman, 1989.
Virginia Woolf. Extracts from “A Room of One’s Own.” In Feminist Literary Theory: A Reader, edited by Mary Eagleton, pp. 73-80. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.
Love, Happiness, and Other Antonyms: the Role of Women in Marriage
Throughout the course of history, marriage as an institution has changed drastically, weaving in and out of various phases and forms. What began as a purely reproductive relationship evolved into an emotional companionship. Or has it? Does marriage equal happiness? Is happiness love, or vice versa? What is a woman without a man? Author Simone de Beauvoir both asks and works to answer the age-old question of love, happiness, marriage, and perhaps concludes the inability of the three. Using the text “Second Sex”, the play Medea, and the film White Material, it can be concluded that marriage is, perhaps, nothing more than a word.
In Beauvoir’s piece “Second Sex”, she makes a distinct differentiation between love and happiness and between the roles of the male and the female in a marriage. Happiness, according to Beauvoir, is what is “promised” to the bride: a calm, repetitive “equilibrium” from which she cannot yes does not wish to escape. She is meant to be the “manager”, remaining within the walls of her home, constructing for herself a life of happiness. Thus, we can conclude that the woman does not love her life as a wife, but it makes her happy. She has “no choice but to build a stable life where the present, prolonging the past, escapes the threats of tomorrow, that is, precisely to create a happiness.” The woman is stuck in this perpetual “immanence”, a word Beauvoir uses to contrast the male duty of “transcendence.” She claims woman’s existence is only validated by man.
This idea of security through marriage is evaluated and verified by the play Medea. Medea’s entire life unravels when she is left by Jason for another, younger, woman. She claims she was the perfect wife: “I even bore you sons just to be discarded for a new bride. Had you been childless, this craving for another bedmate might have been forgiven” (60). Here, Medea confirms Beauvoir’s stance that a woman is only valuable when a man gives her value: in this instance, her fertility is what gives her position as wife meaning. Yet it still is not enough for Jason, who, as the male, is meant to “prosper” – according to Beauvoir, to “produce, fight, create, progress.” The Nurse claims that Medea is “Jason’s perfect foil, being in marriage that saving thing: a wife who does not go against her man” (1). Medea, as Beauvoir would put it, is queen of the hive “within her domain”, relying on her husband for significance.
In the film White Material, main character Maria Vial is divorced from her husband yet married, in a way, to her plantation. The plantation itself is owned by her ex-father-in-law yet she still works as a manager. As Beauvoir states, the woman is meant to fulfill this exact position: “within the walls of her home she will be in charge of managing, she will enclose the world; she will perpetuate the human existence into the future.” Therefore, the woman is meant to oversee, but never to own; in Maria’s case, she perceived the plantation to be hers yet never truly owned it, evident, clearly, when it was sold to the Mayor by her father-in-law. Maria refuses to give up her life on the plantation, where everything is regular and routine. She cannot bear the thought of leaving her home and returning to France.
To both characters, marriage, whether to a person or a thing, is their salvation. For Medea her marriage is her security; later in the play, she begs the king Aegeus for help. She says, “Aegeus, I beg you…by these knees I clasp…let me come to Athens, shelter me, accept me in your home” (123). She is helpless without her husband. In the film we see Maria’s mental state deteriorate quickly in the final few scenes, resulting in the murder of her ex-father-in-law. She ends up alone, her family deceased, her plantation bought out, and her general validity of existence extinguished. In the film, the Mayor offers a solution to Maria: why not go to France? Why not leave the stresses behind and go to France? Yet she refuses, claiming she could not “show courage in France.” Likewise, the chorus in Medea provides a voice of guidance, ensuring Medea that a husband leaving his wife is nothing out of the ordinary: “If your husband has gone to adore a new bride in his bed, why, this has often happened before. Do not harrow your soul. For Zeus will succor your cause. What use to lessen your life with grief for a lost lord?” (123). The chorus, however, has no effect on Medea. Though they tell her not to fret over such a common occurrence, she quickly has them swayed to her side. So we must ask, why is the desire for marriage so strong?
In the time of Medea, marriage was the ultimate partnership, yet it was unsanctified. Marriages rarely equated to fidelity and even more uncommonly meant happiness or love. Medea was meant to produce sons for Jason. In the film, Maria’s divorce from her husband leaves them estranged. Maria and her ex-husband handle the plantation differently. Likewise, they handle their son differently; Andre worries about Manuel while Maria laughs off his sporadic and concerning behavior. It seems that the general separation from male figures leaves the female characters weaker and more helpless than they would have been with them. Marriage is barely a state of being for these women, but rather, a rite of passage, an action, or a duty. It is a necessity. In their moments of solitary desperation, they might have been saved by the institution of marriage. Or, perhaps, just the promise of companionship from anyone could have saved the women from their detrimental isolation.
Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 1953. Print.
Euripides, and Rex Warner. Medea. New York: Dover Publications, 1993. Print.
White Material. Dir. Claire Denis. By Marie N’Diaye. Prod. Pascale Caucheteux. Perf. Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert. Why Not Films, 2009. Film.
Simone De Beauvoir Addressing the Concept of Old Age in the Coming of Age
Simone De Beauvoir goes into great detail on the concept of aging in “The Coming of Age”. Beauvoir’s main objective in part one is to explain to her readers how the elders live and what happens inside their minds. Beauvoir focuses on the biological aspect of aging and includes the different views of aging throughout various cultures. Throughout “The Coming of Age” Beauvoir has multiple objectives and describes it as “old age seen from without” or “old age seen from the point of view of the outsider.” In order to understand what Beauvoir means by the “outsider” the readers must pay close attention to the details Beauvoir provides. The point of view from the outsider” that Beauvoir describes means how society and citizens view old age. The outsider are contains citizens of a community and the society as a whole. Beauvoir provides several examples of how the outsiders treat the elders. .
The concept of old age is seen as a big hole that is not independent because it governs one another. One of Beauvoir’s major points in the first part is in order to understand what it means to be old Beauvoir we have to look at the biological meaning, historical time, and different cultures. To be considered being old varies among ages, but Beauvoir states old age at fifty-six years old. There is a biological decline in the body as we age because aging brings a decline to the body. For example, we lose strength, we cannot reproduce, and eyesight decline. The chances of survival decreases and the biological changes can diminish our existence. There are also physical changes with aging, such as wrinkles,etc. There are different concepts of the body due to different theories with aging. Old age becomes an object of scientific analysis and then leads to the discovery of gerontology. Beauvoir explains the scientific differences between supernatural and non-sciences. Also, identifying the conditions that must be identified for old age and the how biological age is an object of science. Most importantly, Gerontology contrasts with “being in the world of old age.”
Beauvoir goes into great detail on how different cultures view the old population. Some cultures respect their elders because they are seen as wise and can teach the younger generation some of their wisdom. For example, in Greek civilization when the king was helped by a council or elders. Homer, one of the men was associated with wisdom because the passage of time had given him experience, wisdom, and authority. Also, in different cultures they believe that the elders have magical powers and respect them because they fear their magical powers. Although, in several cultures the old population is seen as a burden to society. It is observed on certain cultures how the young try to get revenge on the old because of a grudge they hold against them when they were getting raised. Some of the young individuals leave their elders to die and in certain cultures they kill them because they are only another mouth to feed. It is seen as a waste of food to provide the old with nourishment when they are useless and cannot provide anything in return.
Elders are dehumanized and seen as if they are a different species. Beauvoir provides several examples how the old population is out casted from society. For example Beauvoir states, “There are books, periodicals entertainments, radio and television programs for children and young people: for the old there are none (pg3).” As a society, we outcast the elders and do not make the effort to provide them with the same respect or dignity that they deserve. As a society we automatically outcast and stereotype the old. Aging is seen as a taboo in society, but aging is inevitable and will occur sooner or later. It is almost a silence we carry and refuse to talk about aging.
Whether we mean it or not we tend to stereotype the old age and view them as grumpy, boring, and useless. We already have the image of what it looks to be old, such as white hair, wrinkles, not attractive, slow, etc. As a society we do not attempt to walk in the shoes of an old person or perhaps how they feel when we do not even see them as humans just because of their age. Beauvoir goes into the concept of reciprocity and how the other should be the means of a transcendent end, which is death. For example, children still are young and have ends to meet, such as goals and their own decisions to make. As for the old, they have only one end and that is death. Since the old are not working and do not have any projects to accomplish. The old are retired and seen as useless. The old lose their identity by losing the job that they once identified themselves with. Therefore, they must adapt himself to his own identity without having that specific title. For example, someone who once identified himself as a doctor now has to give up that title and role and identify himself as his own being. The elders confront an obstacle when trying to adapt to a new situation, since they do not like change and are used to how their life used to be when they were young and full of life.
In conclusion, we view the old population from the view of the outsider. Since we do not like to see ourselves as old, when in reality we are. There is anger built up when we hear someone say we are old. We like to believe we are young because we feel young and we are going to stay young forever, which is unreal. Society is in denial when we refuse to acknowledge that we are getting old ourselves. It is easier to point to others for their flaws than to look at the flaws we carry within ourselves.
Simone De Beauvoir’s Woman as Other and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s the Yellow Wallpaper: Comparative Analysis
What society perceives as an affectionate way for a man to treat a woman is a subtle form of women’s oppression. In her text, “Woman as Other,” Simone de Beauvoir, a feminist, argues that women have been oppressed by religion, language, myths, and science. As a result, women have accepted a lesser role in society. In her fictional story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a women’s rights advocate, writes about a woman, Jane, who is supposedly treated affectionately by her husband, John, but that eventually leads to her insanity. In this story, which is mostly based on her personal experience, Gilman argues that the way in which men treat women is a form of oppression. Gilman’s story supports de Beauvoir’s idea of master and slave which is shown, in Gilman’s story, through Jane’s dependency on John for getting better. De Beauvoir’s idea of otherness is represented in Gilman’s piece through her being stopped from expressing herself in almost anyway and being laughed at when she does. Simone de Beauvoir’s ideas of the dichotomy of master and slave, of otherness, and of subordination of women help to understand Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s fictional story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which she argues that what seems like a normal way for men to treat women is actually oppression.
de Beauvoir’s idea of master and slave, that the slave is dependent upon the master, but the master could do without the slave, is present in Gilman’s story through the way John treats his wife and makes her feel as if she needs him while he can be fine without her. Jane is made to feel that she has to satisfy her husband’s wants whereas whatever she says is disregarded by John. At one instance, when Jane requests that she be moved to another room due to the horrid conditions of her room, John takes her in his arms and calls her “a blessed goose” (Gilman 663). Which goes to show that John does not take her seriously, but, rather, treats her like a child, he’s showing her affection, not importance. He shows that he does not need to fulfill anything she wants, whereas she has to be considerate of making him uncomfortable. Beauvoir discusses this idea of master and slave by saying that although the master needs the slave, he does not show it, on the other hand, the slave shows dependency, in his “hope and fear” (Beauvoir 804). The condition of Jane and the slave are very similar, whenever she brings up her want to move to more comfortable room in the house, John treats her like his happiness is more important and she accepts in fear of being a “burden” on him. She accepts that her needs hold little importance in relation to him.
Beauvoir’s idea of otherness, that in men’s view women are defective in some way, and because women are regarded as the “Other,” explains why John thought Jane had no idea how to take care of herself, in Gilman’s story. In society, while men do not need to be defined, women do. This is what de Beauvoir points out in her text when she says, “No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself” (803). For man to be recognized as the “essential,” he has to define woman, specifically, as the “Other,” the “inessential.” This idea of women being the “Other” is present in Gilman’s story, where Jane stays at home, in the attic, for days without seeing him, and says, “I take pains to control myself—before him” (Gilman 661). It is evident here that society demands that woman exercise self-control in order to please the man, because of the woman’s being the inessential. Furthermore, John is away from home for a number of days, he has complete freedom over what he wants to do and he can decide when to come back to Jane for his own satisfaction. That is not the case for Jane, who is left in the attic, alone, which leads to nothing but her madness.
de Beauvoir’s idea of the subordination of women is present in Gilman’s story through the cure that she receives for her illness. Jane’s brother and John, both physicians, regard themselves as the authority on medicine that can never be wrong about the cure for Jane’s illness because they are men and professionals. She has to take the “resting cure,” meaning she is not allowed to do any type of work, in order to cure her nervous depression. She says, “I believe, that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.” (Gilman 661). While if a man was to experience such illness, he would not have been prescribed this cure. The medical practices also support stopping woman from being themselves, hence giving her a lesser status, and results in increasing her illness. Complaining about John’s extremely rational way of thinking and of evaluating situations, Jane mentions, “He scoffs openly at any talk of things not to be felt and seen and put down in figures” (Gilman 660). This shows that John believes that Jane cannot carry out tasks for herself, or even think for herself, and she needs to do what he prescribes for her because it has to be for the better. John scoffing at anything that might not seem rational to him shows that he does not appreciate Jane’s creativity and imagination. Beauvoir shows men’s idea of woman’s defectiveness by saying that men think that a woman “thinks with her glands” (Beauvoir 801). This idea goes to show that women are not considered, by men, to be smart and to be innovative in doing things that are good for them, like in Jane’s case, if not for others. They automatically think that anything that comes from a women must be bad because she is not as intelligent as them. Furthermore, Jane being stopped from working, especially from writing, shows that men think women have to be validated to do almost anything. Even though it might seem like John cared for her, he was subconsciously being condescending. Instances like these occur throughout Gilman’s story, which shows that men think that, without their direction, women would be worse off.
Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir: Disparity Between Men and Women
The Situation of Woman
Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is a keystone narrative that addresses and posits the disparity between Man and Woman. Due to different sexual characteristics, de Beauvoir states that the issue at hand arises from the ideological impositions that society creates—primarily, the subjugation of Woman under the control of Man. Using The Second Sex as the basis of critique, the solution to balancing the gender gap of power will be explored through ontological, self-reflective, and normative means.
While there are only two main characters being studied, it is the Woman’s inadequacy in regards to Man that provides the basis of the problem. However, while most problems arise from an event, according to de Beauvoir, there was no occurrence that spurred the ranking of the sexes: “Alterity here appears to be an absolute, partly because it falls outside the accidental nature of historical fact” (de Beauvoir 8). Though there is an argumentative flaw in the way de Beauvoir disregards history and other possible matriarchal cultures, her main point is that Woman has, as far back as human history lends itself, always been lower than Man. Therefore, while there is no point in time that Woman was put in this state, the fact that Woman remains in this position is that, “Women lack concrete means for organizing themselves… they have no past, no history” (8). The effect of this mindset is that Man has become the benchmark for society. Woman is now compared to Man, in all aspects, no matter if it is positive or negative: “She is defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her” (6). There is no individuality for the Woman, instead she is always going to be a shadow to the Man—sometimes she will be larger in size and encompass the Man, but nevertheless she will always remain attached and lesser like a shadow.
The Man and Woman dichotomy largely affects the attitudes that are created towards this sexual separation. Regardless of the fact that the only difference between the two is merely biological, the Woman is still oppressed by this ideology. She has been categorized as the “Other” while Man, who was uplifted by the separation, “is the subject, he is the Absolute” (6). This distinction, as characterized by Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, puts the Man into the position of master and the Woman in the position of a slave. Furthermore, the same distinction of the One versus the Other is an example of a clean cut between male and female, respectively. Due to the nature of what the cut divides, the cut itself has significant depth because of the long lasting hegemony between sexes: “The devaluation of femininity was a necessary step in human development” (756). In this case, the development is necessary for Man because, without the subjugation of Woman, the Man would have no source of recognition that is vital to maintain his position as master. However, as de Beauvoir points out, there is a solution to remedy this incision: “Woman is defined neither by her hormones nor by mysterious instincts but by the way she grasps… her body and her relation to the world” (761). In other words, the liberation of Woman is brought about by the redefinition of the obligations placed on her, thereby also allowing her to redefine her entire situation and escape from the cuts created by society.
Ultimately, it is this liberation of Woman that will give rise to the role reversal between master and slave. As Simone de Beauvoir expresses, the switch allows for a power balance through the ascendancy of potential for Woman and the opportunity of humility for Man. This not only diminishes the idea of the One and the Other, but also redefines the “necessary step in human development” from the denigration of females to the equilibration of the sexes, making it an issue important to everyone—Woman or Man.