When The Second Sex had been published in 1949, the author of the book Simone de Beauvoir was thirty-seven years old. The Second Sex took the literary market by storm and in just one week, 22,000 copies of the book were sold. Many readers were shocked by the way de Beauvoir frankly discusses the female body and female sexuality. The book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Vatican (Gray). Why did the society of the time scandalize the content of the book? Why did the de Beauvoir’s book end up breaking all taboos? The purpose of this paper is to analyze the nature of The Second Sex, the remarkable study of women, which in many ways is the foremost text for feminists all around the world, not just France (Vintges).
The Second Sex appeared more than two decades before the existence of the feminist movement, and is truly a revolutionary text of feminism. In this exceptionally large, 1000 pages, 2 volumes work, de Beauvoir undertook the task of tackling something that had never tackled by any writer before her. De Beauvoir historically and scientifically analyzes Woman. De Beauvoir casts aside absurd stereotypes about the nature of women that have been present in the works of male writers over the centuries, which according to her are countless stupidities (Beauvoir 11). The prejudices and taboos because of which women have been imprisoned in a preordained role are torn down by de Beauvoir. Many modern feminists have estimated that Simone de Beauvoir book, The Second Sex, left an enormous, long lasting influence on her.
De Beauvoir succinctly expresses the opposite sides of her thinking in The Second Sex in a phrase that is present at the beginning of Part IV in the book: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (de Beauvoir 295). On one hand, her writing is underpinned by the existentialist philosophy according to which society is created by individuals and it is ‘bad faith’ to assume anything as a given. On the other hand, she believes that femininity in our society is a social construct rather than a natural phenomenon. In simple words, de Beauvoir examines the myths that men have created about women since the beginning of history. De Beauvoir explains her purpose by quoting Pythagoras in the Introduction of the book: “There is a good principle, which has created order, light, and man; and a bad principle, which 4 has created chaos, darkness, and woman” (de Beauvoir).
At this point in the book, de Beauvoir is proposing that as long as women continue thinking that there is an objective idea of what being a women means, they can never be free. De Beauvoir writes that the ‘eternal feminine’ is mauvaise foi; just like there is no masculine ideal similarly there is no ‘feminine ideal’. According to her, the truth is that men have succeeded in liberating themselves from these stereotypes, while women remain salves to the idea. This is why she said, “One is not born” (ibid). Theoretically, men and women both are born equal; there is no ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ essence, yet women inevitably end up supporting the eternal feminine idea unconsciously because of the expectations of society. Therefore, The Second Sex is basically educating women how the eternal feminine has been produced by patriarchal societies, since even by supposedly objective sciences the eternal feminine has been promoted subtly and unconsciously.
In the existentialist terms, de Beauvoir’s goal of writing The Second Sex was to investigate why everyone sees women different from men. The inessential has been represented in relation to the essential by her. De Beauvoir has written the book in a somewhat straightforward language, though modern readers may find it occasionally heavy, mostly because her perceptions are underpinned by the existentialist world view. Nonetheless, all aspects of the topic of women as seen by her are covered in the book. In Part 1, de Beauvoir questions how the status of women as ‘Other’ can be explained. One by one, explanations offered by biology, Marxism and psychoanalysis are rejected by her. In Part II, de Beauvoir examines how over the course of human history, the classes of the sexes came into existence.
Early on in The Second Sex, de Beauvoir presents a very in-depth insight into biological, historical, and sociological factors that played a role in making women as ‘Other.’ In the early days of human development, the role of men was to hunt and gather food. Therefore, men were accustomed to competition, conflicts and survival. In fact, de Beauvoir even goes to the extent of saying that civilization as it is known today would not exist if conflict had not been experienced by men. In these early times, primarily child-bearing and motherhood were the only roles that women had. Inevitably, as men became an active, external and rational principle, women became a passive principle. She concludes that women are defined as the Other because of their body: “Now, what peculiarly signalizes the situation of woman is that she - a free and autonomous being like all human creatures – nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other” (de Beauvoir 29).
The views that de Beauvoir seems to have about a women’s body tend to be ambiguous. On one hand, she seems to show admiration for the active, confident and risk taking traits that are associated with the body of men. On the other hand, she seems to believe that the ‘facticty’ of the female body is that it has earthy, disorderly, primitive functions, and she seems to despair them. According to de Beauvoir, all of these tend to alienate women from themselves. However, at the same time, de Beauvoir is also astonished about the conclusion she comes to, that when it comes to achieving a more authentic and liberated position in society; women actually need the intricacies of their body and the struggle. She never really manages to satisfactorily resolve her view of the bodies of men and women; and according to many feminists that came after her, de Beauvoir had actually undervalued female difference.
Later in The Second Sex, an ethic of action is developed by de Beauvoir. De Beauvoir tries to consider how women can become authentic and free from their alienated state. According to her, the first instance where a women becomes free is when she realizes that the ‘eternal feminine’ is nothing but a myth that women themselves have enforced as a as a form of narcissism. She believes that a woman’s ego creates narcissism as an idealized state, where the woman’s ego reassures itself that it has become the very best. A woman who is narcissistic believes that she has succeeded in overcoming the tension within her existence. However, according to de Beauvoir, the truth is that women end up further alienating themselves: “At once priestess and idol, the narcissist soars haloed with glory through the eternal realm, and below the clouds creatures kneel in adoration; she is God wrapped in self-contemplation. ‘I love myself, I am my God!’ said Mme Mejerowsky” (de Beauvoir 644).
De Beauvoir believes that the reason women are considered inferior in society is because of the differences in which men and women are brought up rather of natural differences. According to her, men are shaped to be dominating at every stage of development, and are not fatedly or innately dominating. She says that “Man learns his power” (de Beauvoir). De Beauvoir also believes that women are also not born inherent, or ordinary. Instead, it is society that leads them to believe that these characteristics must be embodied by the proper women, and that the only way they can be happy and become accepted is to deny their true self. She even suggests that right from the outset, it is necessary to educate young boys and girls differently, so that changes can be brought in society. Since women are born equal, they should be treated equally in childhood and in adulthood, and society needs to change its twisted perspectives about women.
In Part III, she investigates the myths of woman that have been embraced by our society. André Breton, D.H. Lawrence, Montherlant, Paul Claudel, and Stendhal are the five particular male authors who have illustrated these myths and are examined by de Beauvoir in the book. In Part V, de Beauvoir presents an insight into the situation of women into society: the married woman, the mother, the older woman, and the prostitute. In Part VI, Justifications, de Beauvoir examines three forms of excessive and irrational anxieties women have unconsciously adopted for their own survival in a patriarchal society: mysticism and narcissism. In Part VII, the Conclusion, de Beauvoir looks towards the future with hope, which according to her will be a period where women will participate in the labor market and will no longer depend on men. In the context of freedom, she perceives that the sexes will manage to discover harmony and love.
The way de Beauvoir analyzes the situation of women in society is still exceptionally relevant today, regardless of the tremendous strides that have been made by women since 1949 towards equality with men. Many of the phrases in the book are rather direct and fresh, and tend to stand out by their uncanny perspicacity. For instance, she answers the question of reproduction by asserting that “perhaps in time the cooperation of the male will become unnecessary in procreation – the answer, it would seem, to many a woman’s prayer” (de Beauvoir 41). Based on her analysis of historical developments, she states that “Woman was dethroned by the advent of private property, and her lot through the centuries has been bound up with private property” (de Beauvoir 113). De Beauvoir’s analysis is often cruel and her comments tend to be pithy, which is illustrated by on particular quotation from the book: “There is a hoax in marriage, since, while being supposed to socialize eroticism, it succeeds only in killing it” (de Beauvoir 219).
Although often The Second Sex is considered as one of the finest feminine texts of the twentieth century; however, but this book seems to how de Beauvoir’s hesitance about getting involved in ‘feminism’. Her goal behind writing this book seems to be to show women how they have been placed as the Absolute Other by biology, history, psychology, religion, sociology, etc. Apparently, she believes that this way, women will finally realize that they need to confront and change this situation. Of course, de Beauvoir’s ethics are indeed feminist since she believes that this change can only be brought about by women. Then again, she is not celebrating something about women that is special, so she did not really have a feminist goal when she wrote this book. For de Beauvoir, society will not be truly freed until men have become as much conscious as women; then a dialectic change will occur in the history of mankind, where men and women will be equals.
Although The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir has numerous qualities, many readers might argue that it is not relevant today. The existentialist philosophy in the book is too strongly overlaid and at times there is jargon that accompanies that philosophy, which makes this book heavy going. The notion of classes in values is reinforced by most of what de Beauvoir analyzes, although she is trying to debunk it. For instance, she seems to perceive that men have a more active role in society while the role of women is more passive and thus not as valuable. Generally, de Beauvoir seems to have a dated and sexist vision of the physical nature of women, since it is portrayed as a handicap in the book. Despite the fact that book is regarded as a feminist text and although it appears that de Beauvoir is trying to dismantle the patriarchal world, but is seems that she has not really escape that world.
“The deepest paradox of all is that the most powerful anti-patriarchal text of the twentieth century reads as if it is written by a dutiful daughter only too eager to please her father”(Moi 177).
De Beauvoir, Simone. Le deuxième sexe. 1. Paris: Folio, 1989. 11. Print.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Vintage Books ed. New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1980. Print.
Gray, Francine du Plessix. "Dispatches From the Other." nytimes.com. The New York Times, 27 2010. Web. 29 Nov 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/30/books/review/Gray-t.html?pagewanted=all>.
Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Blackwell, 1994. Print.
Vintges, Karen. Philosophy as Passion: The Thinking of Simone De Beauvoir. 1. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1996. Print.