Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Second Sex

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 6, 2005

We shall see later how complex the relations of mother to daughter are: the daughter is for the mother at once her double and another person, the mother is at once overweeningly affectionate and hostile towards her daughter; she saddles her child with her own destiny: a way of proudly laying claim to her own femininity and also a way of revenging herself for it. The same process its to be found in pederasts, gamblers, drug addicts, in all who at once take pride in belonging to a certain confraternity and feel humiliated by the association: they endeavor with eager proselytism to gain new adherents.

According to Simone de Beauvoir, woman is the “other” not only to men but also often to herself, an alien thing that is not quite human and is never sure what it is or what its place is.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorSimone de Beauvoir
Length800 pages
Book Rating8

“One is not born, but rather, becomes, a woman.” So begins the second part of “The Second Sex” after dispensing with biological and historical considerations. This is the thesis of this book, it is what all the hundreds of pages go to prove and to show. It is why this book was both controversial and important.

She ends the book by quoting Marx about man as both male and a generic human, and concludes:

The case could not be better stated. It is for man to establish the reign of liberty in the midst of the world of the given. To gain the supreme victory, it is necessary, for one thing, that by and through their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood.

I can’t know how much sarcasm was in that without knowing the original French, nor with my limited knowledge of French. Did she write “brotherhood” as “fraternité”? If so, I don’t think that the irony is as blatant, but it is still there. A cursory search of the net indicates that it was:

C’est au sein du monde donné qu’il appartient à l’homme de faire triompher le règne de la liberté; pour remporter cette suprême victoire, il est entre autres nécessaire que par-delà leurs différenciations naturelles hommes et femmes affirment sans équivoque leur fraternité.

I was able to find this by using Sherlock on Mac OS X to translate the text back from English into French, and then searching via Google on key words. (Sherlock translated brotherhood back to confrérie, for whatever that’s worth.)

I agree that the English word fraternity is not likely quite what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she used the French fraternité. But given the topic and focus of the book, I don’t think that brotherhood is an appropriate translation either.

Translator H.M. Parshley has been widely criticized for his translation. In his favor he was an early supporter of translating Le Deuxième Sexe. He saw how important a work this would be. “The book is a profound and unique analysis of woman’s nature and position, eminently reasonable and often witty; and it surely should be translated.”

But he received practically no assistance from Simone de Beauvoir while translating it, and he was not an existentialist. Simone de Beauvoir’s thesis, and most of the book she built on it, is grounded in existentialism. In many cases, his critics argue, Parshley mistranslated terms because he did not recognize their existentialist meanings.

Sometimes the translator’s notes are amusing. At the bottom of one page of a long discussion of the conflict between narcissism and experiential sexuality, Simone de Beauvoir writes about the results of the shame a girl feels with the coming of menstruation, and its results in how she reacts to men:

Men’s stares flatter and hurt her simultaneously; she wants only what she shows to be seen: eyes are always too penetrating. Hence the inconsistency that men find disconcerting: she displays her décolleté, her legs, and when they are looked at she blushes, feels vexation.1 She enjoys inflaming the male, but if she sees that she has aroused his desire, she recoils in disgust. Masculine desire is as much an offense as it is a compliment; in so far as she feels herself responsible for her charm, or feels she is exerting it of her own accord, she is much pleased with her conquests, but to the extent that her face, her figure, her flesh are facts she must bear with, she wants to hide them from this independent stranger who lusts after them. (p. 351)

Parshley’s footnote is “Hence that prime gesture of the 1920’s: the very short skirt and the constant tugging to make it cover a little more of the knees.” Undoubtedly there is some truth to the note; but it is a mostly trivial comment that, if it does not miss the point completely certainly does not see much of its enormity.

The book was also cut on the publisher’s direction; as large as this book is, the French version is even longer. Translation is always a difficult task, as is condensation. Combined, the risk of inadvertently deleting an important step in an argument or turning it around rises considerably.

There have occasionally been calls for a new, better, and more complete translation. This would be a large task, so English readers will have to make do with this one for now. “The Second Sex” remains a powerful work, regardless of the limitations of the current edition.

Woman becomes flesh

Simone de Beauvoir’s thesis was that the deep differences between men and women are the result of an existentialist difference in upbringing and environment that go well beyond the necessities of biology. The nature of male-female relations engenders a profoundly different philosophical outlook on life that is difficult for either side to overcome. And that there is no reason for men to try.

Where men learn to test themselves against the world and become the masters of their destinies, young women are not asked to test themselves. Further, the objectification of women combined with their biology leads to their not feeling at home in their own bodies at precisely the moment they are most easily influenced for the rest of their lives.

The young girl feels that her body is getting away from her, it is no longer the straightforward expression of her individuality; it becomes foreign to her; and at the same time she becomes for others a thing: on the street men follow her with their eyes and comment on her anatomy. She would like to be invisible; it frightens her to become flesh and to show her flesh.

This distaste is expressed by many young girls through the wish to be thin; they no longer want to eat, and if they are forced to, they have vomiting spells; they constantly watch their weight. (p. 308)

She has been criticized for occasionally or often relying on a middle class analysis and viewpoint. Some of her observations, if true, must apply specifically to the modern middle class. For example, she contrasts the “typical” surroundings of a teenage girl with the biological changes as the girl goes through puberty.

She is supposed to be white as snow, transparent as crystal, she is dressed in filmy organdy, her room is papered in dainty colors, voices are lowered at her approach, she is forbidden salacious books. Now, there is not a “good little girl” who does not indulge in “abominable” thoughts and desires. She strives to conceal them even from her closest friend, even from herself; she wants to live and to think only according to rules; her distrust of herself gives her a sly, unhappy, sickly air; and later on, nothing will be more difficult for her than to overcome these inhibitions. She undergoes her metamorphosis into a woman not only in shame but in remorse. (p. 322)

Clearly, if filmy organdy and dainty colors affect the girl’s development in a relevant matter, that development should have been different in time periods where such things were not common to a young girl’s world.

But the wider issue is an important one. When the rest of the world looks upon a young girl as an object either to be acquired or sold, that must have a profound influence on her development.

This socialization of young women comes from all sides. Not just the people she meets on the street tell her this. Even the movies she watches. The Hollywood stereotype of the spoiled or immature woman who needs nothing more than a strong man to tame her elicits a well-deserved criticism from de Beauvoir.

The story of the capricious, haughty, rebellious, and unbearable young lady who gets amorously tamed by a sensible man is a standard pattern for cheap literature and the movies... In Louisa M. Alcott’s Good Wives, the self-willed Jo begins to fall in love with her future husband when he reproaches her severely for some blunder. In spite of the stubborn pride of American women, the Hollywood films have time and again shown these wild youngsters tamed by the wholesome brutality of a husband or lover: a slap or two, or, better, a good spanking would appear to be sure means of seduction. (p. 349)

I’m reminded of the otherwise brilliantly sarcastic movie, The Philadelphia Story or the classic The Quiet Man. And, of course, it almost does go without saying that the man and woman who in the beginning of a movie conflict will, by the end of the movie, either be married or dating. This formula is true enough even in modern, 21st century movies.

Simone de Beauvoir’s got your number, Slim

When Simone de Beauvoir wrote Le Deuxième Sexe homosexuality was still characterized as an unnatural “inversion” of normality. She notes two types of lesbians often distinguished by psychiatrists of the time, one of which is the “masculine” who “imitates the male”. She then goes on to write the classic line that made this work so eminently quotable twenty years later:

To define the “masculine” lesbian by her will to “imitate the male” is to stamp her as inauthentic. Man today represents the positive and the neutral--that is to say, the male and the human being--whereas woman is only the negative, the female. Whenever she behaves as a human being, she is declared to be identifying herself with the male. Her activities in sports, politics, and intellectual matters, her sexual desire for other women, are all interpreted as a “masculine protest”.

Everything a woman does is interpreted to be about men. When even the dog a woman keeps grants insight into the men she chooses, being a lesbian is not a choice to love women, but a choice to reject men.

The chief misunderstanding underlying this line of interpretation is that it is natural for the female human being to make herself a feminine woman: it is not enough to be a heterosexual, even a mother, to realize this ideal; the “true woman” is an artificial product that civilization makes, as formerly eunuchs were made. (p. 408)

The emphasis is mine. You can find echoes of these statements throughout feminist writing, and for good reason. Despite being pulled partially out of context it is a powerful statement against the anti-feminist critique that women should not act like men. She goes on to write that “it is perfectly natural for the future woman to feel indignant at the limitations imposed upon her by her sex. The real question is not why she should reject them: the problem is rather to understand why she accepts them.”

The reason for society’s fear of homosexual women, according to de Beauvoir, is that they do not rely upon men for their justification. They are not respectable, because there is no man through which they can channel respect. “It is not true that men respect women.” Men respect men, and they respect men’s possessions.

Woman by herself, apart from man, seems somewhat unusual; it is not true that men respect women; they respect one another through their women--wives, mistresses, or the prostitutes they pimp for. Without masculine protection woman is helpless before a superior caste that is aggressive, sneeringly amused, or hostile. As an erotic “perversion,” feminine homosexuality may elicit a smile; but as implying a mode of life, it arouses contempt or scandalized disapproval. (p. 421)

Richard O’Brien said the same thing in Shock Treatment. “A jock never hocks another jock’s tools.” The man who comes to the aid of an insulted woman does not do so because her intelligence was insulted or even because she was insulted; it is always because she was treated as someone else’s possession or as no one’s possession. It is because the man she belongs to was insulted through her.

No sense of place

Lack of protection, however, has its benefits. Men, however much they may claim otherwise, are in general unwilling to give up their active lives for lives of pointlessness. Protection itself is isolation, and isolation is ignorance.

Often older, with masculine prestige, legally “head of the family,” her husband has a position of moral and social superiority; very often he seems, at least, to be intellectually superior also. He has the advantage of superior culture or, at any rate, professional training; since adolescence he has taken an interest in world affairs--they are his affairs--he knows something of law, he keeps up with politics, he belongs to a party, to a union, to social organizations; as worker and citizen his thinking is related to action. He knows the test of stern reality: that is, the average man has the technique of reasoning, a feeling for facts and experience, some critical sense.

Women lack this critical sense not just because they were never taught it, but because they were taught that they did not need it. Without reason, they cannot participate in “man’s world”. They don’t have the tools.

And it isn’t enough for them to play at gaining the tools. Unless they are willing to test themselves against a harsh world, they can never learn to the same extent as men do.

Even if they have read, listened to lectures, toyed with accomplishments, their miscellaneous information does not constitute culture; it is not that through mental defect they are unable to reason properly, it is rather that experience has not held them to strict reasoning; for them thought is an amusement rather than an instrument; even though intelligent, sensitive, sincere, they are unable to state their views and draw conclusions, for lack of intellectual technique. That is why their husbands, even though of comparatively mediocre ability, will easily dominate them and prove themselves to be in the right even when in the wrong. (p. 465)

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. In a world where woman does not have the tools of reason, or the knowledge of how to appeal to facts and experience, even the most mediocre man is superior to her.

Marie Bashkirtsev writes: “This amuses me. I do not converse with him, I act, and, feeling that I am before an appreciative audience, I am good at childlike and whimsical intonations and at attitudinizing. (p. 639)

She does what she thinks is necessary to get along, instead of getting ahead.

The free market in equal rights

The wider problem is that without a language of facts and reason, and without a wider world view that allows her to know what things are worth, woman’s narcissism causes her to inflate the worth of what she has to offer.

Woman has to learn that exchanges--it is a fundamental law of political economy--are based on the value the merchandise offered has for the buyer, and not for the seller: she has been deceived in being persuaded that her worth is priceless. The truth is that for man she is an amusement, a pleasure, company, an inessential boon; he is for her the meaning, the justification of her existence. The exchange, therefore, is not of two items of equal value. (p. 722)

What she goes on to say, however, to a very real extent applies to both men and women today, fifty years later. It reminds me of of C++ programmer Bjorn Stroustrop’s complaint that “I have always wished that my computer would be as easy to use as my telephone. My wish has come true. I no longer know how to use my telephone.”

De Beauvoir writes that time itself becomes an evil that must be vanquished.

This inequality will be especially brought out in the fact that the time they spend together--which fallaciously seems to be the same time--does not have the same value for both partners. During the evening the lover spends with his mistress he could be doing something of advantage to his career, seeing friends, cultivating business relationships, seeking recreation; for a man normally integrated in society, time is a positive value: money, reputation, pleasure. For the idle, bored woman, on the contrary, it is a burden she wishes to get rid of; when she succeeds in killing time, it is a benefit to her.

When time, for everyone, is something to be got rid of, it is great for banal Hollywood movies, but not great for society as a whole. The continued objectification of woman debases all of us.

The struggle for good and evil

De Beauvoir has no time for pretending that housework is a rewarding task on par with an interesting career. Such work is just another way woman has of killing time. More importantly, though, the tasks left to woman in the stereotypical world affect her worldview. They drag her down. Once she accepts that “a woman’s work is never done” she can never progress to higher levels. It appears to be all that she can do to stay in one place.

Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present. She never senses conquest of a positive Good, but rather indefinite struggle against negative Evil. A young pupil writes in her essay: “I shall never have house-cleaning day”; she thinks of the future as constant progress toward some unknown summit; but one day, as her mother washes the dishes, it comes over her that both of them will be bound to such rites until death. Eating, sleeping, cleaning--the years no longer rise up toward heaven, they lie spread out ahead, gray and identical. The battle against dust and dirt is never won. (p. 451)

Her life is an indefinite struggle against the negative aspects of life, rather than a reach for the positive. This feeds on itself. Because of her negative outlook on life, her influence on politics will be to drag it into the gutter as well, rather than reach for the stars. Her influence will be one of “defeating evil” rather than “progressing toward good”. Denying liberty to women is dangerous to society as a whole.

Any doctrine of transcendence and liberty subordinates the defeat of evil to progress toward the good. But woman is not called upon to build a better world: her domain is fixed and she has only to keep up the never ending struggle against the evil principles that creep into it; in her war against dust, stains, mud, and dirt she is fighting sin, wrestling with Satan. (p. 451-452)

This is a brilliant statement on the role of government regardless of gender. When there is little to no hope of advancement and little to no ownership in society, time is a negative value rather than a positive one. With respect to women, de Beauvoir took aim at what we would call the “soccer mom” who tries to fill her day--and the day of others--with inconsequential activities.

In the United States the influence of the venerable “moms” is powerful; this is to be explained by the leisure accorded them by their parasitic mode of life: hence its banefulness. In Generation of Vipers Philip Wylie has this to say of the American mom: “Knowing nothing about medicine, art, science, religion, law, sanitation... she seldom has any special interest in what, exactly, she is doing as a member of any of these endless organizations, so long as it is something.”... For example, they play a considerable role in the domain of culture, since they buy most of the books; but they read as one plays solitaire.... it is the American woman who is responsible for the degradation of the best-sellers; these books are intended not only merely to entertain, but worse, to entertain idle women in search of escape. (p. 594)

Thus, the continued refrain in politics of how it is “better to do something than nothing”. Because even if that something does not progress us towards the good, at least it resembles a fight against evil. But in the end, this is itself an evil. She quotes Philip Wylie again about how women’s social activist clubs do little more than “afford mom an infinite opportunity for nosing into other people’s business,” then goes on to explain it:

...they always unite against something; alcohol, prostitution, pornography. They do not realize that a purely negative effort is doomed to failure, as was proved in America by the failure of prohibition, in France by that of the law which Marthe Richard put through the Chamber of Deputies, closing the brothels. As long as woman remains a parasite, she cannot take part effectively in making a better world.

De Beauvoir wanted to progress toward the good. She did not believe in revaluing equality to pretend that every sphere is equal, a stand that brought her enduring criticism as a misogynist. If revaluing equality means encouraging a negative worldview, then it is wrong. It is better to encourage a positive outlook that values reason.

The evil originates not in the perversity of individuals... it originates rather in a situation against which all individual action is powerless. Women are “clinging,” they are a dead weight, and they suffer for it; the point is that their situation is like that of a parasite sucking out the living strength of another organism. Let them be provided with living strength of their own, let them have the means to attack the world and wrest from it their own subsistence, and their dependence will be abolished--that of man also. There is no doubt that both men and women will profit greatly from the new situation. (p. 724)

This is an optimistic view, not a pessimistic one. Given a world to join and a desire to achieve good things within it, their parasitic worldview will change for the better. And when this happens, it will be good for everyone, because their powerlessness will no longer drag the rest of the world down into “a purely negative effort.”

The future

There are always people in the present who look to the worst when others try to increase freedom, or “progress towards good”. If sick people are allowed access to effective medicine, children will become addicted to pot; if people are encouraged to self-defense, there will be blood in the streets; if equality is protected and women must test themselves against stern reality, women will lose that “feminine charm” that makes them special. But blood does not run in the streets when we gain equality, only when we forbid it. Future peoples will look back on us in disdain for having feared liberty.

Let us not forget that our lack of imagination always depopulates the future; for us it is only an abstraction; each one of us secretly deplores the absence there of the one who was himself. But the humanity of tomorrow will be living in its flesh and in its conscious liberty; that time will be its present and it will in turn prefer it... nothing could seem to me more debatable than the opinion that dooms the new world to uniformity and hence to boredom. I fail to see that this present world is free from boredom or that liberty ever creates uniformity. (p. 730)

Simone de Beauvoir has been accused of misogyny, anti-feminism, and self-loathing. But her vision is one of “conscious liberty” that “progresses towards the good” for both men and women. It is a vision that is worth reading.

The Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir

Recommendation: Possible Purchase