Deconstructing Simone de Beauvoir

[The following is adapted from a response paper submitted for my French Feminism seminar.]

It is widely agreed that the dominant thread of The Second Sex buys into the masculine as the norm. In the intro she says, “man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity” (xxi), and she more or less endorses that scheme throughout – the solution is for women to have the status that men have already attained. Of the two sexes, men really have attained the universal position, and women just need to be brought up to speed. It’s as though men are the real “adults,” and her often very denigrating comments about female passivity, hysteria, dependency, manipulativeness—really the entire gamut of misogynist clichés—might be read as a way of shaming her fellow women into shaping up (implicitly, as she herself has done).

But I’m reminded of something that was said at a memorial event at Northwestern after Derrida’s death – Penelope Deutscher said that Derrida was always a feminist sympathizer, but never really did a deconstructive reading on women’s texts (not sure if she mentioned it at the time, but the one exception appears to be his book on Cixous). She suggested the work of Harriet Taylor Mill as a possibility, and it seems to me that Beauvoir might have some of the same potential. That is to say, there’s a lot in this text that cuts against the “official” position of “man == universal.” Some of this can be found in the chapter “Dreams, Fears, Idols.” It starts out with an account of men’s “ontological and moral pretensions,” but it’s unclear to me exactly how seriously she’s taking the scenario she’s laying out here: “Before him, man encounters Nature; he has some hold upon her, he endeavors to mold her to his desire. But she cannot fill his needs. Either she appears simply as a purely impersonal opposition…; or she submits passively to man’s will and permits assimilation…. In both cases he remains alone…” (139). She seems to deduce the need for woman first of all from the unresponsiveness of Nature. In a way, this is parallel to the Genesis account where God has Adam go through all the animals looking for a “helpmeet”—but then Beauvoir also draws a contrast between the peer relations among men, which she conceives as essentially competitive and therefore exhausting. So relations with a genuine peer are too hot, relations with nature are too cold – but relations with a woman are just right.

Most of Beauvoir’s text is very hard on women, but in the rest of this chapter she really, really takes aim at men – and speaking as a member of that needy, infantile, sentimental, fearful, illogical gender, I can say that she hits her target pretty squarely. This, to me, is the “lever” for a counter-reading of The Second Sex. In relation to other men, men may be “adults,” but in relation to women, they are simpering children. The counterpoint to this for her may be that the woman becomes manipulative, etc., but Beauvoir is always at pains to say that the stereotypical woman’s behavior stems from an unsatisfactory situation—for instance, the woman is very jealous of her husband’s time because her entire life is one big wait, etc. If “man” names the neutral position of mutually “adult” relationships, then with respect to women, men paradoxically are not yet “men.” But then if you look at what she promotes as the concrete effects of women’s equality, it doesn’t look like the competitive individualistic relationships among “men” is really the goal for her—instead, there’s a different kind of mutuality, where each can be the “other.” So if the “man” is the one who must always be Subject over against the Other, then the man in genuine relationship with an emancipated woman will no longer be a “man” either.

One part to the approach I’m proposing is to read “Dreams, Fears, Idols” as a kind of “deconstruction” of the masculine ideal. What she’s doing in this chapter seems to me to be very subtle and complex—on the one hand, she’s starting out with this presumption of individualism, but under the heading of men’s “ontological and moral pretensions.” We know from previous chapters that she views, for instance, childbirth as a fundamental category—though it seems almost too obvious to explicitly say this, she knows that men don’t really “start out” alone and only later come to know women. Once she brings them into contact with women starting from the masculine fantasy of individualism, however, the other (rather pathetic) masculine fantasy of Woman undermines what men philosophically tell themselves they are. They idealize women but can’t stand the reality. They need women in order to reproduce, but they can’t bear the actual mechanics of the process—interestingly, because it reminds them too much of death: “man feels horror at having been engendered; he would fain deny his animal ties; through the fact of his birth murderous Nature has a hold upon him” (146). Menstruation is especially terrifying—among other negative effects, it supposedly “kills bees” (149). The myth of virginity allows man to indulge the fantasy of being able to own another person who would nonetheless still remain another person, but even that isn’t consistent: “virginity has this erotic attraction only if it is in alliance with youth; otherwise its mystery again becomes disturbing” (155).

This is not to say that the privileging of the masculine perspective isn’t very real and problematic in Beauvoir’s text. For instance, rear the conclusion, she says, “The quarrel will go on as long as men and women fail to recognize each other as peers; that is to say, as long as femininity is perpetuated as such” (719). Obviously this is one-sided, but I think that there are nonetheless grounds in her own text, even in the concluding sections, for saying that it is equally true that the problem will continue “as long as masculinity is perpetuated as such.” Despite the weight she gives to the man as normative in so many passages, nonetheless, when it really comes down to it, the masculine ideal is subject to some very real slippage. This is to be expected given the general principle elaborated in the same conclusion: “it must be repeated once more that in human society nothing is nature and that woman, like much else, is a product elaborated by civilization” (725)—and so, implicitly, is man.

One could argue that the better way to undermine the masculine ideal would’ve been to literally go through step by step and show how it’s nonsense: men act like they start out as isolated monads, but really they are always already in relation, etc. I think that what she in fact does turns out to be more interesting to me, though—this level of self-undermining complexity, is what really interests me in a text, far beyond anything like whether I “agree” with it or whether it measures up to some standard of argumentative rigor or whether all of the author’s sympathies appear to be in the right place. To put it differently, the most interesting texts to me are those that on one level seem to really want to do some particular thing—as in Beauvoir’s more or less “official” position that women need to be elevated to the (preexisting) status of men—and yet almost can’t help but do something else as well.

4 thoughts on “Deconstructing Simone de Beauvoir

  1. Adam,

    I think you’re right that the “Myths” section is a good place to go to challenge the notion that SdB simply reinstated a masculine ideal.

    I would say, though, that in the “Of Woman in Five Authors” section, de Beauvoir does basically engage in the critique you mention in the last paragraph – that the universal human is in fact always in relation, always dependent on a rejected other of his own construction.

    See for example p. 248:

    “In any case, she appears as the privileged Other, through whom the subject fulfills himself: one of the measures on man, his counterbalance, his salvation, his adventure, his happiness… The Other is particularly defined according to the particular manner in which the One chooses to set himself up.” (ital. orig.)

    The story of the “Of Woman” chapter, in my reading, is precisely this story of the contingent, cultural production of the universal through the production of the role and ideal “woman.”

    I would add, further, that the appropriation of de Beauvoir by certain later writers (Wittig, Butler) has centered on the line “one is not born, one becomes a woman” as a critique of the sexual difference binary itself. I tend to filter my reading of de Beauvoir through that notion, and so I think that reading “Dreams, Fears, Idols” as a deconstruction makes a lot of sense. If the binary is never easy, never fixed, then reading de Beauvoir as if she failed consistently and abjectly to express that notion in her analysis seems like a wildly unsympathetic reading of the text.

    So, I basically agree with you here. I just think there are a couple passages that also elaborate some of the critiques you suggest are not apparent.

  2. Thanks for the other passages. We were assigned to read selections amounting to about a third of the book, so I was going off what I could assume I shared with my classmates (and, frankly, what I had read — I haven’t read every part of The Second Sex).

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