The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir
As anyone who’s tried to do it surely knows, writing confidently about The Second Sex is as mammoth a task as reading it is. The brick-like tome was our July read this summer for the Year of Feminist Classics project, but it took a few months longer to finish and will likely be a source of contemplation for innumerable months to come.
In what was a very radical and unprecedented move in the late 1940’s, existentialist philosopher Beauvoir set out to understand the social condition of Woman by examining women’s place in history, mythology, biology, and lived experience within and without the family through the lenses of philosophy and psychoanalysis. Only someone with the exacting brilliance of Beauvoir could pull it off–and she does.
As someone with little to no background in either existentialist philosophy or psychoanalysis, some parts of the book were less accessible to me than were others. In fact, Beauvoir’s scope and knowledge is so far-reaching that I doubt all of it would be completely accessible to any one lay reader, and that’s perfectly fine. I found the first sections of the book to be the densest and most intimidating, although the chapter on mythology was one of my favorites and was full of information totally new and fascinating to me. I did find the second half on “Lived Experience” much easier to follow and comprehend, though it was around this point too that I began to develop slight criticisms of Beauvoir’s presentation.
I’m not going to pretend that I understood all–or even most–of Beauvoir’s analyses. That said, and especially given my lack of exposure to theories of psychoanalysis, I found it’s application quite jarring and unconvincing at times. I just wasn’t sure I bought it, I guess, as an explanation for childhood sexual development and women’s inferiority complexes, amongst other things. And the ways in which she discussed both “frigidity” and lesbian sexuality made me uncomfortable; I wasn’t entirely sure what she was trying to say about them, but I thought it could be a conceptual disagreement. It could also be because the language she was using is now totally outdated. Most likely it was a combination of both those things. Also, she consistently picked the most extreme examples to illustrate her points, which I found counter-productive and distancing. But maybe that was a more widely practiced writing technique at the time? Or maybe it seemed necessary since the arguments were so new that the most extreme examples were warranted? I don’t know, but I found it off-putting.
At the same time, though, her chapter on “Girlhood” was equally reliant on psychoanalysis and REALLY struck a chord with me. It was eerie, actually. So many things I hadn’t considered before as potential sites for social and theoretical interrogation–girl’s interest in having and sharing secrets, obsessive friendships, and quietly inward-gazing narcissism–suddenly made sense in a whole new way. Not that all girls or women share any one quality or experience (and she does tend to generalize a whole lot), but I related to that chapter more than any other and it’s the one which forced me to concede, albeit hesitantly, that there might be something to this whole psychoanalysis thing after all.
Beauvoir is truly in a league of her own. Even when using questionable methods to arrive at contestable conclusions, her intelligence is tangible and dazzling. You may just have to read it to figure out how such a thing could be…and given the number of times I’ve thought back on The Second Sex in random “A-HA, I GET IT NOW” moments of total clarity about pop-culture* or daily life since finishing it weeks ago, I’d say it is worth the challenge!
*For example, when and only when did I apply concepts from Beauvoir’s chapter on mythology to the ridiculous female character in Cowboys and Aliens did that role make any sense to me. Sadly, this application only served to make that character even more absurd and offensive than she already was! Of course, the whole premise of that movie was…well, just don’t get me started on it!