De Beauvoir, Simone

Assigned: De Beauvoir, Simone. From The Second Sex, Vol. 1, Part 3 “Myths,” Ch. 3. (1214-21). Also read the editors’ introduction (1211-13).

From The Second Sex (1949)

Vol. 1, Part 3, Myths, Chapter 3

1. On 1214-15 (“The myth of woman plays…”), Simone de Beauvoir says that if we want to understand the degree to which “[t]he myth of woman” impacts “everyday life” (1214), we must examine how that myth relates to reality, to lived experience. What, then, is the myth of the Eternal Feminine, as de Beauvoir here initially articulates it? In what sense does it abstract from and falsify genuine, real-world experience between men and women?

2. On 1215-16 (“As group representation and social types…”), how, according to de Beauvoir, does the myth of the Eternal Feminine rely on “ambivalence” (1215) in the way it encourages men to process their thoughts and imaginings about women, or in short to define them as inauthentic and “immanent” rather than “transcendent”? (See the Norton editors’ notes on these two key existentialist terms.) How does this ambivalent myth’s deployment in a patriarchal order strip individual women of dignity, integrity, and a sense of accomplishment in their daily existence? Why is it important that this myth is not “revealed to consciousness in a living experience” but is instead “a transcendent Idea that escapes any act of consciousness”? (1215)

3. On 1216-17 (“Few myths have been more advantageous…”), to what use does de Beauvoir say men have put the myth of the Eternal Feminine? In what sense is it easier for a man to indulge in a fantasy or an illusion than to have “an authentic relation with a human being” (1216)? How does de Beauvoir respond to her own question about the basis that underlies this “profitable illusion” on men’s part? Namely, while she acknowledges that both men and women are understandably in certain respects “mysterious” to one another, how do men manage to create and maintain an all-encompassing, stultifying myth that governs their own understanding of women and even prescribes to women how they must understand themselves? How does what de Beauvoir describes as a very complex “physiological destiny” (1217) on the part of women (i.e., their child-bearing capacity and the bodily processes associated with it) makes this forced self-conception all the more powerful?

4. On 1217-18 (“But what is called mystery is not…”), de Beauvoir offers a straightforwardly existentialist analysis of the difficulties involved in women’s being viewed as “mysterious.” What happens when we ask of woman, “Who is she?” (1217) Why is it ultimately impossible to answer that question, based on the circumstances of women’s lives in a patriarchal order? Explain the existentialist basis of de Beauvoir’s analysis here: how do you interpret the dictum, “essence does not precede existence” (1217) in relation to the attempt to define women as authentic beings in their very restrictive social and familial circumstances? Through what practical observation of certain romantic liaisons can we also recognize that there is “an infrastructure of feminine mystery that is economic,” i.e., based on a power imbalance between two lovers? (1217-18)

5. On 1218-20 (“Furthermore, like all oppressed people…”), de Beauvoir refers to the kind of everyday deceptions and enigmatic gestures that women, “like all oppressed people” (1218) often resort to out of necessity, but she then points out that the “feminine Mystery” (1218 bottom) goes well beyond any such quotidian obscurity. All the same, what happens, according to de Beauvoir, when we get too close to a myth, and try to “pin it down” (1219)? How is the maintenance of a grand myth like the Eternal Feminine a “luxury”—in what restricted set of circumstances is it possible to perpetuate such a myth, and in those circumstances, what social, class-based, or political purpose does that myth serve? How, too, does such a myth inflect the everyday consciousness of those who believe in it—say, a man who has had a spat with his lover or his wife?

6. On 1220 (“The myth is one of those traps…”), according to de Beauvoir, which authors and cultural periods have given us the best literary representations of women and of relations between women and men? In what sense are Laclos, Stendhal, and Hemingway wiser than many male authors in their portrayals of female characters and gender relations—what does work like theirs hold out as a positive, hopeful vision for such relations in the future? In de Beauvoir’s view, what would both women and mengain from the new reality thereby figured, a reality no longer based upon domineering male illusions and the mythologizing of one half of the human race?

7. On 1220-21 (“‘Woman is lost. Where are the women…’”), how does de Beauvoir describe what she calls “the duplicitous attitude of men today” (1220) and the destructive, confusing effect that attitude entails for women seeking personal authenticity in their lives? In what sense, for example, does a woman’s very success in a career or endeavor cause her to experience an internal contradiction in her sense of who she is? Finally, how does de Beauvoir express her hopefulness regarding modern societies’ prospects for achieving the kind of gender relations she believes would be liberating for all concerned? (1221)

8. General question: Given that Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex more than seventy years ago (1949), would you say that there has been a significant improvement in the way American women and men relate to one another and in the relative balance of power between men and women with regard to social and political affairs? Why or why not? What changes (or failures to change) can you enumerate to make your case?

9. General question: In The Second Sex, Simone De Beauvoir writes from a European perspective, and we probably find it fairly easy to transpose that perspective to American gender relations. But what can you say about the relative safety, security and wellbeing of women in other parts of the world with which you are familiar, either because you have lived there or because you have some other connection with them, such as close relatives living elsewhere than the U.S.A., Canada, or Europe?

10. General question: In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir concentrates on the status and prospects mostly of European women midway through the twentieth century. What about the status of women in American film, which is a key element in the American arts scene? It used to be the case that women over the age of 35 or 40 found it difficult to land roles in the movies or on television. How much has that situation changed in the last several decades? How close are things to parity in terms of numbers of roles and pay, and opportunities to produce and direct films? What factors still get in the way of that parity?

11. General question: The status of women in contemporary comedy—stand-up comedy in particular—is of interest to many people who follow or participate in that form of entertainment. Some people (mostly men, though perhaps not exclusively so) have been known to insist that “women just aren’t funny” or “women aren’t as funny as men.” Where do you suppose that rather narrow view is coming from? Don’t just say “misogyny” because, while that may be perfectly true in some cases, it doesn’t teach us much about these claims that women are somehow permanently afflicted with “the unfunnies.” Find an instance or two of online video where such a claim is being set forth, and set down what you think is going on. As part of your response, consider the connection between the “unfunniness” argument and the problem with male definitions of women that Simone de Beauvoir explores in The Second Sex.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake