Simone de Beauvoir and Cultural Production

I’m posting an (incredibly) late post from the first cluster. But I’m hoping that my lack of timeliness can be useful so that we can look back at our first readings and think about how that has bearing on this last section on cultural production.

I think the “Introduction” in The Second Sex by Simon de Beauvoir presents a conflict that we’ve been looking at all quarter—if and how to identify women. Specifically, I think we can see how this conflict has played out in the cultural productions we’ve been looking at the last few weeks.

In the text, de Beauvoir quotes Dorothy Parker as an example of the group of people who suggest that we should do away with gender distinctions and that “men as well as women, should be regarded as human beings” (de Beauvoir, pp 4). Quickly, I want to connect this to Judith Butler. Butler describes the confining nature of declaring one’s homosexuality: “I ‘come out’ only to produce a new and different ‘closet’” (Butler, 17). I think we can think of Butler’s example as similar to this conflict of identifying womanhood. If we accept that ‘womanhood’ is a distinction from men what type of cage are we putting ourselves in? How can we move past these confines of the term ‘woman’? Virginia Woolf argues similarly and cites the fact that women writers are confined to ‘women’s fiction’ because of their gender. In Woolf’s view women cannot be read outside of their woman-ness. This even connects to de Beauvoir’s comment about men’s dismissal of women’s opinions by stating, “You think thus and so because you are a woman” (de Beauvoir, pp 5). It seems in this way that women are simply fighting for the ability to be seen as neutral.

Despite this however, Beauvoir argues in opposition of Parker, and Woolf stating that the feminine experience definitely exists: “To decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today – this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality” (de Beauvoir, pp 4). Several, other authors we’ve read point to this fact, as well. Alice Walker essays suggest that women writers in some way belong to all women connected through their womanhood. Walker also argues that activities that are traditionally considered women’s work (weaving, gardening, sewing) should be considered a form of women’s art. Cixous, as well, argues that women should be writing to create a history of women’s authors for future female authors to build upon. In this way I think both acknowledge that women have experiences specific to the fact that they are female.

In the end I wonder how we reconcile these two points of de Beauvoir’s work?  How can we allow women to express themselves outside of being women (neutrally as men do) while also understanding that others view of them as women does affect their experience? I wonder if over the course of the quarter if individuals’ feel like we’ve come to any sort of conclusion or if we’re any closer to answering this question?

**Side Note: White middle-class males are frequently considered neutral. How is this affected by the fact that men are also expected to behave in a particular manner and are limited in various ways by this expectation. Why is their experience then not relegated to being specifically male?

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4 thoughts on “Simone de Beauvoir and Cultural Production

  1. In reference to your last point, the short answer would be that they are the dominant power source. The next question that I have is ‘How did this start? How did it come to be this way?’ which obviously doesn’t have an answer but I keep coming back to biology in some degree or another. The female biological capacity for reproduction is more limited than then male which makes women a commodity in demand for men hoping to reproduce.

  2. This is a fantastic question – I agree that it’s definitely something we as a class have been circling around lately, the issue of not being a woman writer, but being a writer who is a woman. Maybe we can look to Pollock and the idea of the canon for some answers? It’s interesting that you ask how can we express ourselves as neutrally as men do but what men (specifically white middle class men) do is not neutral, is it? Not only do they have a supposed canon of written works but a supposed canon (or stereotype?) of behavior created most likely through stories – oral, written, fictional, nonfictional, etc. Through some sort of idea that white middle class men have attached to and amplified, they’ve enmeshed themselves in history as a pseudo-neutral figure. So for women to try to gain that historically embedded ‘neutrality’, is that sort of pointless since that’s in a form, “white man’s history”?

  3. Hi Hannah, I agree that we’ve encountered a circling back to themes of women noting that men are regarded as neutral human beings, and implying that this is sexist. I wonder if part of the problem are ideas that women and men, respectively, have a shared human experience. Some of my frustration with this stems from comments to the effect of this Freud quote: “The great question that has never been answered and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is: What does a woman want?” I’ve always been confused about why women are regarded as this unique group, and why they’re thought to be so mysterious.

    On another note, this critique can be more generally applied to the liberal political tradition, which we’ve haven’t touched on in this class. A central feminist critique of the liberal political tradition, of which the US is a part, is the “conception that individual presupposed is quintessentially ‘male’” (2). This idea, that the “abstract legal person, the bearer of universal rights against the state, is often assumed to be separate, autonomous and self-determining,” does not accurately reflect female reality as they can potentially become pregnant, which poses a temporary biological disability, a challenge to autonomy that men as a group never experience (2). This relates to Kathleen’s point above and her post for this class about a circling back to biology regarding gendered differences. Cited: Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Women and Constitutional Interpretation.” Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. & Patricia Smith. Women and the United States Constitution: History, Interpretation, and Practice. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.

  4. I think the problem of discussing what defines “woman” and “femininity” and “woman’s writing, art, etc.” is that gender/sexual inequality is so fundamentally a part of society now that it’s hard to imagine completely what a truly equal society would be like (would there be gender differences at all?). So when we talk about what defines a “woman,” it’s hard to disentangle any notion of inherent “womanhood” from the lived experience. All this definitely ties into political/legal/power structures as mentioned previously, and it reminded me of Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks,” in which an inferiority complex is generated in the mind of the oppressed. How is one supposed to unlearn this inferiority complex when day-to-day experiences are a constant reaffirmation of this complex?

    So I think at this point, trying to come up with an idea of “inherent womanhood” is fundamentally flawed because much of “womanhood” does have to do with living/coping with a “man’s world,” which may be, too, part of what de Beauvoir is saying when she states, “to decline to accept such notions as the eternal feminine, the black soul, the Jewish character, is not to deny that Jews, Negroes, women exist today—this denial does not represent a liberation for those concerned, but rather a flight from reality.” Blithely accepting the fact that women, blacks, Jews, etc. are all equal and free is the “flight from reality” because these defined stereotypes based on oppression and inequality do exist. If we don’t grapple with them, we’ll only be allowing them to perpetuate. I think what differentiates de Beauvoir from Cixous and Walker, then, is that in her description of what a “woman” is, she tends to analyze what woman has been labelled as, what social institutions/structures woman has been subjected to, or generally what has been done to woman, rather than what woman and femininity “inherently” is.

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