The Tender Gender

October 20, 2009 § 1 Comment


The Second Sex (de Beauvoir, Simone)

Although (or do I mean because?) this is a book on women, written by a pioneering feminist, not once in its 750+ pages does de Beauvoir refer to herself, or reveal her identity, as a woman. She studies the female condition from above, dispassionately, and yet with much warmth and empathy. More than anything else, she comes across as human –  an intelligent, sensitive human – and a good writer.

Parts of the book are exceptionally lyrical – despite this being a translation (a not so good one, I am told) – and I can imagine why it moved an entire generation. de Beauvoir firmly places women’s rights on the same political footing as the anti-colonial struggle, or the black civil rights movement – an idea that must have seemed provocative at the time of writing, but one that has gained acceptance over time. We have now progressed(!) on all these fronts to the point where the equality is at least not open to public dispute without appearing churlish, and discrimination has to be covert and couched in hypocrisy. de Beauvoir was acutely aware of the hypocrisy even back then:

…the ideal of the average Western man is a woman who freely accepts his domination, who does not accept his ideas without discussion, but who yields to his arguments, who resists him intelligently and ends by being convinced

While The Second Sex was published in 1949, that statement could easily serve as a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of the New Sensitive Modern Man of my generation as well. She also ends up doling out sensible relationship counselling advice to both parties, in a shrink-like fashion:

In those combats where they think they confront one another, it is really against the self that each one struggles, projecting into the partner that part of the self which is repudiated; instead of living out the ambiguities of their situation, each tries to make the other bear the abjection and tries to reserve the honour for the self. If however, both should assume the ambiguity with a clear-sighted modesty, … they would see each other as equals and would live out their erotic drama in amity.

To extend the shrink analogy further, the conversation is always – always – about the patient, and the doctor expertly side-steps interrogation into her own motives and emotions. I have seldom read a book where the writer – of either sex – is able to deflect attention so far away from their self and on to the topic, particularly when the topic is so close to their identity.

There’s just one thing that doesn’t feel right to me about this book. In great detail, and with calm confidence, de Beauvoir lays out the situation of the girl child, the adolescent, the woman in love, the married woman, the mother, the independent woman, even the prostitute – their insecurities, fears, desires, emotions and angst. She doesn’t put forward hypotheses, she states axioms. While I do not doubt that many of the descriptions are accurate on an average, surely all women’s lives cannot follow identical patterns? Does she not point out, herself, that there is no such thing as the ‘general woman’? So is she, in conjecture, unconsciously talking about a particular kind of woman that she is familiar with? And is it unreasonable,  then, to speculate if the descriptions are in fact partly autobiographical?

“The woman writer,” says de Beauvoir, perhaps as a confession, in her chapter on The Independent Woman, “will still be speaking of herself when she is speaking about general topics…”

To have done so without taking away focus from the main topic requires considerable skill and self-assurance, and is precisely why this book is so impressive.

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