The Second Sex, the Second Time
Considering de Beauvoir's work in a self-help age.
Last month, anthropologist Helen Fisher opened a speech at the Economic Summit in Davos with, “I am definitely not a feminist.” The irony of the situation was lost on her apparently. The word “feminist” has become almost meaningless. Some people will twist themselves into knots trying to avoid the label, and others will wield it to justify all sorts of personal behavior. In Lisa Belkin's infamous New York Times Magazine profile "The Opt-Out Revolution," about well-educated women who decided to stay home to raise children, a woman named Jeannie Tarkenton has this to say about feminism: “Women today, if we think about feminism at all, we see it as a battle fought for 'the choice.' For us, the freedom to choose work if we want to work is the feminist strain in our lives.”
First-wave feminists threw bombs and died on hunger strikes to get the vote. Today’s third-wave feminists have less direction. They tend to be chatty rather than philosophical, discussing their abortions and why those American Apparel ads are like totally sexist. Meanwhile, the message of feminism got muddied somewhere along the way and changed from a societal viewpoint to a personal viewpoint. The backlash against feminism is very personal. The feminists told me I could have it all — a job, a man, a baby. They lied! The next thing you know, 60 Minutes is filming pouting women with law degrees and babies, saying once all of society changes to suit their needs, they’ll go back to work. Let’s hear it for the sisterhood.
This year marks the centenary of Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex. Everyone probably assumes they know what’s in The Second Sex. It’s that book you were assigned in your Women’s Studies class. Sure, sure. Women are put at a disadvantage due to society and men and such. Equal work, equal pay, etc. Got it. But de Beauvoir’s anniversary and a brewing controversy about the English edition of The Second Sex (it seems the current translation was done by a man with no background in philosophy or feminism) means that The Second Sex will begin to be talked about again, although possibly still not read. The English edition is 741 pages of existential philosophy, after all.
Since feminist literature from the 1970s already feels outdated — heterosexual penetration is rape, pornography leads to violence, blah blah blah — I was expecting The Second Sex to feel like a historical document. Actually, it’s slightly terrifying how much of the book is still relevant 59 years after its first publication. From a lack of decent, affordable childcare options for working moms to patriarchal religious systems that teach that women are made for merely procreation, most of de Beauvoir’s theories are still valid. Pick any reality show, and you’ll see that many women are still raised to believe their value lies in being pretty, finding a good husband, and having children.
The goal, says de Beauvoir, should be to become an independent woman, not a pretty object. Anything less than self-sufficiency makes you a “parasite.” Standing between you and your destiny are men, god, babies, makeup, other women, D. H. Lawrence, the education system, your mother, your father, abortion laws, your boss, marriage, estrogen, history, the future, low self-esteem, mirrors, PMS, your siblings, divorce, pregnancy, sex, and Freud. The level of difficulty of some of these obstacles has changed. It’s generally expected in families that daughters will achieve the same level of education as sons, for example. But one major obstacle remains: ourselves. It is still socially acceptable for mothers to stop working or take reduced hours in the name of “choice” and “balance.” No matter what you choose as far as family, work, and marriage are concerned, there are a dozen books designed to make you feel bad for that decision.
What dates the book is not de Beauvoir’s analysis of how society works — it’s that there is no instruction manual in the back. Every day someone new publishes a book telling me how to live my life. Jenni Kosarin from He’s Just Not in the Stars wants me to date a Capricorn or a Scorpio. Ian Kerner from Sex Detox wants me to abstain from sex for 30 days. Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote Creating a Life because she wants me to have kids now; after all, my ovaries are not getting any younger. Leslie Bennetts and her Feminism Mistake wants me to get a job, any job. Just in case I am unsure who these books are intended for, they’re all bright pink. I admit that I dip into these books from time to time, and that it’s helpful to know, for instance, it’s not my fault an Aquarian drove me crazy, it’s just that Cancers should not date Aquarians. Ever. Yet how all this advice will lead to perfect happiness is not entirely clear. “Trust us. We’re the experts,” these authors say. Never mind those other books directly contradicting our theses.
While de Beauvoir wants women to know what they’re up against, she’s not going to tell you what to do. Part of me wishes she would. Especially since it is obvious that de Beauvoir would be incredibly disappointed that my mantra during setbacks is: “I can always get a lobotomy and marry a chiropractor.” I imagine her blowing cigarette smoke in my face and saying: “You want advice? Grow up.”
De Beauvoir had no time for self-help, accusing women who look for self-actualization (today’s Oprah viewers) of being useless: “She lets herself be fascinated with the hope of self-realization without doing anything.” What do we get if we do attain independence? Dignity. The knowledge that our efforts slowly erode the strength of the patriarchy. It doesn’t quite have the allure of “diamond ring” and “tighter, slimmer abdominals,” does it?
If The Second Sex is going to find a new audience with this anniversary, it’s going to need some help. Word is that the new translation is going to be about 200 pages longer, since the current translation is missing huge chunks of text. That’s certainly not going to help it find readers. It should be broken up into a series to be released on a schedule of one a year, 100 pages of text, tops, and a few extra pages with workbook activities in the back. Perhaps it needs a tagline. “You’re disillusioned with your place in society. Now what?”
If the publisher is going to move copies, they will have to keep “But how does this help me?” as the focus. De Beauvoir posits that women who are bored and bogged down with housework are more likely to become frigid. There’s volume one right there: Think of All the Sex You Could Be Having. That flows naturally into volume two: Marriage Isn’t Magically Going to Make You Happy. Somehow, given that the vast majority of all women take their husband’s last name upon getting married, I don’t think that will be a bestseller.
Ah, it’s no use. The Second Sex is a deeply unsexy book (except for the sections on prostitutes and why independent women prefer kinky sex — those should still be played up). De Beauvoir knew it:
To decline to be the Other, to refuse to be a party to the deal — this would be for women to renounce all the advantages conferred upon them by their alliance with the superior caste… Indeed, along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty to become a thing.
It’s not all about personal fulfillment; it’s about contributing to society. There’s no section on how to use your newly found transcendence to be thinner or sexier, or to find a man. If her advice can be summed up, it would be in simple, direct sentences. Don’t be boring. Be an adult. Don’t listen to all those other people telling you what to do. She would never get on Oprah with that. • 6 February 2008
Jessa Crispin is the editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago, Illinois.