A Very Brief Look Into "The Second Sex"
A Brief Introduction
This is actually an assignment that I did for my "Breakthrough in 20th Century Thought" class. Each week we are assigned scholarly notes to write, which are essentially 1-2 page essays that summarize the piece, its important themes and rhetoric, and its overall importance to 20th century culture and literature. Enjoy!
In The Second Sex, Beauvoir closely analyzes the current state of the feminist movement, the status of the woman in society, and woman’s identity and function within a strict social construct. By juxtaposing certain situations, Beauvoir is able to show clear examples of where a woman’s behavior is acceptable or not, compared to the reactions of a man’s behavior in a similar situation. These unavoidable double-edge swords are what makes Beauvoir’s argument solid and filled with evidence of unfairness and the limiting constructs of cultural presumptions.
The core of the issue of feminism, to Beauvoir, is not the fact that women are not treated equally in society. Her issue starts and ends with how women are viewed in relation to men. She argues that “man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” (xxii). By very nature, women are forcibly dependent on men, as their actions, status and even their definition rely on the perspectives of men. While Beauvoir is most certainly not against the advancements feminist movements have made in women’s rights, she argues that none of those accomplishments were truly “feminist” in nature. Instead of winning fights, women “have gained only what men have been willing to grant; they have taken nothing, they have only received” (xxv). She argues that a collective women’s movement is and will always be difficult because women are in every walk of life. They “live dispersed among the males, attached...more firmly than they are to other women” (xxv), which means each woman benefits and/or suffers in distinctly different ways. This being said, Beauvoir argues that while freedoms are important, the most important fight should be for “clarity and understanding” (xxxiv), not the demanding of certain rights. She ends her introduction with the powerful statement: “they aspire to full membership in the human race” (xxxv).
From this, she discusses the inherent status of a woman in society being part of a “static myth”, which she defines as “sublimating an immutable aspect of the human condition -- namely, the “division” of humanity into two classes of individuals” (253). She argues that the myth is the essence of the woman’s status and control in society. Myth can serve to explain anything whether positive or negative. These myths tends to culminate into the “feminine ‘mystery’” (158) that allows man the luxury of blaming any misunderstandings of female behavior as the fault of their mysterious nature. A woman’s status within society depends upon her social connections to the males around her, and in her best interest this is the only way she can thrive.
This essential attachment, along with ideals on female sexuality, serve to both benefit and hinder women as they try and survive. Beauvoir argues that the power of femininity does not lie in denying male assistance but in merely doing what must be done to gain power in her job. This assistance she requests, unfortunately, is then interpreted as “what her employer cynically counts on in giving her starvation wages” (681). Ultimately, there is a tenuous struggle for every woman. She “refuses to confine herself to her role as female, because she will not accept mutilation; but it would also be a mutilation to repudiate her sex” (682). Too strong and a woman is “neglecting” (682) her femininity, but too much make-up and they are blamed for their own downfall.
This double-edged sword is found most prominently in the sexual relationships between men and women, where a male seeking female companionship is not questioned, but a female doing the same is frowned upon and considered unappealing. However, it is prominent everywhere: a women’s status in society, her level of freedom and her sexual expressiveness all lie on a tenuous line between neglecting identity and selling potential short.