Situating Sex

Last Wednesday marked a strange assemblage of anniversaries: the 145th of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the 98th of the Titanic’s iceberg collision, and the 71st of John Steinbeck’s magnum opus, “Grapes of Wrath.” Among these decaying men and doomed machines stood Simone de Beauvoir, her death one year shy of its quarter-century mark. Although Lincoln gave us “four score and forty years,” the Titanic spawned an eponymous Hollywood blockbuster, and Steinbeck became the bane of freshman reading lists, Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” posed the seminal question, “What is a woman?”

The answer, readers soon learn, is not as forthcoming as it initially seems, while recourse to the dictionary provides little illumination: Although certainly an improvement on “the rib of Adam,” Webster’s “adult female person” remains frustratingly nondescript.

Beauvoir, for her part, took on the question by denying its validity. Rejecting essentialist explanations for the female condition, Beauvoir famously declared, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The “eternal feminine”—those behaviors and character traits that set women apart from men—were humanly created, Beauvoir argued, not natural. Rather than evidencing a perverted female essence or mistaken choice, feminine traits reflected woman’s situation. For Beauvoir, women’s biological nature could never be experienced apart from this second social nature: The body, and with it, body-consciousness, were always historically mediated.

“Woman, like man, is her body,” Beauvoir wrote, “but her body is something other than herself.” Although masculinity coincided with the for-itself—that freedom which makes one uniquely human—femininity coincided with the in-itself—the inhuman or object-like. Man encountered the body as pure instrument, able to be dominated and controlled; woman, by contrast, experienced her body as an inscrutable burden. Biological givens may have had no meaning outside that which society conferred on them, but they still had an objective reality: In Beauvoir’s understanding, they placed real constraints on the projects that women could undertake. Enmeshed in the reproduction of the species, woman’s life was inherently directed toward means—producing and caring for other beings—rather than ends—those concrete projects that would enable her to realize her full human potential.

Beauvoir thus found herself caught between asserting and denying difference. Pushing too far toward the former, she risked reifying false understandings of “female nature”; turning toward the latter, she risked refuting the very distinctions that make men men and women women. To be sure, Beauvoir unequivocally rejected the notion of equality in difference, which, in her mind, spelled inferiority. Yet, as per her claims, since the essence traditionally assigned to women was unacceptable and no new essence loomed on the horizon, women’s only chance at liberation lay in emulating men. Beauvoir’s woman, it seemed, was really just a man in drag—or, worse yet, a eunuch.

Critics latched onto this ambiguity and lambasted “The Second Sex” for ascribing to a masculinist paradigm. By trivializing women’s reproductive labor, the argument went, Beauvoir reinscribed the gendered binaries which she purported to deny, conflating culture with man and nature with woman. In this view, Beauvoir figured liberation as a masculine concept—as the ability to transcend the limitations of the traditionally feminine. The model of liberation that she offered woman, therein, seemed no different from the existing paradigm proffered by men.

More than 60 years later, Beauvoir’s text continues to invite more questions than it resolves. Turning the final page, the reader is left wondering: Does sexual difference exist? If so, is it natural or artificial? Should it be exalted or condemned? Must the hierarchy of masculine and feminine be nullified, and, if so, by what paradigm can it be replaced? Is the cultivation of a new model of gender, beyond the binary of male and female, possible? Or can gender only be overcome when female becomes male—when sexual difference ceases to serve as an a priori?

Ultimately, Beauvoir wanted to have it both ways. Rebuffing the idea of a fixed female essence, Beauvoir envisioned a woman who realized herself in economic and social independence. At the same time, she upheld the need for gender difference, however qualified, deriding women who denied their femininity and became no more men than women in the process. Since gender equality entailed neither difference nor imitation, and the biological binary of XX and XY occluded any middle ground, Beauvoir seemed to render all feminist stances equally untenable.

Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” has since succumbed to obsolescence. New paradigms, denying the structuring of sexual difference as a binary opposition, claim to relegate Beauvoir’s text to a realm of secondary importance. Yet, even if Beauvoir never unequivocally answered the question she posed, she provided the terms of a debate which remains intensely contested. As Beauvoir’s tombstone turns 24, her legacy—whether fully or pseudo feminist—commands our continued attention.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.

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