Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the birth of Simone de Beauvoir, one of feminism’s key thinkers. Maureen Younger explains why de Beauvoir is – unfortunately – still important.
As part of BBC Radio 4’s major new series A History of Ideas, there’s a two-minute clip explaining Simone de Beauvoir’s theory on feminine beauty as a social construct. For anyone who has worked their way through de Beauvoir’s dense and at times rather opaque masterpiece, The Second Sex, this is a most remarkable example of concision.
De Beauvoir believed that woman wasn’t born a woman rather she becomes one, in that under the aegis of femininity she is in fact following the dictates of an ideal, largely created by men, to ensure that man keeps his place as top dog in a patriarchal society. As such, men become the standard by which women are measured against (and invariably don’t match up to), and woman is reduced to a passive object, whose beauty regimes and supposed feminine attributes confine her to a life devoid of action and thought.
That feminine beauty is a construct can be seen by the way different ideas of feminine beauty change from culture to culture, historical period to historical period, even from class to class, in order to suit the needs of a particular society. In the West we may be cosseted in thinking de Beauvoir’s ideas are passé and no longer relevant. After all, a lot of the external hurdles to women’s equality have seemingly disappeared: equal pay (in theory if not always in practice), the right to study and work, own property, and apparent sexual freedom.
However, we currently live in a world where if Helen of Troy were to return to earth, she’d probably be told she was too fat and should go on a diet. There are women’s clothing stores that mark their clothing ranges, small, medium and large (or 1, 2 and 3) – a large being the equivalent of a size 12! If there’s a generation of women out there who think size 12 is large, god help them when they reach middle age and the joys of middle-age spread. Meanwhile, some women spend thousands of pounds to distort their faces and bodies to look like porn stars.
“Society, being codified by man, decrees that woman is inferior; she can do away with this inferiority only by destroying the male’s superiority.”
Simone de Beauvoir
Even today women are still vilified for not adhering to the norm. Let’s take the case of the historian Mary Beard, disparaged on social media for her looks, and from which it was deduced by some of her detractors that she therefore couldn’t possibly be a good historian. One wrote: “I like to think I’m above judging people on their appearance, but Mary Beard is so horrendous and unkempt…and that’s before getting to her Wikipedia-lite level of knowledge.” Wikipedia-lite? Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Arts, a professor of ancient literature and the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). As someone who’s read the TLS, the latter should be proof alone, if any were needed, that she knows a thing or two about classical history! I don’t recall the same slurs being hurled the way of Patrick Moore or Simon Sharma because they failed to look like an older version of Ryan Gosling. If someone who teaches classics at Cambridge can be impugned in this way what chance for the rest of us poor (feminine) mortals?
It will be soon be 107 years since de Beauvoir’s birth. Are her ideas still important? In a word – yes. Most forms of oppression take the form of a majority against a minority; the minority (whether a different race, different religion or different tribe) is more than aware of how this oppression manifests itself. Misogyny is more insidious. Misogyny is part and parcel of our society; we grow up with it. It’s in the stories we tell, the films we watch, the music we listen to, in the way we are raised. It’s normalised. As such the objects of misogyny – women – not unnaturally may hold (to varying degrees and generally unconsciously) misogynist views themselves. They may believe the lie that they’re not as good as men, that certain jobs are not for them, that they can’t do certain things, that they shouldn’t do certain things, and by extension neither should any other woman. They believe women need to behave in a certain way, look a certain way, and above all nest and hook themselves a man.
Therefore the chains that tie women down are not only external but are welded together invisibly by dint of growing up in what is still a patriarchal society. In order for women to free themselves from these shackles they need to be made aware that they are there in the first place, and this is where de Beauvoir’s ideas are unfortunately still of relevance today. Even if society’s mores have moved on from those described by de Beauvoir, the essential remains the same. Women should not allow themselves to be limited by other people’s ideas of what they are or how they should behave or what they should look like. To quote another victim of oppression, Steven Biko: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” My advice from reading de Beauvoir: Don’t let this happen to you.
A London-Scottish, multi-lingual, much-travelled stand up comic working on the mainstream, urban and gay comedy circuits, actor and writer. www.maureenyounger.com @MaureenYounger