Simone de Beauvoir – from _The Second Sex_

Simone de Beauvoir, from The Second Sex
([1953] 1972), pp. 282-5

Reading the barely one-page excerpt from de Beauvoir in Modern Literary Theory was almost a laughable experience, in that it is so richly and tightly packed with thoughts and phrases that are now foundational to the world of literary criticism that it barely seems plausible. In fact, my marginal notes read like a brief glossary of theoretical terms and thoughts; brief, sparkling expostulations on reification, ideology, essentialism, and binaries are all to be found within four inches of each other on the same page.

de Beauvoir provides an excellent description of how ideologies are reified into “absolute truth” and lead to an essentialist worldview in the sentences from “This one, the myth of woman…” through “…it is endowed with absolute truth.” Specifically, she speaks of the reification of the diverse experiences of real females into the Eternal Feminine and Femininity. As a result of this process, when women deviate from either of these idealizations, it is they, not the ideals, that are wrong.

From there, de Beauvoir begins to riff on binaries (“antonyms in pairs”); because women are defined by the Eternal Feminine, when they fail to live up to its standards, they are then identified as its opposite. Thusly is the madonna / whore binary established. To move from this process to identifying women as essentially ambivalent is a short leap; to move form there to women as identified as “sentiment [unreasonable emotion], inwardness, immanence” is yet another small step. Perhaps the most striking line in this excerpt is the following: “This is the lot assigned to woman in the patriarchate; but it is in no way a vocation, and more than slavery is the vocation of the slave… To identify Woman with Altruism is to guarantee to man absolute rights in her devotion, it is to impose on women a categorical imperative.”

This excerpt from de Beauvoir concludes with her identification of what critical race theory refers to as the “interest convergence” – the usefulness of a myth or racist / sexist belief to the desires or a ruling class / gender – of the myth of the Eternal Feminine to males as exemplified by their refusal “to grant to woman any right to sexual pleasure, by making her work like a beast of burden.”

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