“One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman.”
Said to be a pioneer of the feminist movement, Simone de Beauvoir was an existentialist philosopher born in Paris on 9th January 1908. At 21, she became the youngest philosophy teacher in France, and went on to write over 30 books in her lifetime. The ideas she introduces in ‘The Second Sex’ are hailed as laying the foundations for modern feminism, which led me to research her writings in more depth as I am extremely passionate about examining and questioning social gender constructs.
De Beauvoir feels that “man today represents the positive and the neutral – that is to say the man and the human being – whereas woman is only the negative, the female. Whenever she behaves as a human being, she is declared to be identifying herself with the male”. I think this is a very interesting theory, as it is a pattern I often notice in everyday life. As a young person, I have been subject to hearing several of my male peers boast of erotic liaisons they have had, often making it a kind of unspoken competition to see which of them has had the highest number of sexual partners, with bonus points if they can be horrendously disrespectful when talking about said partners. I watched them congratulate each other and laugh at story upon story, as they declared said female conquests to be “sluts” and “whores”. This has always seemed bafflingly hypocritical to me. For someone to criticise a person for behaving in the exact same manner as they themselves have is illogical and revolting. Why are women degraded for the actions that men are celebrated for?
Of course, the othering of women is not based in any kind of existential truth; it is merely a cultural myth created by the patriarchal society that emerged as a result of the introduction of agricultural processes, and the story of original sin. Nonetheless, there is a clear fracture in between attitudes towards men and women. I can remember many instances throughout my life where I have personally encountered the effects of this particular prejudice. I think perhaps one of the first moments I became fully conscious of being female, and all the implications that come with it, was when I was around 9 years old. I had a short, cropped hairstyle at the time, and I found that during this period, many people made comments implying I must be either a lesbian or transgender – only some of them were joking. I do not identify as a lesbian woman or a transgender man, however I think it is incredibly naive, and frankly idiotic, to imply that unless a woman has conventionally “feminine” long locks, she must harbour “masculine” traits/desires.
I understood for the first time that the decisions I made, whether it be about my haircut or clothes or hobbies, would never go without judgement. Whatever I do or say will always be evaluated by outsiders in terms of how “womanly” it makes me. And this, I realised, is how society attempts to trap women – confine them to traditional ideals of what women should be like. If I have short hair, I am not womanly. If I swear, I am not womanly. If I have my own opinions, I am not womanly. All the traits that are seen as positive in men will always be seen as negative in me, which seems ironic when patriarchy would have us believe that all men are superior and brilliant. But that is wherein the catch 22 lies; stereotypically feminine traits, such as being submissive, quiet and domestic, are seen as negative – women are weak and inferior, so female traits are also weak and inferior. Yet, if a woman is seen to display stereotypically masculine traits, such as being confident, aggressive and athletic, she is criticised- again, the woman is inferior so how dare she act in the same way as the superior sex.
Overall, I found Simone de Beauvoir’s work concerning gender identities to be engaging and thought-provoking, and I can see how her theories play a prominent role in the feminist movement we have today. Her ideas were ahead of her time and feel remarkably contemporary and fresh, as well as making me reflect on my own existence as a female.