March 8th marks International Women’s Day. I would like to take the opportunity here to celebrate one of my own favourite feminists, Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). I will look back to the past to see if what she had to say about gender still holds today, and what her theories might mean for the kinds of futures that we want to inspire – for girls and for everyone.
One is not born, but rather one becomes, a woman.
Perhaps the most famous quote from de Beauvoir’s writing on gender, The Second Sex, is this one. Here she is arguing, from autobiographical experience and from the available evidence at the time, that the things associated with womenhood (such as being passive, concerned with appearance, childlike and in need of protection, and wanting to care for others) are imposed upon women by society rather than being innate characteristics they are born with.
Current understandings of gender view it – like so much of human behaviour – as a complex biopsychosocial interweaving rather than something that can be simplistically put down to ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’. Gender theory alerts us to the diversity of possible gendered identities and roles available, whilst emphasising the limited patterns of masculinity and femininity which we are pushed to repeat and repeat until they feel ‘natural’. Biological findings on neuroplasticity reveal that the likely underlying brain processes are neural pathways which are strengthened by such repetitions. So we could say that gendered identity is a process of narrowing down from the possibilities which are available at birth.
There are, of course, some biological limits on what is possible from the start, which differ from person to person, but de Beauvoir emphasises the social limits which constrain these. Her focus here is on freedom, the fact of humanity that her partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, emphasised in his work. Sartre highlighted the importance in life of becoming aware of the meanings which are imposed upon us by others (societal assumptions about what people like us should be like, or family expectations about what we are going to do) and breaking free of these. De Beauvoir pointed out that such breaking through of ‘the ceiling which is stretched over their heads’ is easier for some than for others. Embracing one’s freedom may be virtually impossible for those who are enslaved, and may be easier for some than others even in times and places where everyone is regarded as ‘free’.
The lie to which the adolescent girl is condemned is that she must pretend to be an object, and a fascinating one, when she senses herself as an uncertain, dissociated being, well aware of her blemishes.
De Beauvoir argues that, at the stage in life when boys are encouraged to become ‘little men’ and to become independent and to ‘dominate nature’ with their bodies. Girls are taught, through playing with dolls, through being complimented and critiqued on their appearance, and through being warned about various dangers of life, to be passive, that their body is something to beautify, and that the world is something to be scared of.
Focusing on this aspect of ‘being an object’ in particular, we can see that women are still regarded very much in terms of their appearance, although these days they are encouraged to beautify themselves for their own pleasure and ‘fun’ rather than explicitly for the pleasure of others. However, it is often difficult to disentangle the pleasure derived from feeling one looks good from the pleasure derived because someone else thinks you look good. Appearance is a key focus of women’s magazines, and the ideals of feminine beauty are so narrow that many are excluded from it, and even minor deviations from it are remarkable (as in the recent Guardian article about models who ‘break the mould’).
The other focus in women’s magazines, and in movies and TV shows aimed at women, are relationships with men. De Beauvoir comments that ‘a great many adolescent girls when asked about their plans for the future, reply . . . “I want to get married”. But no young man considers marriage as his fundamental project’. Miranda on Sex and The City echoed this concern several decades later when she stormed out of a café complaining that all that her (very successful) friends talked about was men, but it is revealed later in the episode that she was only upset because she wasn’t really over her ex-boyfriend.
The less she exercises her freedom to understand, to grasp and discover the world about her, the less resources will she find within herself, the less will she dare to affirm herself as a subject.
De Beauvoir argues that, in such ways, women are encouraged into ‘being for others’ rather than ‘being for themselves’. Many women struggle to tune into their own desires and needs due to seeing pleasure as something to be gained from pleasing others, and put themselves through unhappiness or pain feeling that this is what they are supposed to do.
Of course we can question the benefits of both the ‘for others’ and ‘for themselves’ sides of the binary. It is problematic to feel that our only identity is in the role that we have in other people’s lives (as many women find when they lose such roles), and troubling to have to constantly monitor their body and self to ensure that they are pleasing to others. On the other hand, as de Beauvoir pointed out, there are benefits to such a position: not having to feel responsible for your actions because you don’t believe that you have power to affect the world, and real pleasure when you are approved of or desired. Being ‘for themselves’ (as men are encouraged to be) involves the weight of responsibility which comes from being called upon to make autonomous choices and to be self-sufficient and protective of others, when we may well actually feel scared, incapable and vulnerable ourselves. Also, as de Beauvoir suggested, mutual relationships are very difficult indeed if one person needs to be constantly affirmed as a beautiful object, or one person is constantly denying the other the freedom and responsibility that they have themselves.
De Beauvoir further (and perhaps controversially) highlights the role of women in limiting other women. She points out what a threat it can be for a mother to see a daughter breaking through and embracing their freedom and resisting the roles being thrust upon them in ways they were unable to do themselves. Perhaps we can relate this to the women-produced magazines that still welcome women in to a self-scrutinising, appearance and relationship obsessed world; as well as the tendency to point to the lack of freedom of women in ‘other’ places as a way of obscuring our own situation.
If people become their gender rather than being born into them, and if we regard freedom to become, without limitations, as a vital part of the picture, perhaps the important thing to do is open up possibilities for becoming as much as we can.
We could link this to recent pressures from intersex activists who have argued for intersex people (the 1-2% of people who are born with anatomy or physiology which differs from contemporary ideals of ‘normal’ male and female) to be able to make their own choices about the gendering (or not) of their bodies later in life, rather than having this imposed upon them with surgeries in childhood which often have no medical necessity, as has previously been the case.
There has been a furore in the media recently about families who have made similar decisions about apparently non-intersex children, demanding their right to decide upon their own gender later on in life rather than having it imposed upon them from birth. Many commentators have seen this as deeply problematic or even abusive. However, we could – from de Beauvoir’s perspective – view it in another way: locating the problem in a society that enforces particular ideals of gender onto children; thus limiting what they are able to become.
Find out more:
All these ideas are explored further in my book How to Understand Your Gender.
The following books all raise interesting issues in these ongoing discussions: