Part Three: Myths. Chapter 1 (163-220)
[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]
Update/Related note: This NYT doco by Mona el-Naggar, “Ladies First“, about women in Saudi “elections” is easily worth its 40 minute duration.
Oh dear. Nearly a year since the last post in this series, again. But because it’s part of a bigger project, I herewith pledge to finish this re-reading/writing by 31 December 2016. Boom! In between the last entry and this one, I did in fact read the entire four (or more, depending how they break it up) volumes of SdB’s autobiography, which I found at various times wonderful, depressing, surprising (in good ways) and surprising (in bad ways). One thought that has stuck with me, and which I mentioned in the previous post in this series, was how obsessed/fearful she was of aging, deciding her life was essentially over once she’d hit early middle age. Of course, as she kept on living, she had to revise this attitude somwhat. This isn’t surprising in itself, except in the sense that I’d figured someone so smart in the way she was smart would have been able to work that out a little better ahead of time. I haven’t finished reading her “On Aging” which I’ll put off until after this is done. (And partly because it’s going to be depressing, I’m sure of it.) There’s no way men are as obsessed with aging as women are. Unless, of course, it’s men thinking about women aging. And, oh, don’t get me started on the endless, relentless, mind-numbing mass media obsession with same. (Really, just don’t get me started. I mean, hell, it’s almost as though it would be a public service if we all topped ourselves before we hit 50 — we, women, that is.)
But back to the chapter at hand. Tantalisingly (frighteningly?), this starts Part Three, which is titled “Myths”. Well, no shortage of material there, if you’re talking about women, and this is a very long chapter indeed. SdB starts this chapter with some serious Hegel — or perhaps Sartre’s adaptation of Hegel — as in (again), a bit of digging into the master-slave dialectic of Hegel’s famous/infamous Phenomenology of Spirit. (Yes, I’ve read it. No, I didn’t understand it, though if any part of it is slightly comprehensible to me, it’s the section on the master-slave dialectic.)
This is all about man as (obviously!) the “master” for whom woman is the “Other”. To exist as a self-consciousness, the “master” needs another self-consciousness which he is not but which recognizes or acknowledges him. He might at first think he can assert his existence by, for example, taming/controlling/assimilating nature – which he does. But it’s not enough. “He possesses it only in consuming it, that is, in destroying it. In both cases, he remains alone.” (SdB, 164) He needs another ‘freedom’ to confirm his own, another self-consciousness to confirm his own and, hey, ‘woman’ is perfect because he can both fulfil his need to be recognised by another self-consciousness and tame/control/assimilate her at the same time. Bingo!
Remind anyone of the Genesis story? I mean, Adam and Eve seem to be a pretty perfect example of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, and SdB makes this very point — spookily, I was thinking it, and then she wrote it. Maybe I’m actually getting this. SdB calls Eve “privileged prey”. And this is just wonderful:
“No man would consent to being a woman, but all want there to be women.” (165)
As man, the Subject, posits woman as his existentially necessary “Other” — the self-conscious/self-aware Object, woman, has meanwhile failed to posit herself as Subject.
“They have neither religion nor poetry that belongs to them alone: they still dream through men’s dreams. They worship the gods made by males. And males have shaped the great virile figures for their own exaltation.” (166)
Personal aside: This is something I think about every time we have a festival of war commemoration. In Aotearoa NZ, that would be every April 25th/ANZAC Day. (Or another bloody rugby frenzy, for that matter.) And I’ve long wondered, if you added up all the women who have died in childbirth over the ages vs. all the soldiers killed in war, which number would be the bigger? Leading on to why the bravery of women, who in giving birth actually do something a little more positive than slaughtering their fellow humans, are not lionized with statues and medals and etc?. Answer: See above. But also, there’s obviously some jealousy there: “Waaaaah, how come the female is giver of life? Well, dammit, I’ll be the taker of life and make it inspirational to boot.” (That’s me, not SdB, as if you can’t tell.) And you can see why men/patriarchal religions must make controlling female reproduction (through controlling contraception, abortion etc.) a top priority. (“Woman becomes impure the day she might be able to procreate.” 171.)
Female fertility/creativity is considered (by man) “merely a passive virtue” (167), you know, the old “passive egg” and “active sperm” trope (which as long since been busted!) And, yeah, ‘Mother Earth’, so named not by women, of course. Here SdB gives lots of lovely examples from Greek mythology, Indian religion, Islam etc. of the, ahem, birth of these myths revealing the strikingly similar attitudes toward the female/woman/fertility across times, cultures, religions.
Blood and Viriginity
Then there are the taboos around menstruation, through which woman is rendered “unclean”. Examples of this are too numerous to mention, but he’s an interesting one from relatively recent times. SdB quotes from the British Medical Journal of 1878: “It is an indisputable fact that meat goes bad when touched by menstruating women.” The writer of this ‘indisputable fact’ said he knew personally of two cases of hams spoiling in such circumstances. (172.) The answer, of course, would be for the learned medical gent to slice his own fucking ham, but, nah, I bet he just imposed some fresh restrictions on his wife/cook/bottle-washer. So, yeah, there’s blood, and then there’s m-e-n-s-t-r-u-a-l blood (read to the strains of a scary/spooky/evil Twilight Zone soundtrack). Idle thought: I wonder what nuns think of their periods?
Next up, virginity myths. I don’t really need to traverse all these; we all know the horrors inflicted on women in the name of protecting this thing called virginity, itself clearly invented for the benefit of the masters. But if you want a refresher, pages 176-181 will do the trick. From there it’s onto “feminine beauty” myths. Again, pretty much no woman alive today is unfamiliar with these. We seem to have made precisely zero progress in this regard, yes, and that’s despite Dove adds that feature non-skeletal women. (Snort!) Indeed, being a woman of a certain age, I can’t help but wonder if all this reclaiming of sexiness, ‘sex positivity’ etc. isn’t just a new way of being suckered in. And it will be interesting to see how it all looks to third/fourth wave (for want of a better phrase) women when they’re in their 50s and beyond, and have taken up residence with the rest of us on the scrapheap. (Which, actually, can be a pretty liberating place to be, as it turns out.)
There’s some serious analysis of the penis at this point (so to speak), building on Schopenhauer’s observation, as quoted by SdB, that “the sexual parts are the real centre of the will and the opposite pole is the brain”. (185) Some of us have observed, contra Schopenhauer, that the penis and the brain are in fact one and the same organ, but SdB says he is “right to see the expression of man’s duality in the sex-brain opposition”. Man is a fallen god, but he is also mortal flesh, that rots when it dies. Bummer!
Nothing tops Christianity for instilling a disgust of the flesh, in particular woman’s flesh. Unlike man, who has to cope with having been born of woman, hence of being flesh, Christianity, dooms its God “to an ignominious death but spares him the stain of birth”. (191) Apparently, not only was there an immaculate conception, there was an immaculate birth — Jesus was not born “in blood and filth like other women”, according to various church “fathers”. Rather “the Virgin’s womb remained closed”. As perplexing as the immaculate conception is to us non-believers, the immaculate birth could be more so. Was he beamed out, a la Star Trek? Or perhaps a simple Ceasarean, neatly rendering unto Ceasar what was Rome’s?
I confess, at times it’s hard not to just double up in snorting, rollicking laughter at the lengths to which men have gone in an effort to alleviate their fear that they aren’t gods. But then the laughter is tempered by an appreciation of the extent to which women have gone along with it.
Cult of the ‘Heroic Mother’
It is true that woman as Mother is glorified. Sort of. But “only by accepting the subservient role assigned to her. ‘I am the handmaiden of the Lord.’” This is important:
“The Supreme masculine victory is consummated in the worship of Mary: it is the rehabilitation of woman by the achievement of her defeat. Ishtar, Astarte and Cybele were cruel, capricious and lustful; they were powerful; the source of death as well as life, in giving birth to men, they made them their slaves. With Christianity, life and death now depended on God alone, so man, born of the maternal breast, escaped it forever…” (SdB 195)
SdB talks about the cult of ‘heroic mothers’, who surrender their sons to death and are subsequently “showered with signs of respect…endowed with all virtues” who have a religion (Virgin Mary worship) created around them “from which it is forbidden to stray under severe risk of sacrilege and blasphemy; she is made the guardian of morality; servant of man, servant of the powers that be, she fondly guides her children along fixed paths.” (196)
Lurking below the surface of all this heroic motherhood crap, SdB notes, “the latent horror of motherhood survives”. 21st century motherhood is clearly as messy and murky and mixed as it was in the late 1940s-50s when The Second Sex was being written and was published. Perhaps more so, since we’ve added so much more mass media mania to the mix, so much social surveillance and enforcement of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mothers and motherhood; so much celebration of the former and excoriation of the latter; so much ‘entertainment’ in which the hot young woman movie/TV show character evolves, in a frighteningly short amount of time, into ‘the mother’ who will ‘do anything to protect/find/safeguard her children’. Men, as fathers, get that role now, too, such that protecting their child is a perfectly acceptable plot justification for wreaking global havoc and leaving behind them trails of bodies (of other people’s children). In fact, it now seems necessary to the backstory/motivation story of any good (American) hero. Is that progress? No, it’s more bullshit, but people seem to love it. Because, well, we all love a good myth.
I digress. As usual. Just becuase it’s hard not to start thinking Beauvoirean-influenced thoughts about contemporary society, even if they are probably often ill advised.
Apropos of nothing I’ve really gone into here, this quote bears including: “…if she [woman] did not exist, men would have had to invent her.” But wait, there’s more…and I know you were expecting this: “They did invent her.” (Yup!) “But she also exists without their invention.” (209) What, I wonder, would woman, sans the male-invented/constructed part, be like, I wonder? Not like anything I suspect we can even begin to imagine.
SdB has some neat ideas about “marriage” here, too. That it was “originally intended to protect man against woman” (211) and similarly, that the “aim of marriage is to immunize man against his own wife” (211). Yes, men are trapped by this order of things, too. But trapped in the dominant position. Which is to say, it’s hard to buy some of the ‘poor men, just as trapped by sex-role stereotyping as women’ crap of recent times.
There is so much more here than these admittedly disjointed jottings indicate: lengthy investigations of “the multi-faceted Myth” well worth a read. It all helps sets up the next few and much shorter chapters in which SdB investigates the attitudes toward women of five writers in order to, as she puts it, “confirm this analysis of the feminine myth”. I don’t need any more persuasion, obviously, but I’ll post on the chapters anyway.
Page citations are from: Simone de Beauvoir. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier. London: Jonathan Cape, 2009.