Rereading de Beauvoir 16: Childhood

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 1. Childhood. (294-351)

[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.]

One of my readers (and there aren’t many, so you probably know who you are!) has had some trouble with the naming/numbering convention with these posts. I admit, it’s a mess. So the best thing to do is stick with the numbers, i.e. this is post no. 16, and it’s these numbers that follow the order of the book. At this point, it would probably muck with links and stuff if I changed the names. Yeah, I should have thought this through a bit better from the outset. Maybe a naming convention that was a bit more descriptive.

Anyway, with this post we begin Volume II of The Second Sex. As you likely know by now, the book comprises just two volumes, and this one, the second, is titled “Lived Experience”. (Volume I was “Facts and Myths”). And this is Part 1, Chapter 1, “Childhood”.

Oh, and be warned, this is a long chapter, so this post is correspondingly somewhat epic.

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.

Yes, this volume, part, chapter opens with undoubtedly the most famous line of the entire work: “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.” (294)

An oldie, but a goodie.

An oldie, but a goodie.

I realised as I read that, that it perhaps contradicts what I wrote in Post No. 15 (the immediately previous post) about how one is actually ‘born a woman’, and all that ‘femininity’ etc. stuff comes later. But, actually, I kind of think I’m saying the same thing, because by ‘woman’ in this quote, SdB means the lived experience of a woman in society. (She restates this elsewhere (319) as “she is a human being before becoming a woman”.) By ‘woman’, I meant, back then, being born a human with female sex organs. So, I probably should just have said that. (Or simply, just being born a human being.)  Either way, I intended to reinforce her ‘existence precede essence’ foundation, even if my terminology wasn’t quite in keeping with the book. Anyway, moving right along…

I think it’s worth including what immediately follows the famous “One is not born…” quote, since it is so rarely cited and makes clear(er) just what she means by it:

“No biological, psychical or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine. Only the mediation of another can constitute an individual as an Other.” (293)

That great start is followed by a (to me) less interesting account of child development, from birth to weaning to awareness of body (“the radiation of subjectivity”). I don’t know enough about psychology/psychological theory to know if any of SdB’s account here is still or was ever a viable account. (At least some of it is Lacanian, since she cites his “Family Complexes in the Formation of the Individual”; plus some Freud, Adler et al.) It revolves around the infant’s separation from the mother (birth, then weaning) as lying at the heart his/her lifelong drama — his/her flight from freedom in an effort to  “lose himself within the whole” (294); “his desire for oblivion, sleep, ecstasy and death”; his desire to be whole or to get rid of the separated self (I think), which seems to be at the core of “the drama of one’s relation to the Other”. (294)

The child, who starts out as a subject, slowly — under the gaze of his parents — releases he is also an Other. He can only encounter himself in the world as this “Other”, this now alienated self.

Again, I’m not sure I fully understand her (and Sartre) here (since this is surely Sartre’s breakdown of being-for-itself vs. being-for-Other), but sometimes it’s useful to compare this ‘psychology’ with that of a non-human animal, which is never ‘alienated from itself’, is always purely its own subject (always being-for-itself, never being-for-Other), never has to encounter itself in an “alienated form”. (That said, most non-human animals also suffer the additional category of “being-dinner-for-Other”.)

SdB sees “little girls” as privileged during the time of separation from the mother, since their attachment is extended well beyond that of boys. (296) Here she moves into territory today considered controversial:

“Many boys, frightened by the harsh independence they are condemned to, thus desire to be girls… Some obstinately would choose femininity, which is one of the ways of gravitating towards homosexuality.” (296)

She would surely also have added transgenderism had it been as prominent then as it is now, since interestingly most studies show female-to-male — or female-to-trans as some prefer — is about three times as common as male-to-female.

Penis Talk

But it’s not because the girl is privileged as such, but because “there are greater designs” for the boy, (296) with “mothers and wet-nurses” assimilating phallus and maleness, and treating the penis “with a singular deference”. (297) Not so for the girl, whose genital parts are treated with neither reverence nor tenderness. There’s certainly some dated material here about the obsession of psychoanalysts of the day with the ‘female castration complex’ (aka penis envy, a la Freud and Adler, see post No. 3 on psychoanalysis.)

The next few pages contain a lot of penis talk — its discovery by girls, its treatment by society, whether it’s considered a toy, an anomaly, a growth; its utility in urinating — as well as some not-for-lunchtime reading about children’s (and psychoanalysts’) fascination with excretion. TBH, I was trying not to laugh through some of this, but that’s not very mature of me.

SdB isn’t really buying the ‘penis envy’ shtick: “It is sure that the absence of a penis will play an important role in the little girl’s destiny, even if she does not really envy those who possess one” (303), but there is nevertheless some gnarly (for me) discussion of the boy’s ability to “alienate” himself in this external organ, compared with the girl who feels fear about her ‘opaque’ insides. “A little girl cannot incarnate herself in any part of her own body [unlike the little boy with his penis]. As compensation, and to fill the role of alter ego for her, she is handed a foreign object: a doll.” (303)

It’s interesting, I suppose, to think of the doll is some kind of penis substitute — or external thing the girl can project some alter ego onto. But I’m not in the least bit convinced, as it somehow feels so very culturally specific (even though SdB mentions the sticks and corn husks other cultures use in place of Western-style dolls). Maybe I’m not convinced because I don’t recall ever being given a doll. Oh dear! What on earth did I project my penis substitute onto? It must have been that teddy bear. And I did like eating those hot dogs that came on sticks. Dipped in tomato sauce. Oh dear!

Our Own Worst Enemy?

I know, I know, this is not about me. Moving right along, we have the little girl, with the help of her doll, learning all about the need to be pretty and passive and ‘feminine’. Oh, and with the help of her mother:

“One of the woman’s curses … is that in her childhood she is left in the hands of women. The boy is also brought up by his mother in the beginning; but she respects his maleness and he escapes from  her relatively quickly; whereas the mother wants to integrate the girl into the feminine world.” (306)

Modern liberal feminism doesn’t really allow for much discussion of women’s role in their own oppression, which is a pity, because SdB has some interesting insights. Well, I’m sure we all would if such things could be openly talked about. But, really, who among us have not observed the extent to which our beloved sisters are the so often the primary enforcers of those chafing sex role stereotypes? Are the biggest tut-tutters with respect to women who might be busting out of this or that norm? The pressure to be a mother, for example, in this society is immense and in my experience comes almost entirely from women, no, make that mothers. (The same thing?)

As SdB puts it, the mother “imposes her own destiny on her child” (daughter) (306) — and it’s hard not to read a whole lot of personal experience into the account she gives her of what the mother does to “to make a ‘true woman’” of her daughter. And I say that having not that long ago read SdB’s 4-volume autobiography. (Consider the title of volume i: Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter or Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangée.)  So, yes, she acknowledges there are exceptions, but is probably right about the rule. And, contra Freud et al, she notes that it’s the realization “that it is not women but men who are masters of the world … far more than the discovery of the penis – that imperiously modifies her consciousness of herself”. (311-2)

In other words, it’s not the penis that’s enviable, but the privilege and power that attaches to it. Freud, schmeud!

‘All important events happen because of men’

“Everything helps to confirm this hierarchy in the little girl’s eyes. Her historical and literary culture, the songs and legends she is raised on are an exaltation of the man. Men made Greece, the Roman Empire, France and all countries, they discovered the earth and invented the tools to develop it, they governed it, peopled it with statues, paintings and books…” (313)

And not just in the past… because “if she listens to adult conversation, she notices that today, as in the past, men lead the world”. (314) In other words, “All important events happen because of men”. (314)

Is this getting a bit depressing? It reminds me of when I read Dale Spender’s book “Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them” back in the mumblemumble 1980s. Shattering. I didn’t really want to go outside ever again because t h e r e  w e r e  m e n  e v e r y w h e r e.

Anyway, you get the idea re the kind of world the little (Western) girl grows up in, all of which is reflected in the supernatural world as well, that is, in Western religion, myth, God the Father, etc. SdB has an interesting footnote here about Catholic countries (of Europe) vs Protestant:

“There is no doubt that women are infinitely more passive, given to man, servile and humiliated in Catholic countries, Italy, Spain and France, than in the Protestant Scandinavian and Ango-Saxon ones. And this comes in great part from their own attitude: the cult of the Virgin, confession, etc. invites them to masochism.” (fn 315)

It’s pretty sweeping, and I wonder how she’d see it now. SdB herself had a mother who was a devoted Catholic, and was devout herself until deciding at around age 14 there was no God. Her close childhood friend, Zaza, met an untimely death that SdB’s autobiography certainly suggests was related to Zaza’s struggle to meet the rigid demands of her parents, particularly around whom she was to marry, i.e. not the person Zaza was actually in love with.

The “Childhood” of this chapter on “Childhood” seems to me a lot like the one SdB herself lived, though as ever she supplements all that subjective content with research du jour and historical accounts that gel with her own. All of which is to say, the implicit subjectivity doesn’t detract from the power of what she’s saying.

Discovering Your Own Inferiority

Here’s an interesting point: SdB discusses how strange it is to on the one hand recognise yourself as a subject, an autonomous human being, as a ‘transcendence’ (I’m never sure what that means), as an absolute, to then discover “inferiority — as a given essence — in his self… That is what happens to the little girl”. (322)

And this:

“Man’s gods are in such a faraway heaven that in truth, for him, there are no gods: the little girl lives among gods with a human face”. (323)

(That is quite brilliant.) Then she goes on to talk about how this is not unique, since American blacks similarly suffer being partially integrated into a civilization “that nevertheless considers them as an inferior caste”. (322) The differences she sees between black ‘inferiority’ (oppression?) and that of ‘woman’ are also interesting, namely that there is no privilege available to blacks, while for women, they can become complicit. (Not sure where/how the so-called ‘Uncle Tom’ character fits in here.) But this is where SdB, again, touches on women’s role in their own oppression: the temptations of passivity and remaining dependent and childlike.

Sex, and Psychic Weaning

Moving on to the issue of s e x, there’s a delightful discussion of the “contradiction” (the lies about same) exposed by the child of her parents, these serious adult gods, “dressed and dignified” (325) and the sexual intercourse of “naked beasts confronting each other”. This and so many other aspects of life that seem to be “given” — or are at least ‘given’ by the adults — including the place of women unravel as the child grows older, disabusing her of the notion that adults are any kind of repository of the truth or propriety since they dissemble and mumble and lie about so much. Comparable with the physical weaning above, this is a kind of psychic or psychological weaning. Not to mention dealing with puberty and all the horrors of “becoming a woman”. (As a tomboy myself, I resented the hell out of breasts and pubic hair and periods and, let’s face it, I’m probably still in denial. J ) I rather like this:

“The little girl feels that her body is escaping her, that it is no longer the clear expression of her individuality; it becomes foreign to her; and at the same moment, she is grasped by others as a thing: on the street, eyes follow her, her body is subject to comments; she would like to become invisible; she is afraid of becoming flesh and afraid to show her flesh.” (332)

It’s all a bit grim really. The rest of the chapter includes some long (and, of course, pretty grim) first-person accounts of the drama of female adolescence/puberty. And it ends on, yes, a very grim note indeed:

“One understands now the drama that rends the adolescent girl at puberty: she cannot become ‘a grown-up’ without accepting her femininity; she already knew her sex condemned her to a mutilated and frozen existence; she now discovers it in the form of an impure illness and an obscure crime. Her inferiority was at first understood as a privation: the absence of a penis was converted to a stain and fault. She makes her way towards the future wounded, shamed, worried and guilty.” (351)

Just a wee end note to this chapter, as I was finishing up the reading today, there was a story on the ‘wires’ (do they even say that anymore?) about a woman in Nepal who died after spending three days in a ‘menstrual hut’. You know the story…you need to sleep in the distant hug lest your menstrual blood contaminate the home or anger the gods. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Texas has joined several other states in passing laws mandating that miscarried or aborted fetuses must be buried or cremated, you know, as if they were your auntie or grandmother.

So, yeah, making her way toward the future “wounded, shamed, worried and guilty” may well be grim, but not unrealistically so.

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