Rereading de Beauvoir 17: The Girl

Volume II: Lived Experience. Part One. Chapter 2. The Girl. (352-93)

[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.]

Given what went on in the previous chapter, ‘Childhood’, it’s obvious this is not going to be pretty (so to speak). Girlhood is where “the future not only moves closer: it settles into her body; it becomes the most concrete reality”. (352)

boys-vs-girlsGiven (again) the socialization (indoctrination?) during childhood around the idea that “all important events happen because of men”, it’s not surprising that as SdB sees it, by the time The Girl is an adolescent, she’s convinced that it’s in her interest “to be their vassal”. Adding to the weight of all that societal muck, is the weight of her developing physical self: fragility/weakness (relative to…); periods; breasts; hormones; risk of pregnancy. There’s some discussion of reasoning and logic becoming subsumed by the passions (353-4), which felt rather stereotyped here. But maybe that’s the point. (That is, I’m not sure if SdB is seeing these tendencies as somehow objective… and I’m hoping not. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this.)

She contrasts this emotional girl with the violence prone boy: him entering his “apprenticeship in violence” as he affirms “his sovereignty over the world” at the same time as she is giving up her “rough games”, since violence is not permitted to her. (354)

I have to segue briefly here because as I read these chapters I keep thinking about the 6-volume memoir called My Struggle by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard that I’m reading (currently in volume 5). First, I was wondering if I would read such an epic if it was by and about a woman, and then I remembered that I just did, i.e. Simone’s 4-volume autobiography. But second, volume 4, which is called “Boyhood Island”, is all about this childhood period from (obviously) a boy’s perspective. I found it fascinating, mildly enlightening and depressing. That is, their (boys) attitudes toward girls and obsession with girls. I think I knew deep in my heart boys were this awful, but his account is so raw and detailed it’s not easy reading having my suspicions confirmed so brutally.

On the other hand, there is that sense that the boys are at the girls’ mercy, though not for anything important (like a friendship, say) only to the extent to which the girls will ‘let’ the boys touch them, look at them, and later fuck them. And that’s assuming there’s consent in any of this. In addition — and this is in keeping with the other side of sex-role stereotyping — Karl Ove endured a brutal and cruel father who insisted that his son, who was wont to cry at the drop of a hat, try harder to be a real man and subsequently beat him for not doing so.  Reading the Knausgaard has reminded me, too, of what a nightmare childhood can be no matter what sex you are: how easily you are humiliated and shamed over things you only realize much later were petty and trifling but which at the time are overwhelmingly important. (So much energy and emotion wasted on so little!) And, as a result, how much of one’s childhood life is organised around trying to avoid shame and humiliation. End of digression.

SdB discusses other groups forced into the kind of passivity the girl finds herself living: blacks vs. whites in the American South and the French during the Occupation.

But here’s another of those dubious ‘facts’ mentioned above: “gynaecologists concur that nine-tenths of their patients have imaginary illnesses”. (356)  Hmmm, and I suspect nine-tenths of those gynaecologists were men.

I think my confusion here as to which side SdB is on is a result of her approaching woman’s “nervous frailty and vasomotor inability” from a defensive position, rather than questioning these “pathologies” in themselves. That she’s defensive can be seen in comments like “among males themselves, there is a great diversity of temperament” buuut….(356), i.e., men can be moody too, it’s not just us…  To be fair, she does argue that it’s how woman’s physiology is treated that’s at the root of her ‘frailties’ and inabilities; but I think even a very few years later, she would have been a little more skeptical of the claims by these gynaecologists about nine-tenths of their patients.

Is This Really All About Simone?

I can’t help seeing in these pages both a lot of SdB’s own childhood experiences and, with that, no small measure of exasperation with all those girls who, unlike her, never want to “organise a long hike on their own, a walking or cycling trip” (358) or who don’t like “strolling through Paris alone”. She is the exception to all this, and pretty judgey about those who are not, calling it “defeatism” and arguing that the reason for it is “that the adolescent girl does not consider herself responsible for her future”. (358) And in this, The Girl is egged on by her mother, not to make advances to boys, “to assume a passive role”, because “men do not like tomboys, or bluestockings, nor thinking women”. (359)

SdB follows this with references to girls in literature and psychoanalytic accounts, including Marie B, who told her parents she was the Queen of Spain (364). Naturally, Marie B’s life doesn’t work out that great…normality for a bit…then more dreaming, and it’s off to the Sainte-Anne asylum.

SdB also has a theory about how because woman is “an absolute object of desire” (while man is a subject), girls engage in quite a bit of narcissism, turning to other girls for help finding another consciousness in which to exist, hence “nearly all girls have lesbian tendencies” (366). If that makes sense, which it probably doesn’t. Does she mean something like: since the girl’s value, her fulfilment as an object of desire is in being desired, she turns inward not outward — toward herself (narcissism) or other girls (lesbianism). It’s certainly not a de rigueur theory, but does it work? I have no clue. I was a tomboy, as previously stated (which SdB also thinks can lead to lesbianism), and a lot of this feels a bit on-the-fly or cobbled together from limited observation and dubious sourcing (psycho-analysts of the day).

Take her observation that the girl, partly from fear of violence and rape, “gives her first love to an older girl rather than to a man”. (370) One could, equally subjectively, argue the girl fastens on to the male in an effort to reject what she sees as the weakness and limitedness of the female role. And indeed, SdB does later raise the idea of the girl latching on to a Prince Charming, or to a “socially prestigious or intellectual man who is physically unexciting” (371). Like I said, it all feels a bit like a collections of theories developed around the dinner table with some feminist friends after too much wine. With every base covered (girl on girl, girl on older woman, girl on Prince, girl on older male etc.), what is the meaningful content here? Are these a series of Just-so stories? And is it all pathological in the end? (Oh, I thought of a just-so story SdB doesn’t cover here: girl-on-horse, aka, the girl’s fascination with horses. It might go something like this: as she realizes her relative physical weakness and her destiny as a powerless passive creature, she adopts a powerful creature and rides it… And, yeah, I’m sure someone has thought of this before now.)

How can it not be pathological?

But, really, how can the girl’s reaction to girlhood/adolescence not be pathological? (And the boy’s for that matter, but we aren’t really focused on him here.):

“The truth is she is doomed to secrets and lies. At sixteen, a woman has already gone through disturbing experiences: puberty, menstrual periods, awakening of sexuality, first arousals, first passions, fears, disgust and ambiguous experiences: she has hidden all these things in her heart; she has learned to guard her secrets preciously. The mere fact of having to hide her sanitary napkins and of concealing her periods inclines her to lies.” (380-1)

But don’t boys have to hide their ’emissions’ in socks at the bottom of the laundry basket, their porn stashes, their tears?

Either way, despite all that madness inducing misery, SdB also posits a way in which the girl’s peculiar conflicts can lead to something positive and ‘authentic’ (a favourite Existentialist/SdB word!):

“The girl is secretive, tormented, in the throes of difficult conflicts. This complexity enriches her, her interior life develops more deeply than her brothers’; she is more attentive to her heart’s desires that thus become more subtle, more vaired; she has more psychological sense than boys …” (384)

After all this, SdB makes a point that in many ways undermines so much of this chapter by rendering it time and place specific: “The girl’s character and behaviour express her situation: if it changes the adolescent girl’s attitude also changes.” (392)  That makes sense, of course, but also indicates that we’ve been reading, as suspected, an analysis primarily of girls of SdB’s milieu, if not of SdB herself.

The good news being, however, that things can improve, as SdB suggests they actually are (were): “Today, it is becoming possible for her to take her future in her hands, instead of putting it in those of the man…”, although “She will often be afraid of missing her destiny as a woman if she gives herself over entirely to any undertaking”. (392) Buuuuut:

“As long as perfect economic equality is not realised in society and as long as customs allow the woman to profit as wife and mistress from the privileges held by certain men, the dream of passive success will be maintained in her and will hold back her own accomplishments.” (393)

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