Rereading de Beauvoir 22: Social Life

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 7. Social Life. (585-612)

[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.]

1870_fashionIt is the woman who will organise the social life that is called ‘the family’, and it is through the family she is connected to the community. The man, meanwhile, is connected “as producer and citizen”. (In the 21st-century West, we would instead be connected to the world as “consumers”. Ugh!)

The opening pages of this chapter feel dated and pretty narrowly focused, though may well apply to some woman somewhere. They’re about what we’d call a stay-at-home mother, and a middle class one, who tries to express her social standing to the world by entertaining, and dressing up to go out, etc. It is his work/profession through which the man has standing; it is through the family and the family’s status/place that woman has hers. It’s not as though societies are no longer status conscious, but the roles have changed, and what woman gets to stay at home anymore?: either a poor woman trying to live of a state benefit or a wealth woman (?)  So it’s not too clear how this status-giving family applies anymore.

That said, there’s some great discussion of issues that transcend the economic/social organisation of the day, like how man “does not usually consider his appearance as a reflection of his being” (586), as does a woman. Editorial and unscientific observation: It strikes me that parity may be approaching in this regard, but not through any lessening of women’s focus on appearance, but through an intensifying focus on male appearance.

SdB goes on to talk about skirts and high-heels being so much less convenient and practical than, say, trousers and flat shoes. Yup. We knew that.

There’s some curious content about the relations that “lesbians” and “homosexuals” and “dandies” and “American blacks” have to clothes. But I’m not going there and/or I don’t quite follow SdB here. Also, what she says about lesbians dressing in a “masculine way” (assume that means “not-necessarily-feminine” way) applies to me and I’m straight, so: stereotyping much. Anyway, like I said, dated. Yet even though dress codes may have been a whole lot more rigid in 1940s-50s France than they are now, it may only be that they are rigid in different ways. So I need to correct myself here. Not dated in the sense that we’re all liberated now; dated in the sense that many of the rigidities and constraints have changed. (Just watch a crowd of young women on their way, e.g., to a New Year’s Eve concert… we’re talking big-time uniformity. And let’s not start in on mandatory pink-wear for young girls. Sigh.)

I keep digressing. This is about SdB not me, now. Apologies.

Moving on to random assertions about: women who forget their appearance and risk “dressing outlandishly”; and female artists or intellectuals “more fascinated by the outside world than conscious of their own appearance”; and “the strange get-ups elderly women like: tiaras, lace, bright dresses, and extravagant necklaces unfortunately draw attention to their ravaged features”. (588) Yes, fairly often SdB displays her absolute horror of aging. I’ve written about this several times in this series (e.g. here) so won’t bore you again here. But, expanding on this a little, I get the impression that one of SdB’s terrors was of not looking “attractive” (to men).

Anyway, moving on, this perhaps sums up a lot of what she’s been saying so far in this chapter:

“Dressing is not only adornment: it expresses, as we have said, woman’s social situation.” (588)

Here she goes on to talk about prostitutes, whose function “is exclusively that of a sex object”, of displaying herself exclusively in that light. And she notes that it is from her dress that a woman is labeled — whore, slut, lesbian, mutton dressed as lamb, mad — in ways that a man is not. (All the while noting that, ahem, SdB has kinda done just that herself…or maybe I’m missing something.)

This is a bit funny, re the “evening gown”:

“To mark a social gathering, that is, luxury and waste, these dresses must be costly and delicate, they must be as uncomfortable as possible; skirts are long and so wide [ed note. now, ‘so narrow’] or so complicated that they impeded walking…” (589)

melania-dressCan’t help digressing (!!) here to the outfit worn by Melania Trump at Trump’s 2017 inauguration, which Stephen Colbert described on The Late Show as “her sky blue Ralph Lauren head transportation device.” (at 3’55” on this YouTube segment, click here)  How often is it that I think about the fact that what the world spends on fashion in one day could probably eliminate poverty for a year. Melania’s head transportation device is probably worth more than I earn in three years … before taxes. Go Save Mart! Go the local church Op Shop!

“As a woman is an object, it is obvious that how she is adorned and dressed affects her intrinsic value.” (591)

… to society of course, not objectively speaking. And that seems about right.  SdB moves on to the dinner party (and its variants) which are rather like fashion/clothes: having to put on the best show possible. The burden of it. The ‘arms race’ nature of it.

Female Friendships

There’s an interesting discussion of women’s relationships with one another, and also comparing them to those men have. Men relate to eachother as individuals, she writes, “through their ideas, their own personal projects…

… women, confined within the generality of their destiny as women, are united by a kind of immanent complicity. And what they seek first of all from each other is the affirmation of their common universe. They do not discuss opinions: they exchange confidences and recipes; they join together to create a kind of counter-universe whose values outweigh male values.” (599)

One might squirm a bit at “they do not discuss opinions”, but there’s something to the observation around a focus — at least initially — on this “affirmation of their common universe”, and the comparing of experiences (of, she says, pregnancies, deliveries, illnesses, housework, their husbands). And SdB argues that what makes these relationships valuable “is their truthfulness” (599). Buuuut, not soon afterward she says it is “rare for feminine complicity to reach true friendship” (601).  Women, apparently, can only go so far, “they do not transcend towards each other: together they are turned towards the masculine world whose values each hopes to monopolise for herself.” (601)

Which leads neatly to rivalries and jealousies, particularly between women and those who do domestic work like house cleaning (should she be so…lucky?) or who teach her children, which spring from the woman of the family wanting to be sovereign over at least these domains.

Oooo, and this neat word, which I had forgotten, if I ever knew it: the gynaceum. It’s probably obvious what it means, but here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary: “a part of a building set apart for women in an ancient Greek or Roman house”:

“As long they stagnate in the gynaeceum, they bask in contingency, in blandness, in boredom.” (603)

Not entirely sure what all that means but I’m thinking someone needs to write a book titled “Stagnating in the Gynaeceum”. But wait, there’s more:

“Women are comrades for each other in captivity, they help each other endure their prison, even prepare their escape: but their liberator will come from the masculine world.” (603)


Next comes the lover, when the husband no longer satisfies her — though not necessarily only sexually, but doesn’t ‘flatter’ her enough. SdB quotes Adler (one of the analysts she tore to shreds earlier) as saying that woman’s infidelity “always stems from revenge”. SdB says this goes too far, but argues that “the fact is that she often yields less to a lover’s seduction than to a desire to defy her husband”. (606) This is one of those statements to which one can only say, ‘maybe, maybe not, who really knows?’ (There are a lot of those!) And she immediately adds another ‘reason’: disappointment. “She does not find love in marriage…”

And SdB points out the double standard, writing that “In our civilization of enduring patriarchal traditions, marital infidelity is still more serious for the woman than the man.” (610)  To the extent this is still true (and it varies across societies, obviously), the “primary reason” is that “women’s adultery risks introducing the child of a stranger into a family, dispossessing legitimate heirs”. (610) Again, it’s all about property.

She concludes the chapter thus:

“In any case, adultery, friendships and social life are but diversions within married life; they can help its constraints to be endured, but they do not break them. They are only artificial escapes that in no way authentically allow the woman to take her destiny into her own hands.” (612)

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