Rereading de Beauvoir 24: From Maturity to Old Age

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 9. From Maturity to Old Age. (633-52)

[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.]

I did a Google image search on "older women" and there was nothing interesting. But it's hard not to notice one important thing about what came up: they're 99.999% WHITE. This isn't actually relevant to what Beauvoir writes about in this chapter.

I did a Google image search on “older women” and there was nothing interesting. But it’s hard not to notice one important thing about what came up: they’re 99.999% WHITE. This isn’t actually relevant to what Beauvoir writes about in this chapter, but has to be remarked upon. I’ve read discussions elsewhere about Google searches and race. It’s pretty nasty! I’d love to read an in-depth analysis about “why” this happens, specifically. (Since, the obvious big picture answer is: racism.)

This chapter should be interesting, I thought, as I cracked open the book. As regular readers (ha ha) will know, I’m a bit fascinated by Beauvoir’s attitude toward ageing, and actually read and wrote about this chapter earlier, so it wasn’t wildly new material to me. She opens by noting that the history of woman depends much more than man’s on her “physiological destiny”, and the stages of her life are “dangerously abrupt”: puberty, sexual initiation, menopause. (And then there are the socially contingent stages: marriage (or not), motherhood, middle age, grand-motherhood, says me.)

“While the male grows older continuously, the woman is brusquely stripped of her femininity; still young, she loses sexual attraction and fertility from which, in society’s and her own eyes, she derives the justification of her existence and her chances of happiness: bereft of all future, she has approximately half of her adult life still to live.” (633)

So there you go. We’re fucked!

‘The Definitive Mutilation’

But, oh, SdB has some truly awful ways of describing ‘old age’. Like “the definitive mutilation”:

“Well before the definitive mutilation, woman is haunted by the horror of ageing.” (633)

And elsewhere as being “deformed” and “ugly” (640). Which certainly sounds like how SdB felt about ageing in her own life, going by what she wrote in her autobiographies.

She writes, and it seems to me this is (still!) indisputably true: for man, “the alteration of his face and body do not spoil his possibilities of seduction.”

“Man is engaged in more important enterprises than those of love”, meanwhile she “has to please” and “has not been allowed a hold on the world except through man’s mediation”. (634)

Here, as noted in the post referred to above, SdB argues that contrary to what one might think, it’s not the woman who’s been “most passionately enraptured by her beauty” who suffers the most as she ages, because she (“the narcissist”) is too attentive not have prepared for “the mutilation”. It’s the woman who’s devoted and sacrificed herself who will suffer the most, apparently, as “she discovers that her husband, her milieu and her occupations were not worthy of her” (634).

I remain a bit unconvinced by this, to be honest. But maybe I shouldn’t take as counter-exemplars the legions of actresses/models/celebrities who “mutilate” (now that — surgery etc, is mutilation, not natural ageing!) themselves in a hopeless quest for eternal youth. They really don’t seem to have prepared for ageing — are they not narcissistic in the right way? Or maybe that I’m not entirely sure who these “devoted” women who will suffer most are…mothers, wives, I guess.


SdB argues a few pages farther on that “one of the most salient characteristics in the ageing woman is the feeling of depersonalization that makes her lose all objective landmarks”. (637) She can’t recognise this ‘old woman’ in the mirror as herself, so the distance between illusion and reality fades. Or something like that. Which brings me to a question I’ve been pondering for a while:

How Old Is Your ‘Real’ Self?

I might have asked this before (I have in my own head, not sure about here) but I’m curious if any feminists/philosophers have addressed the question of what age is the age at which we believe we are our ‘true’ or ‘real’ selves. Implied in so much of what SdB writes (and this is a common notion) is this idea that there is a self we do recognise in the mirror. From, say 50 onward, it is always a younger self, but not too young. And it’s not that we see or feel this ‘self’ primarily in the mirror, but inside. How often do you hear something like: “I don’t feel 55, 65, 85”. So how old do I feel? It’s almost never, say, 10 or 15. We don’t look in the mirror at 55 and are somehow shocked that a 13 year old isn’t looking back as we are shocked that the 35-year-old we remember isn’t there. So what is this age of the ‘true/real’ self? It seems to be somewhere between 25 and 35…going by what I hear and read and think. So the question is, why is that the true/real me? Why do we fix on that age and not, say, 80 or 8? Where does that age come from? Society? Us? Is there something fundamental in there, or is it as base as ‘the age at which we felt most attractive’ or ‘the age at which society tells us we are most attractive’? Or the most sexually active? As if all those are norms and everything else a failing or a falling short. And do men have such a ‘true/real’ self as well? If so, is it like ours? If not, lots of obvious question, primarily: why the hell not? I’d be interested in knowing if any readers know of anyone who’s written anything coherent or just interesting on this.

Back to SdB. There are several discussions on how ageing women engage all sorts of hopeless projects (for SdB, the projects always seem to be hopeless) to cope…turning to religion (638), going whacky and eccentric, become jealous of everyone (639), becoming a cougar (640), trying to live through her children, particularly her son/s, those demigods (642); gaining freedom (from, e.g., her children) and then finding she has nothing to do with her freedom (641), actresses, dancers, singers becoming teachers (648) … and so on.

Ultimately, for SdB ageing is the worst fate possible (as if earlier death were preferable):

“Once again, anxiety grabs the throat of the one whose life is already finished even though death is not imminent” (639); and “facing the desert of the future, prey to solitude, regret, ennui” (648); and “Here we touch the older woman’s tragedy: she realizes she is useless” (648)

The list of psycho older women that follows is pretty disturbing. Like Mme Lefebvre, 60, who in 1952 murdered her pregnant daughter-in-law, analysed by SdB (and no doubt others) as motivated by resentment at being supplemented by this interloper. (645 and footnote) The older woman’s relationship to pretty much everyone (husband, son, daughter, other women etc.) is susceptible to some horrible pathologies. And I start to wonder, not out of any urge to criticize rather just curiosity, on what sources SdB drew for these pages, and others like it. The usual line up of psychoanalysts, I can only assume. It’s hard not to read these pages and then, when you think about ‘yourself’ (for my part, I fall into the SdB category of “the woman with no descendants”!), nervously wondering if you have some psychotic tendencies or other…  (And, she doesn’t have a lot to say about us childless/free types — apparently, we may find ourselves, as we age, offering maternal tenderness to young people (647)…which doesn’t sound like me at all: not wildly tender, and don’t know any young people.)

We Even Murder Art

Toward the very end, there’s a curious discussion about how older women (bourgeois, as are pretty much all the women referenced here) devalue works of art “by swallowing them into her immanence” (650). Somehow, the idle aged woman takes up reading or ‘studying’ art and in doing so, makes it akin to a worthless hobby, which is destructive of the art. (Go figure.) She has a long quote from Philip Wylie, which I’ve cited elsewhere, about the social and political tyrants that older (idle) women become, getting all up in the faces of politicians and the like (650). Although she acknowledges Wylie’s account is “aggressive satire”, she clearly finds truth in it. I can’t help but think she’s too harsh. Take this:

“As long as woman remains a parasite, she cannot effectively participate in the building of a better world.” (650-1)

Again, I’m not convinced. There’s a way in which one can construct men as the parasites: the war mongers, killing those who to whom women gave birth (i.e. killing what we create); destroyers of species, environments and probably the planet. Are we the parasites (or at least those of us excoriated by her above) or are they? Or both? I suppose it depends on who/what one sees as the host. SdB seems to see men as the host, women as parasites.

Toward the end, there’s a brief flash of hope — that perhaps you might be lucky enough to be among the “some women’ who “in spite of everything” “truly have an impact”. (651)  I imagine she includes herself here, but it seems these lofty heights can be reached by very few of us. And then all woman has to look forward to is the final serenity that comes with having “given up the fight, when death’s approach frees her from anxiety about the future” (651)

It’s all just bad, bad, bad. Here’s the last passage of this truly miserable and depressing chapter:

“Amused or bitter, the old woman’s wisdom still remains completely negative: it is contestation, accusation, refusal; it is sterile. In her thoughts as in her acts, the highest form of freedom a woman-parasite an have is stoic defiance or skeptical irony. At no time in her life does she succeed in being both effective and independent.” (652)

I loathe and despise all that false cheer about ageing that glossies etc. indulge in, but, this is just dismal. Thanks a bunch, Simone!

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