Book Review

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

well, it's a "classic" and now i've read it

Written August 26th

Simone de Beauvoir is one of those big, canonical, writers whose books I have regularly bought over the years, but have never got around to reading. There has been a copy of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter in about fifth place on my psychological list of books to read for multiple years, but this incredibly sleazy 1970s edition of The Second Sex leapt right to the top when I realised how deep the blog post backlog remains and I wanted something long and thought-provoking to keep me reading and engaged while I tried to leaf through and post an assortment of these many months-old digital scrawls.

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Uh, I’m doing it again.

I’m distracted.

This tab has been open for well over an hour and I’ve just been playing on my phone instead of typing here.

By “playing on my phone” I mean, of course, repeatedly refreshing Twitter, something I’ve got back into doing to an unhealthy degree during the past few months.

Even though I’m working full time and exercising etc again, the incessant Twitter scrolling has remained as a constant, and a significant one.

I haven’t done any work on any creative project at all since finalising the pleasure of regret, and as more time passes, getting back into the swing of doing so becomes increasingly terrifying. Not terrifying, intimidating. It is, as we all know, harder to begin a movement than it is to maintain one, and once I’m back in the swing of creativity/editing creatively, then it’ll be easier to stay in that swing, but right now it’s just ah ah not not not so easy to doooo

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The Second Sex is a 1949 non-fiction text first published in this H. M. Parshley translation in 1953.

It is always strange to read “radical” texts from a different era, particularly ones that have the reputation of significance, as The Second Sex does. What is hard to do, when reading de Beauvoir’s very very long-feeling text, is forget about the contemporary contexts of “our more liberal age”, but it’s also hard to wonder if the dismissive tone frequently used is present in the original French text, or if it is a product of the translation. Because – tonally – there is an absolute shitload of sneering contempt delivered in The Second Sex to all manner of different “aspects” of “woman”.

Did de Beauvoir think of all women with contempt or derision or pity, or did H. M. Parshley?

H. M. Parshley – I have just learned – was a 65-year-old American zoologist when asked to translate The Second Sex into English, and though he completed the project he died the same year his translation was published and he’d had a heart attack during the process. There is no way that this man – born in 1884 (basically ancient history!) – wasn’t at least a little socially conservative, so I’m sure there is some “unconscious bias” in his translation. However, what Parshley didn’t do was choose the structure of the text, which feels a bit like a run through of all the “types of women” De Beauvoir disliked, with an extensive commentary on how and why she disliked them.

The Second Sex is a very ungenerous text, and only in its conclusion does any positivity emerge, though in connection to the statement that radical social upheaval is the only way to effect any kind of lasting or significant change.

Though de Beauvoir writes (or “is translated”) eloquently and – in reference to the academic research available at the time – informedly about the sociological and physiological and psychological repercussions of centuries of patriarchy, there seems to often appear a real contempt for, e.g., “the housewife”, “the lesbian”, “the narcissistic woman”, and despite discussing perceived reasons and thus defences for normative and non-normative modes of existence within a female/feminised body (with none of the vitriolic transphobia of, for example, The Female Eunuch), de Beauvoir offers no sense of optimism or any possibility for an idealised or ideal version of “womanhood”.

I read De Beauvoir’s conclusion to be thus: in this, the worst of all possible worlds, female emancipation on a drip-by-drip basis is unlikely ever to provide true equality. Imo, this conclusion has been borne out by societyy’s failure to address the wage gap, global problems with gender-based violence, “rape culture”, etc, in the 70 years since Le Deuxième Sexe was published.

There are moments of intersectionality here, too, which is refreshing in a text so relatively early, but there is an overall hopelessness and resignedness that makes this text feel much less radical than most canonical radical texts have felt, to me, as/when I’ve read them. The optimism I seek in progressive literature is the thing I lack; my own paucity of hope is the thing that keeps me from irl action, only ever feeling comfortable with my flat, empty, advocacy for change on this blog. Meh.

I am currently in the process of extending my visa to Canada, and one of the questions on one of the many forms I filled in asked me if I was currently a member of (or had ever been a member of) a group that advocated for violent methods to achieve social or political change.

Of course, I haven’t been, but in the two and a half days since I clicked on that “NO” I’ve found myself questioning the ethics of doing so.

Surely real, lasting, permanent change will only come through revolution, rather than reform; reform is a fallacy, which is why that Audre Lorde line about “the master’s tools” rings so true and has become so prevalent this year. Bearing this knowledge in mind, is it ethical to NOT be involved or affiliated with groups prepared to put forward violent means for change, as change seems impossible without it?

I don’t know. I don’t know much about anything that matters tbh.

Simone de Beauvoir’s book is engaging, and sometimes insightful, but there’s too much of a reliance on psychoanalysis, there’s too much sneering at women living different lives to her (despite an acknowledgement of the powerful societal forces causing those lives to be shaped as they are) and there’s too much hopelessness. Maybe, though, hopelessness is wise. Hopelessness or violence, I suppose, are the only avenues left.

Jesus Christ.

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