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    Identify and assess the main strengths and weaknesses of Simone de Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex  . Christopher Jacobi To some extent The Second Sex (1949)   successfully conceptualises womanhood as a social structure and offers a „ strikingly srcinal theory of femal e subjectivity under patriarchy‟  (Okely, 1986: 20). Beauvoir‟s 1   statement that „one is not   born a woman, but becomes one‟ (1949: 295) draws attention at the difference between biological sex and gender; this distinction can be used to explore the ways in which women have historically been oppressed in a male world 2 . Beauvoir also develops the useful notion of women as Others  and highlights the fact that women are not one uniform group, but have specific needs with regards to resistance. Beauvoir does not, however, develop a genuine non-discriminatory gender theory and incorporates some of the same patriarchal assumptions she tries to criticize. Beauvoir‟s argument can be criticised through attentiveness to historical and societal ambiguities. Ontologically, just being the Other does not necessitate that one cannot develop one‟s own identity . Beauvoir could either have celebrated women‟s positive and active roles in society or have offered a truly gender-free, transcendent vision of equality. Butler and Fanon are employed to enlarge the realm of this discussion in a structure-agency.approach. A major achievement of The Second Sex   is its conceptualisation of womanhood as a (repressive) social institution in which gender is not a biological fact, but socially constructed. Biological sex is not completely detached from gender, but it cannot be the only factor to explain womanhood and the societal expectations of what it is means be a woman. Gender as a structure is so powerful and prevalent that „whatev er a woman says, or writes, or thinks, is less important and less interesting than what she is‟ (Moi, 1990: 27). Beauvoir also stresses that „it is natural for the female human being to make herself a feminine woman ‟  (1949: 428). Since women become the gender they have been forced into, Beauvoir engages in a structuralist way of interpreting an individual not by his or her personality, but by the social condition her or she represents. In this way, gender is a „fixed and preordained essence‟ ( op. cit.:  60) into which one is socialised. Nonetheless, Beauvoir also suggests that like all structures there is a certain 1   Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), French, married to existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre. 2  Beauvoir succeeds in theorizing the oppression of women. The question whether women have actually been oppressed in this way will be explored throughout the essay.  2   tension between a “ woman ”  and “ womanhood ”  and she acknowledges this interplay to be „ sometimes in enmity, sometimes in amity, always in a state of tension‟ ( op. cit.: 93). Even though the agentic dimension of gender would have deserved more detailed attention , Beauvoir‟s   conceptualisation of gender as an institution represents a major achievement. Beauvoir‟s explores the historical 3  srcin and the concomitant reification of the subordination of women in a strategic way that supports her line of argument, but is not universally accurate. Beauvoir (1949) states that at the beginning of civilization men, being physically more powerful than women, were advantaged and that woman, in their reproductive function, were dependent on men. According to Beauvoir, this initial power inequality has been exploited by „the human [male] consciousness with an srcinal aspiration to dominate the Other [women[„ ( op. cit.: 52 ) so that „society has always been male and political power has always been   in the hands of men‟ ( op. cit.:  65). This, in turn, has led to various social developments which have disadvantaged women on an institutional level. It is argued that over time marriage, motherhood, and monogamy have been established as male shaped institutions 4  that srcinated from the historical power imbalance to „ preserve male power ‟ ( op. cit.: 67). A weakness of The Second Sex is its dismissal of „female glory in history‟  (Winegarten, 1988: 22) and Beauvoir‟s implicit acceptance of male values. Accordingly, Beauvoir‟s  (1949: 383) claim that „women have never set up female values in oppos ition to male values‟ falsifies  womanhood and female achievements, even though these achievements might be private or tacit. Another problematic aspect of Beauvoir‟s historical account is the presupposition that physical strength was and continues to be a defining feature of civilization. Whereas it is apparent that a strong male soldier might be superior to a female one in a physical battle, Beauvoir underestimates the numerous ways in which women have influenced history, politics, the economy and culture. One could criticize Beauvoir for accepting physical strength as an important feature  since this in itself is a patriarchal assumption and could be interpreted differently. Rather than restating reasons for female oppression, Beauvoir could have focused on the positive and influential roles women took in the course of civilization. Furthermore, monogamy and marriage haven‟t always been globally prevalent 5  and The Second Sex makes general claims about these institutions even though they were culturally specific for a great part 3  History, of course, is his story and not her story. 4  From this perspective, sexuality   itself could be seen as repressive.   5   Gilbert Herdt (1984), for example, has researched Sambian tribes in which our western understandings of sexuality and kinship are deeply challenged.  3   of history. In sub-Saharan tribes until around 8000 B.C, for instance, women were more active and possibly more powerful than men since they „travelled from one tribal village to the other, choosing their mates and trading goods and knowledge‟ ( Finkel, 2009: 1). Similarly, Beauvoir‟s claim that women have been trapped in their reproductive functions is also not entirely helpful in promoting women‟s equality. If all women were completely determined by their reproductive function, Beauvoir would contradict her main paradigm that „one is not born, but becomes a woman‟ ( 1949: 295). Since we learn that womanhood is a social construction and not biologically determined, the reproductive role of women must partly emerge  from women themselves 6 : Many women actively embrace their reproductive biological function and happily choose to become mothers and wives 7 . Arguing that every mother and marriage is oppressed through male patriarchy strongly undermines the happiness and fulfilment many women find in exactly these roles. When Beauvoir describes male pressures on women as „an absolute evil‟  ( op. cit.: 274) she correctly notices that some  women might experience reproduction as subordination, but this might be a result of the general fact that all structures always exert some pressures, Even men, who are arguably so required to act masculine and strong, have to adapt to external pressures. This implies that the historical and societal premises on which The Second Sex is built is not without ambiguities. Beauvoir‟s analysis of reproduction as socialised subordination neglects the power women can still acquire voluntarily in institutions like marriage and motherhood.  Judith Butler ‟s  exploration of the agentic aspects of gender demonstrates that true equality would transcend gender dichotomies. Butler has argued that gender is choice and that „being a woman is an active process of negotiation between the individual and the cultural norms with which one has to deal‟ ( 1986: 29). Butler accepts Beauvoir‟s interpretation that biological sex does not determine gender, but arrives at the wider realization that gender is never fixed per se,  but continuously renegotiated (Butler, 1986). Examples of this can readily be found in popular culture 8 . In fact, male-female dualisms like female good-heartedness and female emotional maturity are just as socially constructed as gender ( op. cit. ). Butler‟s  ( op. cit. : 29) positive vision, therefore, is that „gender choice is empowering‟ and that we can resist the 6  If there was absolutely no agency in becoming   a woman, one would in fact be born as a woman. 7   The issue of „false consciousness‟ and a potential inabil ity to recognize subordination will be addresses later 8  E.g. the effeminate metro-man, men staying at home taking care of the children and the household, the „tough business women‟, Madonna kissing Britney Spears at MTV Music Awards, the recent debate abo ut homosexual rights, transgender people claiming public space, butch lesbians.  4   norms that are forced upon us. Butler ( op. cit. : 30) also defines „gender as performance‟ and shows how our social roles can often be acted out rather than innate. In this way, „ all gender is unnatural‟ (Fallaize, 1986: 9)  and a critique of the subordination of one gender through the other is less promising than a search for gender-freedom and openness. Beauvoir‟s notion of „Women as Other s ‟ ( 1949: 296) offers a rich attempt to understand women‟s experience of subordination, but still operates in a narrow ontological understanding of the female-male gender dichotomy. According to The Second Sex,  a woman is the Other   since „ she is determined and differentiated with reference to man, not he with reference to her; she is unessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the absolute: she is the Other  ‟  ( op. cit.:  16). The notion of Otherness thus builds on the reified subordination of women and highlights that men have historically positioned themselves as the active and dominant group 9 . Beauvoir (1949) claims that men possess the full truth and reality of existence in this world and as such define humanity. If this was accurate, it would be interesting to note that even seemingly empowering developments like Enlightenment values and rationality are less universal than sometimes believed to be. One might also wonder if Beauvoir‟s  understanding of equality is shaped through male values and whether women might achieve truer equality by celebrating positive difference. The analytical tool of „ Women as O thers‟  (Beauvoir, 1949: 296) also illustrates the extent to which gender inequalities might have been internalised in society. Beauvoir develops the srcinal idea that women face both „the conflict between species and individual‟ ( op. cit.: 646). Whereas Beauvoir‟s dismantling of tacit an d powerful social structures proves genuine insight and should thus be regarded as strength of The Second Sex  , Beauvoir could have noted that men might also have to adapt to their gender expectations . Most importantly, just being „The Other‟ does not mean that one does not exist: Ontologically, The Second Sex underestimates that women, or minority groups in general, can still develop their own identity, culture and spirit. If women were to gain the very same characteristics that are associated with men, women would to some extent cease to be women, but become copies of men. 10  Truer equality might be found in transcending gender dichotomies and strengthening positive difference between men and 9  This presupposition is in itself dubious. 10   This is a philosophical argument and does certainly not mean that real-life economic equality between women and men undermines women.
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