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Simone de Beauvoir on feminism, authenticity and ageism

by The Ethics Centre
18 May 2017
Simone de Beauvoir was a French author, feminist and philosopher. Her work focussed on the ways social forces could stop us from living authentically. She was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

In a cruelly ironic confirmation of much of her thought, de Beauvoir's work is often seen as less important than that of her partner, Jean Paul Sartre. However, de Beauvoir stands alone as a philosopher in her own right.

Given the aims of feminism are far from complete, let's return to one of its intellectual giants for a refresher course.

Women aren't born, they're made

De Beauvoir's most famous quote comes from her best-known work, The Second Sex. In the book, she says "one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman". By this she means there is no essential definition of womanhood. Women can be anything, but society works hard to shape them to fit a particular kind of femininity.

The Second Sex argues that it's men who define what women should be. The social norms that govern women are patriarchal - they are born out of the male gaze. For de Beauvoir, the world looks the way men want it to look. Men have always held more power in society.

de Beauvoir focussed on social standards for female beauty as the most obvious example of the power of the male gaze. In her time, as  with today, women are pressured to present themselves as available and desirable to men. Norms around removing body hair, makeup and uncomfortable fashion all restrict women's freedom in order to serve the male gaze.

For de Beauvoir, the objectification of women goes deeper, to the point they aren't seen as fully human. Men are seen as active, free agents who are in control of their lives. Women are described passively. They need to be protected, controlled or rescued.

It's true, she thinks, that women aren't always seen as passive objects, but this only happens when they impersonate men. De Beauvoir writes, "Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male".

For de Beauvoir, women are always cast into the role of the Other. Who they are matters less then who they're not: men. This is an enormous problem for the existentialist de Beauvoir because our purpose in life is to freely choose who we want to be.

Everyone has to create themselves

As an existentialist, de Beauvoir believed people need to live authentically. They need to choose for themselves who they want to be and how they want to live. The more pressure society - and other people - place on you, the harder it is to make that authentic choice.

Existentialists believe no matter the amount of external pressure, it is still possible to make a free choice about who we want to be. They say we can never lose our freedom, though a range of forces can make it harder to exercise. Plus, some people choose to hide from their freedom in various ways.

Some of us hide from our freedom by living in bad faith, one of the key concepts in existentialist philosophy. We embrace the definitions other people put on us. Men are free to reject the male gaze and stop imposing their desires onto women but many don't. It's easier, de Beauvoir thinks, to accept the social norms we're born into then to live freely and authentically.

The importance of freedom led de Beauvoir to suggest liberated women should not try to force other women to live their lives in a similar way. If a small group of women choose to reject the male gaze and define womanhood in their own way, that's great.

But respecting other people means allowing them to live freely. If other women don't want to join the feminist mission, de Beauvoir believed they should not be forced or pressured to do so. This is important advice in an age where online shaming is often used to force people to conform to popular social views.

We're as ageist as we are sexist

Later in life, de Beauvoir applied her arguments about women in The Second Sex to the plight of the elderly. In The Coming of Age, she argued that we make assumptions and generalisations about the elderly and ageing, just like we do about women.

In The Second Sex, bodily differences between men and women turn women into the Other. Similar bodily differences 'other' the elderly. Feminist philosopher Deborah Bergoffen explains de Beauvoir's view: "as we age, the body is transformed from an instrument that engages the world into a hindrance that makes our access to the world difficult".

Just as it's wrong for us to 'other' women because they are different from men, de Beauvoir encourages us to see the wrong in 'othering' the elderly because they are different from the young.

Like women in The Second Sex, the elderly remain free to define themselves. They can reject the idea that physical decline makes them unable to function as authentic human beings.

In The Coming of Age, we see some of the foundations of today's discussions about ageism and ableism. De Beauvoir urges us to come back to a simple truth: the facts of our existence – what our bodies are like, for example – don't have to define us. More importantly, it's wrong to define other people only by the facts of their existence.

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