Simone De Beauvoir and Ground-Breaking Book the Second Sex
Simone De Beauvoir is a French novelist responsible for writing the ground-breaking book The Second Sex. She is regarded as one of the best known existential writers in the nineteenth century thanks to her many novels, essays, and biographies on philosophy, politics and societal issues. She writes ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. This essay will be delving into the meaning of this quote and what it says about how gender is regarded in our society.
How it supports the idea that the roles we assign ourselves are not to do with the gender we are born with, but rather societal expectations, which we are expected to meet. The idea is that gender is a social construct, and that a woman’s role in society is not one of natural differences, but differences of upbringing and social pressures, which shape the personality and mentality of an individual. The essay will delve into the novels; Room At the Top by John Braine and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, in order to support the idea that gender is a social construct, and to provide an example of this philosophy in context.
De Beauvoir states that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This can be interpreted to mean that one becomes a woman due to her childhood and upbringing, leading to the topic of social constructionism. Social constructionism is a theory that examines the formation of jointly constructed ideas and understandings of reality and how the world works. The theory revolves around the fact that meanings are formed together as a collective, and not separately as an individual.
A good example of this is when looking at money. Without a society’s unanimous agreement that a ten-pound note is worth ten pounds, for example, it is nothing more than a piece of paper. However, once it is agreed on by the entire population that said piece of paper is worth ten pounds, the note then gains its value and is seen by everyone as worth ten pounds. By this philosophy, money is a social construct.
According to West and Zimmerman, the notion of gender is also formed due to social constructionism. They state that it is ‘an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of, and a rationale for, various social arrangements, and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society’ . By this logic, Beauvoir is correct in her statement that “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman”.
Historically, the term gender was used as a means of telling the difference between biological sex and social aspects of femininity and masculinity. These were learned and considered permanent after early childhood. When De Beauvoir talks about “becoming” a woman, it could be interpreted that she is talking about the gender aspect of a person, instead of their sex. Research shows that it is clear that someone is shaped and moulded into their corresponding gender by a society based on their sexual traits.
Firstly, many people who might otherwise be very talented in a certain field would not realize their talents, as they perceive that there is a certain path that society would deem correct for them to follow. Furthermore, it can end with a large proportion of the population feeling as if they are inferior. This could very easily lead to tension between citizens, and bring about the question of ‘immoral’ behaviour, and its definition. In support of this, in Room At The Top, Joe finds out that Alice was once an artist’s model, after learning this he describes that he felt ‘sick and betrayed and dirtied’.
Through free-spirit and spontaneity, Alice acted in way that is deemed inappropriate for a woman by society. Joe’s reaction is one of revulsion and disappointment, and although he loves her, it is possible that he feels ‘dirtied’ not just for himself, but because he feels that this is how a person should react to women who step outside the boundaries of conformation. Alice, in turn, would try to conform to the stereotype of a ‘proper lady’, in order to keep Joe’s love.
A “proper lady” is a term that Jane Poovey uses in her book, ‘The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer’. Dressing up properly, being modest, and not having strong views are all traits that Poovey states a ‘proper lady’ should have. The prominence of this paradigm in our society has led to a significant difference in rights over the last few hundred years. As a consequence, this has meant that our society has evolved into a patriarchal society. This is where the majority of influential roles, such as politicians and owners of large companies, are men.
Thereby living as part of a patriarchal society, favours those who are born male. Subconsciously, those born with male traits are seeing similarities in those who they aspire to be, whereas those who are born female see the most influential people in our society as being men, which subconsciously beats them down, and further shapes them into what society deems correct.
‘Mrs Dalloway’ provides us with a representation of this through the character development of Clarissa, who in her younger days was smart and free-spirited, but is moulded into an example of our society’s ‘perfect’ woman. Her and Sally plotted to reform the world together when they were young. When they reunite at Clarissa’s party, they are both married. Something they considered a “catastrophe” as younger women. However, in the eyes of society, for a woman, it would be considered a success to be married and bear children. Regardless of the natural feelings of resentment towards the idea that Sally and Clarissa both showed when they were young.
Some may argue that when young, it is natural to feel disgusted towards the idea of marriage and bearing children, and as an individual’s body develops and matures one becomes more at ease, and begins to find the idea more attractive. However, in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ it is clear that the change in the mentality of Clarissa towards her goals in life is not a natural one. When Sally kissed Clarissa on the lips she described it as “The most exquisite moment of her whole life”. When they are interrupted, she says it was “Like running one’s face against a granite wall in darkness! It was shocking; it was horrible!” . Clarissa feels as if she has been brought back to reality and is distraught by it.
She knows that her true feelings can never be realized, due to them being considered as incorrect for a woman by society. This is a clear representation of the social construction of gender. It is clear that the pressures of society led Clarissa to live a life which she does not want. However, it is deemed as the right and appropriate thing for her, purely based on her body and biological sex. Veering from the path of marriage and children that society’s ‘successful’ woman should achieve, would no doubt bring shame on to one’s family, and be an extremely difficult route to take. This is due to the stereotype that if a woman is not looking for marriage or children, then there must be something wrong with her.
The idea of success in the eyes of society and the eyes of an individual can differ greatly, and in many cases, the pressures put on women by society can result in them following a path which they do not like or want to follow. A good example of this is Alice in Room at the Top. She gives up her acting career in order to marry a local businessman, which in turn leaves her feeling miserable and frustrated. Society would deem her actions as being the correct thing to do for a woman, and thereby a success. However, the mental strain that this has on Alice is great.
This is another example of the difficulties that women can face when trying to break free of the constraints that living in a patriarchal society can have on them mentally. For Alice, if she did not marry, and pursued her acting career, she would have led a difficult life being seen as an outcast to society. As being a career-focused woman, and disinterested in marriage would deem her so. However, by deciding to marry a businessman, she conforms to society’s whims, which in turn would mean that she is seen as ‘Proper lady’, but feels oppressed and restricted mentally. Alice’s decision shows the theory of social constructionism in action, and how the pressures of society can cause someone to ‘become, a woman’ even against their will.
Traditionally, there is a big difference between the opportunities that men and women face in their lives, and we can put this down to the different types of upbringing that a person would receive based on their sex. De Beauvoir talks about Immanence and Transcendence. People who are born male are encouraged to act with transcendence; to act creatively, productively and to assert dominance and power. Whereas women are expected to act with immanence; to have humility, dependence, and to be transfixed on their beauty in order to satisfy the needs and requirements of men. De Beauvoir writes “Men succeed in the world by transcendence, but immanence is the lot of women”.
Clarissa and Richard Dalloway’s only daughter, Elizabeth, is the opposite of what Poovey would describe as a ‘perfect woman’. She is not interested in clothes or parties, and loves spending time with Richard and the dogs in the countryside. She is focused on what her career path is going to be, and enjoys learning and playing with her history teacher. Despite this, she is still characterized by the fact that she is born female.
The way Richard treats her is very much a reflection on the preconceived perceptions of a woman. We can see this when Clarrissa says “if he’d had a boy he’d say, work, work. But he had his Elizabeth; he adored his Elizabeth”. Despite her outgoing nature and interest in her career, Richard is still oblivious to this and views her in a much more possessive and controlling way, not giving her responsibilities, and deciding her future for her.
In our modern society, the grip of the social construction of gender is still very much a part of our lives. From birth, there is a difference in the way a boy and a girl are treated based solely on their sex. Young girls are encouraged to play with baby dolls and Barbie’s, toys that subconsciously develop their brains to adhere to a life centred on motherhood, caring and materialism. Whilst young boys are given toys that are more centred on strength, career, and activeness, such as toy cars, Action Man dolls and space rockets, an example of De Beauvoir’s ‘Transcendence and Immanence’ in action.
The act of “becoming, a woman” is one that requires a number of external pressures and expectations, which have been normalized and drilled into society for many centuries. It has led to the social construction of gender categorizing people into having certain roles that they are expected to meet based on natural, uncontrollable factors, in which the individual has no say. It is clear that the social construction of gender is anything but a positive social construct, and is one that weighs heavily on the mental health of women, and leads to many feeling restricted and oppressed.
We can see this with the mentality of Clarissa as well as Alice. Thanks to authors such as De Beauvoir and Poovey, in the modern-day, more attention is being brought to the fact that we are in fact living in a patriarchal society, and that the upbringing, stereotypes, and expectations that women face are wrong and unfair. However, with the foundations of our modern society being centred on differences and hierarchy between individuals, it will no doubt be some time before the notion of gender construction is abolished and there is complete equality.
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