Simone De Beauvoir’s Theory Of Women Being The Second Sex

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Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of women being the ‘second sex’ explores the idea that femininity is socially constructed. Judith Butler’s theory on ‘Performance theory of gender’ could be considered as a critique of De Beauvoir’s theory on women being ‘the second sex’. ‘Intersectionality’ refers to the “interaction between gender, race, and other factors in individual lives, as well as how they connect to social practices, social order, and cultural ideologies” (Davis, 2008). This essay will also explore how the idea of femininity is a different experience for each individual woman and therefore the intersection of gender, race and sexuality argued by black feminists should also be considered. Society’s ideas around women are changing every single day and Simone de Beauvoir’s book ‘The second sex’ was highly influential during this change, especially because of the second wave for feminism because she gave society a clear as well as another perspective in the understanding of the phenomenology of women other than the literature written by men. This essay will show how De Beauvoir uses the Phenomenology study in order to explore the experiences and meanings around sex and gender, the idea that Man is everything supports her argument that ‘one is not born a woman rather one becomes one’.

According to Beauvoir, ‘Woman’ is the ‘other’ whereas ‘men’ are the ‘subject’ this could suggest that being a man is the norm whereas being women is considered the exception. De Beauvoir uses Hegel’s theory on the ‘master’ and the ‘slave’ dialect to further explain how women are oppressed by men. For example, Men oppress women by defining ‘man‘ as complete whereas women are seen as being incomplete without a man. However, Judith Butlers’ book ‘Gender Trouble’ (1990) argues that gender only exists when it is acted out and performed because ‘Male’ and ‘female’ genders are only natural because they are performed regularly by individuals in society. For example Butler argues that the term ‘female’ suggests a fixed set of ‘natural corporeal facts’ determined by the sex you were born with whereas the term ‘woman’ suggests that gender cannot be fixed but can also be ‘fluid’ because there are many forms around the notion of womanhood, the ‘fact’ of being a female would need to ‘acquire cultural meaning’. As well as the idea of ‘gender’ is considered as a cultural interpretation of sex Beauvoir’s quotes ‘ one is not born a woman rather one becomes one’ signifies that gender is not only constructed by societies culture but it is also a process of individuals in society ‘constructing’ themselves to ‘become’ what is considered the norm in society depending where they are from . Butler considers this process of construction as ‘acts’ in which we perform on a daily basis and she seeks out to discover how we individually reproduce gender in order to become ‘man’ and ‘woman’.

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De Beauvoir argues that women are set up to be ‘the second sex’ and have been oppressed by these ideas of how to be a woman that they are considered ‘other’. Through this, she questions whether “women exist” as well as what it actually means to be a woman because during that time women had ‘No voice’ as De Beauvoir states in her book because “the whole of feminine history has been man-made’. Emphasis on the word ‘man’ because women were not allowed to write, be educated or work which suggests there could not be much literature written by women. Heteronormativity helps set apart what is expected from both sexes, it is a system that builds behaviors and societies expectations which will later form a norm. In western societies, there is a gender binary, therefore, man will most likely control the ‘public sphere’ such as politics or business whereas women are considered more appropriate for the private sphere which would include raising children, and taking care of the household. Gender is determined by ‘social norms, attitudes and set boundaries for behavior’ that society regards as respectable for each gender, for example, women are considered to be passive beings because of their soft features. Mulvey (1975) theory of the ‘male gaze’ is the idea that women are placed as an object for male desire (Mulvey 1975); her theory suggests that the ‘gaze’ is a ‘psychological relationship’ of power in which the gazer (the man) is superior or has dominance over the object (women) of the gaze (Shroeder 1998).

Middle-class behaviour became what was considered respectable in De Beauvoir’s time, however, “this measurable class creates oppression for women” (Finch 1988) for example they had to dress and behave in a certain way in order to be considered respectable by men such as their role as a wife. White bourgeois women were considered as objects of knowledge and they set the boundaries of what is respectable in terms of femininity they see this as the oppressed groups in society. The upper class have power over what is considered ‘good taste’ and therefore establish the norm in society. In understanding the ‘subject’ within the structures in cultural capital we must also understand that these standards set by the upper classes are what lower classes aim to achieve as social positions are governed through these judgements (Bourdieu distinction, 1986). Society policies are based on these individual stereotypes in order to remind them that they must live to these expectations of ‘male’ and ‘female’ while setting the boundaries of social class. Individuals judge the way they raise their children, their physical appearance and their manner (Bourdieu distinction, 1986). Middle-class behaviour became what was considered respectable however this measurable class creates oppression for women (Finch 1988) for example they had to dress and behave in a certain way in order to be considered respectable by men such as their role as a wife.

In comparison to cultural feminists theory believe that females experience depends on how women occupy different social positions and cultural representations. The idea of respectability helped form the concept of class and also defined what is thought respectable or non-respectable. Respectability is governed by men in the upper class, therefore, there have been ideas around judging femininity and a woman’s appearance, for example, there are stereotypes around how females should be feminine, ‘which favour White, heterosexual, middle-class cis-women who are able-bodied’. However, minority women do not have the same benefits as some white, middle-class, heterosexual women because they are most likely to be considered respectable compared to women who are considered a minority. Minority women seem to have less power and find it very difficult to deviate from the norm; this is because as well as being a woman who is oppressed women from minority backgrounds also have to fight against sexism, racism and class discrimination. However social policies have been evoked such as the discrimination act that allows equality for women Cultural variations of gender across time and place also demonstrate that gender change is possible.

Third-wave feminism often critiques second-wave feminism because it only focuses on the struggles of white middle-class women and ignores women of colour, women from lower classes and disadvantaged women but Beauvoir’s understanding of women’s experience in a patriarchal society could also include the experience of being black women in a world where being white is the norm, because individuals will still experience the same feeling of being ‘other’ where they constantly enforce the idea that you are ‘second-class’. However, it could be argued that Beauvoir was from an upper class, therefore, had more social power in comparison to Black women or women from lower classes hence her knowledge is ‘situated’ according to her middle-class privileges. White women are seen to dominate on the topic of femininity, therefore, define feminist theory, therefore, it is difficult to resonate with black women’s oppression in terms of white supremacy being used as a racial politics, the way class has impacted their experience of femininity, and of their “political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist, state” Bell hooks (1984).

It is also argued that the focus on oppression in feminist’s theory overlooks opportunities to create social change for minorities when regarding the intersections of race and gender with sexuality, class, ethnicity, which may offer black women some social standing. For example, it only establishes the idea that black women’s lived experience can only be considered with the idea that they are marginalized (Nash, 2011). Sexist comments are one of the many ways in which society police and maintain the existing gender-binary and in the western world according to hierarchy men have all the power. It could be considered that Beauvoir makes the assumption that all women suffer the same oppression as she claims that women are not a minority however still belonging to a ‘lower caste’ In Western societies, white, middle-class, heterosexual men hold gender power this ideal is what men in society conform to, and challenge. These scripts would not be able to have them without the concept of socialization. Foucault 1988, however, argues that subjectivity can only be changed or at least constructed from a position of social power. However, women do have the power to deconstruct these ideas in this day and age as they have more rights than they had before such as women entering male-dominated fields.

In conclusion, there are many criticisms that stem from Feminist theory on the ideas around the existence of women, arguing that the reason for their social existence as ‘women’ comes from their physical appearance, as a result, these meaning that is placed on their appearance determined each woman’s experience. Simone de Beauvoir claims that a ‘woman’ is a historical idea but is not a natural fact. She distinguishes the difference between sex and gender as she explores the idea of being a ‘woman’ and that to be ‘female’ is a natural fact based on the sex you were born with whereas to ‘become a woman’ is to conform to the historical ideas and meanings that have been placed on being a ‘woman’ in which case the ‘body’ becomes a cultural symbol in society representing silence, obedience and nurture.


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