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by Julia

This evening, the French Embassy in Washington, DC, along with L’Alliance Française, hosted an event honoring the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s watershed feminist masterpiece, The Second Sex. The appearance of the translators, Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, drew an incredibly well-dressed crowd. On the first real fall evening in DC (finally!!), the women wrapped themselves in scarves and belted long cardigans, all sporting incredibly simple but striking outfits. (I’m not sure myself whether some of us chose to channel Simone, or whether we all just showed up emulating her because her influence on our lives is so great that it subconsciously permeates our habitudes.)

It’s hard to believe with such a significant work that it has not been translated into English since Howard M. Parshley attempted it in 1953. Parshley’s version, for lack of a better word, butchered the original text. He eliminated over 100 pages of text, most of which centering on examples of women in literature or Marxist-feminism. Parshley also deconstructed de Beauvoir’s grammatical structure by splitting up her paragraphs and altering punctuation for the benefit of appealing to larger English-reading audiences. By cutting out the difficulty and glossing over the philosophical concepts, Parshley deprived the English-speaking world of a just treatment of Simone’s largely philosophical musings on the female condition.

The significance of The Second Sex is well documented elsewhere, so I’ll just spend a moment highlighting the parts most relevant to the new translation. The Second Sex centers on the idea of this dichotomy of human experiences, specifically pertaining to men and women. The book is at its core a deconstruction of the myriad myths that cause women to be seen and see themselves as “other,” secondary, and dominated. (A lot of these myths stem, no doubt, from their perpetuation in her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre.) The Second Sex was originally published in two volumes, translated respectively by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier as “Facts and Myths” and “Lived Experiences.” Both of these volumes analyze the myths surrounding women’s lives from every perspective: biological, psychological, economic, literary, philosophical, anthropological, linguistic, etc. This characteristic is one of the many reasons why The Second Sex remains such a wonderful entry point into feminist consciousness for many women and men.

The overarching myth that the translators wanted to maintain and emphasize was that of economic monism – the idea that men are better-suited to economic prowess than women. This myth is perpetuated through the aforementioned fields of human experience such that women are subjugated to men in every social (and even biological) encounter. This myth – that men are the producers and women are reproducers – rings true even today, when we see women playing into the same system that subjugates them, thereby reproducing.

(Side note – one of my favorite quotations works well here: “I don’t want to reproduce, I want to make something entirely new.”)

Borde said her most crucial task in this translation was putting the philosophy back in the text (M.A. Simons famously documented this silencing in her 1983 piece.) Simone was a student of Hegel and Heidegger, and her understanding of “subject” was much more nuanced than Parshley could recognize. His translation of “subject” bent toward the idea of “subjective” and “personal,” rather than that of the greater of the two states of being – the subject being the one with complete freedom of choice (rather than the object). This complete glossing-over of the philosophical significance of Simone’s etymology has ramifications for one’s overall impression of the text as a whole. After all, the modern feminist movement was largely built on this text – one wonders how the second wave feminists might have treated class difference and economics differently had the original intent of Simone been conveyed into the English translation (sigh).

The goal of the new translation was to discover the original intent of Simone de Beauvoir and convey her voice as written in 1949. The new version is completely unabridged – this means keeping Simone’s pages-long paragraphs and unconventional punctuation (mostly, the semicolon). (At the event tonight we all toasted, “Vive la point-virgule!”, a poke at Simone’s affinity for the oft-abused and misunderstood punctuation.) But this adherence to the original intent has extremely rewarding results, namely, conveying the logic of her grammatical choices, which have great philosophical significance.

In French grammar, words are assigned a gender (masculine, feminine, or neutral). Simone recognized that assigning genders to the very language we use probably was not an accident, and the translators did not gloss over the significance. (I should mention here that I’ve studied French my entire life. My mom taught French to high schoolers and is fluent, and I went so far as to minor in French in college.) The gender of words in French (or other languages) is something foreign to English-speaking students of the language. I remember coming up with mnemonic devices for French grammar lessons in middle school, most of which centered on the idea that the words en féminine that didn’t follow normal patterns were usually the “sad” words: la mort, la guerre, la bataille – death, war, battle (also, interestingly, all of the words for sex organs are female). Of course, there’s the obvious that for the majority of French words, the masculine is the default, and to make something feminine, one must somehow modify the word (usually adding an “e” to the ending). This is one pattern that English-speakers can recognize: Waiter/Waitress, Host/Hostess, and the most obvious, Man/Woman.

Thus, the treatment of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous quotation – On ne naît pas femme: on le devient – is critically altered in the new translation. The translation of this sentence hinges on the translation of the word “femme.” In French, “la femme” can mean “woman,” “the woman,” “wife,” or “maid.” Without the article, “femme” tends to convey more of the idea of “woman” as an institution – a construct of femininity as determined by society. Adhering to de Beauvoir’s intent is key to the significance of the phrase. H.M. Parshley’s translation reads:

One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Borde and Malovany-Chevallier translate the phrase as follows:

One is not born, but rather becomes, woman.”

This key treatment of the lack of an article is crucial. Clearly, Simone was not talking solely about the biological evolution into a physically mature woman. No, she was focused on the idea of “woman” as shaped by society.

After the English translation was published in late 2009 (in England, early 2010 in the United States), critics came out of the woodwork to jump to pick apart Borde and Malovany-Chevallier’s effort (including this inane review from the New York Times Book Review). I’m sure some of the critiques are warranted. The translators had previously worked on cookbooks and textbooks – definitely nothing this philosophical. And Toril Moi has an excellent analysis in the London Review of Books. However, the bigger picture is significant to keep in mind. The translators told the story of an Iranian woman who approached them at one of their stops on this book tour. She thanked them for helping to share Simone’s words with a new generation of women, for, she said, “reading this book made me realize I wasn’t insane.” The Second Sex is applicable to all societies and all eras of women – la lutte continue (the struggle continues). If the most important thing is to be free, then to be free necessitates understanding one’s condition. No work better addresses women – as constructs, biological beings, mothers, wives, workers – than The Second Sex, and I have such great respect for these women for toiling to provide as authentic a translation as possible.

The last question of the evening came from one of the outnumbered men in the room who asked whether if, given the advances of women over the past sixty years, any parts of the original text perhaps felt dated or irrelevant. Malovany-Chevallier softly replied, after a long pause, “very little.” She then reminded us of the story included during one of Simone’s long biological analyses, that of the relationship between the ovum and the sperm. Both equal gametes, the ovum’s job is to lay in wait for the sperm, endeavoring to create the best home for the future union. Simone remarked, “It might be rash to say that a woman’s place is [from the very start] in the home, but some people are rash.”

Indeed, there are many many myths remaining regarding women and people working had to perpetuate them. The myth of a woman’s place in society as beneath a man is manifested in many of our daily interactions, and to have a new translation of The Second Sex available is wonderful. To have one that rightly emphasizes the nuanced ways in which sexual hierarchy dominates our interactions – particularly economic – is truly revolutionary.

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by Julia

This is a paper I recently wrote for my Sociology of Gender class here at Maryland. Limited to 5 or so pages, I had to cut out a ton of elaborations on some of these concepts, but this topic is something in which I’m super interested (and probably would have written my thesis on, had I not been applying to law school last fall). I thought it was pertinent to the topics on this blog, so yea!  (Also, it’s so much more fun to write papers with links.) I encourage comments/questions!

In the decades since the second wave feminists rallied Washington for equal rights, American women have certainly achieved great bounds in education and professional advancement relative to men. While many in society cite these measures as sufficient for deeming feminism irrelevant and unnecessary in an age of such “equality,” these economic measures of women’s equality are, in fact, continuations of patriarchal controls. The gendered institution of capitalism – which through clever marketing purports to be a liberating product of sexual revolution and empowerment – is just another means of reinforcing female subordination through social, political, and economic means. The increased position of women in the labor force is not a sign of liberation, but rather a reproduction of masculine hegemony under the guise of economic choice. The marketing of particular fashion and beauty products to women “appears to displace traditional modes of patriarchal authority” (McRobbie 2007:718), in that, through their increased earnings and prominence in the work force, women can buy products which supposedly liberate them. Capitalism in general works to subordinate one class of people to another through limited access to means of advancement. Capitalism as a gendered institution allows women to advance only to the point at which they believe they have real choice – in their spending patterns, their job options, their life plans. In reality, capitalism serves to reinforce the patriarchal ownership and control structures of society all within the false discourse of women’s liberation and economic choice.

Gendered institutions are established and advanced through a variety of social regulations. Capitalism is no different from other gendered institutions like religion, education, the media, or families. It is both constructed and regulated by formal laws, cultural practices, and discourses. This paper will focus on the latter two categories as a means of reinforcing capitalism as a gendered institution. As mentioned previously, the wide dissemination of discourses surrounding of women’s liberation and putative equality (through both job opportunities and consumerism) is, paradoxically, a means of securing gender retrenchment (McRobbie 2007). One need only look to the myriad products marketed towards women in a way which pretends to be liberating, but is really reinforcing gender stereotypes surrounding behavior, appearance, and (perhaps most important) proper roles in society.

Philosopher Nina Power writes that in this 21st century interpretation of feminism as consumerism, “the desire for emancipation starts to look like something wholly interchangeable with the desire to simply buy more things” (2009: 27-28). She continues that, “stripped of any political quality [to, perhaps, challenge or overturn the patriarchal economy], feminism becomes about as radical as a diamanté phone cover” (2009: 30). Indeed, many of the products recently marketed to women all carry the mantra of liberation – freedom from under-arm hair (Dove deodorant), menstrual cycles (Seasonale), or even pesky stomach aches (probiotic yogurt)– yet they all serve to reinforce the patriarchal domination over women’s bodies and tendencies through compulsory femininity. [1]

Consumerism for modern women is centered not only around the myth of liberation, but also is deeply intertwined with the sexualization of female consumers. McRobbie discusses the myth in great detail, but the discourse can be summarized as follows: “to secure a post-feminist gender settlement, [women must sign] a new sexual contract” (2007: 721). What McRobbie means by this is that the “supposed liberation of women comes in the form of sexualized products [while] wrapped in discourses of individualism, consumerism, and empowerment[2]” (Evans, Riley, Shankar 2010: 115). The recent trends of young girls with Playboy icons on their school supplies, middle-aged women taking pole-dancing aerobics classes, vajazzling, the compulsion to get Brazilian bikini waxes – all of these appear to be means of self-liberation, and the realization of the goals of second-wave feminism. However, these specific purchases are merely the “choices” which capitalism as a gendered institution designs for women to keep them slightly subordinated, while female consumers believe these purchases are either signs of achieving equality or means of advancing towards it. These sexualized products used by women “employ the signifiers of patriarchal and objectifying practices to produce the signified meaning of liberation, assertiveness, and power” (Evans et al. 2010: 120). These dominant consumerist discourses support the theory of social constructionism. Women’s sexuality is not fixed – it is a site of struggle – but capitalism works as a gendered institution to perpetuate the myth that a certain, hyper-sexualized type of woman is the paradigm to which all other women should aspire.

Since the 1960s and the “sexual revolution,” companies have had to work harder to convince “liberated” and working women that their products are still necessary to women’s advancement and happiness. The cultural practices of buying products are further purported to be individual choices, but they actually align with a very specific narrative of capitalist society. Women are so conditioned “to think that [their] behaviors are individual (a degree is an ‘investment,’ starting a family is a ‘personal choice’), that [they] miss the collective and historical dimensions of [their] current situation” (Power 2009: 34). Capitalism works only when certain groups (workers) are subordinated to other groups (owners). Applying an intersectional analysis, Evans et al. realize that gender discrimination is evident in capitalism, but so is racism and classism (and it has been that way since the industrialized period). Capitalist owners subordinate lower classes through their monetary prowess and alienate workers from each other through manufactured compulsions towards competition amongst themselves. It is also pertinent to recognize the power of the patriarchy in shaping how capitalism works to not only subordinate women but also to alienate them from each other and their collective voice.

In this way, capitalist corporations have created a subtle discourse within society that there is no longer any place for feminism – that women can simply work to buy themselves freedom. This is particularly dangerous because it also supports the narrative that critical thinking about one’s condition is no longer necessary. McRobbie writes that “the attribution of apparently post-feminist freedoms to women most manifest within the cultural realm […] becomes, in fact, the occasion for the undoing of feminism” (2007: 719). What goes often unconsidered in this narrative is that waged work is required for this consumed emancipation. Women have always been laborers – only recently has a percentage of their work been recognized as worthy of pay – but now, this waged labor is even less of a choice because of capitalism’s pressures to consume certain products as well as the lack of sufficient social services to allow women real choices, like parental leave. With the dominant narrative that women’s freedoms are intrinsically tied to products comes the inevitable commodification of women’s bodies.

This dangerous narrative has catastrophic consequences for the subordination of women within the economy: “The particular commodity, with whose bodily form [women] the equivalent form [the product] is thus socially identified, now becomes the money commodity, or serves as money” (Marx 1867: 80). This compulsion to consume products in this particularly “post-feminist” and highly sexualized sense is especially challenging for those with fewer resources. There exists a feeling that one must consume in order to fit the feminine – nay, American – ideal (Hong 2006).  Those who feel that they must work just to consume these products of subordination are experiencing patriarchal capitalism on multiple levels – by purchasing sexualized products, lower-class women are experiencing a false sense of empowerment, but because they are working just to consume, they are essentially becoming the aforementioned Marxist commodities.

Post-feminist consumerism exists in a manner which creates an entire commodity culture (Jameson 1991). In this way, “culture” precludes any possibility for true gender equality – it is so saturated with the importance of capital that individual attributes are intentionally ignored. The myth of individualism and liberation intertwined with the consumption of products reinforces the power of capitalism as a gendered institution – designed by men, it is no wonder that capitalism works tirelessly to continually appease women with fun products so they will not truly question the structure of the economy which continually pays them less for equal work and which allows few choices for women outside of the household. It is difficult to tell what products capitalism will develop next to perpetuate its constructed myth of gender equality. What is certain is that, as long as capitalism exists as a major institution of the patriarchy, it will work tirelessly not only for class stratification, but also gender stratification – these are the processes through which the system survives. Touting the recent advancements of women in education and the work force is not sufficient – until sexist capitalism is no longer consumed and supported by financially successful women, it will continue to construct and reinforce a commodity culture which relies upon the subordination of the class of women.

Bibliography:

Evans, Adrienne, Sarah Riley, and Avi Shankar. 2010. “Technologies of Sexiness: Theorizing Women’s Engagement in the Sexualization of Culture.Feminism Psychology. 20:114-133.

Hong, Grace Kyungwon. 2006. The Rupture of American Capital: Women of Color, Feminism, and the Culture of Immigrant Labor. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. New York: Random House, Inc.

McRobbie, Angela. 2007. “Top Girls? Young Women and the Post-Feminist Social Contract.” Cultural Studies. 21:718-737.

Power, Nina. 2009. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester UK: O Books.


[1] It should also be noted that men also suffer under the gendered institution of capitalism. Nor are they immune to the sexualized consumerism of late. This paper, however, focuses on the group most targeted and damaged by gendered consumerism.

[2] And “often excluding those who are not white, heterosexual, and slim.”

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