How influential are the writings of Simone de Beauvoir? So influential that even the rushed, by all accounts shoddy first English translation (executed by a zoologist not especially acquainted with philosophy, and only somewhat more so with the French language) of her book Le deuxième sexe became, in 1953, The Second Sex. Though not properly translated until 2009, it nevertheless provided the foundation for modern feminist thought in the West. But what, if we can ask this question surely at least a couple of "waves" of feminism later, did de Beauvoir, born 109 years ago today, actually think?
She thought, as the Harry Shearer-narrated History of Ideas animation from the BBC and Open University above puts it, that "a woman isn’t born a woman, rather she becomes one," meaning that "there is no way women have to be, no given femininity, no ideal to which all women should conform."
The basic biological facts aside, "what it is to be a woman is socially constructed, and largely by males at that. It is through other people's expectations and assumptions that a woman becomes 'feminine,'" struggling to meet male-defined standards of beauty, acting like nothing more than "passive objects" in society, and in the feminist view, often wasting their lives in so doing.
A bold declaration, especially at the time. But de Beauvoir's belief "that women are fundamentally free to reject male stereotypes of beauty and attractiveness, and to become more equal as a result" basically aligned with the existentialist movement then rising up through the zeitgeist. (Demonstrating that the philosophical extends to the personal, she spent much of her life in an open relationship with her fellow existentialist icon Jean-Paul Sartre.) Yet it hasn't really gone stale, and has indeed proven adaptable to various different interpretations, eras, and contexts — including, as we can see in the 8-Bit Philosophy video above, video games.
"This is Samus, defender of the galaxy," says its narrator, introducing the space-suited protagonist of the classic Nintendo game Metroid. "For those of you that don't know, Samus is a woman." This fact, revealed only after the defeat of the final boss, jolted the gamers of the day. Metroid came out in 1986, just months after de Beauvoir's death, and it came out onto a video-gaming landscape where player characters' maleness went without saying, where "man is a savior and the feminine is a damsel in distress. Man is a subject whereas woman is the object of possession." But to de Beauvoir's mind, "a fundamental ambiguity marks the feminine being," leaving women — of any country, of any time, or of actual or digital reality — much greater freedom to define themselves than they may know.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.