Simone de Beauvoir Defends Existentialism & Her Feminist Masterpiece, The Second Sex, in Rare 1959 TV Interview

Giv­en how many aca­d­e­m­ic phi­los­o­phy depart­ments have ban­ished Exis­ten­tial­ism into some prim­i­tive wilder­ness, it seems strik­ing to hear peo­ple talk about it as a cur­rent phe­nom­e­non with a seri­ous, liv­ing pedi­gree and a hip youth van­guard dis­till­ing its ideas into pop cul­ture. By the time I’d heard of Albert Camus—by way of The Cure’s ear­ly sin­gle “Killing an Arab”—the ref­er­ences to the French philoso­pher and his nov­el The Stranger were already exot­ic, and as kitschy as the faux-Mid­dle East­ern gui­tar line in the song. But in 1959, the hip­ster exis­ten­tial­ist was a phe­nom­e­non so wide­spread that Nor­man Mail­er wrote a scathing essay about the char­ac­ter.

And a Cana­di­an jour­nal­ist, sit­ting down to inter­view Exis­ten­tial­ist philoso­pher Simone de Beau­voir, began by ask­ing her to com­ment on the “group of noisy, row­dy jazz-lov­ing young peo­ple, in the imme­di­ate post-war peri­od.” This first wave of 50s Parisian hip­sters embraced Sartre, Camus, and Beau­voir right along with Coltrane and Char­lie Park­er.

Beau­voir dis­miss­es any con­nec­tion between her kind of Exis­ten­tial­ism and that of the row­dy mass­es except that of phys­i­cal prox­im­i­ty. Nonethe­less, like 90s fem­i­nist punk rock­ers who spread the ideas of third wave fem­i­nism, the French and Amer­i­can Beats made Exis­ten­tial­ist phi­los­o­phy cool.

Beau­voir prefers to draw a clear bound­ary between her work and the next generation’s appro­pri­a­tion. By this time, both Sartre and Camus had dis­avowed the term Exis­ten­tial­ist and had a falling-out over Com­mu­nism. But Beau­voir uses the term and refers to a “We,” who “think—and it’s one of the most impor­tant points in existentialism—that man is the pur­pose of man, his own future, and the pur­pose of all his activ­i­ties.” She draws on stark bina­ry oppo­si­tions of “good” and “evil” to explain the “fun­da­men­tal basis of what you could call our ethics,” and yet, she says, “we don’t ask meta­phys­i­cal ques­tions.”

If it sounds like Beau­voir is sum­ma­riz­ing Sartre, that’s part of what’s going on. The inter­view­er keeps press­ing to under­stand the “exis­ten­tial­ist man’s con­cep­tion of the world.” She oblig­es, dis­cussing “Sartre­an Exis­ten­tial­ism” and his major work Being and Noth­ing­ness and enter­tain­ing vague ques­tions about athe­ism and pol­i­tics. Final­ly, around 12:15, they begin to talk about the book for which de Beau­voir is best known, The Sec­ond Sex, which would go on to inspire 60s fem­i­nists like Bet­ty Friedan, Glo­ria Steinem, and UK col­lec­tivist mag­a­zine Spare Rib.

Calm and mea­sured through­out the con­ver­sa­tion, Beau­voir defends her ideas, includ­ing the most provoca­tive, that, as the inter­view­er para­phras­es, “You don’t believe in the exis­tence of a fem­i­nine nature. You believe peo­ple are first human, before being male or female.” She makes it clear right away that her anti-gen­der essen­tial­ism has roots in an even more fun­da­men­tal, and very Exis­ten­tial­ist, skep­ti­cism: “I don’t believe in the exis­tence of a human nature.” All of us, what­ev­er gen­der we’re taught to iden­ti­fy with, become prod­ucts of our “place, time, civil­i­sa­tion, and tech­nique etc.” through cul­tur­al con­di­tion­ing, not inner neces­si­ty.

The Sec­ond Sex, she says, is not a revolt or a protest, but a descrip­tion of an oppres­sive set of rela­tions that “cur­rent­ly nei­ther men nor women can just trans­form… with a mag­ic wand.” Nev­er­the­less, de Beau­voir became increas­ing­ly activist as she aged, giv­ing the elo­quent inter­view on “Why I’m a Fem­i­nist” in 1975. And above all, the younger gen­er­a­tion who picked up piece­meal Sartre also picked up enough of Beauvoir’s work to begin forc­ing changes in the mate­r­i­al con­di­tions she iden­ti­fied as cre­at­ing gen­der-based forms of social oppres­sion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Simone de Beau­voir Tells Studs Terkel How She Became an Intel­lec­tu­al and Fem­i­nist (1960)

Down­load All 239 Issues of Land­mark UK Fem­i­nist Mag­a­zine Spare Rib Free Online

11 Essen­tial Fem­i­nist Books: A New Read­ing List by The New York Pub­lic Library

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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