An Animated Introduction to the Feminist Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Simone de Beau­voir & Jean-Paul Sartre Shoot­ing a Gun in Their First Pho­to Togeth­er (1929)

Pho­tos of Jean-Paul Sartre & Simone de Beau­voir Hang­ing with Che Gue­vara in Cuba (1960)

Edward Said Recalls His Depress­ing Meet­ing With Sartre, de Beau­voir & Fou­cault (1979)

The Fem­i­nist The­o­ry of Simone de Beau­voir Explained with 8‑Bit Video Games (and More)

A His­to­ry of Ideas: Ani­mat­ed Videos Explain The­o­ries of Simone de Beau­voir, Edmund Burke & Oth­er Philoso­phers

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.

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  • T says:

    My daugh­ter is a woman and I am 100% proud her to be woman. If you think she can not be proud of her, I say fuck you! My daugh­ter will live with­out that shit talk­ing that you bring out your mounth and she will be respect­ed whole her life.

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