We’ve Come A Long Way Baby – But Where Do We Go From Here?
Carrie Bradshaw, feminist icon from the hit series Sex and the City, has a good income of which to dispose as she pleases. When not shopping for outrageously expensive shoes, she brags about sexual conquests with her female friends. Paradoxically, while enjoying these pursuits once reserved by the patriarchy for men, Carrie dreams of the day that her egoistical and fabulously wealthy prince charming, Mr Big, will sweep her off her prettily shod feet and carry her to patriarchal bliss.
And she’s not the only one. It is sobering to realise that the immense popularity, especially with younger women, of the feminine paradigm Carrie represents, provides a gauge on how 21st century women view themselves as women. Increasingly, young women are looking to return at least in part, to the pre-feminist, patriarchal, stereotyped norm. We’ve come a long way, baby, but where do we go from here?
For help, we might turn to one of the founders of the feminist movement, the existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir.
In her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949), Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally defined.
Further, to maintain their superior, ‘top dog’, patriarchal position, men perpetrate myths that by their nature, women are dependent upon (and inferior to) them (Beauvoir, 281). These myths force stereotyped roles upon women, depriving them of their existential freedom to live authentically in accord with their own values, a freedom always enjoyed by men. To remedy the disparity, Beauvoir calls for economic, political, and reproductive (through birth control and abortion) parity between the sexes.
She does not advocate that men and women be equals. Nor does she suggest that man is the ideal to which women should aspire. This would serve only to maintain the perception that women are outsiders trying to infiltrate the norm. She cautions that in her bid for freedom, woman should not abandon her femininity, which (like childbearing) makes her truly different from man. To do this, would be to renounce a part of her humanity (Mahon, 196). Besides, none the above will achieve the desired goal. For Beauvoir, each of us necessarily is constrained by his or her situation, the socioeconomic, political, and bodily givens in which we live, work, and play. It is parity in these respective playing fields that Beauvoir advocates and by definition this presupposes gender difference.
Sixty years later, feminism faces perhaps its most serious challenge. In her book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi chronicles the outrage of both sexes that feminists have encouraged women to focus on autonomy, independence, and career (traditional male concerns) at the expense of children and family (traditional female concerns). Shattered lives and nationwide unhappiness is only result they see. Have feminists ignored the advice from Beauvoir and forfeited their femininity in order to become pseudo men? Might Carrie and her compatriots be back paddling into the pre-feminist, patriarchal, stereotyped norm in a confused effort to regain their femininity? Will this get anyone where they want to go?
If the goal is freedom for women – parity on the playing field – then Beauvoir would have to answer no. She specifies the feminist battle will only be won when both women and men recognise each other as peers, each free subjects to pursue his or her own goals (Beauvoir, 754). Firmly linking freedom to brotherhood, Beauvoir argues this is possible only when both sexes have equal access to their humanity without penalty to their economic and professional positions (Moi, 228). To accomplish this, both men and women must take charge of their own existence, conscientiously exercising the choices with which they are presented. Shunning this ultimate human responsibility by hiding behind predetermined stereotypes is the ultimate bad faith.
In conclusion, what advice might we give Carrie? Beauvoir might say that while you’ve come a long way, baby, you have a long way to go. Take responsibility to make your life your own and stop blaming others when it doesn’t work out as planned. That’s good advice as far as it goes, yet still, its tone is essentially patriarchal.
Even as Beauvoir warned against women abandoning their femininity to become pseudo men, she was herself, so much the product of the patriarchy that she could only envision femininity vis a vis its opposition to masculinity (Léon, 147). In that light, femininity could have little positive value as it is doomed by definition, to lack (of masculinity). Subsequent feminists (albeit not existentialists per se) like Hélene Cixous, have glorified the feminine in its own right, with the view to denying the political, social, and economic significance of gender difference and instead making it a cause for personal delight (Léon, 148).
I suggest that if Carrie can transcend the traditional male/female stereotypes she seems to be straddling, and instead embrace that which it truly means for her to be woman she will have attained the real essence of Beauvoir’s existentialist, feminist ideal. If that means a closet full of outrageously expensive shoes and bragging about sexual conquests then so be it. If not, then we’ve come along way, baby, but its time for a direction change.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex, trans. by H M Parshley. London: Everyman’s Library, 1993.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Doubleday, 1991.
Mahan, Joseph. Existentialism, Feminism, and Simone de Beauvoir. Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.
Léon, Céline T. “Beauvoir’s Woman: Eunuch or Male?” (137-167), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, ed. by Margaret A. Simons. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Moi, Toril. Simone de Beauvoir – The Making of an Intellectual Woman. Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2008.
Tidd, Ursula, Simone de Beauvoir. London: Routledge, 2004.
Ward, Julie K., “Reciprocity and Friendship in Beauvoir’s Thought” (223-242), The Philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, ed. by Margaret A. Simons. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
- Why De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is Still Relevant (pinkbananaworld.com)
- Susan Faludi Tackles Feminist Generational Rift in Harper’s — Critic Marcotte Responds (alternet.org)
- Paradise Lost: The Bitter Pill of Global Feminism (pajamasmedia.com)
- Writing for freedom’s sake (rt.com)
- House of discontented women (search.japantimes.co.jp)
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