literary criticism

The Cultural Construction of ‘Woman’ throughout history in Western Art & Literature

chasityIn her groundbreaking work, The Second Sex (1949), Simone de Beauvoir argues that contrary to popular belief, femininity, or what it means to be a woman, is not organically or metaphysically predetermined, but culturally determined. Is ‘woman’ a construct? Beauvoir most certainly argued yes and I have to agree, at least in the sense that the literature and art of Western civilization provides much to support her allegation.

For example, in her essay Poses and Passions, Zirka Filipczak reminds us that the poses adopted by men and women in the artwork of the English Renaissance are strategically quite different – whilst men are represented as active (holding a sword, perhaps) and intelligent (hands on a stack of books, for example), women either sit modestly silent, their empty hands crossed demurely across their girdles or, in exceptional circumstances, they hold a bible. Ms Filipczak suggests such poses were sociality established in order to demonstrate those qualities which were most highly prized in each of the respective sexes; there is much to support this too.

For example, during the English Renaissance chastity was the most important virtue in women. Certainly one legitimate reason for this was that men needed to be certain that the sons borne by their wives were actually their rightful heirs. But another important reason was as demonstrated in Ben Jonson’s comedy, Volpone, with the character Corvino – society rains shame upon a man who is cuckolded and hence a man must take every precaution to ensure such a disaster does not happen.

In her novel, Orlando, Virginia Woolf underlines the social determinations of virtues such as chastity when Orlando, her hero turned heroine remembers how ‘as a young man’ she had ‘insisted’ that women should not only be ‘obedient’, ‘scented’, and ‘exquisitely appareled’ but also ‘chaste’. Orlando reflects that this means that now he is a she – I shall now have to ‘pay’ in my ‘own person’ for such desires for certainly now she realises that women by nature are none of these things. But as T.S. Eliot makes clear in his poem The Waste Land, at least in the early 20th century things had not changed much when in the section, ‘The Fire Sermon’, the ‘bored and tired’ typist who casually has sex with ‘her young man carbuncular’ is, through allusion to a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, compared to an 18th century woman, who has likewise ‘stooped to folly’. But the 18th century hides her ‘shame’ fro ‘ev’ry eye’ instead of having audacity, as does the 20th century woman, to ‘pace about her room’ and ‘put a record on the gramophone’.

Another important myth propagated by men (they were, after all, almost inevitably the ones doing the painting and writing) was that women are dependent upon and inferior to them. They did not have to reach any further than the Bible for support of this position. As Woolf made clear in her essay A Room of One’s Own, that when resurrecting ‘the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, one had to look past ‘Milton’s bogey’ and his colourful depiction of man’s fall from the Garden of Eden all because of one woman named Eve. As with the portrait poses, these myths (if one should choose, as I might, to see the Bible as such) force stereotyped roles upon women and if the women fail to conform to these culturally ‘accepted’ standards then all will be lost.

This is amply demonstrated in Kyd’s Renaissance drama, The Spanish Tragedy, when Bel-Imperia dared to love Antonio and not Belthazar as mandated by her brother and father, all hell broke loose; everyone (except her father – no doubt because he was the king) died as the result. The Duchess of Malfi in Webster’s play of the same name provides another example – not only did the duchess (now a widow) marry of her own choosing but she also neglected to preserve her chastity in the eyes of society (she was commonly known as a ‘strumpet’). This gave her brother, Ferdinand, added ammunition when he determined to proceed with her murder.

In the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecraft very capably argued that the problem with women was not that they were by nature irrational and emotional but that they were educated to be thus. Educate women properly, she argued, and they will stop acting like children and instead like adults. Unfortunately for Wollstonecraft, like the Duchess of Malfi she neglected to look after her own chastity and thus provided her detractors enough ammunition to successfully ‘shoot down’ her otherwise legitimate claims. Even by the mid-Victorian times, education for women remained a significant issue as demonstrated by Charlotte Bronte’s heroine, Jane Eyre – one can only imagine how dismal her future would have been had she not escaped from her nasty aunt, Mrs Reed, and (although at some personal expense) received a decent education at Lowood.

Even that however did not ensure her longer-term success as the only paid positions available to her afterwards was as a teacher or governess. As the story of Jane Eyre made clear, even being (or at least demonstrating) oneself to be the intellectual or moral equal/moral superior of a man did not ensure she was thus treated. Lucky for Jane that her Mr Rochester was more a Gothic than Victorian hero. Until the early 20th century such inequality was more than apparent as Virginia Woolf made clear in her novel, To The Lighthouse – whilst Mr Ramsay strutted about thinking great thoughts, his wife Mrs Ramsay sat and knitted stockings for needy children.

Not only did men naturally consider themselves superior to women but they showed significant fear and agitation when a woman like Jane Eyre, did demonstrate herself to be their superior. As Thomas Hardy’s poem, The Ivy Wife, written in the late 19th century about a woman who successfully competes with a man, makes clear such folly will be the ruination of them both.

In summary, Simone de Beauvoir argued that ‘woman’ is a construct at least in the sense that what it means to be a woman is culturally determined. I would have to agree that she has a valid point as there is much evidence throughout the history of Western art and literature to support it. For example, there have been centuries of such works reminding women that ‘chastity’ is their most important virtue and that along with being subservient and inferior to men, if they fail to ensure their behaviour remains within the culturally accepted boundaries all hell will break loose both for them and their households. Such ‘womanly’ concerns were reinforced by their education and attempts by reformers like Mary Wollstonecraft to improve education for women were ‘shot down’ with allegations of her own indifference to chastity. Such concerns have persisted well into the 20th century as has been well documented by male and female writers such as Woolf, Hardy and T.S. Eliot.

Feminism

What 21st Century Women Might Learn From Simone de Beauvoir

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.


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