The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir
Contributed by Fernande Huls
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Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Other vs Self

de Beauvoir considers this duality to be at the core of what defines the identity of men and women in society. Because men have traditionally defined themselves as the “neutral” and “positive” force, women are necessarily defined by their difference from men. Thus, as “the Other,” women are defined by men. In this categorization, men are essential, central, and independent, while women are inessential, and simply an object in relation to men. However, de Beauvoir also points out that women in turn submit to this distinction, accepting their place as the inessential. It is up to women to transform herself from this position imposed on her by men.

Transcendence Toward Being

de Beauvoir draws on Sartre’s theories from Being and Nothingnessto explain her own belief that the core of human existence is a desire to “transcend” our own selves in some way. This desire for transcendence is what explains the importance of sexual reproduction, which offers a means of perpetuating our existence through offspring. However, de Beauvoir is careful to point out that transcendence can be achieved in other ways, and reproduction is not the only transcendent activity humans can engage in. Thus, sexuality is not at the core of our being, and cannot fully explain the nature of men and women. Rather, both men and women should be considered in their quest to overcome individuality and find meaning outside ourselves.

Society vs Freedom

According to de Beauvoir’s interpretation of history, women have always had to choose between societal integration and personal freedom. In earlier times, a married woman could use her husband’s resources and enjoy societal respect. However, by integrating into society through marriage, she also had to give up many rights and freedoms. By contrast, prostitutes lived on the margins of society, often struggled with poverty, and were disrespected by most people. At the same time, they were able to be independent of men in ways that married women were not. In the modern day, this theme continues; de Beauvoir writes that older women gain a certain type of freedom through their age, which excuses them from domestic and sexual expectations. On the whole, women are either productive members of society who live in semi-slavery, or non-productive and freer.

Alienating Oneself

de Beauvoir believes that humans have a tendency to "alienate" themselves in an object of some kind. This basically means that people identify with something besides their own being in order to better define themselves and their place in the world. For men, she explains that Freud believes this "alienation" happens through the penis; men’s genitals appear to be something autonomous and separate from their own bodies and also represent a type of active virility that allows men to view their penis as an object outside their basic selves. For women, however, their genitals do not serve this same function because they are not apparent as external "object" nor as active in their sexual function. Instead, young girls can try to identify with their dolls. For older women, they tend to alienate themselves in their own bodies because their bodies are treated by society as objects. So, for example, a narcissist might identify most with her own physical appearance, instead of her personality and true self. Some women also alienate themselves in their male lovers or their religion. On the whole, the process of alienation is more destructive for women because they are not given an active or subjective role in society.

Generality vs Individuality

de Beauvoir believes that humans differ from animals because they are able to seek individual purpose instead of just aiming to advance their species. However, she explains that this is possible mainly for men in society. Men are encouraged to pursue a higher purpose, create new things, and focus on their individual selves. Women, however, are more often encouraged to focus on the general good of the species. For example, women are tasked with motherhood, which represents the advancement of the human species. They are also expected to fit into more general "types," such as the wife, the mother, the homemaker, etc. Men, on the other hand, are allowed to express themselves not as a general type but as an individual within society. In order for both men and women to find purpose in life, they would both have to be allowed to focus on their individuality as opposed to their generality.

Grasp on Reality

According to de Beauvoir, women tend to have a weaker grasp on reality. This is because they are more limited in what they can do in society. As a result, young girls turn to daydreaming more often than young boys do, because they know that their dreams tend not to be achievable and they cannot take concrete steps toward making their goals a reality. Women tend to be more dramatic and unrealistic in their love affairs and their approach to their situation in life because they are not given access to society, and therefore have an inaccurate set of expectations about how their lives should go. Then, finally, older women tend to turn back toward daydreaming as they reflect on all the possibilities they have had to forgo throughout their lives as women.

Bad Faith

In general, bad faith is an existentialist concept referring to one’s refusal to face reality. de Beauvoir refers to this concept throughout her book in order to explain many of the contradictions that women face in society. For women, bad faith is common because their reality is so painful to come to terms with. Thus, many women live in bad faith in various ways. For example, the independent woman must believe she can reconcile her autonomy with her femininity. The mother must believe that she is needed, even when her children grow up and gain their independence from her. On the whole, living in this state is damaging to women’s psyches because it involves constant self-deception. de Beauvoir believes that it is one of the negative consequences of the limitations and burdens placed on women in society.

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