Sunday, September 25, 2016

Notes on the Invitation List for a Literary Dinner Party

Samuel Beckett: Says he can't come to dinner, but he's coming to dinner. Bringing a pebble as his guest.
Fanny Burney: Coming? Made it to page 1,342 of her reply, but haven't found answer to invitation yet.
Lewis Carroll: Put children to bed before arrival.
Agatha Christie: Promises to bring her own arsenic.
Gabriele D'Annunzio: Will arrive by aeroplane on the lawn. Say good-bye to garden.
Emily Dickinson: Arrange flowery bower with bee hive in which she may hide from view. Songbirds and frogs optional.
Arthur Conan Doyle: Avoid at all cost mention of fairies.
Elena Ferrante: Requires camouflage - perhaps a humanoid teepee made out of the wallpaper?
Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Never mind. Paint over wallpaper.
Antonio Gramsci: Wishes it noted that, although all men are intellectuals, D'Annunzio is a nincompoop and doesn't count. Seat at other end of the table.
Alice James: Set smelling salts, milk of magnesia, and laudanum at seat. Rent small therapy dog for the evening. Says Nurse will eat beforehand at home.
James Joyce: Prefers crockery to have lewd designs; says otherwise party is too boring and monoideal.
Vaslav Nijinsky: Alright, alright, he's not a writer... But rumor has it, he comes to parties in his faun costume (!), so sure to prove a beneficial sight for Emily and Alice.
George Sand: Won't come without Chopin and Chopin concerned about drafts. Send photographic proof that windows close tightly. Reconsider Nijinsky, as Chopin might not survive the shock.
Jonathan Swift: Requests Irish baby for his entrée. Actually seems to be in earnest.
Henry David Thoreau: Requests that he be served his dinner outside, on a log. Would prefer that the weather be rainy.
P.L. Travers: Hide the Disney videos.
Simone Weil: Says dinner parties are for bourgeois oppressors. Will only eat food if has grown it herself in the garden first.
Virginia Woolf: Insists on buying the flowers herself. Says, last time, the flowers were all wrong and she was busy weeks writing out her frustration. Also, requests private dining room.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Is "A Room of One's Own" Classist and Racist?

In 1983, Alice Walker criticized Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, on the grounds that Woolf's argument was classist and racist. In In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Walker wrote:

"Virginia Woolf, in her book A Room of One's Own, wrote that in order for a woman to write fiction she must have two things, certainly: a room of her own (with key and lock) and enough money to support herself. What then are we to make of Phyllis [sic.] Wheatley, a slave, who owned not even herself? This sickly, frail, Black girl who required a servant of her own at times—her health was so precarious—and who, had she been white, would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day."

Walker's reaction is part of a larger wave of criticism directed at Woolf that essentially denigrated her feminism because of her privilege. Though there has been a substantial rehabilitation of Woolf's reputation, especially as her pacifist masterpiece Three Guineas has been analyzed with greater attention and care, a whiff of disapproval continues to cleave to the conception of Woolf as a feminist. If we unpack Walker's critique, however, it becomes clear that a failure to consider the work's context and some misreading weakens that critique.

Walker claims that Woolf argues that women require a room and a living wage in order to write fiction. There are several misapprehensions here. First of all, Woolf is not claiming that women require these things in order to write fiction. She claims that women require these things in order to write fiction that can compete with the greatest works written by men. It isn't impossible to write fiction without a room (or, really, privacy) and money, but the lack of these things severely handicaps women. Woolf herself cites Austen and points out the difficulties that she faced in writing her novels: Austen had to write in the family drawing room and had to hide her manuscript when anyone outside the family came to call and she was entirely dependent on male relatives for shelter, clothing, and food. The fact that Austen is one of a select few women who managed to write and publish novels is testament to the fact that it requires something truly exceptional to overcome these limitations, which were the common lot of women of leisure (while women in the working classes were denied education and often could neither read nor write).Woolf also notes that Austen, like the Brontë sisters and George Eliot, were childless (Charlotte Brontë died likely from complicated causes related to a first pregnancy), had male relatives tolerant of their pursuits, and published either anonymously or under a male pseudonym. Woolf's point is that women writers could produce more and better books if they were not constantly interrupted and did not always have to ask permission from a man in order to write; both of these problems are solved by a private room and money enough to live on.

Second of all, the phrase "writing fiction" in Woolf's analysis presupposes "writing (professional, published, critically considered, literary) fiction." She's not talking about writing fiction as a hobby or a distraction from the exigencies of everyday life. For her, fiction is a serious and above all professional pursuit. She's attacking the patriarchal paradigm that allows men, whether married or not, whether fathers or not, to be professional writers, while women, especially if married and especially if they had children, were expected to be available at all times, that is, their writing was not deemed professional.

What, then, are we to make of Walker's example of Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784)? Wheatley was, as Walker points out, an enslaved black woman, of frail health but robust intellect. Wheatley was also incredibly exceptional. She was owned by a liberal family who, impressed with her talent, furnished her with an education, an advantage hardly any enslaved person could hope to attain. It is also very much worth noting that this was special treatment: Wheatley's domestic duties were assigned to other slaves owned by the family, slaves that, notably, were not privy to an education, no matter how liberal the family may have been. The publication of her poetry was so controversial that she was forced to prove in court that she had actually written the poems; one can hardly conceive of the humiliation she must have felt. Teaching enslaved persons to read and write was quite controversial and in the 1830s anti-literacy laws were passed in several states, but even in Wheatley's time, few indeed believed in education for the enslaved.

Wheatley did not have a room of her own and she certainly did not have access to a living wage. But, she would not have been able to write a line if her male owner had not decreed that she should receive an education, materials with which to write, exemption from domestic labor, and encouragement that extended as far as a trip to England where her poetry could be more readily accepted for publication. Wheatley was freed only upon the master's death, but her life as a free woman was one of abject poverty and brutal domestic labor that she was too physically unwell to perform. She died at 31.

Walker's rebuttal to Woolf's argument is not really supported by pointing to Wheatley. At the most fundamental level, Wheatley was a poet - she never wrote any fiction - and Woolf draws a distinction between the demands of writing poetry and the demands of writing fiction. But, in essence, that's a quibble. Wheatley's success as a poet says more about how exceptional her circumstances were than it does about what women, especially black, enslaved women, could realistically accomplish at the time. Woolf, too, points out exceptions. It's absolutely crucial to acknowledge that the number of black women writers contemporary with Wheatley can be counted on one hand. In a very limited sense, Wheatley did have a room of her own because she was granted the latitude to the privacy that advanced study and writing require, but, because of her status as an enslaved black woman, she had no right to that room and was at the mercy of the family that owned her. It could be denied her at any moment. Similarly, when she had to work for her living, she was no longer able to get her work published. Without the support of a white family, publishers wouldn't buy her poems. In other words, Phillis Wheatley could never have written or published if the white man who owned her hadn't decided that it would be so. Her circumstances are more extreme than Austen's, say, or Fanny Burney's, because of her race and because she was enslaved, but her career was severely limited by white, male interests.

Woolf wants to do away with those white male interests. Had Walker presented us with a lengthy list of female authors who were brilliant novelists, who had published their work and received a fair critical appraisal, who were considered on a par with contemporary male authors, but who could not lay claim to any form of private space (even so much as a desk) or monetary support, then her critique might have had some merit. But, instead, she gives an example that Woolf herself might have used, an exception that proves the rule.

Lastly, Walker makes the dubious claim that, "had [Wheatley] been white, [she] would have been easily considered the intellectual superior of all the women and most of the men in the society of her day." That's total nonsense. Had Wheatley been white, she would certainly have had far greater chances, both to study and write and to publish. She would certainly not have had to defend her authorship in a court of law; unquestionably, that humiliation would have been spared her. It is easy to imagine that she would have been accorded the respect (limited and patronizing as it was) granted to women writers of her day. But to say that whiteness would have made contemporary men consider her their equal or superior is an absurd claim. There is not a single eighteenth century female writer, poet or novelist, that any contemporary male critic ever considered his equal or superior: not Austen, not Fanny Burney, not Mary Wollstonecraft, not Françoise de Graffigny, not Ann Radcliffe.

In fact, Wheatley more than many writers of her time desperately needed a room of her own and a living wage. Her physical frailty, her vulnerability as a black woman in colonial Boston, the intellectual tenor of her writing and her lively engagement with writers and thinkers such as Alexander Pope (the expense of the books alone would have been formidable), all these factors made it imperative for her to have her own space and her own income. She never had those things. She died in poverty, her husband in debtor's prison, her infant children dead or dying, her last poems unpublished. Her entire literary output can be collected in a volume just under a hundred pages. Far from rebutting Woolf's thesis, if anything, Walker further supports it, for it becomes clear that Woolf's requirements were as pertinent in colonial America as they were in England.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

6 Texts Essential to an Understanding of Fascism

The word "fascism" has been thrown about with quite the cavalier attitude throughout the 2016 presidential race, but it seems to have been predominantly used as a pejorative term for right-wing candidates (or, at least, a certain flamboyantly orange candidate). Without minimizing the substantial threats that certain xenophobic, misogynist, and otherwise extremist comments and policy suggestions have rendered all too frighteningly tangible, the word "fascism" has been improperly applied. Americans have certainly considered it a dirty word for decades (for instance, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, the insult is "fascist pig," rather than "Nazi pig" or "Falangist pig"), but it is not a well understood term and even among serious scholars there is no consensus as to what exactly fascism is, what constitutes lived fascism as opposed to ideology or theory, and whether the dictatorships usually identified as fascist - Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, sometimes Franco's Spain - demonstrated an actual fascist reality. It is urgent, I believe, in these tumultuous political times to use words clearly and with a reasoned understanding of their meaning. With that in mind, I have put together this brief reading list of sources that should allow the reader to form an opinion about the meaning of fascism. This understanding should both grant insight into twentieth century history and politics and provide groundwork for a more discerning appreciation of the political ideologies in play in this election. I would also point out that Mussolini's writings are not under copyright and quite easy to access in online, both in the original Italian and in translation. Though much, if not all, of his writing proves rather distasteful, it is unquestionably illuminating. I must confess I have preferred to leave the reading of Hitler's Mein Kampf to experts on Nazi Germany, but it too is easily accessible online.

The Origins of Totalitarianism - Hannah Arendt
Totalitarianism, like fascism, is a term that is much (over)used by journalists and political commentators, although there is substantial disagreement about what the term means even among scholars. Fascism is not totalitarianism, but the terms have been historically linked - they were both coined in Italy, by Italians, at around the same time - and one cannot talk about one without raising the specter of the other. Arendt doesn't consider fascism a form of totalitarianism: in her view, the only two truly totalitarian regimes in history were Nazi Germany under Hitler and Soviet Russia under Stalin. Her lucid, incredibly rich analysis traces the origins of these totalitarian regimes, which she sees as based in the development of a paranoid antisemitism that presumed the existence of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and in the expansionism of late imperialism. This is a considered and yet deeply felt book that presents history and politics in the most nuanced and rational way possible. 

How Fascism Ruled Women: Italy, 1922-1945 - Victoria De Grazia
The first scholarship on fascism rendered women essentially invisible, even major figures such as Margherita Sarfatti and Ines Donati (one of the only women to participate in the March on Rome), and books like this one have remedied this unforgivable oversight on the part of male scholars. De Grazia approaches her subject from a variety of angles, examining everything from women active in politics to maternity, symbolic representations of women in fascist media to how the regime impacted social life and dating, treating these subjects with a sophisticated comprehension of political theory and a lively empathy for Italian women. The most valuable and far-reaching insight proposed by How Fascism Ruled Women is how insidiously and completely Mussolini's regime was able to penetrate daily life for Italians, even in arenas where politics would at first glance seem irrelevant or unnecessary.

Ur-Fascism - Umberto Eco (Il fascismo in tre capitoli - Emilio Gentile)
For those who speak Italian, Emilio Gentile's Il fascismo in tre capitoli is an invaluable handbook, a brief but extraordinarily succinct summary of the history of fascism and fascists in Italy that includes the most convincing definition of fascism that I have found, but treats the controversies with fairness and transparency. Although Gentile is arguably the foremost expert on the subject, this particular book is not available in English, so as a replacement I recommend Umberto Eco's essay, "Ur-Fascism," which defines with grace and wit the signs with which proto-fascist or fascistic ideologies can be identified. Eco's essay is less an attempt to understand history than a protest and a plea; he urges us to be on the watch for ideologues who might bring us again down the path of dictatorship, repression, and genocide.

A History of Fascism, 1914-1945 - Stanley Payne
Payne's hefty volume is one of the single most important books for English speakers hoping to gain an understanding of fascism; he offers a complex and exact definition of fascism (and also provides a summary and condensed translation of Gentile's definition) and traces the political history and evolution of the regimes that he views as fascist, that is, Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. Here, fascism is placed in its historical context, its origins traced from the nineteenth century. As a final gesture, Payne, like Arendt in her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, considers what new transformations extreme right-wing ideologies could undergo and what that could mean for the future.

Three Guineas - Virginia Woolf
Woolf's masterpiece is a complex narrative framed as a series of letters within a letter in which she advances a delicately labyrinthine argument that equates the fight against patriarchy with the fight against fascism, given that both, as she makes clear, are struggles against tyranny. The dictator, whether Mussolini or Hitler, finds his counterpart in the dictator in the home; violence, Woolf tells us, is organic to the hierarchical structure in which one class of beings is oppressed by another, made secondary, denied power. Three Guineas portrays a sort of apocalyptic utopianism that in practice may be impossible to apply exactly, but that insists on a constant questioning of the status quo, a questioning that opens up an avenue for positive change. It's also one of the most exquisitely written books of the 1930s.

Vincere - Marco Bellocchio (La moglie di Mussolini - Marco Zeni)
In 2005, substantial and damning evidence was compiled and presented about a shocking and monstrous episode in Mussolini's life: he was a bigamist and he shut up his first wife, Ida Dalser, and their son, Benito, in separate insane asylums where both remained imprisoned for years and where both died under suspicious circumstances. Few stories illuminate to such devastating effect the horror of the fascist government's control over the Italian people and their ruthlessness in suppressing those who spoke up to question the regime. Unfortunately, Marco Zeni's biography of Dalser, La moglie di Mussolini, has not been translated - a real pity, since it is chock-full of lengthy quotations of letters, diaries, and other precious sources - and a documentary, Il segreto di Mussolini, which aired on state television, is not available with English subtitles. The only access English-speakers have to this incredible piece of Italian history is Marco Bellocchio's film adaptation, Vincere, which stars Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Filippo Timi, and Michela Cescon. This film is saturated with Bellocchio's own leftist politics, but it is still an exquisite and subtle film with gorgeous cinematography by Daniele Cipri and splendid costumes by Sergio Ballo.

I myself believe that the term "fascism" should only be applied to the Italian regime, though fascist, proto-fascist, and fascistic parties certainly existed elsewhere in Europe, notably in England (the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley) and the former Yugoslavia (the Croatian Ustaše). It will be noted that I have included no sources that address Nazism as a primary subject, though there are hundreds of books, many of them masterpieces, that focus on Nazism, Nazi Germany, Hitler and other prominent party members, and so on. Though I see Nazism as fundamentally linked to fascism and think it is clear that the two ideologies acted as influences on each other, I do not believe that the two can be equated. For those looking for fairly accurate cinematic representations of Fascist Italy, I recommend (though of course with the caveat that they are narrative films, not documentaries): The Conformist; Rome, Open City and Paisan; Amarcord; 1900; and Love and Anarchy. Also notable, though explicitly about Nazism and Germany, is Visconti's The Damned.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Films to Accompany a Reading of "The Second Sex": A Watch List

The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir is essential reading for anyone wishing to have even a rudimentary understanding of feminism. It provided the foundation for all Western post-suffragist feminist movements and many such movements elsewhere in the world. That being said, de Beauvoir was first and foremost a philosopher and as such, as brilliant as it is, her work doesn't make for light reading. To appreciate the full scope of her arguments requires significant time and thought. Therefore, I have put together a watch list with movies that, each juxtaposed with a chapter of The Second Sex, promise to illuminate, illustrate, challenge, substantiate, or otherwise enrich the material. 

Volume 1: Facts and Myths

Destiny: Biological Data - Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014)
In this first chapter, de Beauvoir analyzes human reproduction, physiology, and biological processes to disprove the still-championed theory that biology is destiny and to argue that our understanding of biology itself is conditioned by our social, political, cultural, and economic realities. I must confess that I had hoped very much to find a documentary that combined an examination of biology with feminist politics, or at least had a female director, but I was unable to find a single film that fit the bill. Instead, I recommend, with some reservations, the series Cosmos, hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, which does, in its extensive examination of the physical universe, touch on how preconceptions about our reality, including gender, have twisted scientific thinking for centuries and how difficult it is to adjust for and correct such mistakes. The episode "Sisters of the Sun" specifically engages with a group of female scientists known as the Harvard Computers, whose accomplishments include the stellar classification system.

Destiny: The Psychoanalytic Point of View - Daisies (1966)
In this chapter, de Beauvoir tackles the behemoth theories of Freud and Adler and finds them woefully inadequate. She demonstrates that the main proponents of psychoanalytic theory have failed to recognize women as human beings, classifying them as less than male or imperfectly human, splitting the psyche along gender lines, which have their roots in socioeconomic structure and are not organic to the human condition. In the spirit of this delightful explosion of some of the most influential of twentieth-century misogynist theories, I recommend Czech filmmaker Věra Chytilová's gleefully subversive comedy. Daisies embraces an anarchic, breezy rejection of the female as envisioned by the male; its heroines, both named Marie, decide one day "to be bad" and proceed, coolly and without heeding the consequences, to do it. Chytilová doesn't posit a utopia, for the world in which the Maries run riot is horrified, if fascinated, by them, but the film encloses of vision of a total feminine freedom that shocks precisely because it truly exists in the underground of the female imaginary. 

Destiny: The Point of View of Historical Materialism - Swept Away (1974)
De Beauvoir attacks the facile assumptions made by Engels in his work on economy and the family, demonstrating that women's oppression, and particularly her economic oppression, cannot logically be imputed to the innovation of bronze and rise of private property (as Engels suggests). In this case, I have chosen an especially challenging film, Lina Wertmüller's Swept Away, not least of all because it has been the subject of extreme controversy regarding its political point of view. In the film, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), a ruthlessly selfish and very wealthy right-winger, is shipwrecked on a Mediterranean island with Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a rabidly communist sailor who had chafed against the opulence and arrogance of Raffaella's yacht's ritzy passengers. The complexity of the film lies in Gennarino's seeming conquest of Raffaella, a conquest that is ultimately turned on its head and compromised. The eroticism of humiliation and abasement cuts both ways and the gender and class politics make it impossible for liberal feminists to choose a side in this battle of personalities. Raffaella is a powerful woman, but she believes working class people are soulless drones, thinks nothing of exploiting them, and considers her highly privileged problems (losing her sunglasses, for example) grandly important. Gennarino passionately insists on the dignity and worth of working class people, but he's also an abusive chauvinist, a lousy, spendthrift husband and father, and easily aroused by petty insults. The film's potent concoction of entangled economic and gender politics make Swept Away a difficult, but essential film.

History - Sorceress (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Belle (2013), Suffragette (2015)
To accompany de Beauvoir's five chapters on the history of the domination of women, I have chosen four films. Sorceress is extremely obscure, but well worth seeking out. Written and directed by French filmmaker Suzanne Schiffman, the film is set in the countryside of thirteenth-century France, where a Dominican monk (Tchéky Karyo) is forced to confront his task as witch-hunter and inquisitor when a wood-woman skilled in herblore and pagan ritual (Christine Boisson) awakes a fanaticism born of his own repressed memories of past sins. It's a brilliant intellectual film, which examines with delicacy and complexity the entangled truths of Christianity and paganism, faith and ritual, male power and female wisdom. Next up is Christopher Hampton's dazzling adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, which, in its story of sexual treachery, deviance, and ruination, portrays to devastating effect the unequal division of power between men and women even in the highest echelons of society. The virtuous or innocent woman is doomed to seduction and downfall, while the one woman who seems untouchable (Glenn Close) is destroyed her own wielding of power. Then we have Amma Asante's Belle, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of an earl's heir in Georgian England. Dido's position is rife with contradictions: she is wealthy and has the clothes, education, and accomplishments of an aristocratic heiress, but her black heritage and her illegitimacy bar her from dining with her own family when they have company. The film creates a fictional surrogate, a black woman who can take center stage in the fight to abolish slavery in the British Empire and reclaim that history for those it concerns most intimately. Finally, I recommend Suffragette. Written, directed, and produced by women, this film narrates the British suffragette movement from the perspective of the activists who had the most to lose: working-class women. Starring Carey Mulligan, Anne-Marie Duff, and Helena Bonham Carter, Suffragette is an essential feminist film, a tribute to the women, so many of them unnamed and unrecognized, who fought for and won the vote.

Myths - Chocolat (2000)
De Beauvoir's chapters on myths engage with how women have been represented by men in sources as diverse as medical journals, poetry, literature by acknowledged literary geniuses such as Stendhal and D. H. Lawrence, and even cinema. These sources create the mythos of the female, in which women are seen as unclean, mysterious and dangerously unknowable, and yet still insignificant from a wide perspective, important only in relation to man, or as an extension of man. In a way, nearly any mainstream film could serve as an accompaniment to these chapters, since nearly all such films promulgate some form of this mythos, but I have chosen Lasse Hallström's Chocolat, a charming, romantic movie about a chocolate-making woman (Juliette Binoche) who flouts French Catholic standards for women in favor of "following the north wind." It's sweet, pleasant, and has a moral that amounts to the necessity for a little pleasure in one's life, whether chocolate, sex, or conversation with a friend. It's lovely. And yet even in this film, which can lay no claim to especial misogyny, women are defined by their mysteriousness, by their otherness and strangeness. Binoche's character is an earth goddess figure: she nurtures an entire town, restores it to fertility, feeds its denizens, brings together its estranged families. I wouldn't call this a sexist film, but it demonstrates how entrenched mythic definitions of women are.

Volume II: Lived Experience

Formative Years: Childhood - The Three Lives of Thomasina (1963)
Perhaps the most famous statement in The Second Sex is: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman." In this chapter, de Beauvoir outlines how the girl child begins that process of becoming. In The Three Lives of Thomasina, based on a novel by Paul Gallico, the young child Mary (Karen Dotrice) lives with her embittered veterinarian father (Patrick McGoohan) and develops an overwhelming attachment to her orange cat in the wake of her mother's death. The film, deeply conservative in its portrayal of gender, depicts the girl child as learning housework as a matter of course (in stark contrast to boys, free to run wild in the Scottish glens), playing obsessively with dolls and treating her cat like a baby, and deeply, almost hysterical vulnerable without the direct and constantly expressed love of her distant father. That is, here we have the girl child within the patriarchal structure as described by de Beauvoir. The film, however, does not follow Mary to the advent of puberty. For that we can turn to a second Disney film, though I hesitate to outright recommend it, as it's dreadfully bad. Summer Magic, made in the same year, includes a scene that, noxious as it is, proves a perfect illustration of the imposition of misogynistic standards of femininity, internalized by girls who then self-police their own gendered comportment. In this scene, Hayley Mills and Deborah Walley sing that they must "walk feminine, talk feminine/smile and beguile feminine,/utilize your femininity/if you want to catch a beau." The movie posits this advice as a positive moral, an ideal to which any decent girl, who within the universe of the movie could only desire a boyfriend above all else, should aspire.

Formative Years: The Girl - Baby Doll (1956)
The girl, de Beauvoir, tells us, accepts her femininity with difficulty and her adolescent years are marked by varying degrees of rebellion against, or attempts to escape, her fate. Such resistance can extend as far as running away from home, committing petty crimes, or indulging in self-consciously provocative actions. Although Tennessee Williams doesn't give us intimate access to Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), the teenaged virginal bride of a racist middle-aged cotton gin owner (Karl Malden), Baker's performance gives us glimpses into the extreme confusion of the adolescent girl, already sexualized in male eyes, but not yet an adult in any sense. Directed by Elia Kazan, Baby Doll ignites a heated conflagration that pulls these two characters into the orbit of a seductive, unscrupulous Sicilian cotton gin owner, whose modern approach to business leaves his competitor in the dust. The movie tackles race, class, gender, and modernity, but for our purposes the character of Baby Doll is an illuminating entryway into the mindset of a girl who resists the fate her gender (and class) has assigned her, but finds no ways of escaping without recourse to yet one more male-imposed model of femininity. 

Formative Years: Sexual Initiation - Fat Girl (2001)
In this chapter, de Beauvoir identifies the extreme power imbalances of heterosexual sexual reality, especially for women and girls at the beginning of their lived sexual lives. Surely no filmmaker could have more to say on this subject than Catherine Breillat, whose shocking, sexually and violently explicit films have courted controversy since the beginning of her career. Fat Girl is probably her most notorious film, with the possible exception of Romance, and it unflinchingly follows two sisters; Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) drowns her adolescent angst in food, while Elena (Roxane Mesquida) is beguiled and seduced by a handsome Italian law student (Libero De Rienzo). Sex becomes the site of power negotiations in this film and the lines between coercion and consent, seduction and rape, jealousy and love, are hopelessly blurred. In this sense, watching Fat Girl is an utterly uncomfortable experience because it forces the viewer to let go of consoling conceptions of adolescent female sexuality, conceptions that still to this day stress a victimized, passive, and essentially chaste understanding of that sexuality. 

Formative Years: The Lesbian - The Children's Hour (1961)
Although de Beauvoir's chapter on lesbianism is old-fashioned and, naturally, doesn't make use of the vocabulary that has since been coined to talk about lesbianism, it was quite revolutionary in its time. For her, lesbianism is not an identity (identity politics became part of feminist discourse in the 1970s), but rather an entirely natural and morally neutral set of behaviors. This doesn't sound revolutionary now, but it certainly was in 1949. To accompany this dated chapter, I have chosen a dated film: The Children's Hour, directed by William Wyler and adapted from her own play by Lillian Hellman. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star as idealistic best friends who found a girls' boarding school in a rambling countryhouse. A spoiled brat (Karen Balkin, who gives an astonishingly intense performance) destroys their lives by spreading a rumor to adults that they interpret as evidence of the womens' homosexuality, which the child, sensing that the harder she pushes the worse her hated teachers will have it, continues to embellish. Lesbianism in 1961 was an incredibly taboo subject for a Hollywood film, and thus one can't anticipate a sex-positive or happy outcome, but the movie's moral is actually a complex defense of the right to privacy and the right to tell one's own story, both important for everyone, but exceptionally so in the case of the LGBTQ community.

Situation: The Married Woman - The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922)
This chapter vilifies marriage, deeming it an institution that binds women to a lifelong servitude of housework and expedient, unsatisfying sex. For de Beauvoir, marriage is inherently sexist and she goes so far as to assert that most are ruined by it. The chapter finds a perfect counterpart in groundbreaking surrealist director Germaine Dulac's The Smiling Madame Beudet, an experimental film that is considered one of the first, if not the very first, feminist films ever made. Madame Beudet (Germaine Dermoz) is respectably married, but she finds her husband (Alexandre Arquillière) an irritating boor. Her increasingly chimerical fantasies (rendered exquisitely with double exposures) make her more and more frantic to somehow escape the conjugal cage. Unexpectedly, the film is acutely suspenseful, as Dulac plants a series of visual clues that illuminate both Madame Beudet's growing frustration and the violence inherent in a man's wielding of a gun.   

Situation: The Mother - Story of Women (1988)
Though this chapter is titled "The Mother," de Beauvoir is less interested in motherhood than in the control of women through reproduction, a subject she explores through arguing for legal and safe medical abortion and communal child rearing. Rather than highlight a film such as Terms of Endearment that takes motherhood as its explicitly articulated theme, I've chosen instead Claude Chabrol's Story of Women (which would have been better translated as "the business of women"), based on the real-life case of Marie-Louise Giraud, who was guillotined for performing illegal abortions. Isabelle Huppert, perfectly cast, plays Marie-Louise, an impoverished and unhappily married mother who becomes an abortionist, at first to pay the bills, though gradually she begins to derive enormous satisfaction from having the money to indulge in nice clothes, good food, a bigger apartment, and, what she wants most of all, singing lessons, since she dreams of being a famous singer. The film neatly conveys in its narrative an illustration of de Beauvoir's arguments. The inherent ambivalence of unchosen motherhood and the costs of that motherhood on not only women, but also men and children, invoke a powerful social imperative; without reproductive freedom, motherhood itself is a form of patriarchal bondage.

Situation: Social Life - The Women (1939)
To accompany de Beauvoir's exploration of women's fashion, friendships, and social relationships with figures such as priests, doctors, and extramarital lovers, I recommend George Cukor's The Women, based on Clare Booth Luce's play. With a star-studded cast that includes Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, and Paulette Goddard, The Women is a complex and lightning-paced comedy in which not a single male, human or animal, makes an appearance, though the conversation is as focused on men as the camera is focused on women. As far as fashion is concerned, one finds the most gorgeous and avant-garde designs by Adrian (and a lavish Technicolor fashion show plunked in the middle of the black-and-white film), and as far as social life is concerned, one couldn't find a funnier, more vicious circle of gossiping women in any Hollywood film. Whether romancing their own husbands or someone else's, flitting off to Reno for a divorce, or indulging in a manicure at the spa, these bored, rich ladies and the poor, sexy perfume counter girls that threaten their cushy lifestyles can toss off a zinger every two seconds without smearing their makeup. Though one might be tempted to search out an underground feminism here, the film better serves as a dazzling exposé on the conditions that destroy or salvage marriages in which women have no power. 

Situation: Prostitutes and Hetaeras - Belle de Jour (1967)
De Beauvoir's analysis of the social and economic position of prostitutes addresses above all the power dynamics, which at a superficial glance, seem to grant to the prostitute more power than to the married woman, though their dependence is in many ways more greatly exaggerated. De Beauvoir's argument here is multi-layered and demands particular attention, all the more so since the prostitute has been a potent figure of fascination in all art forms and in social and psychoanalytic theories, and I have chosen to accompany it a film that is equally multi-layered, though much less intellectually transparent. Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour wears its surrealist elements more lightly than perhaps any of his other films, perhaps because his subject - the transgressive qualities of women's sexual desire - has an inherently surreal dimension in patriarchal culture. It stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, a bored housewife who, despite her love for her husband, feels no sexual interest in the vanilla sex life he can offer her and turns to high-class prostitution for sexual release. This isn't a feminist movie; in fact, one would be hard-pressed to articulate a clear ideological takeaway of any kind, but it dares to wade quite deeply into the, at the time, unplumbed cinematic depths of female desire and how both fantasies and realities of power play a role in that desire. 

Situation: From Maturity to Old Age - Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)
In this chapter, de Beauvoir illuminates the condition of the elderly woman, whom society essentially relegates to the dustbin. The elderly woman finds herself confined to useless activities, such as needlework or light charity work, she lives vicariously through her grown children and clings tenaciously to them as a result, she has nearly half her life still to live and she is condemned to idleness. This is not only a waste, for everyone concerned; it's a tragedy. Therefore, I recommend a film that, in its quiet way, is one of the most devastating tragedies of American cinema. Leo McCarey's masterpiece stars Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore as an elderly couple who are forced to separate when none of their grown children is willing to host both of them at once. This is an unflinchingly sad film and one requires an ample box of kleenex to watch it, but then, we as a society generally prefer to avert our eyes from the hard realities of old age and mortality and this film reminds of the cost of so doing.

Situation: Woman's Situation and Character - Jeanne Dielman (1975)
To ask whether a woman is inferior or superior to a man is a pointless question, de Beauvoir tells us in this chapter, for their situations are too plainly unalike. Further, the man's situation is very obviously better than the woman's. Thus, the only possible route to escape for women is to work for her liberation. Chantal Akerman's monumentally important feminist masterpiece, filmed in real time, draws us as viewers to the same conclusion. The film follows Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) through three days, during which the tedium of a woman's life is documented in painfully exquisite detail. Jeanne cooks, cleans, has sex, and mothers. She leaves her apartment only to buy groceries, pick up or drop off laundry and broken shoes, and collect the mail. A more damning vision of the closed circuit of traditional female life has never been made. Escape from routine and monotony requires an act of violence, the film tells us, an act that breaks through the suffocating schedule of daily tasks in such a way as to render a return to that schedule impossible.

Justifications: The Narcissist - The Piano Teacher (2001)
In this chapter, the woman as narcissist is explored. The narcissist is in thrall to patriarchy, she seeks fame, attention, and praise, but is constantly stifled, for she can only measure her success by the number of men held in thrall to her. This is a painful chapter, for the narcissist woman seeks power through the very structures that keep her oppressed. Such dark and pessimistic visions of the woman's condition are in perfect, if grim, harmony with the militantly feminist work of Elfriede Jelinek, whose novel is the basis for Michael Haneke's film. The Piano Teacher is about a bitter and dangerously repressed piano instructor (Isabelle Huppert) whose sadomasochistic fantasies and dictatorial mother drive her to sabotage her students, herself, and a queasily ambiguous sexual liaison with a student (Benoît Magimel). Bleak, acid, desolating, this film gives us a portrait of a woman eating herself from the inside out, trapped within a paradigm of oppression, for she lacks the consciousness of herself as a person that could lead her to liberate herself from her mother, from the need for male approval, from her voracious demand for sexual humiliation.

Justifications: The Woman in Love - Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
In this lyrical and beautifully written chapter, de Beauvoir describes the condition of the woman who loves and elegiacally, almost wistfully, extends the hope that someday a woman's love will not doom her to a state of poetic, yet incurable, powerlessness. To accompany the loveliest of the book's chapters, I have chosen one of the most exquisite films I have ever seen, Max Ophüls's adaptation of the Stefan Zweig novella, Letter from an Unknown Woman. In early twentieth-century Vienna, Lisa (Joan Fontaine, one of her very best performances) is enthralled by the music of a handsome concert pianist (Louis Jourdan at his most charming). Throughout her life, she loves him desperately, but she grows to understand that the immense generosity of her feelings is utterly unmatched - though that knowledge does not change those feelings. Again, this is not a feminist film, but it portrays with delicacy and elegance the complex ways in which women, not regarded by men as people but as objects, are subjugated by love, a feeling that at its best for men allows an elevation and empowerment of the spirit not available to women.

Justifications: The Mystic - Black Narcissus (1947)
For de Beauvoir, the mystic woman is not necessarily a religious woman, though religion is often the context from which her mysticism springs. The mystic sees herself as having a special relationship with God, or whoever (or whatever) takes the exalted place of God. De Beauvoir doesn't condemn religious practice (on the contrary, she draws Saint Teresa as an exemplary liberated woman), but she does condemn the sort of mysticism that requires the dissolution of the self. Black Narcissus, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and stunningly photographed by Jack Cardiff, explores these themes in its story of a convent of Anglican nuns running a school and hospital in the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) has taken refuge in religion after a failed love affair and her promotion to Sister Superior forces her to confront her own choices when a dancing girl (Jean Simmons) threatens to disrupt the caste system through her romance with the local Indian prince (Sabu) and a psychologically tortured fellow sister (Kathleen Byron) becomes violent under the spell of her unwanted attraction to a British agent (David Farrar).

Toward Liberation: The Independent Woman - My Brilliant Career (1979)
De Beauvoir concludes her magnum opus by asserting that the time has come for women to be equal to men. She outlines the basic requirements for women's liberation: full and equal participation in work remunerated with salaries equal to those enjoyed by men, marriage as a partnership of equals that can be dissolved at any time and without the interference of the paternalistic state, and complete freedom to chose whether, when, and how to become a mother, which includes guaranteed access to birth control, abortion, and maternity leave. De Beauvoir's call to the fight for liberation is an inspiriting one and so I have chosen to finish out this lengthy cinematic journey a film that was a rallying cry for feminist liberation, Gillian Armstrong's masterpiece, My Brilliant Career, adapted from the novel by Miles Franklin. Though Sybylla (Judy Davis) hasn't read The Second Sex, she has implicitly come to the same conclusions: she wants a career, she wants to play an equal role in any romantic liaison she may chose to enter, and she wants to control when, and if, she becomes a wife and mother. My Brilliant Career doesn't take place in a utopia and therefore Sybylla's insistence on her own liberation has a high cost, but her tenacity, her fierce independence and stubbornness, her confidence in her own abilities, these are the very qualities that any fight for liberation requires.

And this concludes my cinematic accompaniment to The Second Sex. We still have a long journey ahead of us. Our right to abortion is constantly contested and only within the past few years have films such as Obvious Child (2014) dared to portray abortion as a normal and not at all tragic part of women's lives. The United States is one of only three countries worldwide that does not mandate paid maternity leave (the other two are Lesotho and Papua New Guinea). Women still do not receive equal payment for equal labor. The fight is far from over. One hopes that reading The Second Sex, and other such feminist calls to liberation, continues to galvanize the struggle for women to occupy a position of equality globally.