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.
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