By the time you read this your Dear Old Dad—if I’m lucky—will still live: an oversized raisin clinging to my dusty tomes in a stinking armchair, nodding off with my glasses skiing down my nose. I will begrudge your generation’s shitty music and ridiculous clothing and our leaders’ uselessness, and all of this will annoy you. I’ve felt this way for most of my life and, yes, I’ve pretty much always been insufferable.
Today, you are my little girl, not yet two years old. The look on your face when you get to watch Elmo’s World on the weekend is akin to the comfort one displays upon snuggling under a favorite blanket. It’s not quite the eye-rolling spiritual ecstasy you displayed when first trying ice cream, ice cream being about as close to god that an almost-two-year-old is likely to get. I imagine you growing up here in your native country, the United States of America. It’s hard to imagine now, but I wonder what you will be angry about when you’re a young woman. My hope is that it will be the next generation’s shitty music and ridiculous clothing, and that you won’t be as insufferable as your Dear Old Dad.
It’s partly because I think about you growing into a young woman that I set out to read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a behemoth of two books and 732 pages.
I’m writing to you sixty years after The Second Sex’s publication. I can only sum up those long decades as reasons for reading this book and writing about it to you: your grandmothers were mere children when it was published; they were teenagers when it influenced Betty Friedan to write The Feminine Mystique in 1963; by 1973 your grandmothers were newly-married, not yet planning families, and the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in the United States; by 1983 your D.O.D. was six years old, your mom four, and the push for the Equal Rights Amendment was dead; in 1993 Madonna began her Girlie Show World Tour in support of her Erotica album and the United Nations adopted its Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women; and in 2003 the Iraq War began, President Bush signed into law the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. So far, 2013 has brought the lifts on multiple bans against women serving in combat missions, and men on a Fox News segment freaked out over reports that more women than ever are the breadwinners in more American households. So Beauvoir begins The Second Sex in her introduction by asking “is there a problem?” And I will say, yes, there is definitely a problem, and that, “the woman problem has always been a man’s problem.” This last bit, as evidenced by the cronies mentioned above exhibiting their antifeminism on national television, couldn’t be more ample reason for your D.O.D. talking to you now. Just try not to get too weird about the fact that I have a penis.
Recently it’s become impossible for anyone in the state of Mississippi to have an abortion. The New York Times ran an article about an eleven-year-old gang-raped in Texas, how she “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s,” and about the poor rapists’ lives ruined and town shattered as a result. Some senator went public saying that women’s bodies somehow “know” when they’re being raped, and also when sex is consensual, disregarding all medical and scientific knowledge as well as common sense in one stroke. I’m thinking that I’ll fight a never-ending battle against a culture that will teach you to like “girly” things, like the color pink, and princesses, and that these things are less important than sports like football, or an interest in mechanical engineering. Even though I’m a male writing this letter, women writers are grossly underrepresented in the publishing industry. And women legislators, too, do not reflect the fact that women make up more than half our population, to say nothing of what seems to be the larger current issue, that women in full-time positions earn on average nineteen percent less than male coworkers in the same positions.
I do hope that you will enjoy the pleasures of life: Elmo, the park and the playground on weekends; Elmo; music to which your body cannot help but move; something besides Elmo; skiing down a steep mountain slope with the rush of winter air in your lungs. But I hope—dear god I hope—that you won’t forget that you are smart for what you think and do, and not for what a culture tells you that you ought to be. So, Kinsey, let me tell you what I think—and no, the irony’s not lost on me—about this book, The Second Sex.
First, let me tell you how smart Simone de Beauvoir was. The author of over twenty books—novels, essays, political tracts, biographies, and philosophy—she is considered a foundational thinker for contemporary feminism. She died in 1986, just two years after the above-mentioned state of Mississippi finally ratified our country’s 19th Amendment. This book, The Second Sex, Beauvoir researched and wrote in fourteen months, and if you’ve ever tried writing anything you probably recognize that this is amazing.
Among the things I was interested to learn about was how relevant this book would be in 2013. I’m disappointed to report that much of it does hold up, but I’m also delighted that parts seem so antiquated that I pictured women in crinoline Victorian dresses, with corsets and bustles, though Beauvoir wrote in an era at least sixty years beyond such inhibiting fashions. In other words, it’s totally cool for you to wear jeans, but it’s also largely acceptable that, should you wear form-fitting jeans, our patriarchy, in its infinite hypocrisy, might consider you a “slut.”
The beginning of The Second Sex covers the biological differences between men and women. Dudes are dicks. They are hubristic, conceited, domineering but insecure, and in some cases misogynistic. You will have already learned that guys are simple creatures. We like fatty foods and alcohol, plushy chairs and banal entertainment. We also have dicks, and this is the driving factor for a large percentage of everything else that we do in life, and this fact generates around us an aura of banality. Beauvoir also covers the psychoanalyst’s perspective on woman, which she dismisses as ridiculous, since at the time the book was written the field was populated almost entirely by men, and due to the limitations of a system that bases its understanding of the broad range of human behavior on sexuality alone. Basically, penis-envy is bullshit.
Beauvoir then covers the history of humanity in a mere seventy-seven pages. All you need to do is refer to the above paragraph about men and their dicks to explain this history.
In Part III of Book I Beauvoir discusses myths surrounding woman, perpetuated by the patriarchy. Kinsey, you may take note of your parents’ forbiddance of the “spring break” ritual, for, as Beauvoir says, “Popular festivals today are still marked by outbursts of eroticism; woman appears here not simply as an object of pleasure, but as a means for attaining to that state of hybris, riotousness, in which the individual exceeds the bounds of self.” No spring break for you, unless it involves the far less hedonistic endeavor of volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.
And as far as the myth of the empowerment of augmenting your body through plastic surgery goes: “the more the features and proportions of woman seem contrived, the more she rejoices the heart of man because she seems to escape the vicissitudes of natural things.” Therefore, Kinsey, thou ought to think twice before thy cosmetic surgery, at least for the sake of being “natural,” if not to submit to male desire.
Book II concerns itself with then-contemporary women’s lives and Beavoir begins with you, the young girl. You will eventually, but right now you don’t understand sex at all. So let’s talk about love. When I met your mom I thought she was very pretty. I know, you’re squirming, but hear me out. Your mother’s hair was a little longer than shoulder-length, thick and brown. She wore just a touch of makeup, maybe a little foundation and some eyeshadow and mascara, a subtle lipstick. I’ve never been attracted to overly done-up women. But I fell in love with your mom, and there’s a difference between love and attraction. What we did on that first date was we talked, for hours. We kind of ate dinner (spaghetti and meatballs, which we made together in my apartment) but we were both a little too nervous, since we liked each other too much, to eat. We talked about our families. It was a big deal that all of your grandparents were still married and always would be. That was a foundation for the kind of life we knew we wanted. That night we kissed. That was it. But I couldn’t get the kiss out of my mind, and I called your mom the next day, and the next and the next, and we kept seeing each other. And that was the biggest part of making you. It’s easy to be attracted to someone; love takes work. We kept going on dates, and for almost two weeks your mother was steadfast, no matter how hard I tried to—well, you know. If two weeks doesn’t sound like a long time, then maybe you’re reading this a little early. I won’t bore you with the technical details of sex. What matters is that your mom and I wanted to be together and we were hungry to know each other. Not in a carnal way, but that way that makes you feel you’re so close to someone that that person becomes an integral part of you, that if that person hurts it also hurts you, and if they’re happy you’re happy. That’s what we wanted.
Moving on through life, on the outset of menstruation Beauvoir writes that a girl “does not yet grasp the significance of what is taking place in her. Her first menstruation reveals this meaning, and her feelings of shame appear.” I’ll never forget Isabel Stephens’s (who, incidentally, would become your D.O.D.’s first girlfriend) twelfth birthday party and this poor girl, Karen, I think her name was, got her period, maybe for the first time, and she was wearing a white skirt. All the girls disappeared into the bathroom with Karen for a long time. When they emerged, I saw Karen’s stained skirt, though she tried to hide it underneath a sweatshirt tied around her waist. Isabel’s mother or grandmother had called Karen’s mother to come pick her up. All of us boys at the party stood around wondering what to do. The feeling of shame and embarrassment emanated from Karen and the rest of the girls, though the grandmother told us it was normal, it was natural, and that we shouldn’t make fun or laugh. Honestly it was hard to know how to feel about any of it. It was, at that time, still a mystery.
Around the middle of the book comes the “Sexual Initiation” chapter. Here, the sexologist Alfred Kinsey, who conducted years of research in human sexuality, gets a mention. This was my biggest impediment to our naming you. Your mom came up with your name, which she said sounded “cute,” but “spunky.” I didn’t want people to say, when they met you, “Like the sex guy?” Maybe you’ve already heard that, and if so, sorry. I hope you don’t hate your name. I hated my name when I was a kid. James sounded too old, too formal. Some kids made fun of me because my name could be a girl’s name. I wanted to be a Jared, or a Mike, not Jamie. So, if you’re plagued by Kinsey, you could go by your middle name of Louise. But, I ended up agreeing with your mom, because the name was not typical, and it does sound cute, but spunky. So far you have lived up to these adjectives. Your favorite thing is to tell me “no.” You say, “No daddy, this my arm,” when I’m trying to put said arm into your shirt sleeve in the morning, for example.
Beauvoir makes it sound like sex is generally unpleasant for women, who never initiate the act; it’s always a man. This is fortunately not true for many people. And while I cannot say for certain what it’s like for a woman to culminate in orgasm (your mom describes it as catching a wave that then rolls through her body), Beauvoir talks about a man’s ejaculation as being localized and finite, which is true—when talking about ejaculation. But she seems to equate ejaculation with orgasm, which leads me to think that old Sartre was doing it wrong.
Beauvoir on the housewife and cleaning has this to say: “The maniac housekeeper wages her furious war against dirt, blaming life itself for the rubbish all living growth entails. . . . she loses joie de vivre . . . She becomes bitter and disagreeable and hostile to all that lives.” This characterizes your Granny perfectly, also your Aunty Megs! Unfortunately, I might be turning into that, too. Just ask your mom how crazy I’m driving her with my complaints about her dishes and teabags and other detritus strewn about our home. Here’s a funny sentence: “There are many marriages that ‘go well’—that is to say, in which man and wife reach a compromise. They live side by side without too much mutual torment.” It’ll probably be archaic to you when I write LOL.
Beavoir goes into pregnancy, abortion, and motherhood. About abortion she says “Nothing could be more absurd than the arguments brought forward against the legalization of abortion.” Even when abortion is outlawed, women still seek them, but under secrecy, which imposes poor, unclean, and/or dangerous conditions and no regulation. I don’t know if you will continue to grow up in your current state of Georgia, but it isn’t exactly warm to the idea of abortion. This country is full of people who can’t for an instant think critically. They’ll get all fired up about this, or about owning guns, and not give a second thought to the thousands dying in mostly unjustified wars, for example. The same lack of logic pervades among the pro-life crowd.
If you do get pregnant, Beauvoir says that your “body is at last [your] own, since it exists for the child who belongs to [you].” But according to my experience with your mother’s pregnancy and your subsequent birth, breast feeding, and weaning: upon this last stage your mother said, “Thank god, I get my body back.” Your mom would claim that the most dependent she’s ever felt was when she was chained to your survival. But don’t let that get to you.
Throughout the book, Kinsey, there’s interesting and often startling information, like the woman who got off on her son breast feeding to the point that “she had to fight the temptation to toy with his penis.” Or a religious mystic who cleans up the waste of a man suffering from dysentery with her tongue. Another mystic drinks the water she used to wash lepers and feels a spiritual ecstasy, especially for the scale of leper skin lodged in her throat. There are funny lines such as, “repressed women make shrewish wives, sadistic mothers, fanatical housekeepers, unhappy and dangerous creatures.” Or the woman who gets “vexed if [her lover] does not live up to the image she has put in his place. If he gets tired or careless, if he gets hungry or thirsty at the wrong time” which reminded me of the parody of the Yuban commercial in Airplane!, where the woman thinks “Jim never has a second cup of coffee at home.” You’ll probably have to look up that reference, though.
But the biggest contention I have with the book is the foundation of existentialism on which the entirety of Beauvoir’s argument sits. The famous sentence that begins Book II and reads, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” follows from the existential argument that existence precedes essence. That is, you have to act before you can be anything. The problem with such an argument is evident in her chapter on “The Lesbian,” for Beauvoir assumes sexuality to be a learned trait, not an inherent one—like the gender traits we apply to “woman.” Funny enough, the other day someone I know was talking about his grandmother who said she just couldn’t understand why a gay person would choose to be that way, so he asked his grandmother what made her choose to be straight. Her response: “Nothing, I was always that way.” Clearly, who we are and what we become is some amazingly complicated algorithm of nature and nurture, and the absolute argument of existentialist thinking oversimplifies this. Any parent who’s seen his daughter gravitate immediately to the dolls, while ignoring the trucks and guns, or whatever, knows that some “feminine” traits are inherent and not learned.
But, there’s no argument about the state we’re in. Beauvoir writes that “How lively antifeminism still is can be judged by the eagerness of certain men to reject everything favorable to the emancipation of women.” And in my time, Kinsey, there’s ample evidence of such certain men, and women too. How people work to transcend their subjective selves seems to be through mutual love and respect. That’s what Beauvoir keeps coming back to.
In order to transcend the trap of unequal love, what’s needed is for “Genuine love to be founded on the mutual recognition of two liberties.” Throughout the book Beauvoir compares the position of the oppressed woman to that of African Americans in the United States. Ten years after this translation Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Here I sit in King’s hometown. It is perhaps a historical irony that King talks about our nation one day achieving a “symphony of brotherhood,” and that—in a linguistic irony—Beauvoir, too, ends The Second Sex on that word: “brotherhood.” Once woman is freed we can all enjoy it, for, like King says, oppression harms also the oppressor. Maybe at the future time when you’ll read this, such arguments will seem quaint. But when I think about the growing gap between rich and poor in our country and the lines of division that grow sharper between those who have access to equal rights and protections and those who do not, it seems now more important than ever that a young woman like you should work to help those in less favorable conditions. I’ve always wanted to be a better man because of my girls, for my girls, for you and your mom. It’s because of love that any of that is possible.
Don’t forget it.
Jamie Iredell’s essay collection, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, is is due out from Future Tense in November 2013 and is now available for pre-order.