Simone de Beauvoir on #MeToo

What Simone de Beauvoir has to say about #MeToo. The great thinker back and alive on International Women’s Day 2018.

By Sacha Hilhorst and Michiel Zonneveld (with thanks to Karen Vintges)

Simone de Beauvoir laid the foundation for modern feminism. 32 years after her death she is back, for her first-ever posthumous interview. On the occassion of International Women’s Day we ask the author of The Second Sex (1949) about the #MeToo movement and the state of feminism today.

Were you too optimistic in The Second Sex? You conclude with the hope that men and women will develop a brotherhood of sorts. The #MeToo revelations suggest however that little has changed.

“Hope and optimism are two very different things. My book is about the ingrained patterns which women, and men as well by the way, must free themselves from and about how difficult that is! Gender roles are entrenched in stories, traditions, religious decrees, institutions, in all aspects of our society. Throughout history man has posited himself as a sovereign subject, a human being, and woman as his counterpart. She was an object in his service, which he could command. Hegel wrote that in order to be to exist fully, we have to be recognised by another human, another consciousness. Now, man usually allows woman just enough consciousness to mirror him, to recognise him, but not enough to be fully human herself. The bottom line remains that she is object while he is allowed to be subject. When you realise as much, the #MeToo-related exposés are not that surprising. It reaffirms how often women are expected even now to capitulate to men, by force if necessary.”

So you are actually pessimistic?

“I never entertained the illusion that a history of thousands of years might be reversed in a decade or even a century. But we have made progress. The #MeToo campaign shows how often men still feel they own the women in their lives, but also how women are rising up as ‘subjects’. For the first time we see women in the world of film and tv standing in solidarity, supporting each other, watching each other’s backs. In Hollywood! The very place where the myth of femininity is visualised and reproduced. Women must be beautiful, sexy, subservient, the objects of male desire. The #MeToo movement shows that women no longer acquiesce to such a role.”

Some acquaintances of yours, French actresses like Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, are less than enthusiastic about #MeToo.

“It is true, we French are always afraid of puritanism (laughs). We fear a witchhunt, with unpleasant dates or bad sex suddenly branded a crime. But something does not have to be a crime to be worth mentioning. The writer Julien Brenda described the act of procreation as the occupation of a woman by a man, analogous to a military operation. Men speak in terms of “conquests”, women who are “pursued” and finally “surrender”. Many men do not care whether the women they sleep with desire coitus or merely allow it. That is not a crime, but it is wrong.”

Are gender roles truly as persistent as you say? Even Harvey Weinstein, with whom the whole affair started, produced and financed feminist films like Kill Bill.

“Kill Bill is a bloody revenge fantasy with a female lead. Lead actress Uma Thurman has been a vocal participant in the #MeToo discussion. Her interview in the New York Times last month paints a harsh picture not only of Weinstein, but of a culture in which sexual intimidation, assault and even rape are tolerated. Like the eponymous Bill, Harvey Weinstein is eventually taken down by the women he hurt. But does that make it feminist? Perhaps the issue in Kill Bill is its reversal of roles. The female protagonist acts precisely like the protagonist in Japanese Samurai films, a man in all ways but one. I feel a similar unease with the Lara Croft films, or recently with Wonder Woman. These women are men with boobs tacked on. You see once again how prevalent the ideas, stories and male fantasies are.”

Yet many men feel threatened. It explains, perhaps, why they vote for Trump or other hypermasculine politicians.

“Men feel they have something to lose. Giving up their privileges is hard on them. For that reason, Trump’s victory has been framed as the backlash of a largely male white electorate, which can no longer keep up with social and economic change. But this analysis seems incomplete… As far as I’m concerned, Hillary Clinton was too conventional. She followed the rules men have created, the status quo. That diminished her appeal for those who feel like losers within this system. Many people, including women, voted for Trump because he promised change. I don’t buy his promises for one second, but it is a fact that men have an easier time disregarding the rules. History has taught them that the rules can be changed as they please. So the lesson to learn from Hillary’s defeat is to not seek to excel within the system, but to change the system itself.”

This is the first instalment of the Dead Thinkers, or Dode Denkers Project, in which dead philosophers shine a light on current affairs. With many thanks to Karen Vintges who helped us revive Simone de Beauvoir.

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