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Simone de Beauvoir's #MeToo

Exposing harassment is not an objection to men or sex, but to who controls the moral spotlight.

beauvoir metoo

Highlights:

  • Among the problems in the Le Monde - #MeToo debate is that ‘#MeToo feminism’ does not have a manifesto, and that social media exacerbates reckless formulations.

  • French and American feminist traditions, outlining sex-positive attitudes, are more intertwined than is currently admitted in the Deneuve-Hollywood controversy.

  • Recognizing women’s freedom is “not to eliminate poetry, love, adventure, happiness, and dreams: it is only to ask that behavior, feelings, and passion be founded upon the truth."

 

Last week’s #MeToo backlash defending men’s ‘right to bother’ women has provoked a series of reactions from feminists and cultural critics.

The much-discussed letter in Le Monde was written with lamentably incendiary prose and regrettably little nuance or compassion for those who have had reason to post #MeToo.

Deneuve’s apology to victims of ‘heinous acts’ in Liberation on Sunday has brought further comment, including the claim by Anastasio Colosimo (of Sciences Po, Paris), that the pushback against #MeToo “could only happen in France”.[1]

Comment pieces have attributed this debate to cultural or generational differences in feminism, despite the fact that the letter was signed by millennials and its initiator was born in Tehran. But nationality and age are red herrings.

They distract us from more profitable questions, questions like: What would it take for #MeToo to go too far? Why do some suspect it of doing so? The usual misgivings cite the conflation of very different types of action, the consequences of false allegations, the possibility that #MeToo deprives women of agency by casting them as victims, or the introduction of fear into relationships between the sexes. The French letter raised all of these concerns, claiming moreover that #MeToo feminism is puritanical, anti-men and anti-sex.

Among the problems afflicting this conversation is that ‘#MeToo feminism’ does not have a manifesto, and that social media exacerbates the tendency of human beings not to parse their opinions carefully. But one conflation that has plagued feminism for too long is that disliking abuse by men or unjust social structures commits one to antagonism towards men or sex. It is a non sequitur to claim that American feminism in general or #MeToo in particular are committed to such views.[2] 

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"The feeling of harassment is all-too-familiar to many women. It gives the charge that #MeToo has introduced fear into the relationship between the sexes a dispiriting irony: was there ever not?"

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The English-speaking world has been debating ‘sex-positive’ feminism for several decades, often in dialogue with French voices. Sex-positive thinking has developed along two major lines. One tendency has criticized restrictions on women’s sexual behaviour, condemning the high costs imposed on them for being sexually active. This line of feminist work called for a sexual liberation that would work for both women and men. The other line has tended to consider sexual liberation as an extension of male privilege. Some take this latter tradition to resonate with conservative, anti-sexual discourse.[3]

It is understandable that #MeToo could be viewed in this light: many of the men against whom the most famous allegations have been made are highly privileged with plenty of power to abuse.

But to object to male privilege or entitlement is not to object to men or to sex. And neither is it, as the Le Monde letter rhetorically claimed, to “put women in chains, in the status of eternal victim”.

One of the figureheads of French feminism, Simone de Beauvoir, recounted a #MeToo of sorts in her memoir of girlhood, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.[4] When Beauvoir was sixteen, in a bookshop near Saint Sulpice, she asked the shop assistant for an article. He walked towards the back of the shop and beckoned for her to follow. When she arrived at his side he revealed not the item she sought, but his erect penis. She fled, taking with her the persistent feeling that “the oddest things could happen to [her] without any warning”.[5]

That feeling is all-too-familiar to many women. It gives the charge that #MeToo has introduced fear into the relationship between the sexes a dispiriting irony: was there ever not?

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"The Second Sex's critical reception was highly personal and arguably puritanical: some reviews called Beauvoir frigid and others claimed to know all the secrets of her vagina."

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The point of this is not to sigh in defeat that plus ça change. The point is twofold: first, that Beauvoir was feminist, Old and French—and she did not like to be “bothered”. In fact, she didn’t like it so much that she published about it in 1958—at the age of 50, 34 years after the fact. And second, in telling this story she did not cast herself as an ‘eternal victim’; instead, she reflected on her experiences and decided to commit herself to changing the situation of women, a change that she believed was possible if pursued collectively.

I have said already that to dismiss or explain either the letter or #MeToo on the grounds of nationality would be naïve. But where allegations of puritanism are concerned it is instructive to explore some parallel history – again through the eyes of Beauvoir. In 1949 Beauvoir published The Second Sex in Paris. Its critical reception was highly personal and arguably puritanical: some reviews called her frigid and others claimed to know all the secrets of her vagina. The same year in America, a young woman called Marilyn Monroe posed nude for $50, for a photo that would perpetuate a lasting fantasy of femininity: the ever-available woman.

Four years later, in 1953, the English edition of The Second Sex was published in the United States. It went on to influence the generation of American feminism that we now call second wave. But Beauvoir’s translator had no experience of philosophy and cut vast swathes of the text, especially parts where women were cited in their own voice. The same year in America, Hugh Heffner bought that nude photo of Marilyn Monroe for $500 and launched Playboy.

Over this period Beauvoir had an American lover, Nelson Algren, and made several trips to the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1959 she published an article in Esquire on ‘Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome’. She was struck by how differently Brigitte Bardot was treated in America and in France. And God Created Woman, a 1956 film directed by Roger Vadim, had made a pittance in French cinemas and a fortune on the States. Beauvoir attributed the French rejection to… prudery! But it wasn’t just prudery that put them off (since, she said, it wasn’t particular to the French to ‘identify the flesh with sin’).

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"First, if in other moral contexts free agency involves the freedom to denounce behaviour that we consider harmful, what’s different about this one? Second, what is this ‘male desire’, such that women are victims of it?"

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It wasn’t the real Brigitte Bardot that mattered, Beauvoir thought; rather, it was the imaginary creature she was on screen. Beauvoir thought that Vadim had recreated the ‘eternal female’, by introducing a new eroticism that helped the myth of woman survive the challenges of the time. Over the 1930s and 40s the social differences between the sexes had decreased considerably. Adult women increasingly lived in the same world as men, working alongside them, so the ‘dream merchants’ of cinema had to improvise: they created a new Eve, she said, by mixing the young and innocent ‘green fruit’ with ‘femme fatale’.

This worked better in the United States than in France because of the situation of men and women in each country. On Beauvoir’s view, mid-twentieth century society had spiritual pretensions about sex; she liked that Vadim tried to ‘bring eroticism down to earth’. But he overshot, making the erotic less than human. He reduced bodies to objects for visual consumption. In real life people are defined by more than their sexuality; our bodies have histories and our erotic lives unfold in situations—situations that include our minds, thoughts and feelings. The problem wasn’t French or American: the problem was that “the male feels uncomfortable if, instead of a doll of flesh and blood, he holds in his arms a conscious being who is sizing him up.”[6]

Whatever its dangers, #MeToo has brought an aspect of women’s consciousness – and their sizing up – into the public domain in unprecedented numbers. Due process and care not to conflate are legitimate considerations.

But so is women’s collective dissatisfaction.

This dissatisfaction has arisen on the basis of moral objections to particular actions in particular situations. So to Colosimo’s claim that #MeToo feminism promotes a view of women as “victims and helpless objects of male desire rather than free agents” we need to ask two questions: first, if in other moral contexts free agency involves the freedom to denounce behaviour that we consider harmful, what’s different about this one? Second, what is this ‘male desire’, such that women are victims of it?

One response to the first question is that, as Kate Manne has argued in her recent book, when women come forward with moral objections they draw attention to themselves and “throw off the default assumption about who belongs in the moral spotlight.”[7] The Le Monde letter put the focus back on men -- on their ‘right’ to ‘bother’ and the potential costs of the MeToo movement.

But women’s moral objections deserve the scrutiny of the spotlight.

As for the second question, it is deeply dissatisfying to reduce ‘male desire’ to its unwanted and untoward expressions. It is human to crave love. But as Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex, recognizing women’s freedom is “not to eliminate poetry, love, adventure, happiness, and dreams: it is only to ask that behavior, feelings, and passion be founded upon the truth.”[8]

17 10 05 News MPU

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[1] Cited in Henri Astier, ‘France’s celebrity pushback against “Me Too”, BBC News, 14 January 2018.

[2] But unfortunately it is also a familiar one, of the kind that frequently accompanies misogynistic attempts to silence women who exercise agency. See Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 110 ff (‘What she has to give’).

[3] Gayle Rubin, ‘Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality’, in Carole Vance (ed.), Pleasure and danger: exploring female sexuality, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp. 267–319.

[4] I am not claiming that she would have participated in the social media movement or to know her judgments about it; rather, I am citing her as a paradigm case.

[5] Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, trans. James Kirkup, London: Penguin, 2001 [1958], p. 161.

[6] Simone de Beauvoir, Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome, trans. Bernard Fretchman, London: Four Square, 1962 [Published in Esquire in 1959], p. 30.

[7] Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018, p. 229.

[8] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier, ebook edition, New York : Vintage, 2010, p. 323.

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