De Beauvoir’s Style: What may we say?

The new edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is out; it’s a new translation by  Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier.   And one could get worked up over what the New York Times has done about it.  But I am not sure whether we should.  See below.

The story so far:

In the US The Second Sex  was released by Random House on April 13 of this year.  Reviews are just starting to come in; perhaps because of an earlier release, the British are ahead:  the Time’s Higher Ed suppl has a short piece; a fuller piece can be found in the Independent.  These do not undertake the task of full scholarly assessment.   Toril Moi does provide such an assessment in the London Review of Books, and it is decidedly a hatchet job.   (The comments are worth reading.)

In contrast, the reviews haven’t started to appear yet in comparable US intellectual magazines, such as the New York Reivew of Books or the NY Times Sunday Book Review.  Or the  New Yorker.  Salon does report on the Moi review, and Slate has a bit by Katie Roiphe, which pronounces it an improved translation of a classic work by an ambiguous feminist heroine.  (Roiphe, we should point out, is an expert on ambiguous feminism, at least as a practice.)   The ambiguity is  due to features of her life, her scandalous life, which includes the presence of pictures of her bum!!

Here’s where it starts to get, well, dialectical.  Can we really as feminists approve of talking about de Beauvoir’s fashion style and body bits?

Enter the New York Times.  Not its more serious review sections, but its Style Magazine, T, which must be the only part of the Times I never read.  Too, too depressing unless one wants to be 21  and a size 0.   Or at least could reasonably hope to pass oneself off as something similar.

And Style does pick up on such things as the bum and the hotness issue.  I mean, it is Style.   To be fair to them, they do see it’s a bit odd and remark that they’ve done such style assessements of a dictator and a literary lion.  And they have. takes them  to task for this, saying, I  think incorrectly, that they sidestep the question of  whether  a male philosophy would get the same treatment.  Nonetheless, there  are very serious general concerns, ones familiar to feminists, and Monkey raised them here with regard to the bum controversy.  Can’t we discuss a female  philosopher without these reductive comments taking over? says that it would be nice if we could evaluate Beauvoir the intellectual without also talking about her naked ass.  That seems exactly right.  And the British publications do that.  However, is it a fair criticism of Style that it does not?

Thanks to SG, who alerted us to the issues!

12 thoughts on “De Beauvoir’s Style: What may we say?

  1. Thanks for the links, especially to the Moi review– what she says is disappointing (as I have been looking forward to the new translation) but extremely useful.

  2. That’s an interesting point, JJ. I have to admit that I’m of the “best book on feminism I’ve never read” set, (that’s about to change–I’m taking some feminism&political philosophy courses this summer) but I’m as fond of the “rights are not enough” quote as armchair psychoanalysts are of Dr. Sigmund’s cigar.

    Can we criticize a publication called Style for going on about a philosopher’s style–which includes this harmless booty shot that looks more like an ad for preventing frizzy hair than anything grossly demeaning–and expect the publication to give insightful commentary on the philosopher’s work? Not really. These are the sort of writers that would be just as likely to discuss the shape of President O’s fro thru the years, rather than complicated issues like foreign policy or free speech. That’s just what they’ve been trained to do.

    Does that prove deBeauvoir’s points about beauty myths, lack of education and more oppression as lip service to so-called rights? Probably. But most sensible people don’t go looking for investment advice in a publication called “Guitar Heroes”. Last I checked, up and coming feminist philosophers didn’t publish scholarly assessments in fashion magazines. Don’t most of us know what to expect when we read those things? Some of them still re-hash ANCIENT articles stating advice on “what to do when he thinks you’re foxy”. I shit thee not. Foxy, as my dad and Jack Tripper used to say.

    And who knows? Maybe this digging through the archives for “new” celebrity booty to tabloid-ize might not be such a bad thing, in terms of teaching young girls about how healthy but real bodies really look. Here’s my vote for archived nude intellectual: Clive Barker circa 1990-2000ish! *sigh* Beautiful above and below the neck. And real, except when he’s creating those places for we his fans to get lost in.

    What is disappointing is that the “new&improved” translation of The Second Sex was written by authors that write high school grammar textbooks and cookbooks. Is that any better than a male zoologist? I mean, what was the problem with finding somebody that was bilingual AND well versed in deBeauvoir’s areas of expertise?

  3. I don’t see why we have to talk about one /or/ the other. Are we not able take the physicality of the philosopher and her ideas as seperate things?

  4. I commented on this post last night between 3&4am your time. The spam trap’s acting up again. Could you un-spam my comment please?

  5. Xena, I think that the role of philosophy in French life is vastly different from what it is here in the US. I wouldn’t assume that people who write high school grammar texts in France are not also fairly knowledgeable. I also know that they consulted with top US de Beauvoir scholars, such as Margaret Simmons (I think she is – I’ll check and come back if I’ve got the name wrong.)

  6. I wonder what Simone de Beauvoir herself would have thought of being remembered by her ‘derriere’ just as much as by her ideas and writings. Would she have been offended? I’m not sure. As anmerie seems to suggest above, why not talk about *both*? I guess the reason why we don’t have a Nouvel Obs issue with Sartre’s buttocks on the cover is that nobody really wants to see him naked anyway… (Although, in the post linked from this one, Monkey says: “I join Les Chiennes Gard in calling for more naked photos of the philosophical male’s posterior.” Any specific male philosopher in mind? :) )

    I don’t want to sound like I am taking the issue lightly, but S. de Beauvoir’s ‘scandalous’ way of life was in a sense as much part of her thinking as anything else; she definitely took an ’embodied’ approach to her own ideas.

  7. Catarina and anmarie, I agree. In fact, I just don’t see that a magazine that writes about style can’t write about philosophers.

  8. jj, indeed! At least some of us philosophers do have style… (Simone de Beauvoir was one of them.)
    But seriously now, I guess the obvious conclusion is that there are different ways of being a feminist, and my personal preferences lean toward a ‘Betty Dodson-embodied’ kind of feminism.

  9. Anyone is free to write about anything. This is not a censorship question. We all stink, we all lose our teeth, we all rot. However, a certain type of journalism reduces all human beings to the lowest common denominator. Simone de Beauvoir was a great human being: brilliant, courageous, and lived an especially transparent and non-conventional life. The NYT has its untouchables, its great human beings: would the NYT print a photo of this sort of Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Ronald or Nancy Reagan? I doubt it. Isn’t it because Simone de Beauvoir is authentically leftist, an independent woman, with a transparent life that the NYT publishes this photo, with the probably unconscious purpose of reducing her to the lowest common denominator? I say ” probably unconscious purpose” because I suspect that the NYT is unaware of how insidious it is.

  10. The current translators are far more than writers of high school textbooks (they are not) and cookbooks. Please read the full professional biographies of these highly intelligent and qualified women, and pay no attention to what this person has to say.

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