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Sure She Was Smart, but Was She Pretty?

April 21, 2010

Image via T Magazine

The New York Times‘ T Magazine officially wins this week’s award for Lack of Self-Awareness with this article titled “Being and Frumpiness,” which is essentially an excuse to talk about whether Simone de Beauvoir–probably the most famous feminist philosopher ever–was beautiful.  The occasion for this little meditation is the impending release of a new translation of The Second Sex (the cover for which is featured on the right), which has been a long time coming, given that the first was not so hot, having been done by a dude who was not particularly interested in feminism or totally fluent in English.

But of course, the article isn’t about the book, or how important the new translation is to scholars of Beauvoir’s work.  Instead, it’s a convoluted discussion of how badly dressed Beauvoir was–though it can’t even manage to be this entirely, as the writer muses on the idea that some of Beauvoir’s wilder ensembles “would not be out of place in an Anthropologie catalog.”  And even as the article attempts some version of paying attention to the ridiculous irony of an article exclusively about the appearance of a woman whose philosophical work is devoted to exposing the extent to which women’s lives are shaped by being forced to be constantly aware of their own appearances, it simultaneously disavows responsibility for that situation and repeats the very sort of objectifying discourse that Beauvoir’s work opposes.  There is, for example, this little nugget:

Digging into the New York Times photo morgue, we’ve come up with what must be the world’s first “Simone de Beauvoir Look-Book.” Which is nothing if not reductionist and superficial. But hey, we’ve graded dictators and literary lions before, so why should existentialists be exempt?

Was Simone de Beauvoir beautiful? Francine Gray once described her look as “bleakly emancipated,” which sounds something like being ugly while wearing comfortable shoes.

So in case you missed that, we’re aware that talking about people’s appearances is superficial, but it’s totally not sexist because we’ve done it to men before.  But also, if you’re a woman, we’re going to strongly suggest that your feminism has caused you to jump straight onto the ugly-train–a judgment, by the way, not even leveled against aforementioned dictator Qadafi, whose fashion choices are decidedly questionable.

What’s really shocking about this is not so much that T Magazine has decided to talk about Beauvoir’s appearance–that, in itself, while depressing, is predictable–it’s that they’ve managed to do it in the same breath that they recognize the extent to which her work was about problematizing these kinds of representations of women.  And yet, they do so without being able to make the connection between this article and her critiques.  Indeed, the article ends with the suggestion that because Beauvoir wrote openly and honestly about the painful experience of aging as a woman in a sexist society, it totally makes sense to analyze her appearance–as though Beauvoir’s point weren’t to highlight the ways in which this sort of analysis contributes to the creation of a world in which women experience “the horror of aging and what it means to look into the mirror when you’re over 50.”

Finally, I have to say that, since I’ve been dragged into wondering about Beauvoir’s appearance rather than her thoughts or the new translation of her book, I’m at a loss to account for the continual reiteration of the language of “frumpiness” and uglyness in the article.  Beauvoir was, in fact, a pretty conventionally attractive woman: she was white, thin, French, and mostly well-dressed.  She was, to my mind, beautiful.  But the authors seem so fixated on the fact that they are judging a feminist, a woman who didn’t want to be judged by her appearance, that they presume that this means she must have been unattractive, or at least a frump.  In the face of a gallery of photos with evidence to the contrary, we must declare that this woman–who, by the way, we’re not being sexist in judging this way–failed to live up to our expectations of physical femininity.  And why?  The answer, implicitly, in their linkage between her feminism and her supposed frumpiness, is clear: she questioned those expectations.

Careful with the feminism, ladies.  You wouldn’t want its frumpiness to wear off on you.

And actually ladies, if you really want to avoid this kind of skewering by the Times (of all people!), you should probably just put the books down and back away, since getting too close to big thoughts is a one-way ticket to frumpville.  The title of the article, in fact, implies as much–alluding, as it does, to Being and Nothingness, the title of the most famous work of Beauvoir’s fellow existentialist and long-term partner, Jean-Paul Sartre.  Significantly, the major point of divergence between Beauvoir’s thought and Sartre’s is precisely in Beauvoir’s emphasis–contra Sartre–on the important constraints that women face in their experience of the world, such that they are not, as Sartre suggests all people are, radically free for self-creation.  Ironically, then, the “Being and Frumpiness” of the title is unintentionally poignant: Beauvoir’s philosophical contribution is effaced, even as the truth of what she says is again demonstrated in the substitution of objectification for self-determination.

UPDATE: Props/thanks to my lovely friend Lisa, who both pointed me to the T Magazine article and had the perfect reaction–which is quoted in my title here!



4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kim permalink
    April 21, 2010 1:55 pm

    Ugh. All part of this weird attitude you hear more and more of: that no, I’m not a feminist, goodness, I like girly things. As if feminist ideas make you less feminine somehow. It pains me to hear it from young women of my generation (Y? Millenial?) when the previous two generations of women went through a lot to even allow them to take their opportunities for granted.

    • April 26, 2010 10:03 am

      That’s what I don’t get– I like to look nice, I like makeup and clothes, so does that mean I can’t be a feminist, or I’m somehow not a real one? Because I enjoy feeling pretty? It’s something you get from other women who identify as feminists sometimes– well, if you care about the way you look, you’re a slave to the patriarchy. But there’s a wider societal assumption that feminist=butch and frumpy.

      What really disappoints me is how terribly NYT missed the point, though. Whether de Beauvoir was beautiful or not, whether she spent two hours primping in front of her mirror each morning or not, is irrelevant.

  2. April 21, 2010 9:31 pm

    This reminds me of all the talk surrounding Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf in the film adaptation of The Hours a few years back. Kidman won an Oscar for the role, but all people could talk about was how “brave” she was to take on such an “ugly” character. Those who didn’t talk about her bravery (she had to wear a prosthetic nose!) challenged whether she should have been given the role in the first place, arguing that she was “just too pretty” to be convincing. Firstly, I don’t see what about Woolf was so ugly, exactly. Much like de Beauvoir, she possessed plenty of characteristics of patriarchal beauty – thin, white, of European descent. But secondly, I was hurt that the main focus of the discussion about Kidman and Woolf both was related to their appearance. Woolf was one of the writers who made me fall in love with literature. I still reread The Waves once a year, for god’s sake. Via their discussions of The Hours, critics were given a chance to revive Woolf a bit, to place her at the forefront of the imaginations of a new generation of readers. Instead, though, they talked about her appearance. Lovely.

  3. Sarah permalink
    April 27, 2010 5:58 am

    In 2008, something similar happened in France: one of the country’s most read and respected magazines “Le Nouvel Observateur” featured a magazine cover of Simone de Beauvoir, NAKED!!!The French feminist association “Chiennes de Garde” (guard dogs) reacted with a campaign demanding to see the naked bodies of France’s male philosophers. They marched and chanted “We want to see Sartre’s bottom!!” (Sartre was de Beauvoir’s lifelong companion and of course a highly respected philosopher, but so far no magazine has published a naked photo of him on cover page). Check out the Chiennes de Garde’s website, where they take down all the arguments retorted by the Nouvel Observateur:

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