Why write about woman’s experience? As French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1997, p. xvii) writes in her introduction to The Second Sex: ‘the subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new’. Even after all that has been said, there is still an obvious need to express the female experience and to make it be heard amongst men and women alike. This can be observed in today’s widespread #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. There is still much to be said.
In this essay, I will approach the female experience through Sartre’s concept of the look as outlined in Being and Nothingness (BN from now) and through de Beauvoir’s feminist pièce de résistance The Second Sex (SS from now). I believe that this will shed new light on today’s Me Too movement.
As Theunissen and McCann (1984, p. 207) very well put it, ‘the phenomenologist has to describe how he, as the only I Accessible to him, experiences the Other, the not-I’; adopting the existential phenomenologist approach, I must acknowledge that I am a 26-year-old white heterosexual female and that what I write will be from my perspective only. I also want to acknowledge that today many people identify as female, but who would not have been considered by De Beauvoir in the SS. In this essay, the term woman will be limited to describing a biologically female being.
The Sartrian Look
The first thing that this essay will try to establish is Sartre’s theory of the Look as exemplified in his work Being and Nothingness (1991). The French philosopher adhered to the existentialist tradition which informed his way of thinking. Let us look briefly at Sartre’s philosophy of existence.
Sartre uses the first two parts of the book to describe the human being as a being-for-itself. This term outlines how the human being is a nothingness: he is nothing in himself, ‘all people are free with no essence other than that which they perpetually choose and create’ (Cox, 2006, p. 10-11). However, the being-for-itself longs to be a being-in-itself (with a fixed essence) and this becomes his life project. He is always projecting towards future possibilities (which is how he transcends existence). Even our consciousness is nothing in itself, as it is always consciousness of something. Sartre highlights that every time that we pretend to have a predetermined essence (a waiter, a thief) we are living in bad faith (Sartre, 1991). In Part III of BN, Sartre describes the existent’s third mode of being which he calls ‘being-for-others’. Having determined that the being-for-itself is nothingness (he has no existential structures), Sartre states that we, however, live in the world with other beings-for-itself who themselves are transcendent beings. The Other is a presence in our world: we know they are subjects in their world (because of our subjective experience) and this is how the Other is revealed to us at first. As the Other exists, he steals from my world: objects now belong to him too and are oriented towards him too. For now, however, I have no relation with the Other. The real moment of connection between myself and the Other happens in what Sartre calls simply the look: the Other turns to look at me. His subjectivity, which he expresses through his gaze, makes me an object; he takes my freedom to define myself and I no longer am a being-for-itself: I become a being-for-others. Sartre (1991) uses the example of being caught spying through a keyhole – before the Other sees me, there is no moral judgement on what I am doing on my part (I am pure consciousness), but when I am seen, the Other is free to define me; he takes my freedom. Now from here we have some options, among which are: we can wrestle our freedom back and define ourselves as we want the Other to see us, or we make the Other into an object. Sartre also states that the for-itself can’t know all its structures without the look of the Other: shame, pride, guilt, embarrassment, paranoia, etc., are all emotions that we feel before the Other. These emotions reveal my self to me at the end of the Other’s look.
Let us briefly focus on the idea of objectification through the look. Sartre (1991, p. 263) writes: ‘the Other as a look is only that – my transcendence transcended’. He tells us that when the Other looks at me, in his transcendence, he can make of me what he wants, can define me however he wants: I become an object. However, because I am a for-itself, ‘it (my being) is separated from me by a nothingness which I can not fill since I apprehend it as not being for me and since on principle it exists for the Other’ (Sartre, 1991, p. 261). I am someone, but it escapes me. I, therefore, recognise myself in the object that has been made of me, but it is not me. The anguish of my nothingness might even push me to accept the objectified self as my true self in bad faith.
This is a very condensed summary of Sartre’s philosophy, but it should help us to understand de Beauvoir’s theory in The Second Sex in the next section.
The Second Sex
The ‘problem’ (Friedan, 2010) of woman has been discussed widely, and the SS is not the first or the last book that will be written about it. However, when we consider when The Second Sex was first published, we can note that it came well before the second-wave of feminism of the 60s and 70s (and in fact, it inspired many books that came afterwards). At the time, it was possibly the only philosophical work written on woman by a woman. Although many have called the SS ‘outdated’ for today’s society and influenced to a great extent by the French bourgeoisie’s point of view, it has been highlighted just how relevant it still is and how it can still inform the feminists of today (Leffingwell, 2018). Let us look at how the SS can inform the way we perceive the Sartrian look and the objectification in women.
When considering the relation between the sexes, De Beauvoir (1997, p. xxi) writes in the Introduction to the SS that that ‘he is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other’. De Beauvoir looks at the biological, psychological, and historical reasons why the woman is seen as the Other in the first part of her extensive work, and then looks at the development of the female from little girl to old age in the second part, ending with an exposé of the Independent Woman. What interests me for this essay is the way that this otherness is influenced by the male gaze.
De Beauvoir makes the excellent point that woman has constantly taken the place of the Other across all societies and civilizations throughout history (with very few exceptions). Woman has been the witch, the virgin, the womb, death, life, Mother Nature, shadow. Woman is a mysterious being. If we only look at Sartre’s (1991) description of the feminine, he uses words such as ‘slimy’, ‘obscene’; ‘a gaping hole’ which engulfs the for-itself. It is clear to see how this might have influenced de Beauvoir (1997, p. 433) when she writes that ‘feminine sex desire is the soft throbbing of a mollusc’. Although Sartre never claimed that the for-itself he speaks of is only male, I would argue that it is with a definite male perspective that he describes the for-itself in BN. Furthermore, Gatens (1993, p. 50) criticizes Sartre’s approach by writing that ‘his theory of existence is a particularly individualistic one which does not take sufficient account of social structures and the effect of these structures on the formation and development of human consciousness’. De Beauvoir shows us in fact that being a woman can be quite different. Woman is seldom subject and she is often defined by man and in opposition to man: ‘to pose Woman is to pose the absolute Other, without reciprocity, denying against all experience that she is a subject, a fellow human being (de Beauvoir, 1997, p. 286). De Beauvoir adds that not only is woman Other to man, she is also Other to herself in her body: menstruation, pregnancy and sexual desire all appear like alien experiences of otherness to the woman. Her projects are frustrated by the immanence of her body to a much greater extent than it is the case for men. Her experience of herself is one of alienation. Moi (1992p. 98) writes that for de Beauvoir women are ‘fundamentally characterized by ambiguity and conflict’. Where is woman’s transcendence? Can woman truly be a free subject in a society where she is the objectified Other, even to herself?
As far as I am aware, although the link between the look and woman’s position as the objectified Other appears clear to me, not much has been written about this. In the introduction to the book Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions (Calogero, Tantleff-Dunn and Thompson, 2011) it is made clear that the situation of ‘being-looked-at’ which is described by Sartre (1991) influences the way woman sees herself and self-objectifies. The look of a man can be a powerful experience for a woman: not only is her freedom to define herself taken away in the instance of the look, but she is also perpetually seen, even when no one is physically looking (Sartre, 1991). The look follows her around and she becomes the perpetual object, even in the solitude of her room. De Beauvoir (1997, p. 427) points out that ‘when she (the woman) admires herself in the mirror, she is still only…dreaming of herself as seen through masculine eyes’. If ‘to be looked at is to apprehend oneself as the unknown object of unknowable appraisals – in particular, of value judgements’ (Sartre, 1991, p. 267) what can men make of women? Man’s appraisal becomes the validation of the woman’s being. If woman is the absolute Other according to de Beauvoir, then we must conclude that man always defines woman, as indeed it is the case, in his presence as well as in his absence. As we have seen before, when I am objectified by the one who looks at me, I become the object (and sometimes it can even bring solace to the anguish of nothingness). However, it is not just passive objectification that occurs: it has been argued that by self-objectifying the victim of the look regains some appearance of control (Calogero, Tantleff-Dunn and Thompson, 2011). This supports the idea that was introduced earlier that women will tend to self-objectify in response to the male gaze.
Looking at someone can be perceived very differently in various cultures. Commonly, children and women are the disadvantaged parties in the ‘looking game’. In her short article, Heru (2003, p. 111) points out that ‘codes of looking are particularly important for women who have long known that to meet a man’s stare or gaze is potentially dangerous because she is challenging his power’. Not only is the look the woman’s transcendence transcended, but it is also a dangerous power struggle which the woman cannot win. How often do our cheeks blush in embarrassment when we encounter someone’s gaze on the tube? How much more for a woman who catches a man staring at her, unsolicited and forceful?
On a different note, let us consider whether all is truly as bleak as it appears. It is fair to say that there are instances when a relationship between a man and a woman can be an experience of empowerment for both parties. De Beauvoir (1948) would describe it as a relationship where both parties desire the other to be free, and I believe that this is highly desirable, however idealistic it might seem. However, we cannot forget that ‘women occasionally reap paradoxical advantages from their very powerlessness’ (Moi, 1992, p. 100), be it physical protection or economic and political gains. De Beauvoir is very critical of this attitudes when she writes in The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948, p. 41) that ‘once there appears a possibility of liberation, it is the resignation of freedom not to exploit the possibility, a resignation which implies dishonesty and which is a positive fault’ but reviews her position in the SS when she ‘inserts a third term into the bad faith/authentic opposition: the term ‘oppression” (Gatens, 1993, p. 50). It is clear to see that in many instances woman’s only choice in her facticity is to subdue to man, e.g. because of a lack of physical strength, because of societal rules and laws, etc. It is neither because of bad faith nor inauthenticity, but the simple reality of female oppression in a male-oriented society. How can we otherwise explain the fact that sexual harassment has gone unacknowledged for so long?
A few observations on the SS must be made before we move on. It must be noted that the English translation is in no way satisfactory, as it has been pointed out again lately by Moi (2004, p. 38) when she writes that ‘only a tome as long as the book itself could document all the flaws in this translation’. Some (Gatens, 1993) have accused de Beauvoir of examining the female situation from a masculine perspective: indeed, it might be said that she ‘looks at woman’ through the Sartrian existential frame which as we have seen can be described as decidedly male. Lastly, James (2004, p. 72) has remarked that ‘the invincibly transcendent creature who figures in her more highflown descriptions of masculinity is worlds away from those men who find themselves in the position of the other, whether by virtue of their beliefs, class, or colour, with the result that their experience of immanence sometimes goes unacknowledged’: do all men indeed experience themselves as subjects, as the One?
Let us now turn to the implications of the Sartrian look and de Beauvoir’s theory of the otherness of woman for the Me Too Movement.
The Me Too Movement
Although the Me Too Movement is relatively new (Me Too Movement, 2018), its impact on society shows: since the movement gained media coverage through social media, men in positions of authority have been fired or demoted due to sexual harassment in the workplace and publicly shamed. Names like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Aziz Ansari, and Kevin Spacey are now closely linked to the epidemic that is sexual harassment (one wonders when will be Donald Trump’s turn to be demoted).
What is clear is that sexual objectification is a common female experience (but, it must be noted, not strictly female). Woman is constantly the victim of the look of man: in pornography, the wider film industry, art, and in the professional and familial spheres. Woman is seen through the male gaze (this term is especially significant in film studies). Her subjective experience is seldom represented as it is the case in the Me Too Movement. It can be argued that, historically, men have felt the right to look at and own women as their inferior subjects. This is particularly the case when it comes to sexual relations: ‘since she is the object, any inertia on her part does not seriously affect her natural role: a statement supported by the fact that many men do not trouble themselves to find out whether the women who bed with them desire coition or merely submit to it’ (de Beauvoir, 1997, p. 419). This is not only true of consensual sex, but also of non-consensual sexual encounters, which is what the Me Too Movement wants to raise awareness of. Unfortunately, the statics speak clear. By sharing their subjective experiences, the Me Too Movement (2018) hopes to empower the victims of sexual abuse. This can be a very powerful experience for women who have felt like objects their whole lives. I would argue that, by having a platform where they can share their subjective experience, women are re-defining for themselves who they are: they are taking hold of their transcendence, no longer being defined by the man’s look. Woman is no longer the passive Other, she is no longer silenced, she is no longer looked-at. She has a story to tell, she has independence from man, she is her own. The body that she did not beforehand recognize is now hers to inhabit and be. The definition of consent has been rethought through ideas such as ‘Yes Means Yes’ whereby consent has to be vocal (this is the slogan that is used by feminist groups against date rape). What is acceptable has been re-defined. Woman no longer has to passively accept the look of man. Maybe women can even dare to look at men. Does this seem too optimistic? I cannot help but believe that this is a new era for women.
I hope to have shown in this essay that the male gaze can be a very powerful mean of objectification. Woman is the perpetual Object because she is Other to man. This has severe repercussions on the way that woman perceives herself, which is often as a sexual object. For millennia, women have passively received the looks of men, but finally, through movements like the Me Too Movement, women have found a new voice and are asserting their experience as Subjects. The Look no longer defines woman.
Because sexual objectification is such a hot topic now more than ever, and women have found a new voice to express their experience, I believe that, as therapists, it is important for us to keep in mind the reality of sexual objectification and harassment. It will come up often in the therapeutic encounter, under many different guises. Many women take it for granted still that it is the man’s privilege and right to make of women what they want. As therapists, we can be part of the solution as we challenge these sedimented beliefs with our clients, both male and female.
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