Simone de Beauvoir’s centenary – and bottom

// 9 January 2008

The great French feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir was born 100 years ago today. However, reports the Independent, the French press’ coverage of this event has left a lot to be desired.

Of course, de Beauvoir has had a tremedous influence on feminist thought, primarily through her book The Second Sex, published in 1953.

So, how did the noted magazine Le Nouvel Observateur decide to mark this important date? With a nude photo of de Beauvoir, of course. The image they used (top left) one you may well have seen before, as it’s quite famous.

Suffice to say, it was quite a controversial decision. According to the Indy:

One feminist organisation complained that, by illustrating the centenary of Mme de Beauvoir’s birth with a nude photograph taken in 1952, the intelligent, centre-left magazine had “assaulted the dignity of women”.

Florence Montreynaud is one of France’s best known feminist authors. She has written about the unusual lifelong love affair and friendship between Beauvoir and the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

“My first thought on seeing the magazine was that they would never have considered putting a picture of Sartre’s bottom on the front of Le Nouvel Observateur,” she said. “Luckily, perhaps. Then my second thought was ‘what a fine bottom’. No male philosopher I can think of would have had such a lovely bottom. Mme de Beauvoir had a brilliant mind. She also had a wonderful body. Women win on both counts.”

I’m sure you can make your own mind up about whether it’s really an assault on the dignity of women. However, the story puts forward an interesting perspective:

Serious students of Beauvoir’s thought, both French and American, complain that the centenary has been dominated in the French media by a prurient re-examination of her life and loves, rather than her works.

This somewhat misses the point. Even more than Sartre, who was after all a man and expected to do as he wished, Beauvoir’s life was her work. She became an iconic figure for feminists all over the world, partly because she practised what she preached. Or at least she seemed to do so.

The Nouvel Observateur headline beside the nude photograph – “Simone de Beauvoir, la scandaleuse” – is a deliberate tease, but it is also true.

Huguette Bourchardeau, 73, a former environment minister and author of a new biography of Beauvoir, says: “She had enormous influence on women of my generation and those which followed. When I was young, I was impressed by her theoretical work but also by her way of life … She was like an open window … she struggled to free herself from conformism and to play the card of freedom.”

However, I have to take issue with this:

The Simone de Beauvoir legend is largely – but not entirely – based on her unusual relationship with Sartre. The couple had a bizarre love affair in which they never lived together and probably never slept together in the last 30 years of their lives (until they were buried together upon her death in 1986).

Each allowed, and even encouraged, the other to have “contingent” flings with other lovers, so long as they discussed at length what had happened later. A book published by one of Beauvoir’s former pupils in 1993 revealed that, as a young philosophy teacher in the 1930s and 1940s, she had often seduced her female pupils and passed them on to Sartre. She had also slept with Sartre’s male students.

Whether all of this amounts to “feminism” or “existentialism” or just a kind of perverse selfishness is open to question.

Perverse selfishness?! What’s selfish about that? Am I missing something?!

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