History of Literary Criticism

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Chloe’ Phelps

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History of Literary Criticism

Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. It is the movement for the political, social, and educational equality of women with men. It has its roots in the humanism of the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution. Feminist issues range from access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, damages for sexual harassment in the workplace, and the need for equal political representation. Some may think that in 2006 we may be completing the first step for women, which has been a long journey, the acceptance of women as people. However, women, like so many other groups, have gained legal rights only to face less institutional, but more subtle forms of discriminations. The idea that women are equal because of women’s rights is in my opinion valid in some ways and invalid in other ways.

Traditionally, women have been regarded as inferior to men physically and intellectually. Women could not possess property in their own names, participate in business ventures, or control having children if they wanted them or not or even control of their own lives. The Feminist movement dates from 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott and others who were at a women’s convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y. issued declaration of independence for women, demanding full legal equality, full educational and commercial opportunity, equal compensation, the right to get paid and the right to vote. In this essay I will discuss The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir and her feminist views. I will discuss the gender differences between males and females today as well as in the past.

Simone De Beauvoir was born in Paris. She had a younger sister and they lived in middle-class family. She went to a conservative Catholic prep school for girls. She had several licenses, which are equivalent to master’s degrees today, in literature, philosophy and mathematics. While in School she met Sartre a philosopher most closely associated with existentialism. She was one of the first women to pass the rigorous aggregation in philosophy. She taught in Marseiles, Rouen, and Paris from 1931 to 1943, but her contract ended because she was accused of sleeping with a student. After that she began a monthly magazine with Sarte that discussed politics and literature.

Simone De Beauvoir’s classic manifesto, The Second Sex (1949), provided the theoretical basis for emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of feminist activism in both Europe and North America. The Second Sex is a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary essay that draws on and critiques history, biology, anthropology, literature, psychoanalysis, Marxism, and existentialist philosophy as a means of understanding the lived experiences of women. She argues that women have been reduced to objects for men throughout history. Women have been denied subjectivity because they are referred to as the “other”. Actually in this statement she is actually using one of Virginia Woolf’s statements in A Room of One’s Own. The statement is that women serve “as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.” De Beauvoir’s argument that in patriarchal cultures the man is the norm and the woman is the deviation has become common in the feminist theory. De Beauvoir has a famous statement that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” inaugurated the social constructionist critique of essentialism that occupied feminist literary theory in the 1980s and the 1990s. Although she has an uncompromising rejection of any notion of a female nature or essence, feminist theory writers are influenced by The Second Sex. It shows how fundamental assumptions dominate social, political, and cultural life and how women have internalized this ideology, so that they live in a constant state of “inauthenticity”.

In the first part of The Second Sex, she examines woman “objectively”. She does this through a series of cultural lenses including biology, psychoanalyses, Marxism, history, literature, and myth. In the second part she examines woman “subjectively” from the perspective of their own lived experiences. She also examines the relationship between the myth of the Eternal Feminine and the lived experience of actual women.

Beauvoir argues that men have reduced women to objects. You see this in almost every movie, every television advertisement, and every music video. Women are reduced to objects of a man’s desire. Women have been reduced to objects for centuries.

I would like to discuss how I think Simone De Beauvoir would analyze the movie Mona Lisa Smile. The movie was in theaters in 2004. It was set in the 1950s. It was about these women who attended this prestigious university only to end up as housewives. These were some of the smartest women in the country. These women could be anything in the world that they wanted to be. They were at one of the best schools in the country learning whatever they pleased. The movie surrounded a group of women who studied art. They had this eccentric art teacher who was a little more worldly than anyone they had ever met. She was a modernist. She was definitely a feminist. She had an opinion about the world and she was not afraid of expressing those opinions. She wanted these girls since they were as smart as they were to strive to be the best that they could be. Most of the girls however, were interested in nothing more than a job as being a housewife. One girl was adamantly against the teacher she went against everything that the teacher said. She said that the only reason that the teacher pushed them to do anything more is because she herself, the teacher, couldn’t find a husband. The teacher tried everything that she could do to let these girls know that there was more to life that taking care of their husbands. One girl actually applied to Yale Law School and was accepted, but she wanted to stay at home and take care of the house. The conclusion of the movie was when the girl who was so adamantly against the teacher realized that her husband was actually cheating on her and it didn’t’ matter to him one way or another whether she took care of the house or not. She ten understood what her teacher had been trying to tell her all along. The teacher only wanted her to be happy for herself not for anyone else. She actually applied to go to law school and do what the other girl didn’t. Also in the movie the teacher was reprimanded for giving the girls

Personally, I think that Simone De Beauvoir would have for the most part agreed with the overall emphasis that the movie possessed. The fact that these smart women, some of the smartest in the country, didn’t want to go to college, but take care of home would have upset Beauvoir. She states several times that women aren’t even given the opportunity to go to school or to work along side men and this obviously upsets her. Personally this is really disturbing to me. I don’t understand why someone with so much potential would settle for something that is not challenging to their minds at all.

Next, I think that Beauvoir would also look at the ways in which the men in this movie viewed their women. When the teacher told her student’s fiancé that the student was accepted into Yale Law School she didn’t exactly get the response that she was looking for. The guy was excited that he was with a woman that was smart enough to actually get accepted into the university, but he didn’t want to take that a step further. I don’t know how Beauvoir would feel about the guy actually respecting the woman. This may actually go against some of her beliefs. I don’t recall her speaking of a man in a way in which he actually respects a woman. However she would probably accept that because after the man gives the woman his respect for her intelligence he takes it right back by saying that it’s good for her to be accepted, but that is as far as it would go. The fiancé didn’t want to even discuss the possibility of his lady going to college. He was actually at Penn State University and he even stated in the movie well that’s a long commute for her to go to school and get dinner on the table by six o’clock. I think that this would excite Beauvoir. That statement would probably spark up some type of debate because he thinks that his education is more important than hers, and also the fact that he thinks that it’s understood that his fiancé is supposed to have his dinner on the table by a certain time everyday. Maybe I am a little to twenty-first century and things like that probably happened in the 1950s, but this is a classic case of feminism. I suppose Beauvoir would have written a book on the fact that the fiancé already had an idea of what his wife will and will not be able to do. She is supposed to have his dinner ready because that’s what a woman does.

Another thing that Beauvoir dismisses is the essence being feminine and the nature of woman. Now in the movie these women were actually very feminine women. They were very prim and proper. They even took etiquette classes. They were taught how to act as ladies and how to take care of the home. It’s funny to me however; the woman who was actually teaching the women how to take care of the home and their husbands didn’t have a man of her own. Now I don’t know the exact significance of this, but my take on it is that the movie was trying to show that no matter what you do as a woman you can’t make a man stay just because you do what is “expected”.

Overall, feminism aims to have women treat equally as men in all aspects of life. We as women have come a long way since the early 1900s, but really how far have we come? There are still very few women in high positions as me, there still has never been a woman president, and in some cases men are earning higher wages than men even if they hold the same position. However, women have shown that we can do whatever a man can do and we can do it just as good as a man. We no longer have to even consider accepting the fact that we have our “place” and be seen as the “object”. Moreover, I think that it is the responsibility of the woman to make sure that she is respected and that she is given the same rights as the man. Also men need to be more aware of the situation that’s occurring.

Works cited:

The Norton Anthology Theory and Criticism p.1403-1414


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