Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cannonball Read #50: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir

NB: I originally planned to review only new books for this project and to avoid re-reading books. However, I have re-read roughly 20 books during the same period and after reviewing other Cannonballers' catalogues, I think I may have missed the point of the Read itself which of course is reading, period, not limiting oneself to new literary adventures. Considering not only the conglomerate nature of the project at its outset but the community that sprang up around it, I've decided to review the re-reads I have enjoyed in the past year as well, playing some catch up over the winter break. Now of course, I did not manage to make the 100-books-in-a-year goal, but I think in a year that involved a wedding, work and a full-time school schedule, pounding out seventy-ish books is pretty damn good. The second round of the Cannonball Read has started with a reduced book requirement - a book a week - and I hope to pick that up, turning my own participation into a kind of mutant extended Cannonball Read of 152 books in two years.

On a happier note, I was thrilled to have my review of The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay be named the number one Cannonball Read review of 2009. That's pretty cool.

I love studies on environmental factors for development. Taking them all at face value is dangerous because there are plenty of logically-blindfolded leaps being made, but I think it's always worth thinking about what makes a person how they are. However, I do not typically think about gender as a whole as something one becomes, and Simone de Beauvoir put forward this idea in The Second Sex, and it's really an interesting concept. For Beauvoir, sex and gender are separate - sex the biological fact of a person and gender the panoply of social and behavioral mores that we gather as we grow.

We're at an extremely exciting time in history, but it's a scary time, too. Society has reached a point where people are generally open to equality of opportunity between the sexes. Our politics have had to make room for non-traditional families - be they divorced couples, gay parents, common law couples, etc. - and this requires that we deal with them legally. As technology and social development lets us do more, it becomes increasingly important to stop and take time to consider what makes us who and what we are. It's fairly easy to think about the dynamics that we choose consciously - our careers or hobbies or clothes - but we rarely consider those defining characteristics that provide lifelong context for us. What makes us American and what does that mean beyond a Social Security card? What makes us men and women? What does being black mean, or being a WASP? When we forego these considerations, we allow too much to be shoved under their banners and aren't able to clearly articulate our own being. It sounds like a really cerebral, theoretical thing to worry about, but when you consider how many of our problems stem from a lack of clarity and conviction in our principles, it becomes a little more real.

It's tough to give Beauvoir a free pass as The Woman With The Answers, but her analysis gives us a good look at an unusual approach to sex and gender. I think the most important aspect of her thought is the work she does to break the female identity away from being simply not-male. The attempt to define each sex and gender separately and on their own merit is a worthy experiment and may be the key to breaking the male/female binary and the rampant stereotypes that have sprung out of it. It's at least a fascinating look at what shapes us from a brilliant thinker. It's easy to see why this book had the revolutionary effect it did on the feminist movement.

705 pages

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