Simone de Beauvoir: a victim of her own success?

How can the media be used as a platform for the French intellectual? How has their image in turn been used by the media? These two magazine covers offer an insight into the use and abuse of Simone de Beauvoir’s intellectual image.

One of the greatest French writers in history, Simone de Beauvoir (1908 – 1986) was a fascinating blend of seemingly contradictory images. In her autobiographical work La Force des choses written in 1963, she reflects upon her mythologized status and inconsistent portrayals in a society which struggled to accept women as intellectuals (1963: 494-495). On the one hand, there is ‘une folle, une excentrique’ whose morals are ‘les plus dissolues’. On the other is a serious woman, her hair pulled into a tight bun, ‘une cheftaine’ who spends her existence at her desk surrounded by books. Conscious of how she portrayed herself, Beauvoir was able to use the press and her status as an intellectual to her advantage. Though that very same medium that brought her prestige also left her image prone to manipulation.

The French intellectual has long enjoyed a privileged status as an intermediary between the public and the divine truth. Often pictured in the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés alongside Jean-Paul Sartre, her lifelong partner, Beauvoir embodied pure intellectualism. The ‘duty’ of the intellectual and the power of the press are inextricably intertwined. With its ability to be ‘à la fois l’acteur et le témoin’ (Balle: 2006: 7), the press is at once a platform for social change and a mirror of the social reality.

Since Emile Zola’s article ‘J’accuse…!’ brought the intellectual into the public eye in 1898, academics have been caught in a complex relationship with the press and Beauvoir was no exception. Just as Zola used his words as weapons to bring about justice for the wrongly accused Alfred Dreyfus, Simone de Beauvoir dedicated much of her life to fighting for women’s equality largely through the written word. Despite relying heavily on the power of the pen, Beauvoir’s image also lent itself to her fight for women’s emancipation. Throughout her life, ‘Le Castor’ – as she was nicknamed – devoted herself to dismantling the patriarchal myths of women, often through her copious essays, novels and autobiographies. As she thrust her works into the public eye, her image as an intellectual almost took on that of a celebrity and to a certain degree she became a myth herself.

Beauvoir at the Deux Magots café, 1944

As an intellectuelle engagée, Beauvoir held a close relationship with the press and used it to disseminate her ideologies. Le Nouvel Observateur was – and still is – one of France’s most widely-read weekly news magazines during the seventies, and therefore served as an ideal platform for Beauvoir to reach a large audience. On April 5, 1971, as second-wave feminism was sweeping across the Western world (largely influenced by Beauvoir’s 1949 book Le Deuxième Sexe), French weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur published the ‘Manifeste des 343’. The manifesto, which was edited by Beauvoir, featured a list of 343 women who confessed to having had an abortion, which was illegal in France at the time. Beauvoir’s status as a public intellectual undoubtedly encouraged other women to sign the manifesto – many of whom were famous French novelists, filmmakers, politicians and actresses. The article opened public debate and paved the way for the legalization of abortion and free access to contraception in France, which was finally passed four years later in 1975.

Le Nouvel Observateur – April 5, 1971

Aesthetically speaking, the front cover of the magazine – pictured above – is striking through its pure simplicity. Like a flame growing increasingly hotter, the gradient of the coloured text over a black background places an emphasis on the bold red declaration “JE ME SUIS FAIT AVORTER”, which is shouted out in capital letters. Even in just these four lines, Beauvoir’s writing is immensely powerful. ‘Le courage’ was certainly necessary when signing the manifesto, given that each woman risked a prison sentence for their confession. Indeed, one of the last French women to be guillotined – in 1943 – was an abortionist. This manifesto demonstrates how Beauvoir not only exploited the power of the pen but also her status as a revered intellectual to bring about social change.

However, Beauvoir’s relationship with the press was certainly not one-sided. Her intriguing character and ground-breaking theories lent themselves well to news stories and Beauvoir’s image as an intellectual took on international fame. 2008 marked the centenary of Beauvoir’s birth and pictures of The Castor filled the newspapers, journals and television screens. Le Nouvel Observateur was no exception and on 3rdJanuary the magazine printed a nude photograph of Beauvoir on the front cover together with the subheading “La Scandaleuse”, pictured below. The photograph was taken by Art Shay in 1952 in Chicago while Beauvoir was engaged in a passionate affair with the American writer Nelson Algren. In an interview, Shay explains that while Beauvoir was initially unaware that he was taking her photograph, upon hearing the shutters click she exclaimed “You naughty boy!” and continued to do her hair (Leprince: 2017). In contrast to the magazine cover of 1971, here the emphasis is placed on image rather than text.

Le Nouvel Observateur – 3rd January, 2008

This controversial magazine cover sparked debate; was this an example of female empowerment or objectification? Male chauvinism or the celebration of a woman who was confident in her own skin? Despite her implicit consent, was this not a personal picture that was never intended for widespread consumption? In an interview with Le Nouvel Observateur (2008), writer Daniele Sallenave argued that the magazine had used Beauvoir’s body purely to boost sales. Furthermore, some protested that the photo had been retouched; it was given a rose-tinted colour and the contrast has been reduced, which has the effect of flattening out Beauvoir’s wrinkles. A small group of about ten women protested about the double standards of nudity in the media, holding up satirical signs such as “On veut voir les fesses de Jean-Paul Sartre”. Like many contemporary magazine covers, this print plays into the public’s desire for gossip and scandal; the reader becomes captivated by the shock of seeing a well-known woman naked on the front page.

In line with Beauvoir’s famous aphorism “On ne naît pas femme, on le devient”, written in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949: 293), this magazine cover offers us a glimpse into how the media plays a role in shaping gender standards. Sexualised and objectified images of women in the media have been criticised for largely contributing to women’s second-class status in society (Carter: 2014: 370). Not only is Beauvoir’s image taken beyond the ideas that she herself was putting forwards, but it is detracting from the very cause that Beauvoir dedicated herself to fighting for.

The ongoing portrayal of Beauvoir in the media leaves us with these uneasy questions about the relationship between mass media and intellectuals. Are Beauvoir’s own words more powerful than an image? Or can a photograph, immediate and graphic, undermine years of work towards female emancipation in an instant?



Primary Reading:

Agathe Logeart, ‘Simone, la scandaleuse’, Le Nouvel Observateur, 2252. (2008).

Balle, F. (2006). Les médias. 2nded. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Beauvoir, S. (1949). Le Deuxième Sexe. Paris: Gallimard.

Beauvoir, S. (1963). La Force des choses II. Paris: Gallimard.

Chloé Leprince, ‘Les fesses de Simone de Beauvoir censures ? L’histoire du cliché par le photographe’, France Culture. (2017).

Sallenave, D., Logeart, A. ‘Beauvoir: la polémique sous le regard de Sallenave’, L’Obs. (2008).

Simone de Beauvoir, ‘Manifeste des 343’, Le Nouvel Observateur, 334. (1971).


Secondary Reading:

Carter, C. (2014). Sex/Gender and the Media: From Sex Roles to Social Construction and Beyond, in Ross, K. (ed.) The Handbook of Gender, Sex, and Media. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, pp.365-387.

Duranti, A., Tuveri, M. (2017). Introduction, in Duranti, A., Tuveri, M. (eds.). Proceedings on the 18thconference of the Simone de Beauvoir society. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Jaggar, A. M. (1983). Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Kuhn, R. (1995). The media in France. London: Routledge.

Reineke, S. (2011). Beauvoir and her sisters. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Threadgold, T. (1990). Introduction, in Threadgold, T., Cranny-Francis, A. (eds.). Feminine, Masculine and Representation. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, pp.1-35.

Tidd, U. (2009). Simone de Beauvoir – (Critical lives). London: Reaktion Books.

Wkyes, M., Gunter, B. (2005). The media & body image: If looks could kill. London: Sage Publications.

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