« On veut voir les fesses de Sartre ! »
To the intellectuel engagé, media can be a tool for the diffusion of one’s ideas. What then, when an image is published and diffused posthumously?
Spying into his unlocked bathroom in 1952, a 30-year-old Art Shay rapidly snaps shots of a nude Simone de Beauvoir (fig 1), who has just left the bath and is now fixing her hair in the mirror. “Vous êtes un villain garçon!” (You are a naughty boy!), she remarks upon hearing the snap of the Leica shutters- although she doesn’t tell him to stop, and the door remains open.
Fig.1: Simone de Beauvoir by Art Shay
For years, Art Shay had thought these rolls of film to be lost, and even once they had been found, they were never published or exhibited while Beauvoir was still alive (Shay, 2008). Fast forward 56 years, and we find the photo retouched and centre stage on the cover of Le Nouvel Observateur, accompanied by the heading ‘Simone de Beauvoir La Scandaleuse’ (The Scandalous Simone de Beauvoir)(Fig 2).
Fig.2: Simone La Scandaleuse, Le Nouvel Observateur
Le Nouvel Observateur (L’OBS) is a widely-read weekly magazine in France, and one which had even been favoured by Beauvoir as a vehicle to disseminate her own philosophical theories- this was the paper which, to a massive audience, published the ‘Manifeste des 343’- a list of 343 women in 1971, courageously admitting to having had an abortion, at a time when it was illegal to do so in France (Centre Audiovisuel Simone de Beauvoir, 2004). The text was written by Beauvoir and was instrumental in the adoption of La Loi Veil in 1975 (Sinard, 2017). Here, L’OBS acted as an enabling platform for the female voice during the propagation of second-wave feminism- which makes the decision to use Art Shay’s photo accompanied by such a title seem all the more incongruous when we return our attention to this 2008 cover; understandably, it divided opinion.
Unsurprisingly, it is easier to find evidence that the cover was poorly received, instead of appreciated when it hit the newsstands; the feminist protest group Les Chiennes de garde (the Guard Bitches) gathered outside the head office of the newspaper, brandishing placards reading « On veut voir les fesses de Marcel Ponty! » (We want to see Marcel Ponty’s arse!) and the names of other notable male philosophers (Rémy, 2014). The backlash was such that L’OBS filmed a debate between Agathe Logeart, of the L’OBS design team, and Danièle Sallenave, author of ‘Castor de Guerre’ to discuss this equivocal choice of front cover (Beauvoir: la polémique sous le regard de Sallenave, 2009).
« Cette femme qui sait qu’elle est vue, qui voit qu’on la voit, c’est une autre façon qu’elle a de se raconter » (This woman, who knows that she is seen, who sees that we see her… it’s another way in which she can show herself off) (Beauvoir: la polémique sous le regard de Sallenave, 2009)
What is clear from this debate, is that it is not the image which triggered outcry, but the fact that it was chosen for the cover: The photo had previously been exhibited without generating the same polemic. But here, even amongst critics, it is difficult to argue that the photo wasn’t deliberately used simply to cause a stir and to boost sales; consent of women is treated differently to that of men, and the female body has been used for years as a commodity to sell things (Beauvoir: la polémique sous le regard de Sallenave, 2009). The way this L’OBS cover was received clearly demonstrates peoples’ discomfort at this fact- after all, how many photos do we have of Sartre secretly snapped in the nude?
Les Chiennes de garde outside L’OBS head office- Jean Mulatier for Getty Images
To Sallenave, the use of the word ‘scandaleuse’ was an equivocal choice, because of course, Beauvoir is not scandalous here in her act of being photographed. The scandal which has at times surrounded her stems from her voice and her philosophy, especially when ‘Le Deuxième Sexe’ was first published. ‘Le Deuxième Sexe’ confronted readers with a depiction of female corporeality (namely the ‘passive’ nature of female genitalia) which at the time was absolutely shocking in its detail, and therefore forced a sort of public examination of opinion “on the scale of the problem of discrimination” (Tiukalo, 2012). With this retouched version of the photo however- light adjusted, her behind made to appear more rounded, and the caption that accompanies it- we are encouraged to think « Enfin ! Un journal qui va relever le scandale de la vie Beauvoir ! » (Finally! A paper that reveals the scandal of Beauvoir’s life!)(Beauvoir: la polémique sous le regard de Sallenave, 2009): It fails to correspond appropriately to the accompanying article, which is subsequently cheapened by the ambiguity of the cover page.
SO, WHAT’S IT TO BEAUVOIR?
If she were still alive today, to speculate on what Beauvoir would have thought of the L’OBS cover and the storm which briefly surrounded it really does depend on which ‘Beauvoir’ you choose to look at: The issue of sexism reads differently according to different points in her life and the publication of numerous letters after her death has caused academics to rethink an intellectual they previously thought to have a good grasp of (Kirkpatrick, 2019). Since her death, occasional contradictions between her ideologies and her actions have become more apparent, and she inconsistently recognised these discrepancies within herself, which raises the question “are we the sum of all our actions, or the sum of our worst?”. In 1949, just before Art Shay conducted the impromptu Chicago séance, Beauvoir was interpreted by critics as being anti-woman, and yet Agathe Logeart justified the choice of Shay’s image on the cover of L’OBS by the supposition that when we talk of Simone de Beauvoir, we are talking about a « femme très femme » (a very female woman) (Beauvoir: la polémique sous le regard de Sallenave, 2009)- maybe it is more a question of what parts of this illustrious female intellectual one wishes to prescribe to.
When L’OBS published their magazine with this controversial cover, certain feminists staggered backwards- it’s true that the same photo would not have been chosen, if it existed, for a cover featuring Sartre. But would Simone de Beauvoir necessarily have cared? She has written extensively on the female body and its purpose, and, recognising the importance of capitalising on the different media forms which now existed as vehicles for the dissemination of her ideas, she surely recognised that in using the media to get your voice heard, you are also resigning yourself to the fact that your image may be manipulated or presented in a way that is
not to your choosing. Beauvoir used real biological data to demonstrate men’s superiority to women, suggesting that biology and not simply societal factors alone are at play when we search for a reason for the subordination of women to men; the female fate is inescapable, and the “passivity of the female body is not only a product of society” (Tiukalo, 2012) but of biology, too. At the same time, she saw “the body as both a transcendent subject for me and an immanent object for others” (Cataldi, 2001); while recognising that her body could be reduced to something which triggers a conflict of desires between herself and others, she also challenged social convention and understanding of intimacy. She wanted to be free to appreciate and uphold the value of intimacy, while simultaneously ridding herself of the historical shackles of “domesticating meanings of exclusivity” (Hengehold, 2002).
We may suppose, then, that it is slightly academic to even consider the potential of Simone de Beauvoir’s opinion here; she had no objections to Art Shay taking her photo- she had such a habit of showering with the door open that Shay had even been warned about the fact before he met her (Shay, 2008), and for all we know, the controversial headline may have amused her- it certainly hasn’t slowed down the consumption of her written work! Opinion being for or against, we can be certain that she would have had one. If she were to have objected to Le Nouvel Observateur’s front cover choice, we would have of course been able to read what she had to say on the matter via some media form or another; of that, we can be sure.
Source: Morrison Hotel Gallery, ‘Simone de Beauvoir, 1950’ (Chicago, 1950), Photo by Art Shay
Source : BIBLIOBS, Re-published November 5 2017, Cover design directed by Agathe Logeart,
‘Simone de Beauvoir, La Scandaleuse’, Le Nouvel Observateur, 2008
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