Simone de Beauvoir: big ideas on the small screen

Considered by many as ‘the basic starting point for contemporary feminist theory’ (Seigel, 2011: 216), it is impossible to ignore the impact of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), a text which examines the origins of women’s inferior social status. Respected for her large body of literary work, Beauvoir was, however, less renowned for engaging with audio-visual media. Indeed, at the start of a 1975 interview on the talk show Questionnaires, entitled ‘Pourquoi je suis féministe’, host Jean-Louis Schreiber remarks: ‘c’est probablement la première fois que vous voyez Simone de Beauvoir’. With this in mind, an analysis of the episode not only raises the question as to why Beauvoir finally embraced television as a way of reaching her public but, more significantly: to what extent is she able to adapt to the audio-visual, ensuring the dissemination of her philosophy in more modern times?

AN AGEING INTELLECTUAL WITH AN OUTDATED APPROACH?

On first watching the interview, Beauvoir’s responses appear rather difficult and academic. Explaining the idea ‘on ne naît pas femme, on le devient’, a quote Schreiber borrows directly from Le Deuxième Sexe, Beauvoir exercises her intellectual prowess as she calls on history, psychology, biology and literary criticism to support her response. Dominating the dialogue for over a minute, she remarks: ‘[c’est] d’abord l’histoire de la civilisation qui a abouti à son statut actuel’. Although successful in her 1949 study – the rigour of which is almost akin to a ‘thèse classique’ (Monteil, 2009: 193) – the time sequencers and extended responses, indicative of her methodical approach, risk isolating a television audience. This is unaided by her unrelentingly stern facial expression, foregrounded throughout the interview through a series of close-ups (Fig.1.) which compound this image of a serious academic.

Figure 1: Beauvoir caught in a moment of stern concentration as she charts the origins of patriarchal society (Thinkingaloud7189, 2015: 00:08:43).

With the risk of anachronistically applying a twenty-first century perspective, given that television was, at the time, a relatively new medium for cultural diffusion, the question arises: to what extent can philosophy be represented on television? As critic Tamara Chaplin remarks, philosophy ‘deals in abstractions’ (2007: 11) and consequently lacks the visual dimension fundamental to television. By presenting her philosophy in a purely oral format, the literary style of which we have explored above, Beauvoir seems out of touch with contemporary society. A comparison to her contemporary Marguerite Duras’ 1984 appearance on the literary talk show Apostrophesunderlines that Beauvoir’s distant, academic approach held no place in a France transformed by the events of 1968. When asked whether she had anticipated the success of her latest novel, L’Amant, Duras cryptically responds: ‘j’avais peur qu’il ne soit pas celui que les gens attendaient de moi… et voilà’ (INA Talk Shows: 2014). While Beauvoir’s prescriptive explanation details a fully developed theory, Duras refuses the notion of a single truth. Instead, she stresses the idea of uncertainty, usurping the interviewer-interviewee relationship when she later questions host Bernard Pivot ‘vous-êtes d’accord?’ with a mischievous smile (Fig.2.).

Figure 2: Duras plays with the interview format as she poses a question back at host Bernard Pivot (INA Talk Shows, 2014: 00:02:57).

However, before reaching too harsh a conclusion on one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated women, it must be noted that Beauvoir alone was not responsible for her depiction as an outdated intellectual. As intellectual Pierre Bourdieu argues, by appearing on television intellectuals relinquished ‘control of the instruments of production’ (1998: 13); given the collaborative nature of television production, Beauvoir was no longer the sole author of her story. This is evident when Schreiber asks her: ‘où retracez-vous l’origine de cette volonté [d’oppression et exploitation]?’. Although an important element of Le Deuxième Sexe, and so arguably necessary to address, Schreiber’s question nonetheless forces Beauvoir into the role of historian as she charts the historical persecution of female healers. Likewise, as the programme begins, Schreiber introduces Beauvoir, saying: ‘comme Jean Paul Sartre, le compagnon de sa vie, elle refusait jusqu’à cette année de paraître à la télévision’. Given the episode’s feminist theme, this immediate reference to Sartre is lamentable, implying an inability to escape his shadow and be recognised for her own intellectual merits. Similarly, the interview’s very title – ‘pourquoi je suis féministe’ – suggests a narrow understanding of Beauvoir’s work; it relegates her expertise to women’s issues when in fact, as she protests in a later interview, ‘I’ve also spoken about many other things… I’d prefer that a focus on my writing and my work not be absolutely limited… to the woman question’ (in Wenzel, 1986: 6).

TELEVISION: A POLITICAL PLATFORM FOR THE ENGAGED INTELLECTUAL?

On the other hand, it is significant that the 1970s marked the beginning of Beauvoir’s feminist activism. As France’s second wave of feminism gained momentum following the legalisation of contraception in 1967 (Hirsh, 1981: 218), Beauvoir uses her television appearance to actively reinforce her increasing solidarity. Whereas her previous works focused on ‘nous Sartre’, emphasising her connection to her lover and fellow existentialist, this gradually becomes ‘nous les femmes’ (Monteil, 2009: 217), and, in the interview, ‘nous les féministes’. While references to ‘la femme’ in Le Deuxième Sexe imply a detached study of the female condition (ibid: 209), on-screen, Beauvoir goes even further than simply identifying with her female counterparts; by declaring her feminist affiliation, she publicly assumes her role in the fight for gender equality.

If earlier in the interview she seemed poorly adapted to the audio-visual, powerless in cultivating her own image, it becomes apparent that Beauvoir was far from naïve. Given that, by 1970, 70.4% of French households owned a television (Delporte, 2009: 141), Beauvoir comes to acknowledge, as Sartre does in Qu’est-ce que la littérature?, ‘il faut apprendre à parler en images’ (Sartre, 1948: 322). By developing her television presence, Beauvoir seemingly hopes to capitalise on television’s increasing popularity to further the momentum of the feminist movement, energised by its recent victory in bringing about the decriminalisation of abortion.

If she previously shied away from active political involvement, conforming to novelist Julien Benda’s understanding of the intellectual as a defender of universal values (1927: 231), during the Questionnairesepisode Beauvoir consciously presents herself as an embodiment of the intellectuelle engagée. While Schreiber’s suited attire has elitist connotations, suggesting a disconnect with the public, Beauvoir’s colourful clothing embodies 1970s style (INA, no date); she appears rooted in her context, a visual symbol of the post-war intellectual trend towards social and political engagement. Speaking as a member of the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF) – an affiliation she highlights throughout – Beauvoir demonstrates her practical involvement in the feminist movement with reference to the controversial abortion petition she penned, lemanifeste des 343. Although she has, at times, scorned the 1970s feminist movement’s appropriation of her image (in Wenzel, 1986: 7), it seems dedication to the cause led Beauvoir to embrace the ‘celebrity status’ afforded by Le Deuxième Sexe, lending her face to the women’s rights campaign (Hirsh, 1981: 218).

Instead of a limiting portrayal of her work, the show’s title, then, with its focus on the first person ‘je’, could be interpreted as a conscious exploitation of her reputation. Aware of her status as an exemplar role-model in the fight for gender equality, Beauvoir cultivates her public persona as an active participant in the women’s rights movement, hoping to inspire others. Later in the interview, she then draws on this reputation when she criticises government proposals for a new ‘secretariat à la condition feminine’, discrediting efforts as ‘un os à ronger qu’on achetait aux femmes pour leur donner l’impression précisement de s’occuper d’elles’. The vivid metaphor, which reduces women to dogs, publicly shames the government and is indicative of her increasing political weight as she incites them to do more.

If, as Delporte claims of intellectuals on television, ‘un bon invité, désormais, est celui qui a compris le rythme télévisuel… maîtrise sa voix, son regard, ses gestes’ (2009: 144) then Beauvoir’s presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Overly theoretical, yet simultaneously lacking the command of her prose as her voice is subject to the whims of the audio-visual medium, her explanation of the female condition is arguably best served by another medium. Despite its shortcomings, however, we should not discount Beauvoir’s effort. In an era that saw many traditional intellectuals left behind ‘once the centre of gravity of cultural transmission became the emotive visual imagery of the television screen’ (Scriven, 1993: 116), Beauvoir embraces the challenge. Her foray into the audio-visual is not merely a failed attempt to modernise ideas from Le Deuxième Sexe, but a conscious exploitation of the medium to solidify her image as an engaged feminist and, from this place of strength, actively participate in spreading the feminist message to a generation for whom television was increasingly popular.

Primary Source

Thinkingaloud7189 (2015) Simone de Beauvoir: 1975 Interview (English Subs) [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmEAB3ekkvU [accessed: 15/10/19].

Further Reading

Anon (2019) Simone de Beauvoir [online] Encyclopaedia Britannica.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Simone-de-Beauvoir [accessed: 13/11/19].

Anon (2019) Marguerite Duras [online] Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marguerite-Duras [accessed: 13/11/19].

Benda, J. (1927) La trahison des clercs. Paris: Bernard Grasset.

Bourdieu, P. (1998) On Television and Journalism. London: Pluto Press.

Chaplin, T. (2007) Turning on the Mind: French Philosophers on Television. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

De Beauvoir, S. (2015) The Second Sex. Tr. C. Borde. s.l.: Vintage Digital.

Delporte, C. (2009) ‘La télévision fait-elle les intellectuels ? Intellectuels et télévision, des années 1950 à nos jours’, Modern & Contemporary France, 17(2), p.139-151. 

Hirsh, A. (1981) The French New Left: an Intellectual History from Sartre to Gorz. Boston: South End Press.

INA (no date), Simone de Beauvoir et le féminisme [online]. Jalons version découverte. Available at: https://fresques.ina.fr/jalons/fiche-media/InaEdu04638/simone-de-beauvoir-et-le-feminisme.html [accessed: 01/11/19].

INA Talk Shows (2014) Apostrophes: Marguerite Duras répond à Bernard Pivot [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BidilIrlVGo [accessed: 01/11/19].

Monteil, C. (2009) Modernité et engagement. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Nicholson, K. (2019) Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (Women’s Liberation Movement), 1968 [online] Towards Emancipation? Women in Modern European History. Available at: http://hist259.web.unc.edu/about/[accessed: 13/11/19].

Sartre, J.P. (1948) Qu’est-ce que la littérature ? Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Scriven, M. (1993) Sartre and the Media. N.Y: St. Martin’s Press.

Seigel, J. (2011) ‘Intellectuals and the Republic’. In E. Berenson et al, ed. The French Republic: History, Values, Debates. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp.334-343.

Wenzel, H. (1986) ‘Interview with Simone de Beauvoir’, Yale French Studies, 72, pp.5-32.

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