A perceptive and clear rendering of Simone de Beauvoir's influencial treatment of the "myth of woman", based on chapter XI of her The Second Sex ("Myth and Reality"). De Beauvoir's concepts of feminine mystery and the confusion governing heterosexual relationships are explained and are then put in the context of a somewhat hasty discussion of Donald Barthelme's postmodern rewriting of the legendary story of Bluebeard, his wife, and the seven doors.

 

De Beauvoir’s "myth of woman" and its subversion in Barthelme’s "Bluebeard"

"An existent is nothing other than what he does; the possible does not extend beyond the real, essence does not precede existence [...]" (173). Simone de Beauvoir’s well-known statement about reality and woman’s and man’s place in reality has probably come to be more famous in the context of (Sartre's) existentialist theory than that of feminist theory. In the latter, however, and especially in her writings about the "myth of woman," it has a central function in elucidating how women are kept from participating in this existential reality and from designing this (their) reality themselves. It is the difference between myth and reality – as alluded to in the title of De Beauvoir's essay – and the myths that women have to adhere to that keep them imprisoned as the unprivileged, the ill-favored, the suppressed, the marginalia of the world. In what follows, I will explicate de Beauvoir’s concept of the myth of Femininity (based on chapter XI of her The Second Sex), and briefly discuss the deployment, or rather subversion, of this myth in one of Donald Barthelme’s short post-modern prose-texts, namely "Bluebeard".

Probably the most general quality of myths is that they are universal. They are – or at least try to represent – Truths in the Platonic sense: transcendental and absolute truths. As such, myths are liable to overtake the factual equivalents they are supposed to sum up and portray. Myths are potentially powerful enough to determine and form the reality they relate to. Such is the "myth of woman," or rather the myths of woman, which culminate and work in each others’ favor to produce a network of myths resulting in a practice of controlling and disguising the female sex rather than explaining it. "If the definition provided for this concept is contradicted by the behavior of flesh-and-blood women, it is the latter who are wrong" (171). It is the mythological definition of woman, then, which sets the standards for the real ("blood-and-flesh") woman. It follows that it cannot be the concept of Femininity that is false, but that the woman who does not fit in with it is not feminine.

The fact that women are experienced (by men) in different ways does not lessen the power of the one absolute myth of woman. Since this absolute myth of Femininity is essentially about incoherence and mystery, differing – even contradictory – "sub-myths" only confirm the "mother of all myths," if you will. This diversity (which at the same time always equals uniformity) simultaneously allows for differing concepts and meanings such as "mother = life" and "mother = death". Furthermore, it enables paternal society to project onto woman the values that seem desirable and useful, and by denying her other values or aims, forces her to adhere to whatever it is that she is wanted to do. Often, there is a confusing – or rather a confused – mixture of reality and myth, in that myths are derived from real experiences, but turned into something quite dissimilar from the original (as with accounts of sexual relationships). This is another instance showing how differing actual experiences add up to the "soaring into an empty sky" (172) that is the "myth of woman".

De Beauvoir accepts that woman is, for biological and physiological reasons, more enslaved in nature than man. Saying that she is Nature (a common mythological equation), however, is acting from prejudice – and very convenient. It makes it easy for man to take many of his traditional (and un-natural) privileges and advantages for granted and to refuse responsibility for much of the wrong that is done to woman, simply because it all is meant to be – "intended by Nature" (173).

As was insinuated above, one of the most accommodating and advantageous myths about women is that of feminine mystery. Not only does it enable man to see woman as an objectified Other, but it can be used as the one unifying myth which "explains" everything about woman that cannot or will not be understood by man. De Beauvoir does not deny that women are mysterious, but she insists on qualifying that statement: Surely woman is mysterious, but in just the same way that everything must appear mysterious if one tries to generalize and classify, ruling out incoherence and difference. What appears to be a universal truth about woman, then, is actually a denial of individuality, a denial of the existence of essentially different women, of woman as subject. Ultimately, it could be said that, since everybody can only grasp her/himself as subject, everything beyond oneself must be mysterious. The mythical mystery in itself, then, is not simply false, but is has to be extended, or remodeled: It is not woman who is mysterious, but the other. De Beauvoir argues that there are biological reasons for the fact that statements like "woman is mysterious in essence" are so eagerly accepted not only by man, but also by women: As a woman, she says, it can be very difficult to come to terms with one’s physiological life, so that adhering to a myth, and believing in one’s own mystery, might seem to be a good alternative to a more critical and complicated auseinandersetzung with the physiological reality of one’s sex.

The totalizing nature of the myth of Femininity differs from the myth about the mystery of women. The first tries to establish a Truth about the female sex, whereas the second is by definition vague and cannot describe female human beings. The latter, however, is still centered around one general assertion: that women can not be understood. That they might have a hard time understanding themselves, as De Beauvoir points out, once more confirms that there just is not one truth that can be found out and articulated. In addition to that, the paternal society of De Beauvoir’s model denies women the means to establish and determine their existence. Since woman is thus not able to establish her individual existence, it may very well be that the mystery surrounding woman "conceals nothing but emptiness" (174). She might even – quite unaware of the process – add to her own mysteriousness, by hiding her real sentiments and opinions from "the ruling caste" (172), just as slaves display "changeless smile[s]" for their masters (174).

Mystery, De Beauvoir says, is essentially an illusion, and women are therefore actually not mysterious. Absolute mystery, as prescribed to women, does not exist: Once one draws near to take closer look, it dissolves, and leaves behind a clear picture. That men continue to view women as essentially mysterious, then, is indicative of an unwillingness to see and understand them rather than of an inability to do so, which refers back to the usefulness of the myth. It is this usefulness and convenience that De Beauvoir sees as one of the main reason for the creation and maintenance of the myth of Femininity. It always serves man’s cause: If he is deceived – she is mean or crazy; If he is impotent – she is a "praying mantis"; He enjoys her company – she is Harmony. It is man who disguises woman with myths, not herself.

It might be feared (by men, of course), that discarding the myths of women and femininity would "destroy all dramatic relationships" between man and woman (175). The patriarchal egocentrism inherent in this concern is obvious. As De Beauvoir puts it, the discarding of myths concerning women might destroy relationships that are grounded on mere sexuality, superficiality and mystery itself. It could not harm "deeper" (authentic) relationships, which would then once and for all have to be founded on truth and sincerity, on acceptance of the other as a real other, not as a constructed, immanent, and forced one.

Donald Barthelme’s "Bluebeard", initially published in 1987, contains several passages that can be read against, or with, De Beauvoir’s theory. Even though the ending is probably the most important part of this story, in that the punch-line and conclusion are contained in the last three sentences, it is earlier in the story that analogies to De Beauvoir’s theories are more clearly perceivable. The story evolves around a relationship that seems doomed to fail, but not in the way readers familiar with the original tale of Bluebeard and his wives may expect. Here, it is much more complicated. Obviously, Bluebeard is so convinced that he knows his wife – as "woman" (the mythical woman) – that it confuses him a great deal whenever it becomes evident that she really is not just "a woman", or rather "the woman." He has a hard time realizing that she is an individual human being, and as such unlike any other woman he has met (and married) before. Constructing her as woman in accordance with myths of Femininity does not work and he finds that highly irritating. She is not, for example, curious – something Bluebeard would find natural in any woman. Their relationship starts off as being highly reminiscent of what De Beauvoir writes about: Bluebeard woos her, makes presents, gives her his time and attention; she, idle, submissively and willingly accepts.

What is amusing about "Bluebeard" is that the (nameless) wife claims to be more than willing to adhere to the myth, to be whatever her husband wants her to be, if she only knew what it was. She attributes their marital problems to lack of intelligence on her part. As the story progresses, however, one begins to suspect that really she only does not want to take advantage of the "myth of woman", in order to get a car for example.

The way she becomes curious in the course of the story is different from the way she was supposed to be curious (as "woman") right from the beginning. Thus, she undoes one major male myth about women. Maybe it is nothing but a logical consequence that after this, other myths that the story draws upon must fall, too: The knowledge of what lies behind the forbidden door is itself not of factual, but rather mythical nature – it is another myth. The woman in the story is just as disappointed when she finds out what is hidden behind the door as her husband is about her not being "a woman". Another humorous trait becomes perceivable at this point in the story. De Beauvoir calls for "real" relationships between men and women, relationships that are founded on truth rather than myth, on sincerity rather than the longing for mystery. She argues that these relationships are possible, are eventually the ultimate relationships, and that they do not have to lack romance, adventure, dreaming, happiness, or love. For Bluebeard and his nameless wife, who appears to be ignorant of all this, things do not work out so easily: Both are disappointed; both are confused; both are angry even that the other does not really adhere to their vision of what the other is.

 

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