Ilse Aichinger, 1948
Lilly Axster
Katherine Klinger
Hannah Arendt, 1950
Hannah Fröhlich
Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Simone de Beauvoir, 1949
Dagmar Fink
Tom Holert
Reference text Beauvoir
Billie Holiday, 1939
Jamika Ajalon
Rúbia Salgado
Adrian Piper, 1983
Belinda Kazeem
Anna Kowalska
Yvonne Rainer, 1990
Monika Bernold
Shirley Tate
Please use the rear exit
Tom Holert, 2011

Flying back from a three-day event with performances, screenings, and talks on queer theory and art practice in Venice [1], I have in my luggage Le deuxième sexe, the historico-critical monograph on “woman” first published in 1949 (divided into two volumes, “Facts and Myths” and “Lived Experience”), in the 941-page paperback edition of the most recent German version, a very readable translation made in 1992 by Uli Aumüller and Grete Osterwald, who retained the earlier German title Das andere Geschlecht (“the other sex”, and not, as in the original, the “second” sex).

Throughout the event in question, I was listening for any mention of Simone de Beauvoir, but she was not on the agenda, at least not explicitly. She is not among the figures inspiring current debates on strategies for critical denormalization, rebellious embodiment, or reconceptualizations of gender. However, she does feature in “Queering Idols,” a poster by Sabina Baumann taken from Feeling Bad. Queer Pleasures, Art & Politics, a fanzine that was on sale in Venice, where she appears alongside Susan Sontag, Patti Smith, Leigh Bowery, Audre Lorde, Terre Thaemlitz, and Shu Lea Cheang. Beauvoir has taken her place in the pink pantheon of queer idols (or those still to be queered). [2]

Squeezed into my easyJet seat, I start reading Volume Two of Le deuxième sexe (Lived Experience). The first section (Childhood) of the first part (Formative Years) opens with the brilliant sentence that everyone knows (whatever “knows” might mean in this case): “One is not born, but rather becomes, woman” (“On ne naît pas femme: on le devient”). A strange sentence. A rich, perplexing, much-interpreted sentence. The impersonal subject (“on”). The neutral object (“le”). No feminine article, no feminine ending. The absence of the grammatical feminine as a sign of the always-already masculine subject?

“At its limit […], the sex/gender distinction implies a radical heteronomy of natural bodies and constructed genders,” Judith Butler writes in her 1986 essay on “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex”, published in Yale French Studies, a printout of which I also have with me. This is an almost forgotten text, overshadowed by Butler’s classic Gender Trouble (1990), which deals critically and briefly with Beauvoir, mainly as a way of introducing an in-depth discussion of the writings of Monique Wittig. Because of this irreducibility of anatomy and culture, Butler continues, “‘being’ female and ‘being’ a woman are two very different sorts of being.” This, she suggests, is the key contribution to feminist theory of the opening sentence of Volume Two of Le deuxième sexe. [3] (Although, it should also be noted, in the introduction to Volume One, Beauvoir had already framed the central question of her project—“What is a woman?”—in ontological terms.)

However, is it not just as decisive that Beauvoir speaks here not of being but of becoming? Butler answers this question herself by emphasizing how Beauvoir’s concept of becoming “reconciles the internal ambiguity of gender as both ‘project’ and ‘construct’.” [4] By upholding the ambiguity of becoming, Butler writes, Beauvoir “formulates gender as a corporeal locus of cultural possibilities both received and innovated.”

Reading Beauvoir (and Butler) in an airplane reminds me of the famous photograph of Beauvoir and Sartre on a Pan Am flight from Paris to Rio de Janeiro in 1960. Beauvoir is next to the window; Sartre has the aisle seat. Both are reading: Sartre a magazine, Beauvoir a book. The headrests have white protective covers. Curtains are folded back from the cabin windows. Behind the two prominent French intellectuals sits a woman, apparently traveling alone. She, too, is reading, but we cannot see what. Beauvoir and the unknown woman both have their heads slightly inclined, creating a (feminine? feminist?) harmony.

It is likely that all those involved knew they were being photographed. Reading appears as a pose, a performative act. The woman reading, an endlessly varied topos in European art, takes a further turn in this picture. Here, in 1960, reading takes place among the collective of travelers who can afford such a mode of transport. In couples or alone, the readers use their journey time, as privileged immaterial workers in flight.

I (re)discovered this photograph on the blog of an immaterial worker, a Brazilian sociologist. She calls herself Beauvoiriana (http://avecbeauvoir.wordpress... and since April 2010 she has been posting pictures, videos, and short texts on subjects including Beauvoir and Sartre’s trips to Venice, Beauvoirian ambiguity, and the question of “Why read Beauvoir today?” They are the writings of a fan. Probably a young woman, but that is already a projection. “Beauvoiriana” develops a fictional correspondence with “Simone.” Her dream is a direct conversation with the author of Le deuxième sexe. A dream that can only come true once death and history have been overcome.

As well as being a historical figure, however, Beauvoir is also a contemporary. She is among the writers whose work is repeatedly required to answer the question: What do you (still) have to tell us today? This question is, of course, unreasonable. As if the work were being ordered to justify itself before those alive today. However, it is also about what this work has already provoked and changed. Which is why its historical impact is measured against the impact that can be felt now and that is to be expected in the future.

Back to the airplane and my reading: Before the first section of Volume Two of Le deuxième sexe, Beauvoir inserted an introduction. It is the second in the book, but it is considerably shorter than the first, just two paragraphs, preceded by two quotations. They are taken from Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. One is a patronizing, misogynistic statement on “the curse of being a woman,” a curse made worse when the woman herself fails to “understand that it is one.” The other—“Half victim, half accomplice, like everyone”—tries to strike a universalist note, but perhaps for precisely this reason, it appears isolated and somehow vacuous, or just plain silly.

I wonder about the intended function of these quotations. They repeat a constellation of quotations used to open the introduction to Volume One: Pythagoras’s distinction between a “good principle” and a “bad principle,” corresponding to the male and the female, is unambiguously misogynous. By contrast, the warning from Cartesian proto-feminist François Poulain de la Barre that everything written by men about women should be treated with suspicion, “because they are both judge and party,” appears positively progressive.

What has been described as excessive dependence on male sources can also be seen as a strategy of disempowerment. Beauvoir lends a symbolic weight to the quotations from Pythagoras, Poulain de la Barre, Kierkegaard, and Sartre, but one that is not meant to last. She allows the dissonant male statements to clash, creating an oblique harmony from which she derives her own symphonic evidence. With complex irony, Beauvoir offers up these exemplary male aphorisms on gender relations and heterosexuality for her male readers to identify with. That these quotations appear so false or at least inconsistent today is because, among other things, the text invites me to scrutinize these models for identification and look for reasons why I might criticize and reject them.

In the cabin of the budget airline’s Airbus, which is flooded with signals of collapsing economies, heterosexual behavioral roles, physical exhaustion, and mental dejection, I read the introduction to Volume Two over and over again in an attempt to grasp what rereading Le deuxième sexe might involve. It speaks of “using words” and of “common ground,” oscillating—like the book as a whole—between visionary zest and soberly pessimistic assessment of the situation. The formulations are clear, but in tempo and tangibility the claims made slow each other down: “Women of today are overthrowing the myth of femininity.” This sentence is followed not by any indication of how this activity is being carried out, but by a statement of limitations. Although the “women of today” are beginning to affirm their independence, there remain large obstacles to them “living their human condition completely.”

In just a few lines, Beauvoir outlines a method that pairs the political project of emancipation with an analysis of these restraining conditions. Put in such general terms, it is easy to agree. Things soon get complicated, however, beginning with the concept of “woman,” not least because Beauvoir even declares that becoming a woman is a problem, thus opening herself up to later queer-feminist readings.

Lost in an ecologically dubious dream about a Simone de Beauvoir-themed late summer masked ball in Venice full of ambiguously gendered characters who, their hair wrapped in headscarves, keep writing Le deuxième sexe until the parts about “human nature” and the “necessary … relation of man to woman” (Marx, approvingly quoted by Beauvoir) melt into many colors and are channeled into the lagoon’s canals like the motor oil from the water taxis, I only wake up when a member of the cabin crew lifts off my headphones and asks me to please use the rear exit. I dare not ask if I can stay a little longer.


Tom Holert is an art historian and cultural theorist. He lives in Berlin.

Edited by Jo Schmeiser & Sabine Rohlf

Translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell, copyedited by Harold Otto

This text was published on December 22, 2011, in the Viennese magazine MALMOE.


1) “Chewing the Scenery”, curated by Andrea Thal, Second Swiss Pavilion at Teatro Fondamenta Nuove, Venice Art Biennial 2011

2) FEELING BAD – queer pleasures, art & politics, edited by Karin Michalski, with contributions by Ann Cvetkovich, K8 Hardy, Wynne Greenwood and tektek/Berlin, Berlin 2011

3) Judith Butler, “Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex”, in: Yale French Studies, No 72, 1986 (Simone de Beauvoir: Witness to a Century), p. 35-49, here: p. 35

4) Ibid., p. 37