Notes on ‘the Other’
As used by the French writer Simone de Beauvoir, the concept of ‘the Other’ describes women’s status in patriarchal, androcentric cultures. While men are ‘the One’ (in other words, beings in and of themselves), women are ‘the Other’, beings defined only in relation to men. A woman, de Beauvoir wrote, is ‘defined and differentiated with reference to man and not he with reference to her; she is the incidental, the inessential as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other’ (1997 : 16).
De Beauvoir’s ideas on women as the Other were set out in The Second Sex (first published in English in 1953). Drawing on the philosophical arguments of Hegel and Sartre, de Beauvoir saw that relationships between individuals were marked by a fundamental contradiction. Each individual self seeks to act freely and autonomously, but simultaneously requires interaction with others in order to define that self. In de Beauvoir’s words, ‘the subject can be posed only in being opposed’ (1997: 16). Generally, individuals are forced to recognise the reciprocity of Otherness. Through our encounters with other individuals, it becomes evident that, just as we see them as ‘the Other’, we ourselves are seen by them as ‘the Other’. However, in the case of women and men, this reciprocity of Otherness is not recognised. Instead, ‘one of the contrasting terms [men] is set up as the sole essential, denying any relativity in regard to its correlate and defining the latter [women] as pure otherness’ (1997: 17–18).
De Beauvoir offers a range of reasons for women’s status as the Other, including the role played by women’s reproductive capacities in limiting their autonomy in the eyes of men. An important aspect of her argument, though, lies in identifying women’s complicity in their subordination. Men, in defining themselves as ‘the One’, position women as ‘the Other’. Women do not regain the status of being ‘the One’, according to de Beauvoir, because they largely accept this state of affairs. ‘Thus, woman may fail to claim the status of subject because she lacks definite resources, because she feels the necessary bond that ties her to man regardless of reciprocity and because she is often very well pleased with her role as the Other’ (1997: 21). Therefore, it is suggested that women identify with the patriarchal, androcentric image of themselves (particularly as reproductive and sexual beings) and so regard themselves as the Other. They have ‘chosen’ to remain ‘beings in themselves’ rather than become ‘beings for themselves’ (Okely 1986: 59), because this status offers them benefits, including the evasion of full, adult moral responsibility and autonomy (Evans 1985: 61).
The Second Sex, widely recognised as a landmark text in the development of critiques of women’s status, is also regarded as flawed in its argument and use of evidence (see Evans 1985). Nevertheless, de Beauvoir’s development within The Second Sex of the concept of the Other has been lauded as a ‘strikingly original theory of female subjectivity under patriarchy’ (Moi 1994: 164; see also Evans 1985). Its influence is evident in a number of areas of gender studies. Paechter’s (1998) analysis of the subordinate status of girls in the education system is one example. For Paechter, the positioning of girls and women in education is ‘an exemplar’ of the ways in which femininity has been constructed as Other throughout Western society. Paechter draws together a range of research evidence to show that boys/men have been regarded as the normal Subject of education, while girls/women have been positioned as the Other. For example, the history of the development of education in Britain shows that, until the middle decades of the twentieth century, the education of girls was seen as of secondary importance to that of boys.
Moreover, educational provision for girls developed in specific ways, in that they were educated for domesticity (as future wives and mothers) and so were excluded from other forms of (‘higher’) knowledge routinely experienced by boys. In more recent years, although girls have been granted equal access to the formal curriculum, the problem of their ‘underperformance’ in science subjects has been located in girls themselves, rather than in the androcentric construction of scientific knowledge and pedagogy. In addition to showing how the education curriculum positions girls as Other, Paechter’s analysis points to the role played by masculine behaviour and attitudes in school settings.
Boys dominate in classroom talk, and in school space, whether in the classroom or in the playground. An important aspect of this, argues Paechter, is the way adolescent girls are subject to a ‘disciplinary gaze’. The sexuality of girls is surveyed and consequently controlled by the attitude, language and behaviour of boys (and, often, male teachers) whose authority derives from the masculine-dominated rules of heterosexual culture. Paechter concludes that the Othering of girls within the education system is of particular importance, because it sets girls up for a lifetime of subordination, whereby femininity is that against which masculinity defines itself and asserts its superiority (1998: 115).
A rather different use of the Other can be found in the work of some postmodern or post-structualist feminist writers. In the work of Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, for example, the concept of women as the Other has been developed through engaging with the ideas of Lacan and Derrida. According to Tong (1998), Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva each follow de Beauvoir in focusing on women’s Otherness but interpret this condition fundamentally differently.‘Woman is still the Other, but rather than interpreting this condition as something to be transcended, postmodern feminists proclaim its advantages’ (Tong 1998: 195). In this understanding of Otherness, it is something of an advantaged, privileged viewpoint, enabling a critique of the dominant patriarchal culture through the celebration of feminine cultures, bodies and sexuality.
The critical evaluation of the concept of the Other centres around the issue of ‘difference’. Commentators on The Second Sex point to its tendency toward universalism, in that de Beauvoir conveys the view that the Other is the experience of all women, at all times (Okely 1986).
Contemporary perspectives, influenced by multicultural and postmodern feminism, emphasise the heterogeneity of women’s experiences. For example, in analysing the experiences of African-American women, Hill Collins (1990) identifies the important role of ‘controlling images’ through which they are stereotyped, as ‘Mammy’, ‘matriarch’, ‘welfare recipient’ or ‘hot mamma’. Hill Collins therefore points to the particular form of the Other experienced by African-American women. Similarly, Anthias and Yuval-Davies (1992) are critical of the tendency to position ‘women’ as Other in a dichotomous relationship to ‘men’. They argue for a deconstruction of such binary categories, to encourage the analysis of diversity and commonality in a range of historically specific ethnic and class contexts.
From the perspective of postmodernist and poststructuralist feminist analyses, the use of dichotomous distinctions (between ‘the One’ and ‘the Other’ or between ‘Subject’ and ‘Object’) uncritically reproduces the binarism in Western philosophical thought, a tendency so deeply implicated in the valuing of masculinity over femininity. Feminist writers such as Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva aim to avoid both patriarchal conceptualisations and universalistic explanatory theories, instead emphasising difference, plurality and diversity. In her work, Paechter recognises the inadequacies of universalism and the way the concept of ‘the Other’ both encourages dualistic thinking and underemphasises difference. There are, Paechter acknowledges, innumerable Others arising from a range of sets of power relations between groups. Nevertheless, she argues, it is women who have most consistently and most particularly been positioned as Other and it is feminist writings that have been important in developing the analysis of Otherness. Paechter suggests that the importance of the concept of the Other ultimately lies in the way it draws attention to the particular forms of masculinity forceful in creating other masculinities as subordinate, as well as femininities (1998: 115).
For a Critical Appreciation of de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, [by Dr. V. Rajagopalan, former Head, Dept of English, MCC] click HERE.
Excerpted from 50 Key Concepts in Gender Studies by Jane Pilcher & Imelda Whelehan.
Image courtesy: amreading.com