De Beauvoir’s second freedom-denying figure, the Woman in Love, puts aside the activities that once brought her pride and excitement, because attaching herself to her lover is enough—what personality she once had falls away.
The Woman in Love traps herself in a cage where she sees herself only through her lover’s eyes. De Beauvoir’s Woman in Love (and here she talks mainly about heterosexual couplings, though I think it would be interesting and valuable to think about these dynamics in terms of queer relationships), destined for the male from her earliest childhood, used to seeing him as a sovereign being with whom equality is not permitted, dreams of surpassing the limits of herself, her body and her gender, by fusing herself to the sovereign being; she can think of no way out of her inferiority, her less-than-human-ness, other than losing her body and soul in the figure who has been designated to her as the absolute, as the definition of fully human.
Tricking herself into playing the Woman in Love allows a girl to dodge that horrific moment of confronting her endless freedom. It allows her to feel, for the moment, full, satiated, purposeful. (Does this remind you of yourself or anyone you know? It does me.) Even as she sacrifices herself to become one with her lover, she can still maintain her belief that she’s taking action to make her life her own, so long as her boy-idol keeps up the lie that he still loves her for who she is, and does not tell her that she has fallen into some badly drawn shadow of himself and noon is rapidly approaching. De Beauvoir, again:
Love is the revealer that shows up in positive and clear traits the dull negative image as empty as a blank print; the woman’s face, the curves of her body, her childhood memories, her dried tears, her dresses, her habits, her universe, everything she is, everything that belongs to her, escapes contingence and becomes necessary: she is a marvelous gift at the foot of her god’s altar.
The Mystic’s decision to lose herself to God rather than a man-boy is a wise one. God is absent; man is present. If the woman cannot maintain the lie that her man is her god—or if he is good enough to call her out on the fact that she is no longer the person he fell in love with, that it would be difficult, in fact, to even call her a person—then the woman becomes a masochist. Masochism occurs when “the consciousness of the subject turns to the ego to grasp its humiliated situation.”
Hit me. Tie me up, I cried. He split.
Sometimes a woman will get so crippled by the fear that she is on the verge of becoming the Woman in Love that she will flood with anxiety, which causes her to cling to her bloated lifeboat of a boyfriend, clinging like she has never clung before, which only confirms and makes realer this fear; and so the water rises again and she clings harder and harder until the two are both sunk. Maybe. Or maybe the Woman in Love was inside of her all along.
The man from the liquor store barreled into my boutique the other night with a bottle of bubbly for seduction. All women are crazy, he announced. He then enticed me with a tale about how his brainy girlfriend of four years just dumped him because, she claimed, she felt like she was becoming submissive and losing her sense of self. Weak sauce was his verdict, the relationship changed me too—that’s what relationships do. Maybe he had a point: maybe their partnership was solid and it was simply some fear of becoming submissive that led her to misinterpret any sacrifices or shifts as spelling out doom. Or perhaps the itching insects laid their eggs inside her, too.
It is shocking, sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, how relevant The Second Sex still feels. I have been so sick and tired of hearing the sound of my voice repeat the same threadbare stories and act out the same conviction-less roles that I have been reduced to silence. I have uttered pathetic lines like I would be happy just to make you a sandwich every day for the rest of my life, and have then punished myself by believing these words. I do not believe that I am alone. It is not necessary for me to repeat anecdotes about women I know who have acted out the Narcissist or the Woman in Love; I am sure that you, reader, can easily round up examples. Certainly, one need not be female to engage in narcissism or self-immolating love, but I do believe that the soul-destroying, crazy-making extremes of these games strike intelligent, independent girls harder than they strike smart boys. What begins as a healthy diet plunges into anorexia. To find the person that one is truly in love with breaks the glass between you and the world; you finally honestly care, and love the world unselfishly, and this is a precious gift from God—but it is fragile and quickly plummets into a bitter suicide. An invigorating dose of self-doubt morphs into a distracting degree of self-deprecation, or crippling bouts of anxiety. Whenever a woman has an ugly feeling, there is the accompanying guilt of feeling that she is a weak female, and then the double-guilt for feeling that guilt; the shame that comes with this layering magnifies the initial ugly feeling and leads a woman to punish herself by wallowing in the ugliness.
I say that I do not believe that I am alone, although I have yet to speak to other women about all of this. This does not deter me from my suspicions: part of what marks shame as shame (and makes the whole mess messier) is the secrecy involved. Cockroaches, again. My college roommate and I, too jumpy to kill, used to trap a roach in a Mason jar and let it starve slowly on the living room floor. At the worst of it, there would be several jars scattered in that abandoned room—it would take one roach weeks to die. At times, one would lie inert, and we would think it dead: perhaps she felt the lonesomeness of dying in a sharp searing, the stomach gnaws at herself. But mostly they continued to scrabble up and down the glass walls as one does the city streets, witnessing the hideous bellies of others. It is shameful to watch, and you know you look exactly the same but it does not feel like that, and so we continue: gathered together, separated by glass, twitching in our bell jars.