She is the Giddiness of Loss, the Fascination of Damnation, of Death
Euripides’ Alcestis offers a unique exemplification of the themes and arguments in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Admetus’ elderly parents fail to step up and die for their son, who escapes his demise through the crafty intervention of Apollo, but Death has come and demands a soul to take to Hades. This provokes Alcestis, the “noble” wife of Admetus, to volunteer her life in place of his so her children will not go fatherless. She instantiates the strange oscillation de Beauvoir describes women undergoing, between being a source of male veneration (of course, only when they embody the subservient role expected of them), and being reduced to an object from which men (in this case, Admetus) extrapolate their own subjectivity.
This female foil, a staple of myth and storytelling, is repeated again and again even in today’s films and television shows where leading characters, typically men, appropriate the vitality of women, and articulate their identity against a very flat portrayal of them. Women are usually just vehicles through which men can learn a deep fact about themselves or their situation, or enter a transformation of some kind; this sublimation is almost always done at the cost of the integrity of his female counterpart. The recent Netflix series Love, created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin, depicts another bespectacled “nice guy” Gus (Rust), and his wild counterpart Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) against whom he will develop his own identity. Things turn south when she doesn’t quite meet his forced expectations, and he subsequently initiates a spiteful fling, reconstituting his status at work and his self-worth, while Mickey is shown in unbelievable agony over his absence. Perhaps her misery is also a corollary of her failure to instantiate de Beauvoir’s unrealizable “perfect intermediary,” vacillating between conquerable object and subject-like but always still Other (194). During some moments the show conveys the discomfort, hesitation, and unexpected joy of new relationships but it ultimately falls short because Mickey never completes a comparable development.
The case in Alcestis is more paradigmatic of de Beauvoir’s reflection of the untenable alterity of the Other, of woman. Admetus quite literally, almost in a vampiric way, seizes his wife’s vitality so that he may live, and becomes irresolute over his choice: he debates it, wishes he hadn’t made it, makes promises. Her death makes possible the entire dramatic tension of the play. Alcestis also reminds Admetus of his finitude in a very direct way – by choosing to sacrifice her life so that he will live. Admetus’ ambivalence towards his wife’s and his own fate is a likely consequence of this the fact that she is sanctified and brave, everything that he is not. She is a paradigm of de Beauvoir’s claim that woman “[is] everything he craves and everything he does not attain… But she is All in that which is inessential: she is wholly Other” (250-251). Admetus’ comportment towards his own being, his finitude, his character is only possible through this mediation – through the relegation of Alcestis into an object to reflect him. She is a woman caught in the truncated dialectic between a selfless, life-sustaining capacity, and a source of embarrassment – a reminder of (Admetus’) mortality.
In fact, Alcestis is so much not a subject that her fulfillment of her “motherly” subservient virtues devours her, and this marks a struggle between her nurturing gender role (which is an enslavement to the species) and the social disciplining she has undergone to meet the criteria of being a wife. At the end of the play, Admetus recoils in fear of the cloaked woman before him until he realizes she is his (now mute) wife brought back from Hades.
De Beauvoir claims that to understand the oppression of women means understanding how woman is designated as Other – how she becomes a woman through the disciplining of her body under the values and myths created by men. But the matrix of qualities she is supposed to capture is internally inconsistent. Woman is both “Eve and Virgin Mary,” the carnal/Ideal, the seduction/salvation, the life-giver/prey, vulnerable nature/impenetrable peer (196-197). She cannot meet these projections and this dooms her to not authentically assert her subjectivity – she remains complicit and even sometimes desires her servitude. Perhaps this is why the gods forbade Alcestis to speak – to reinforce the complicity and silence that these myths demand of women. De Beauvoir contends women are forced into negotiating their own subjectivity inauthentically, through the dreams and myths created for them by men, and they must define themselves in their necessary relation to men.
The emergence of a sort of phallic individualist feminism under neoliberalism is likely also a consequence of this, apparent in the new feminist heroes Beyoncé with her hit “Run the World (Girls),” or the Kardashians and their affirmation of their abundant wealth, power, and influence. The feminist project has been recast to re-appropriate male archetypes and positions of power rather than subverting the logic of domination and the oppression of gendered bodies. My worry is that this movement, if it can be adequately described as one, doesn’t quite execute de Beauvoir’s call for women to authentically posit their existential subjectivity, but instead might perpetuate other forms of oppression.