by Karen Moller
(Swans - February 11, 2008) The original beatnik look was adopted by Kerouac's generation from the fifties film, The Wild One. The young Marlon Brando in the role of the motorcycle-riding rebel wore tee shirt and jeans, signaling his desire to be affiliated with the working class, and leather bomber jacket connoting the heroic derring-do of the World War II fighter pilot. Early beatniks copied him, but by 1959 the look had evolved into something more self-consciously "artistic" with beards and French berets imitating the arty French look, evocative of café life in the 1940s and '50s in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Simone de Beauvoir, one of the originators of that arty look, has at times been categorized (in my opinion incorrectly) as the first women beatnik writer. Of course categorization depends on how one makes labels, and her manner of dress would not be enough to give her that label. However, a phrase from her book America Day by Day, written in 1947, exactly sums up the malaise that haunted Kerouac's generation and the one that followed. I quote (although my translation may leave something to be desired): "All these people (Americans) whose destiny is programmed to live mass produced lives are haunted by dreams of escape." She was Kerouac's senior by many years but the phrase could have been written by one of the initial beatniks.
Beatniks were certainly fascinated by the 1940s existentialist philosophers, among them Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and like them aimed to challenge the social convention of conformist society. When her book The Second Sex was published in 1949, Beauvoir was catapulted to worldwide fame and gained the distinction of being called the mother of feminism. Despite beatniks adopting her arty look, her feminist writing made no impact on the beatnik men. In fact I would go so far as to say they were beating a hasty retreat from any suggestion that women were not an inferior class. I was captivated by Jack Kerouac's writing but less by his macho attitude to women. Allen Ginsberg, the maverick Jew who mixed up Zen Buddhism and primitive Christianity, turning it into a sort of cleansing shower of rebellious poetry and angelic, lamby politics to give the Establishments a kick in the ass, was unlikely to ever have had any thoughts on the condition of women. Even at the tender age of twenty, when I hitched to San Francisco, I knew that being a beatnik was not just dressing in black, eating bagels, and discussing Nietzsche. I can't say I had any real idea of what a beatnik should be, but I had a vague idea that local beatniks shouldn't be saying, "You chicks just can't get as clever as us. It's gonna take you a few hundred years," or "You ain't gonna change the world, baby. Men being top notch is just the way things are."
Of course those local beatniks were just pale versions of the original beatniks but their challenging of social conventions should have consisted of more than saying, "Beatniks are anti-conformists. We got no rules"; yet those unwritten rules existed, especially rules dictating the behavior of beatnik chicks. There was not even the merest suggestion that women also had the right to choose how they wanted to live instead of just being a side-kick for a man and having all the household burdens shoved on them. It seemed to me that no sooner had we been freed from the burden of being virgins than we were shackled with the rule -- women should be a common, available property to men. That undertow of beatnik sexual pressure, trying to pull in women and make them conform to their rules, was as threatening and confining as the sexual constraints of normal society. Worse yet, birth control was hard to come by, and male beatniks, happy to populate the world with replicas of themselves, had no intention of fulfilling the generally accepted role of father.
More than once, I heard beatnik men proclaim their sexual generosity, stating they were willing to "share their chick with a half-dozen guys." In the same breath, they might even declare a woman was no longer considered property, without the least perception that she might in fact belong to herself. They even had the audacity to claim that women pursued their own happiness at the expense of men's. In the sexual realm, this translated into the demonizing of any woman who denied them her sexual favors. The message was clear. If a woman wanted to be accepted as a beatnik, she had to be willing to be fucked by anyone who wanted her. Whatever she chose, she was clearly fucked over.
My disillusion with this rebel society grew as I slapped away the hands that tried to grope me in bars and cafés. "I am not your common property!" I said, refusing their pseudo-intellectual pick-up lines: "You should flow with life," or "Get in touch with your sexual being." I turned a deaf ear when they called me bourgeois, inhibited, or puritanical. I was, in fact, strong enough to look after myself but many weren't. The sight of beatnik girls carrying babies and following their man while struggling to make enough money to be able to eat was disheartening. I remember watching just such a typical beatnik couple as they walked down the street, baby in arms. She didn't look too good around the edges, kind of like a flower cut from her roots. As I watched, her beatnik man stopped one of the tourists, a guy obviously hanging out in North Beach hoping to pick up one of those loose beatnik chicks. The bearded man indicated that for a few bucks, the tourist could have his wife. "It's too beautiful, man!" he said to the guy. "She's such a whore; she'll screw anybody for me." I wanted to punch some sense into both of them. In my six months in San Francisco I saw enough of those immoral men and masochistic chicks to know that I wanted no part of that oppressive world. Things were not getting better for women in the beatnik movement; they were getting worse. Those so-called poets and artists were beginning to expect women to have their babies and take care of them financially as well, even to the point of selling their own bodies.
My fantasy of being emancipated like my beatnik heroes now looked like wishful thinking. After all, Kerouac was a guy who hung out with other guys, then slouched off to the next adventure, leaving his pregnant girlfriends to look after real life. For a moment, I wondered if it would ever be possible for a woman to be free to live a liberated life like a man.
Parents -- mothers as much as fathers -- were working hard to maintain the status quo and keep women submissive. Unlike most parents who objected to girls being artists on the grounds they would get into bad company, drugs and -- without actually saying the word -- sex, my parents never bothered to find out what I was up to. Apart from dismissing my plan to be an artist, with "There are no famous women artists," they left me to my own devices. However, my friend Elise was not so lucky. Her parents came to America after the war, just happy to be alive, she said. They were always talking about how good things were in America -- free trade, free market, free press -- but her freedom really scared them. She smiled one of her rare smiles before adding, "I am free. I know it, but they think of me as an awkward dog that needs disciplining. That is why they sent out the men in white coats and locked me up for months." I was horrified. The thought went round and round in my head: they locked her up for doing what we all want to do. Live creative lives and hang out with people interested in the same things as ourselves.
A few years later someone remarked at a poetry reading in London that there were few women in the Beat movement. Corso, as macho and dismissive of women as Kerouac and Burroughs, fiercely objected that there were plenty of women, but mostly their parents locked them up in institutions. His claim was a bit exaggerated, but even so, it expressed a certain truth. In the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, men had the right to live precariously and rebel. Women did not. Supposedly, women couldn't handle freedom. They would be "soiled goods," as their parents put it. Or worse, they would sink and ultimately disappear into the low life, drugs, and the criminal world.
In 1959 I arrived in Paris and soon found myself accused of being one of those absurd Simone de Beauvoir liberated females. As a result of those accusations I went out and bought her book. The Second Sex was the first of its kind and had quite an impact on me. Simone de Beauvoir's rejection of the female role as "circumscribed womanhood" helped make sense of the confused state of my own life. I had reached a crossroad where I could not give up my free will or my artistic work anymore than I could choose to die, yet that was precisely what the men I met were asking me to do. Simone de Beauvoir as a symbol of an iconic liberated woman helped strengthen my belief that the life of a single, sexually-active woman in pursuit of an independent life was something to be preferred.
By the late 1960s men began to feel the push for change and those more aware began to symbolically position themselves as feminist, happy to relinquish the total financial burden for the home, to have decent childcare and not too many children; however, parity in the job market or in the sexual area was quite another matter. My own ex-husband (ten years my senior) was no exception. He positioned himself as the wise, dispassionate onlooker who endorsed equal pay, abortion rights, and childcare, but underneath he continued to believe that marriage was established for property and inheritance -- the man remained in control with the clear legal intention that women were chattel. "Feminism is historical and justified," he would say. "Modern-day feminism is silly and lacks common sense." He was not hostile in an aggressive way; merely condescendingly amused by it all.
The Second Sex was critical to the feminist movement as it gave an encyclopedic analysis of women's oppression, but it wasn't until twenty years later at the end of the sixties that the general easing of restrictions began to give women more control over their lives. Beauvoir was not only a writer but she was active in the women's French liberation movement that helped install national nursery care, improve education, give women the right to abortion and equal pay, and the signing the bill of rights for women. Yet, until the 1980s women in France (even those who ran their own business) could not have a bank account in their own name, open a credit account, or have shares in a company without their husband's permission. That of course did not prevent the French government from making a woman responsible for paying her husband's taxes as well as his debts or excesses.
Beauvoir inspired women's emancipation the world over, yet I often come across instances where it is evident that we still live in a world that assumes men are better, more intelligent, more rational and responsible than women. Even the implication remains that to succeed in the world women must become more like men. A good mother or one who thinks she is being good will often insist that what is acceptable in a boy is not acceptable in a girl. "Step out of line and you are asking for trouble" is the warning. Yet, even in my day at a young age I recognized that my own mother's secret wants and dreams had nothing to do with having children, the new fridge, or the TV. In fact, her lack of participation in what she thought of as real life said, if you do not step out of line, you are going to end up like me, a frustrated housewife.
The best part of my childhood was having a brother two years my senior. I grew up as his pal, and hanging out with the boys, my childhood was one long competitive experience, a boyhood really. I had a taste for adventure, and the discovery that I could win against the boys helped me reject the limitations the world and my family placed on my being only a girl. Winning meant power, and the idea that I could have power dramatically influenced my perception of my own possibilities. Like many of my friends in the sixties who lived and worked outside the normal perimeters of society, I just got on with my work and ignored the restrictions that didn't suit me. However, striking a balance between various priorities caused me to live in a constant state of tension. Most of it was triggered by men assuming that my work should be fitted in to my spare time when their needs had been filled.
In 1970, Germaine Greer's book The Female Eunuch touched a sensitive nerve with a large majority of women. It wasn't as if she was saying anything particularly new, or distinct from Simone de Beauvoir, but the socioeconomics of the late sixties were very different from the 1940s and women in general were ready to listen. There was still a lot of ruthless sexual exploitation going on in those years and with the sexual liberation at its height compulsory promiscuity was endemic. Cries of "don't hassle me, don't bring me down" were prevalent at the least sign of "women being possessive and selfishly monogamous." Not all women wanted to turn the world upside down, and female emancipation was often a matter of recognizing that the problems lay with a woman's own inability to confront the potential of her life. Nevertheless it was only at the end of the sixties that we began to fight for equal opportunity when our burgeoning feminist awareness made us realize the counter-culture push for equality for the under-privileged and the blacks did not include women.
Today, pressures on women are more subtle and consciously manipulated. Sometimes I suspect there is an underlying conspiracy in the advertising industry to keep women manageable by making them feel inadequate. Consumerism used to be about the new refrigerator, sofa, etcetera. Now women have all those things, so advertisers have substituted the notion a woman's place is in the home with all her household appliances, for a women must be beautiful. Not beautiful like Barbara Stanwick and Greta Garbo, but like those ditzy dolls of TV and Hollywood today. They're as interchangeable as refrigerators. At least in England and North America there are limits to how advertising can portrait a woman. In Italy I was horrified to see an advert where a smartly-dressed woman was being raped in a dark alley. She screamed in terror until she saw the maker's name on his jeans. Then she smiled and started to enjoy herself. At least in America, that commercial would be banned.
Ironically, if I were to question the young girls today, it is likely that they would envy me for having been young in the exciting years of the sixties. Yet, with only Simone de Beauvoir as a female role model, I'd seen myself not so much as striding forward in personal rebellion, but tiptoeing across thin ice with only my intuition and curiosity to guide me. Simone de Beauvoir was not so much a precursor of ideas that should have had a beneficial effect on the beat generation; she was so far ahead that it took twenty years before women themselves were ready to fight for a change in their status. Now, sixty years later, the younger generation has the freedom to choose without having to rebel. We take it for granted that women can have careers, be artists, stay single, and be sexually active, have children and never marry. I am not saying we owe it all to Simone de Beauvoir, but she helped make it possible.
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