What do Lindsay Lohan and Simone de Beauvoir have in common? Both the spray-tan party-girl princess and the mother of modern feminism recently raised eyebrows by appearing in racy magazine photos. The cover of last month's Le Nouvel Observateur, France's most-read newsmagazine, shows the Parisian philosopher from behind, fixing her hair and wearing nothing but heels.
Part of the wave of media coverage commemorating the 100th anniversary of de Beauvoir's birth, the accompanying article, titled "Simone de Beauvoir: A Scandalous Woman," concerns itself primarily with de Beauvoir's romantic past, most notably her tumultuous, lifelong relationship with the founder of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Sartre and de Beauvoir had a famously open relationship, and both were known to seduce their young students before passing them on to each other. Yet the recent commemoration of de Beauvoir has taken on a far more prurient tone than did the press that accompanied the centenary of Sartre's birth three years ago. In the tributes to Sartre, his best-known work, "Being and Nothingness," took center stage; de Beauvoir's seminal text of second-wave feminism, "The Second Sex," now is mentioned almost peripherally, like background information.
"That front page picture, like the fixation on the love life, really is shocking," wrote French writer Silvie Tissot in a compelling Op-Ed for Le Monde Diplomatique. "The rules seem to be that before she can become a media-worthy national celebrity, even a philosopher must provide proof of her love for men and get her clothes off."
In response to the coverage in Le Nouvel Observateur, a French feminist group staged a protest outside the office of the magazine. According to London's Independent, the protesters wore dog masks and brandished placards calling on the magazine's founder, Jean Daniel, to publish photos of his own naked derrière (as well as those of Sartre, Levinas and others). The editors defended their decision, claiming that the picture -- taken in 1952 by American photographer Art Shay -- was an accurate representation of the controversy de Beauvoir provoked in her lifetime. The editors' desire for accuracy ostensibly had its limits. The French newspaper Libération reported that the photo had been retouched, hence freeing the mother of modern feminism from the shackles of her cellulite.
There may be some irony in the salacious media makeover of the woman who Gloria Steinem said was, "more than any other single human being," responsible for the postwar international women's movement. And yet de Beauvoir famously embraced her sexuality in ways that didn't always jell with feminist boilerplate. In 1984, when asked by her biographer how she responded to claims that her personal actions betrayed the movement she helped create, she responded, "Well I just don't give a damn ... I'm sorry to disappoint all the feminists, but you can say that it's too bad so many of them live only in theory instead of in real life."
If anything, I think de Beauvoir would have been amused by the hoopla over the photo. Personally, I'm happy to see a feminist depicted as womanly and sexual. And I'd certainly rather look at de Beauvoir's behind than hear Lohan's take on French existentialism.