Complementarianism, Simone de Beauvoir, and Judith Butler: A Reading

There's been a lot of interest expressed in hearing about what I'm studying here at Oxford, and I want to be able to share portions of my education with you as my readers. The following is part of a presentation I am giving on the existentialist philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir. For the blog, I've attempted to place that philosophy in the context of the complementarian church and statements about the intrinsic "nature" of what a woman or a man is. This essay/post is fairly academic, so my apologies in advance.

I got my haircut last Friday. Contrary to my author photo – which is out of date by about two years – I actually sport a short pixie cut with the sides buzzed down to a couple centimeters in length. It’s a somewhat complex haircut, and when I described it to the hairdresser on Friday, I watched carefully as her eyes widened as she attempted to understand why in the world I would want to do that to myself. I looked around the salon and noticed that all the other women were 1. older than me and 2. had longer, more “feminine” hair.


In the 1920s, one of the terrifying changes that prompted lots of pearl-clutching and fear in the upper crust of American society was a haircut – specifically, a “bob.” Women took their previously long and luscious locks and chopped them sharply at the chin or even slightly higher, creating a masculine and confrontational style.

As I posit in my book, much of the social revolution in the 20th century actually started in the 1920s, not the 1960s, which is contrary to the popular narrative about free love and revolution in the Baby Boomer age. Following the industrial revolution and the subsequent urbanization of large populations of people, upper and middle class white people began to explore different modes of socialization. Sex outside of marriage became more normalized, leading to the first ever public sexual health education campaigns in Chicago schools. Women challenged gender norms more openly as part of the suffrage movement, wearing immodest clothing, cutting their hair, and doing “unladylike” things.

In the 1930s and 40s, with the start of the second world war, white women left their homes to join the war effort by becoming nurses or mechanics or government workers.

It was in this context that Simone de Beauvoir wrote her deeply important feminist text, The Second Sex, in Paris in the late 1940s. Beauvoir was great friends and in an “open” relationship with fellow 20th century philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. With the pall of war and recovery hanging over Europe, the existential questions of what it means to be human, what it means to exist came to the forefront. In challenging and expanding upon Sartre’s ideas about the philosophical nature of mankind, Beauvoir inserted gender into the conversation, seeking an existential answer to the question: “What is a woman?”

This question has sparked ongoing debate about the nature of female oppression and the nature of “the eternal feminine” for ages since. In the US, Beauvoir’s text was – excuse the wording – seminal to the 1960s women’s liberation movement. If you want to be a feminist who understands the second wave and the positioning of the current third wave, you read The Second Sex.

But for all of Beauvoir’s importance, there are pieces of the text that don’t quite go far enough, or as critics rightly point out, seem quite confused or unwieldy. For example, as the critic Toril Moi points out, Beauvoir’s section on lesbianism seems to suffer from a glut of narratives and a self-hating attitude as Beauvoir both confronts and tries to bury her own possible bisexuality. And later critics have noted that while Beauvoir’s text is important groundwork for the discussions of gender as construction, it is also quite transphobic and biologically essentialist – at one point Beauvoir refers to an intersex person as “it.”

I’m aware I’m getting a bit too academic here, but I’m almost done with the exposition. Later theorists, such as Judith Butler, used The Second Sex, as the basis for exploring questions of the division between biological sex as assigned at birth and the construction of gender in a world of social cues, conflicted gender presentations, and the oppression of women as a people group. In simpler terms, Butler uses Beauvoir to explain that gender is not a biologically determined necessity, but something constructed both by the person occupying a specific time-space within the world, and a societal, institutional force that demands specific markers of femininity from women. Gender is a social construct that we perform and create each day when we awake.

When I cut my hair into this particularly masculine style, I’m making a point about the construction of my gender. “The eternal feminine,” as a Platonic, definable object that exists outside of our social ideals, is a fiction. Gender is, in simple terms, what we make it. Gender, then, as an existential question, is both encompassing the body and without it – it is both disregarding Cartesian dualism between the Self and the Vessel and embracing it.

Both Butler and Beauvoir posit gender as a cultural situation, not a natural given. The female body then, as Butler says, becomes “a locus of cultural interpretations.” “Anatomy does not seem to pose any necessary limits to the possibilities of gender,” she writes.

How, then, do we arrive at a point where women, as a gender, are oppressed? If gender is constructed for the benefit of dividing society, whence came the oppression?

All of it has to do with how men perceive and imagine themselves in relationship to women as Other. Men, in their reasoning and understanding of themselves as individuals, are able to position themselves as the default while women are the Other. In a distinct response to Cartesian dualism, men have, for centuries, imagined themselves as the reasonable mind of the human race while women inhabit the body. We are corporeal; they are disembodied. This has everything to do with how men are allowed to be seen as individuals while women are a collective group, called upon to represent themselves and all women.

The division between men and women, the gender binary itself, becomes important for the male project of establishing identity.

Let’s take a look at a real world example of this establishment of male identity as the mind versus the female body.

Complementarianism has had a massive resurgence in the past thirty years in the United States and in numerous Western cultures (including the UK, but its influence is less so here). Pastors and theologians like Owen Strachan, Russell Moore, Albert Mohler, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, and, yes, Doug Wilson, have sprung to the forefront of the theological discussion in evangelical America, asserting what they refer to as a counter-cultural claim of complementarity. Women are made by God to be one thing. Men are made by God to be another. The binary is set by holy order and thus cannot and should not be challenged.

It is telling, then, that the markers that define the existential properties of masculinity and femininity within this subculture of the church correspond almost directly to the existential paradox Beauvoir and Butler highlight. Indeed, a common complementarian argument is that the man is naturally disposed to be the leader – to live the life of the mind – because a woman is naturally disposed to be caretaker – the life of the body. Man is disembodied thought, paradoxically separated from and defined by his gender, but he can only be defined as such in response to the female corporeal state. Man can only be disembodied existentially if there is a bodily gender to disengage from.

This is the ultimate paradox that besieges both complementarianism and biological determinist understandings of gender. The definitions of masculinity and femininity are so slippery that they depend on a Gnostic dualism in order to maintain themselves – a dualism that paradoxically collapses when it is realized that both men and women (and all people) occupy physical and metaphysical space. We are both our bodies – our sexes – and our genders – which are metaphysical, existential performances that correspond to social cues and culture.

The gnostic separation that complementarian men thus seek is inherently a form of oppression. It is an identity built upon the tying of women to their bodies, to their assumed bodily functions as mothers. It is an identity fundamentally unassailable as it does not exist within embodiment, but rather as a response to the embodiment of women.

I’ve spoken previously of how the complementarian fear over the transgender “moment” is a fear of the loss of power. While this is, to some extent, true, I believe the current complementarian crisis must also be qualified as existential in nature. The fear and rage and outbursts that characterize the current complementarian movement – exemplified in the polemics of Doug Wilson, the obsession with violence in Owen Strachan, and the emotive tears of John Piper – are not merely a lament over the loss of power. They are a lament over the loss of identity. Without a carnal female body to define themselves against as men, men must confront their own existential paradox of their own gender. They must realize that they, too, are constructed from social mores and norms and that the gender binary – the dimorphic division between man and woman – is, as Butler states, “significant only when cultural interests require.”

Complementarianism is a cultural interest. It is complementarianism as a theology that makes the gender binary significant, not a gender binary that demands complementarity.