Bristol Festival of Ideas’ May programme included a rare screening of Imogen Sutton’s prize-winning documentary Daughters of de Beauvoir (BBC/Arts Council 1989) at Watershed. The film links Simone de Beauvoir’s life with many women who were immensely influenced by her life and work. It shows footage of de Beauvoir with Jean-Paul Sartre, alongside interviews with her sister Hélène, writers such as Kate Millett and Marge Piercy, and other women specially chosen through a Guardian open-ad.

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Never the mother, Daughters of de Beauvoir specifically depicts the indirect ‘motherly’ influence Simone had over millions of women in the world. Another thread in the film is Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘becoming’ – her predominant idea in The Second Sex – of a woman, of an independent being, of a legend.

Undoubtedly, de Beauvoir’s historical influence – in philosophy, in activism, in writing – cannot be denied; what’s interesting to note is the major influence her life had over others, that is the choices she made, the principles she had, the standards, the way she lived her life, the independence she searched for, what and how she became.

This public screening, the first in 25 years, was followed by a panel discussion with Ann Oakley and Angie Pegg, who both contributed to the documentary, and Imogen Sutton herself, and was chaired by Harriett Gilbert. Many topics were touched upon in the discussion – from how the film was made, what Simone de Beauvoir’s writing means today, and its relevance, to where we are today, and who will be the pioneer of The Second Sex postmodern.

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It was striking to witness many of the panellists, encouraged by audience contributions, conclude that should Simone de Beauvoir be here today, she wouldn’t be as pleased with what she sees. Much has been achieved, yet, paradoxically, much has worsened, even if those layers are deeply sheltered by a superficial web of universal equality. Stern body image projections, the pressure of work/family balance imposed on women, and harsher work realities today are just a few examples of what still requires fighting for and changing for the better.

In this light, Simone de Beauvoir’s non-negotiable choice of not being a mother and pursuing the intellectual towards the realisation of an ultimately independent life of individual freedom rings bells for women today.

Whatever de Beauvoir’s liabilities were, her contributions were strong and, as writer Marge Piercy said in the film, Simone de Beauvoir provided the vocabulary for shared female understanding. Without the possibility of naming things, one is reduced to an internal, therefore isolated experience of feeling. And for this millions of women were and are to be grateful, and Daughters of de Beauvoir is the successful portrayal of this achievement.

Images: Ivana Galapceva

 

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