INTERVIEW BY SILA DEMİRAL
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ASTRID DI CROLLALANZA
If Simone de Beauvoir were alive, I’m pretty sure she would have enjoyed reading Manon Garcia. Unlike de Beauvoir, Garcia is a French philosopher who has defined herself by embracing her femininity, rather than rejecting it. Following studies at Harvard and the University of Chicago, Garcia has been working on feminist philosophy at Yale over the last year. Garcia loves to disagree with de Beauvoir even though she has her poster hanging in the office, where she works on feminine nature, submission, being a woman in Western societies, opinions of women, women’s rights to speak on women and perceptions. In We Are Not Born Submissive, her book published in English in 2021, Garcia talks about the nature of femininity that has been shaped by patriarchy.
What is the burden of being a privileged white woman? Garcia started to tell her story the moment she stopped worrying about saying that she was a woman with the ‘privilege of being free’. She devoted her career to numerous issues linked to being a woman. Femininity, as Garcia emphasises, is a concept with opposing definitions. Something has been bugging her mind since childhood. ‘I remember being very confused as a kid: I wasn’t sure if [my grandmother] was the boss or the victim.’
Today, the biggest dilemma in our approach to women is still an individual matter, rooted in our beliefs. In her work, Garcia disseminates libertarian ideas in different ways of thinking, especially responding to the privileged perspective of Western societies, discussing what is not spoken, what is not done, whether we really want to do something about it and so forth.
Nowadays, because of the number of different groups involved and the existence of multiple definitons, feminism appears as a concept which distanciates itself from being a mass movement that involves women. Why can’t we gather women around this term? Why is feminism a unifying force for women?
So, I think the problem is that there are two ways to look at this issue. One way is to say, well, feminism is, let’s say, a fight against women’s oppression. So, it can be an activist fight, or it can be a theoretical fight, and it is usually both. But it aims to fight women’s oppression. But then there’s another way to look at it, which is to say, ‘Yeah, but when we put it that way, because the women that have the power to talk are the women that live mostly in the western world, that are rich, that are white, et cetera, that their understanding of women’s oppression might be too narrow, or might only correspond to their existence.’ So, that’s why there can’t be one unified feminism. It’s because being a woman and being oppressed, as a woman takes a lot of different forms, depending on your social class, depending on the country you live in, depending on the culture... For instance, the oppression of Turkish women in villages in Turkey is not the same as the oppression of rich Turkish women from the intelligentsia in Istanbul, which is also different from the oppression of women in Germany, you know? All of this takes very different forms. In certain countries, appearance is very important, in other countries less so. In certain countries, motherhood is super important, in other countries less so. So, that’s the problem with feminism – it’s that the experiences of women are very diverse. Also, the problem is that sometimes women from the western world think they know better than women who are actually experiencing things. So, you can see how, if you had a unified feminism, you take the risk of some women speaking in place of other women and saying what their priorities should be. This is not a good idea.
Do discussions around it weaken the concept of feminism?
It is not a sign that feminism is weak that feminism has disagreements, you know? A way to think about this is that your biggest political disagreements or moral disagreements are with your best friends. With your enemies, you don’t care – you know they’re your enemies. But when your closest friends disagree with you on something, these are very big disagreements, because these are disagreements that are important to you. So, of course there are disagreements within feminism – that’s a sign of feminists loving each other and being committed to this fight against women’s oppression.
Everyone has different knowledge, regarding their cultural situations, the countries they live in and their surroundings.
And also depending on their own convictions. Many people have linked the issue
of women’s oppression to capitalism; some people think it’s more of an individual
problem. So, there are really political disagreements.
I get that. Some people, they think that the LGBTQI+ community doesn’t believe in this umbrella of feminism. Is this true? If so, how can we deal with this? Can they define themselves as feminists? When the current diversity of different identities serves as guideline for open mindedness, how do you interpret people who don’t recognise LGBTQI+ as feminists? The suggestion of the impossibility to become a woman, if one is not born a woman?
Of course, it depends a bit on how you define feminism. I think, on the one hand, it’s important to keep the fact that feminism was and is a movement to defend women against patriarchal oppression. But the problem or, not the problem, the reality is that, because it’s fighting patriarchal oppression that attacks... The biggest group that patriarchal oppression attacks is women, in terms of numbers. Then, of course, it also is concerned with how patriarchy is bad for anyone who doesn’t conform to a heterosexual, cis form of masculinity. So, anyone who’s not a ‘dude’ in the right way of being a dude – or in the normative right way of being a ‘dude’, in our heterosexual culture – is oppressed by the patriarchy. So, of course LGBTQI+ people, they’re a part of feminism, because they are oppressed by the same power that women are oppressed by. But there are also tensions sometimes between the LGBTQI+ agendas and the feminist agendas, and it’s important to show how there can be those tensions and that, for example, some gay guys are sexist and some feminists are homophobic – and we need a space to recognise that. Of course, LGBTQI+ people and feminists are allied in trying to end patriarchal oppression.
What is the relationship between terms such as ‘non-binary’ and ‘genderfluid’ and the woman rights issue?
So, I think it’s important to see that the very term ‘woman’ is what philosophers call a contested concept. No-one agrees on what a woman is, and this is a political discussion in itself – to think about what a woman is. So, for instance, you see how, if you say, ‘A woman is someone who has two X chromosomes’, you’re going to exclude a lot of people who are socially women. But if you say, ‘Being a woman is having your periods’, then, what about all the old women who don’t have their periods? What about all the trans women? So, all of the definitions you are going to give, of what a woman, is are political definitions. They’re ideological definitions. Some people argue – and I think it’s a good argument – that the very idea that there are men and there are women, that there are these two poles and everyone has to fall into one of those two buckets and is a political and ideological construction. Because you have non-binary people, and you have intersex people.
Judith Butler has shown that these two categories – like male and female, like the biological categories – are constructed. It is because we think of the world in a heterosexual way, where we think that a couple is a man and a woman, and that’s how you make babies, et cetera, that we need to think that the sex is either male or female. So, non-binary people, they make all of this explode, and they show how this binarity is constructed. That’s very scary for a lot of people, because that’s the basis on which they think of the world. I think it is very hard to not think about someone’s gender – you see it when you’re pregnant, for instance. It’s very hard to imagine a baby that would not be a girl or a boy. You have to think, even if you don’t want to buy any gendered things for your baby, you don’t even know how to talk about the baby, if you don’t think of your baby as possibly a girl or a boy. So, of course it’s very hard for people, but I think non-binary people just are showing very clearly how constructed this binarity is. However, no matter how constructed this binarity is, it is on the basis of this binarity that women are oppressed. So, you can say the binarity is constructed, but it still exists, since it is because you are a woman that you’re oppressed as a woman. So, even if being a woman has no metaphysical reality, even if it’s not something that is biologically relevant, et cetera, it is socially relevant. So, non-binary people, they can say, ‘We’re going to be outside of this binarity’, but the binarity exists. I think it’s a wrong idea to think that, because there are non-binary people, we don’t need feminism anymore, or something like that. Like, women still exist. It’s great if some people manage to live outside of this binarity, but they are oppressed by this binarity, too.
In a way, non-binary people are the key to make us question these kinds of binarities and social constructs.
Yeah, but I think they’re one of the ways to question this binary construct. You can question it and say, ‘I don’t want to be part of this binarity’, or you can question it by saying, ‘I don’t want to fit what I’m expected to do in this binarity’. Like, there are different ways to oppose it.
When you were writing your book, We Are Not Born Submissive, which has been translated into seven different languages, what was your motivation? What lies in the source of your desire to write about ‘submission’?
I think... Just life as a woman, right? You’re constantly wondering if you’re free enough or feminine enough, and it’s constantly a tension in being a woman – that you see how there are things you can’t do and how you might want to do them, but do you really want to do them? And is it going to make you be seen as less lovable – as too aggressive? So, these are questions that everyone, every woman, I think, asks themselves. Also my grandmother comes from Corsica, which is a small island in the south of France... She’s a very traditional Mediterranean woman, you know? She’s been taking care of everyone, she’s been cooking all the meals and she’s been doing everything. I remember, as a child, I was always puzzled: I didn’t know if she was our boss, or if she was the victim of everyone. And, you know, I constantly, I thought, ‘Oh’, like, ‘poor her, she’s doing everything, no one is helping her. She’s cleaning from the moment she wakes up, to the moment she goes to bed.’ So, I would really want to defend her, but then I would see how it was also giving her power. But I was also seeing how this power was a sort of false power. So, that’s how I started being interested in this topic.
How does the methodological sexism perpetrated across society have enough effect on the voluntary or involuntary submission of women? Do women feel obligated to obey the superiority of men, in a sense?
So, I think there are two different levels. There is a level of what men make women
do. So, I think men – because they behave like things are due to them, or because they can be violent and because women have lived constantly with the threat of men’s violence – men obtain things from women. Women accept to do things for men, because of how men behave. But women also accept to not do things for themselves, or to do things for men, based on what philosophers call social norms. So, based on the fact that society taught us to behave in a certain way... for instance, you see the way you’re sitting: you’re sitting in a very straight way, like you’re holding yourself in a very beautiful manner. So, in your body, there are things that make you a woman. If you were a man interviewing me – and I see it because a lot of men interview me – they sit down, in their chair, like this, they don’t hold themselves; they don’t feel like they need to present themselves in a certain, beautiful way, for instance. So, even in our bodies, we are trained to be a certain way by virtue of being women. And that puts us in a certain social position because, if you devote energy to being slim, to being beautiful, to putting makeup on, to being sexy – that’s all time you don’t devote to work or to leisure – this is time that is lost for you. And if all women lose this time, more or less, and none of the men lose this time, that creates an imbalance in society.
So, there is a sort of social power that shapes us and that puts women in an inferior
situation – even when men are not behaving in a bad way individually.
You’ve said that you were focusing on western societies in your book, to analyse submission, as a choice, in a morally complex manner. Regarding the formally administered freedom of women in western societies, how can we define the satisfaction of submission?
So, there is one major reason why I focus on western societies: it’s because I come from France, and in France, when you talk about submission, everyone thinks, ‘Oh, yeah, this is a problem of Muslim women’, ‘this is a problem of them wearing the veil’, et cetera. So, the topic of submission is very racially loaded, it’s really a way to be racist, out of pretending to be a feminist. I really wanted to avoid that trap, and I wanted to say the opposite thing. I wanted to say, ‘Well, you think veiled women are submissive, but actually we are all submissive. This is just one possible form.’ The Islamic veil is just one form – but, all these French women, who never eat in order to be so slim, et cetera, you’re like, ‘Well, you’re not covering your hair, but you’re not eating, so why do you think it’s so much better?’ So, that was something important for me. I wanted to say that what was important, methodologically, was just to change the way we usually analyse power. Usually, we analyse power from the point of view of the people who have power because it’s normal – it’s people who have the power who write, who have the time to write about power, et cetera. If you don’t have power, you don’t have the time or the education or the everything, or the power to write. So, I wanted to say, ‘Well, now we are in a situation where there are people –women – who can write from a position of not having full power, and also from knowing some things about the situation of women.’ So, we should actually look at patriarchal power from the perspective of people who don’t have it, to see what it does. But, of course, it’s difficult because you are socially situated when you write. Of course, I’m a white woman who has a job, who has a lot of education, who has a lot of privilege, and so, it was very important for me to be very careful in talking about other women’s experiences of what it is to be submissive. To respond to your question, about why feminists don’t talk about this – well, I think that they do, but less directly than I do. But also, it’s difficult because the argument that women can find pleasure in their submission, or that just women submit to men, has been used to justify women’s oppression. You’ve heard this before, when you’re told, ‘Oh, no, but she takes care of the kids and cooks, et cetera, and stays at home because that’s what she loves.’ Or ‘because that’s what women are made for’, et cetera. So, because femininity and submission have been interpreted as equivalent, and because submission has been seen as part of the nature of women, feminists are very careful, talking about women’s submission, because it looks like you agree with the people who say, ‘Women deserve the situation they’re in’ or ‘The situation they’re in is natural’. So, I wanted to say, ‘Well, there is a possibility for a feminist analysis of submission, and it is necessary to do it.’ But I also wanted to be aware of the problems of such an analysis.
I think that’s the problem. Like, patriarchy could not have lasted so long if there were not some benefits. Right? So, if you’re known among all the friends, et cetera, as the woman who makes the best baklava in town, you get so much validation. So, you spend hours making baklava for everyone, but then everyone talks about it as like, ‘Oh, she’s such a great cook’ and ‘Imagine how lucky her kids are, that she makes such good baklava, and her husband, he’s really found a good wife’, et cetera. So, you are validated by this. Of course, on the other hand, if you decide that, instead of making baklava, you’re going to try to be a painter, what if your painting really sucks and people say, ‘Not only does her painting really suck, but all this time that she could spend taking care of her kids and being a good mum and taking care of her husband, she spends painting’? Even if your paintings are great, people are going to say, ‘You know, her husband cheated on her, of course she was not taking care of him; she was taking care of her paintings.’ So, you see, there is a very high cost to not being submissive, of not playing by the rules – and there are very great benefits of playing by the rules – this is how patriarchy perpetuates itself.
It’s like there are assigned roles for women and if we don’t partake in this spiral, then we’re going to be ‘left alone’, in a sense, and always be judged and feel like an outsider.
It’s hard to have the strength to decide to not do what society is expecting of you, you know? And one metaphor I really like is to say, well, you know you can go for a hike. When you go for a hike, up a mountain, you usually have a path that is well-prepared in front of you, that a lot of people have walked on before and you have all these signs that tell you this is the path. So, you can take the path. Sometimes, you can also just decide to not walk on the path and go straight up, alone, but this is much riskier, and you don’t know if you’re going to arrive at the top of the mountain, and you may have to cut down trees on your way, et cetera. For men, the path is to be free. It is to do what you want, to have adventures, to have a career. So, this is the thing that is organised for them. But for women, the path is to be submissive and to obey men. So, of course they can decide to go straight to the top with their own path, but it’s going to take them so much time, it’s going to be so hard, and they don’t know if they’re going to reach the summit.
You mentioned the common objectification of women and quoted Simone de Beauvoir, on the conflict of consciousness. Can you briefly explain this theory for our readers? Do you believe it is possible to construct a social structure where two subjects would be considered as action-takers and not as possessions?
So, I think it’s very easy to explain simply. When you’re in the world, you can conceive of people as other people, and it means that they may have different desires from you, and you want them to like you, but you also don’t want to have to change what you want to do, just for them to like you. So, when you see other people as your equals, it’s really difficult to make a compromise, so that they like you, but you can also do what you want to do. The power that men have had, historically, has put them in a situation where women would belong to them and would like them, without them having to do anything else, other than just provide money or something like that. So, they didn’t have to do anything to reciprocate the admiration that women would have for them, and they wouldn’t have to do anything to make women available sexually for them. The idea was that you didn’t need the same sort of respect and attention for women that you needed for men, that you could own women, that you could use women. And we still see it now... Men treat their male friends with much more respect than they treat their spouse. You also see it, when you talk among women and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, like, with this guy, had we stayed friends, he would have never behaved like this with me.’ so, it’s because of the moment that men see women as women – what it means is that they see them as objects that they can consume and that they can use for themselves, instead of as equals that they need to make a compromise with, in a way. Does it make sense?
They don’t think that women’s opinion counts, really. Because that’s the thing that de Beauvoir says — women are a level under — they’re not animals, because animals can’t give you recognition that you’re so amazing... Well, some dogs can, but they’re a little bit above. They give you enough recognition, you can have good sex with them, but they’re not on an equal footing, to the extent that you need to impress them. There is nothing you need to do, but they can do a lot for you. So, it seems a bit abstract, but in practical life it’s so clear, right? Even in sexuality, you know? It’s so clear that women are supposed to please men sexually and that men don’t think that they have to please women sexually. The statistics are very impressive – there is a huge gap between the sexual satisfaction of lesbian women and of heterosexual women because men don’t care about women’s pleasure, they don’t think it’s something they have to worry about.
So, another question that I have is that you have this relationship between submission and femininity, through the definition of Freudian masochism. So, can you briefly explain this correlation, as well?
So, a very common argument is to say that if women submit to men, it’s because women like to suffer, it’s because women like to have someone who decides for them and who tortures them a bit. Actually, this is a simplification, but basically Freud’s theory, to the extent that he thought that masochism was only a problem in men, because he thought that men who were masochists – so, men who took pleasure in suffering – were behaving like women, which was a sign that something was wrong with them. So, his binarity was to say that sadism and masochism correspond to being a man and being a woman. Actually, what you could say is that women are put in a situation where the only source of pleasure they can find is the pleasure in suffering, because they don’t have any other pleasure. So, it’s the problem of the chicken and the egg, isn’t it? He put it as being within a women’s nature and desire, but you can just see it as a rational adaptation of your preferences – that, if there is no way that you’re going to be treated as an equal or to be treated well, you should try finding pleasure in not being well-treated, because otherwise life really sucks.
In your personal life, do you describe yourself as living outside the norms attached to the idea of femininity?
No, I’m... First of all, I’m heterosexual, I’m gendered, I have kids. Of course not. So, that’s precisely why I feel comfortable writing about women’s submission – it’s because I am submissive, like every woman is. I think there is just a difference of degree and, most importantly, I think that, once you have the concept of submission, once you have an analysis of women’s submission, it allows you to be a bit less submissive, because at least you see what’s going on. Like, you see the common point in a lot of things that you do not naturally, but without thinking about it. So, that’s the big difference between me and de Beauvoir, actually. It’s that de Beauvoir, in the introduction to The Second Sex, she was distancing herself from ‘normal’ women. She was saying that she was not submissive, that she was not dominated, that she was not oppressed, that she was not a ‘woman’, in a way. And I think that’s wrong and I absolutely don’t think that way about myself. I think I have a lot of privilege that allows me to be less oppressed than a lot of women, but I am a woman, and I can’t say, ‘Oh, no, submission is the problem of other women.’ That’s not true.
In a sense, you are not isolating yourself from the crowd, but you want to live your life like a ‘normal’ woman.
No, I’d rather... So, it’s just that I think it’s a better strategy to want to change the life of all women than to say, ‘I’m not a woman like the others.’ And, you see, like there are two ways to look at this. You can want to say, ‘Well, personally, I don’t want this sort of life, and I manage to not have this life – I’m a feminist because I don’t want to be a woman, within the framework of what is socially acceptable.’ But you can also say, ‘Well, I am a woman, and I think it sucks in many ways. It’s really hard. And, so, we should collectively try to find ways for it to be less painful to be a woman.’ I think de Beauvoir, in her life, changed her position. It’s just that, when she was writing in 1949, she was at the very beginning of her journey towards understanding how patriarchy worked, and I think she was wrong. I think that, at the end of her life, she would have recognised this, if asked this question directly. Her actions show that she recognised that it was not the right way to do things.
What are you currently working on? Are there any marches, or any events, or any groups, any talks?
So, it’s interesting, because I’m really not an activist. I think it’s a matter of personality. I really admire activists. I may be too much of an introvert... So, my activism manifests itself more by writing, than by attending things. Also, I don’t think I am a very good ‘group’ person – I don’t really like group dynamics. But I just wrote a second book on sexual consent – because I think once you understand this topic of women’s submission, then there is a big question, which is: what do we do about the fact that women accept sex that they don’t want, because they feel like this is what they are supposed to do? So, I’m trying to think about how we should re-think sex through this question.
Thank you. So, we know that you’re an assistant professor at Yale. How have the ‘women’ discussed in Yale translated to the real world? What do women’s studies show us and how does it translate into real life?
I don’t think I’ve spent enough time at Yale, specifically, to talk about Yale, but my experience of American campuses is that they are bubbles of extreme egalitarianism and extreme awareness of the issues. Honestly, if the whole of society in every country in the world was as progressive as American campuses are, we would all have very happy lives. Students are very aware of problems relating to racism,sexism and classism. They’re paying a lot of attention to them. They’re very mindful. So, it’s a very comfortable environment.
Yeah, of course, it’s so expensive and you need to be so good. So, yeah, there is a level of privilege about anywhere where you have the time to think about issues and… Even the students who have to work, they don’t have to work nearly as much as students in other places. But the small problem about this is that these are private universities and not accessible to everyone. So, it’s a problem.
Which figures inspired you, regarding the herstory?
Of course, Simone de Beauvoir. It’s a difficult question, because I think there are people whose books really matter for you. De Beauvoir is probably the biggest inspiration for me, but there are also a lot of people you see doing things. My two grandmothers, in very different ways, were very big inspirations for me, because one was, as I told you, just a very submissive Mediterranean woman – and still is, because she’s still alive. My other grandmother was the opposite. She was a very strange, very independent woman who lived on her own, in London, got a divorce, raised a kid on her own while having her own job. It was very bold to do that. My mother is an important filmmaker. So, I’ve also been very inspired by a lot of the women around me, seeing how they fought for things and for how costly their fights were – as well as the constant energy that is required to not be too submissive. But then, there are also a lot of male writers too. In both my first and second books, I talk a lot about Rousseau. Rousseau was a very important philosopher, for me. I love disagreeing with him. He’s like a friend that you disagree with on a lot of things, but whom you really love very dearly, so you feel like you constantly have to fight with him. There are also professors that really mattered to me, my mentor, my dissertation advisor, who is a French philosopher called Sandra Laugier, who really counted for me, and also a lot of fantastic feminist philosophers from the US, who really introduced me to things and whose writing really inspires me. There is this woman called Nancy Bauer, Sally Haslanger, Susan Brison... Just reading them constantly pushes me to do more.
Do you have a must-read book list to suggest to us?
Yes, of course. I suggest reading The Second Sex and maybe, all of de Beauvoir’s memoirs. I find them fantastic, but I’d say just try to read women. I think it changes a lot of things, when you read women. Even if you’re interested in, for instance, egalitarian sexuality, try to read Normal People, by Sally Rooney. How do you try to think about sex in a non-patriarchal way? If you’re interested in current feminism, try to read Amia Srinivasan’s new book, called The Right to Sex, which is very interesting. Yeah, I just say, try to read women in whatever kind of books you’re interested in reading. Not that they’re always good, but if you haven’t read classical literature, try to read Mary Shelley or Jane Austen. There is something about trying to read women and watch women’s movies and look at women’s art. Also, sometimes women really suck, and I think that’s the great thing about where we’re at right now – that sometimes women can be really bad, and that’s OK. Feminism is advanced enough that we can recognise that sometimes women are not great, and that sometimes women are complicit with the oppression of other people. But, yeah... Try to read women.