Read Chapter 12

Donna E. Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir

CITE AS: Alvermann, D. (2016). Donna Alvermann on Simone de Beavoir. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 161 - 169). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 12
Donna Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir
Midway through a grant-funded study some twenty-five years ago, I found myself staring at a large clock on the wall in a high-school classroom that housed a group of students, mostly young men, who were destined to leave school before graduating if their school records were to be believed. They, too, looked anxiously from time to time at the clock’s minute hand that moved ever so slowly toward the dismissal hour. Identified by their classroom teacher as difficult to motivate, these tenth-graders self-identified as being uninterested in any school subject that required them to read and write. On a pre-study survey, they had said they didn’t read, period. Having been a classroom teacher previously, I knew better than to engage in the blame game.

In retrospect, that clock-watching day was a turning point in my trajectory as a language and literacy researcher whose instructional responsibilities focus on preparing content-area literacy teachers at the middle and secondary levels as well as doctoral students preparing for academic appointments in literacy-teacher education. I recall thinking, as I still do, that surely there are venues in which young people who elect to turn their backs on schooled literacy can still identify as literate beings capable of making a difference in their own lives, in their communities, and in the more distant lives of others. I decided I would find those spaces and places, study them, and look for ways to draw implications from informal learning for more formal teaching and learning environments.

Over the years, informal learning opportunities for adolescents have increasingly pointed in the direction of digital media literacy, which I define as the ability (including access and disposition) to use multiple modes of communication to encode and decode original and remixed texts composed of, language, still and moving images, podcasts, and artistic performances, among other things (Alvermann 2011). Influenced by Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (2011), I view digital media literacy as one of several new literacies—not new as in replacing something else but new in the sense that social, economic, cultural, intellectual, political, technological, and institutional changes are continually at work in transforming how we communicate. I also acknowledge Paul Gilster (1997), who coined the term digital literacy and insisted that critical thinking rather than mere technical competence is key to becoming digitally literate—a point that my colleagues and I have made elsewhere in relation to Web 2.0 and social media (Alvermann, Hutchins, and McDevitt 2012).

Digital and media literacy took a significant step forward in achieving its rightful place in American education circles in with the publication of Renee Hobbs’s white paper, Digital and Media Literacy Education: A Plan of Action (2010). Up to that point, those of us in digital and media literacy education in the United States had depended largely on the scholarship of others, though not always educators, in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. With Hobbs’s plan of action in hand, it became easier to convince educators, community leaders, research-granting agencies, and a sprinkling of policy makers at the local, state, and national levels to support the analytical and communications skills necessary for successful teaching and learning in the twenty-first century.

However, as I argue in this chapter, it is Simone de Beauvoir’s twentieth-century ideas and writings about personal freedom coupled with responsibility that contribute most fundamentally to the development of adolescents’ critical literacy skills vis-à-vis digitally produced multimodal texts. In claiming Simone de Beauvoir as my academic grandparent, I draw on some incidents in both our lives that eventually led me to link her work with mine as well as to the larger field of digital and media literacy education.
Discontinuities and Connections
When Simone de Beauvoir arrived in New York City from Paris to begin a four-month-long journey across the United States in 1947, which she chronicled in America Day by Day ([1948] 1999), I was seven years old and beginning my second attempt at first grade in a small town near the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. I hadn’t failed my first try; rather, I had dropped out, with my parents’ permission, of course. The larger story (Alvermann 1999) is too long and complicated to include here, though it did have reasons I’d later associate with being made to feel like the Other in a classroom where I was the only child sent to school wearing camphor bags, which reputedly had antiseptic properties and were attached to the elastic ribbing of my leggings. Although my mother no doubt meant well in her attempt to save me from the various childhood diseases going around, the odoriferous camphor bags were an embarrassment and the cause of much teasing. That, coupled with the fact I was the first to be picked up by a rural school bus (before dawn in late fall and winter) and the last to be dropped off at our farm lane each afternoon, created a situation that I avoided by playing too sick to go to school on numerous occasions or, once in school, heading for the nurse’s office with a made-up ailment that provided sanctuary until the bus delivered me back home. Eventually, my parents let me stay at home after learning that the first-grade teacher punished girls who talked (yes, I was a talker, even then) by making us hoist the backside of our skirts up and over our pint-sized chairs so that the ribbing of our leggings and covered behinds were exposed to anyone who cared to look—and laugh, I might add.

Simone de Beauvoir, by contrast, grew up in a bourgeois Parisian family, in “a society where every child of three was expected to have a personal calling card . . . and to present it as adroitly as any adult when the silver salver was placed before her” (Bair 1990, 21). Cultivated pretensions that separated the bourgeoisie from other segments of society in early twentieth-century France prevented Simone from speaking to other children, “let alone play with them, unless they were of the proper social class and her mother had first paid a formal call on theirs” (21). Even as a young child attending an exclusive private school at a well-known Catholic convent, de Beauvoir was “not allowed to speak to the little girls who were enrolled with her unless this strict formal etiquette had first been followed” (21). In Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, de Beauvoir would recall that over the years, and especially after the end of World War I, when the family’s fortune had fallen on bad economic times, “nothing went to waste at our house: not a crust of bread, or a bit of string, not a complimentary ticket or an opportunity for a free meal” (1959, 66). By the age of seventeen, she had rejected her parents’ opinions and the moral code of Catholicism and was beginning to formulate otherness as an imposed cultural construct. These developments, along with her commitment to existentialist philosophy, would lead eventually to the famous assertion, in The Second Sex, that one is not born but rather becomes a woman (de Beauvoir 1953).

Considering that de Beauvoir and I were separated by two generations and two continents—to say nothing of the social, familial, disciplinary, and linguistic disconnects between us—it is little wonder that I marveled to myself when her name came instantly to mind as a result of reading Renee Hobbs’s invitation to choose a metaphorical grandparent for my field of study. The next thought that crossed my mind was how could I have read, at length and deeply, de Beauvoir’s literary novels, feminist and philosophical treatises, and multivolume autobiography, supplemented by numerous secondary sources—I even visited her grave in Montparnasse and later imagined myself writing at a table on the second floor of Café de Flore—and yet never once have cited her in any of my research on digital-media literacy? Was I off base in thinking that I could draw connections now between de Beauvoir’s line of inquiry and my own interests as a teacher educator researching adolescents’ digital-media literacies? More to the point, would Hobbs, as editor of this volume, politely reject my first choice of an academic grandparent? And so I waited, but not for long; Hobbs’s reply came quickly: “Hi, Donna, I’m counting you in, and yes, I see the connection!”

Thus began a fascinating project that involved furnishing my tiny home office with memorabilia from a much earlier trip to Paris during which I had traced de Beauvoir’s footsteps moving about that city during World War II—my interests in such stemming from the fact I had minored in history throughout my bachelor’s and first master’s degree programs. I also pulled books on and by de Beauvoir from my personal library, reread turned-down pages, puzzled over underlined words, scribbled new questions in the margins, and generally became reacquainted with a woman whose ideas and writings I had admired from afar. Potential connections, such as the Other and personal freedom coupled with social responsibility, both concepts that I had overlooked earlier, became readily apparent as I rethought some of my own work on how youth who self-identified as nonreaders in school exhibited complex literate practices while engaging autonomously with digital media in informal learning contexts.

Participating as literate beings in out-of-school venues during after-school hours arguably freed these students from being Othered by school curricula and well-meaning educators bent on liberating so-called nonreaders from what was perceived as a lifetime of narrowed opportunities. In looking back at my own work, I had published data from research studies funded by the Spencer Foundation (Alvermann 2006) and later by the Bowne Foundation (Alvermann et al. 2012) that challenged the legitimacy of schools’ labeling practices that marked adolescent (and mostly male) struggling readers as likely to become high-school dropouts and thus candidates for whatever the then-in-vogue remedial program might offer. When the young men and women in those two studies were in less-formal learning spaces—in a community-supported After School Media Club at a local public library with free access to the Web, and in a Saturday academic-support program designed to teach critical media literacy skills using student-selected online resources—they were self-actualized literacy users. In retrospect, had I interpreted the findings from these two studies using de Beauvoir’s existential lens, I would surely have credited her for reminding me that throughout history, attempts to liberate Others by means that ignore individual will and choice are likely to produce new tyrannies that are arguably worse than becoming so-called nonreaders.

Despite finding de Beauvoir’s writing on existential liberation compelling, I am aware of its limitations, especially when applied in educational settings. Case in point: while writing The Blood of Others, which was published in 1948, de Beauvoir is said to have worked out “her intention to express the paradox of freedom experienced by an individual and the ways in which others, perceived by the individual as objects, were affected by [that individual’s] actions and decisions” (Bair 1990, 305). The Blood of Others, a fictionalized account of de Beauvoir’s personal experiences in Paris during World War II, explores her commitment to the existentialist concept of individual freedom. When the book appeared in the United States a year after her four-month sojourn in this country, it was lauded as being a fictional primer on essentialism, and de Beauvoir was considered an author who represented “the most Existential of all the Existentialists” (Bair 1990, 306). Yet a stateside critical reviewer, Richard McLaughlin, writing for the Saturday Review of Literature, claimed serious doubts about “the ultimate achievement of [a state of pure individual freedom], since if the existentialists insist on total responsibility they also urge total involvement” (1948, 13). Following this line of reasoning in regard to total involvement, McLaughlin argued, would make it virtually impossible to remain untouched by the resolve of others; in fact, attempting to do so would deny a basic existentialist tenet—namely, that other people possess the same desire for total responsibility for their decisions and actions. This paradox, of course, has implications for schools, communities, and society at large.

For instance, while writing an early review of the literature on critical media literacy in a digital-rich environment—one in which students’ choices about interacting, learning, and communicating were but a mouse-click away—my coauthor and I touched on the irony of adolescents’ personal freedoms rubbing up against responsible and ethical online involvement, at least as we perceived such ambiguities through our own online experiences and as lifetime educators in K–12 and postsecondary schools in the United States (Alvermann and Hagood 2000). Unaware at the time that we were Othering those not like us in a none-too-complimentary manner, it was easy to omit mention of de Beauvoir’s work in a list of references that numbered close to a hundred and contained, among other metaphorical grandparents, Michel Foucault.

However, it is less easy to rationalize why a little more than a decade later, any references to de Beauvoir’s work and its relation to my own were still absent—this time from a review of the literature on young people’s literate identities, multimodal texts, and critical media literacy in digital times (Alvermann 2011). Perhaps in perceiving de Beauvoir as a predigital-era writer and intellectual whose work would seemingly have little, if any, bearing on education in a digitally saturated twenty-first century, I had missed one opportunity after another to use her concepts of the Other, personal freedom, and social responsibility in interpreting my own work. If so, that was a serious error and one made visible precisely as a result of having been invited to write this chapter.
Reflections on de Beauvoir’s Old Age{
Writing as a scholar of new materialisms, Sonia Kruks uses de Beauvoir’s experiences of the infirmities and oppressions she encountered in advancing age to illustrate how they provide insight into “the cultural and discursive media we produce” (Kruks 2010, 262). Specifically, Kruks calls attention to how society in a for-profit economy is largely responsible for the degradations of old age that devalue people who are no longer economically productive. Citing de Beauvoir’s allusion to the aged as “pure objects,” Kruks goes on to explain how exterior forces (e.g., the media) that make fun of older people and their infirmities by materially objectifying them as “useless . . . [and] not worthy of respect” can cause them to interiorize those labels (2010, 271).

A case in point that links this situation to adolescents’ digital-media literacy is a YouTube video that went viral in September 2011 titled “Webcam 101 for Seniors” (Mindy 2011). The video was uploaded by the retired couple’s granddaughter, who had tried to teach Bruce and Esther Huffman from McMinnville, Oregon, how to record themselves using Esther’s new laptop. Within four days of their repeated fumblings and eventual success (though unbeknownst to them), their video had attracted over 2.2 million views, according to OregonLive (“‘Webcam 101 for Seniors’ YouTube Video” 2011). The couple’s display of advancing age and their cheerful online acceptance of being “computer illiterate” is a prime example of how de Beauvoir’s work can be made relevant by educators today. For example, a critical literacy activity that asks young people to view “Webcam 101 for Seniors” (which had attracted almost 12 million views as of November 2015) for the purpose of exploring who was Othered by whom, for what reason, and with what possible gain might be a starting point. Further discussion could lead to exploring the tensions between personal freedom and social responsibility, taking into account {AU: Please clarify whether this warning should be taken into account before or the activity or as part of it.}that such an activity could backfire and reinforce the very stereotypes a teacher might be trying to avoid.
Some Parting Thoughts
Although de Beauvoir’s work as the first twentieth-century woman to advocate a liberal feminism is undeniably important, it is her insistence on freedom coupled with responsibility and her tolerance for ambiguities—all themes of existentialist philosophy—that have informed this chapter. That de Beauvoir remains a force in the pantheon of feminist academics writing across three waves of feminism is evident if one takes at its word Doing Gender in Media, Art and Culture, a text published in 2009 for humanities students focusing in gender and media studies. Yet as Iris van der Tuin, the author of a chapter in that text, cautions, it would be foolhardy to think that location and generation are stable concepts; thus, “early feminist works are neither mechanically rejected nor automatically accepted” (van der Tuin 2009, 22). This sober reminder suggests to me that the thinking and writings of de Beauvoir will remain forever open to intellectual debates, in keeping with her existentialist outlook on life. It also suggests that future scholars will have the same opportunity as I have had here: to discover or reconsider how de Beauvoir’s legacy advances the interpretive power of contemporary research on adolescents’ digital-media literacies and their application to both theory and practice.
Alvermann, D. E. 1999. “Writing Gender into Reading Research.” In Multicultural Research: A Reflective Engagement with Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, edited by C. Grant, 68–76. New York: Falmer.
———. 2006. “Ned and Kevin: An Online Discussion That Challenges the ‘Not-Yet-Adult’ Cultural Model.” In Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies, edited by K. Pahl and J. Rowsell, 39–56. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
———. 2011. “Moving On/Keeping Pace: Youth’s Literate Identities and Multimodal Digital Texts.” In Rethinking Identity and Literacy Education in the 21st Century, edited by S. Abrams and J. Rowsell, 109–128.. New York: Teachers College Press.
Alvermann, D. E., and M. C. Hagood. 2000. “Critical Media Literacy: Research, Theory, and Practice in ‘New Times.’” Journal of Educational Research 93 (3): 193–205.
Alvermann, D. E., R. Hutchins, and R. McDevitt. 2012. “Adolescents’ Engagement with Web 2.0 and Social Media: Research, Theory, and Practice.” Research in the Schools 19 (1): 33–44.
Alvermann, D. E., J. Marshall, C. McLean, A. Huddleston, J. Joaquin, and J. Bishop. 2012. “Adolescents’ Web-based Literacies, Identity Construction, and Skill Development.” Literacy Research and Instruction 51 (3): 179–195.
Bair, D. 1990. Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster.
de Beauvoir, S. (1948) 1999. America Day by Day. Translated by C. Cosman. Berkeley: University of California Press.
———. 1948. The Blood of Others. Translated by R. Stenhouse and Y. Moyse. New York: Knopf.
———. 1953. The Second Sex. Translated by H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.
———. 1959. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. Translated by J. Kirkup. Cleveland: World.
———. 1972. Old Age. Translated by P. O’Brian. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Gilster, P. 1997. Digital Literacy. New York: John Wiley.
Hobbs, R. 2010. Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.
Kruks, S. 2010. “Simone de Beauvoir: Engaging Discrepant Materialisms.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, edited by D. Coole and S. Frost, 58–280. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Lankshear, C., and M. Knobel. 2011. New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Social Learning. 3rd ed. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press.
McLaughlin, R. 1948. “Mouthing Basic Existentialism.” Review of The Blood of Others, by Simone de Beauvoir. Saturday Review of Literature, July 17, p. 13. Available at
Mindy. 2011. “Webcam 101 for Seniors.” YouTube, August 21. Available at
Van der Tuin, I. 2009. “The Arena of Feminism: Simone de Beauvoir and the History of Feminism.” In Doing Gender in Media, Art and Culture, edited by R. Buikema and I. van der Tuin, 7–23). New York: Routledge.
“‘Webcam 101 for Seniors’ YouTube Video Makes ‘Adorable’ Oregon Couple This Week’s Viral Stars.” 2011. OregonLive, September 15. Available at

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