Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
by Ariel Levy
Simon & Schuster £17.99, pp256
If you had arrived in America, as I did, two years ago, and tried to make sense of the position of women here, you might have found yourself wondering how any of this had happened. How the place that gave us Gloria Steinem could now be teetering on the edge of banning the right to an abortion. How Oprah Winfrey could declare true 'liberation' for women to be found in a book offering advice on the accurate assessment of men's desires. How reality shows, in which women were surgically transformed into identical Barbie dolls, could become the most widely watched phenomenon on television. How teenagers across the country could be taught abstinence as their only form of sex education, despite evidence that this had resulted in the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the industrialised world.
Though the picture is far from reassuring, I'm glad to hear Ariel Levy confirm that it makes no sense at all. In Female Chauvinist Pigs, she finds a thread that follows and lays bare all these contradictions. She puts it together through skilled, laconic argument and sleek reporting: the mush of ideologies, the Chinese-whispered legacy of feminism, now mutated into a hydra of entirely confounding proportions.
While male chauvinist pigs have long been derided, the coinage of Levy's title has risen to the top, claiming that her love of 'all things bimbo' is the gloriously liberated end-result of second-generation feminism. The Female Chauvinist Pig, Levy argues, is 'post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it.' She asks: 'Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving - or getting - a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them?'
Levy documents the 'pornoisation' of our culture and investigates women's collusion in it. She joins the crew of cult TV-show Girls Gone Wild, in which women are recruited in bars and on beaches and asked to flash for the camera. They find this so exhilarating, Levy is told, that the programme's creator has likened the flashing girls to feminists burning their bras. She goes to high-end porn parties for liberated working women, at which troupes of girls in satin panties and thigh-high boots shimmy on a stage. The (female) organisers claim to be showing 'feminism in action'. She interviews recent graduates and high-powered executives; she finds strippers hired for teenage girls' birthday parties, and a new fashion for 'top surgery' (double mastectomies) among gay women. Women, it seems, either want to be 'like men', in the most limited definition possible, or they want to be like the siliconised women they think appeal to men.
Levy's book is timely. A number of women I know have remarked on what Levy calls 'raunch culture', but nobody wants to be the humourless prude who doesn't 'get it'. It's hard to know exactly what to think, because if the women who like it say they find it empowering, who's to argue with their feelings? We all know our bodies and our selves, don't we? Seventies radicals, help us out here! Erica Jong offers Levy a sanguine, succinct position: 'The women who buy the idea that flaunting your breasts in sequins is power - I mean, I'm for all that stuff - but let's not get so into the tits and ass that we don't notice how far we haven't come.'
Yet everywhere else she looks, Levy is told that women who are uncomfortable with raunch should 'get with the program'. Women, she learns, are 'redefining themselves'; it is empowering to have an overview of an ironic cultural phenomenon; they are 'transcending' feminism or commenting on it. All this has more than a whiff of the emperor's new thong about it; you'd need subtitles to see the commentary, and this 'new feminism', as Levy puts it, looks very much like the old objectification.
'Yeah, we're all women,' says one of Levy's interviewees, 'but are we supposed to band together? Hell, no. I don't trust women.' When she asks a man what kind of woman he likes to hang out with, he thinks she must be mad. Even women, he explains, don't want to hang out with women. 'There's just one thing,' Levy suggests. 'Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will always still be a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too.'
There is always the option of debasing everything. At one point, a female TV producer comes up with this stirring call to arms: '[Boys] get to fart, they get to be loud; now we're saying we can fart and curse and go to strip clubs just as well.' Betty Friedan, anyone? Susan Brownmiller? Gloria Steinem? How naive those women were to think they'd achieved anything; equal-opportunity farting - now that's what I call progress.
Ariel Levy’s book, whose full title is Female Chauvinist Pigs; Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, is nothing less than a page-turner. It is written in a witty and conversational style, with interviews interspersed here and there. Levy’s aim is to convince you that American culture has taken a turn for the sinister when it comes to female sexuality and to demonstrate how “female chauvinist pigs” are influenced by and active perpetrators of an anti-feminist cultural agenda. But perhaps you are wondering, what is a female chauvinist pig?
We decided long ago that the Male Chauvinist Pig was an unenlightened rube, but the Female Chauvinist Pig (FCP) has risen to a kind of exalted status. She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn’t mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality and she doesn’t mind a cartoonishly macho response to them. The FCP asks: Why throw your boyfriend’s Playboy in a freedom trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving—or getting—a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them? (93)
A female chauvinist pig is a woman who has made the decision to dissociate herself from femaleness by reproducing male chauvinism in a female body, even at the expense of other women. Rather than counter stereotypes through her own comportment or argue for a change in ideology, she accepts stereotypes of femininity and female sexuality as truth. The FCP insults women along with her male counterparts, but protects her own ego by painting herself as “one of the guys.” The problem with this type of anti-feminism, Levy explains, is:
Instead of trying to reform other people’s—or her own—perception of femininity, the Female Chauvinist Pig likes to position herself as something outside the normal bounds of womanhood. If defending her own little patch of turf requires denigrating other women…so be it. (110)
In this way, FCPs distance themselves ideologically from women as a collective group. Once appropriately separated from the stigmatized group, they are free to indulge in stereotype and denigration with members of the dominant group—men. Framed by Levy’s book, it seems almost inconceivable that smart, educated women would participate in this cultural phenomenon. After all, “Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will still always be a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too” (112, emphasis mine).
Levy’s book successfully argues that contemporary American culture actively encourages women to behave in ways that most please men, rather than in ways most natural and satisfying for the women themselves. For Levy, FCPs further patriarchal ideology through their complicity in anti-feminist behaviors like prioritizing men’s desires over their own and objectifying other women. Levy writes of the popular book and movie, He’s Just Not That Into You, whose ultimate goal is to teach women how to realize when they are not desirable to men, “Women generally find it pretty satisfying to get what they want too, but He’s Just Not That Into You is not about what women want. It’s about becoming better discerners of what men want. (And somehow that is true women’s liberation)” (175). The behaviors Levy attributes to FCPs are painfully familiar; what she describes is no rare phenomenon but a nationwide shift in ideology.
For me, the most interesting part of Levy’s book was the section on adolescent sexuality and performance. Levy references Deborah L. Tolman’s book, Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality, and quotes Tolman’s research: “‘In the many hundreds of studies that have been done to determine what predicts adolescent girls’ sexual behavior, only a handful ha[ve] identified girls’ sexual desire as a potential factor’” (156). Levy makes the point that for many adolescent girls, sexuality is about performance and the desire to appear sexy rather than actual sexual curiosity or fulfillment. I would have loved to read more on this topic and the research related to it; a review of Dilemmas of Desire may be in order.
Also fascinating was Levy’s exposure of the profit-driven advantage of the commercialization of female sexuality:
If we were to acknowledge that sexuality is personal and unique, it would become unwieldy. Making sexiness into something simple, quantifiable makes it easier to explain and to market. If you remove the human factor from sex and make it about stuff—big fake boobs, bleached blonde hair, long nails, poles, thongs—then you can sell it. Suddenly, sex requires shopping. (184)
Just as Jennifer Pozner’s book on the evils of Reality TV ultimately reveals the reliance of “unscripted” programming on commercial sponsors and product placement, Levy compellingly demonstrates the benefit of exploiting women’s self-worth by transforming female sexuality into a complex array of products.
The one issue I had with Female Chauvinist Pigs was that it was more of a survey than an in-depth analysis. Levy has one central thesis: that raunch culture encourages women to degrade other women and reject feminist solidarity. In order to prove this point, Levy discusses a wide array of topics. She writes about Lesbian youth culture in one section, adolescent sexuality in another, Girls Gone Wild in another, and 1960s and 70s Feminist history in yet another. Some of the time, her writing seems to merely skim the surface of the problem she is trying to dissect. It is admittedly difficult to take on such a broad trend and write only 212 pages, but I believe the book would be more powerful if less were covered and more were covered in depth. As it is, FCP often feels less like a whole book than a collection of related essays. Having said this, I enjoyed reading FCP and would recommend it to anyone interested in how contemporary culture intersects with feminism.
I will end with a quotation of Levy’s concerning America’s idolization of porn stars. Although her metaphor is somewhat cringe-worthy and simplistic, her message is powerful and clear: our culture idolizes porn stars as the end-all of all things sexually explicit and arousing. These same human beings have a 65-90% chance of having a history of sexual abuse and incest.
There is something twisted about using a predominantly sexually traumatized group of people as our erotic role models. It’s like using a bunch of shark attack victims as our lifeguards. (180)
About Madeleine GyoryMadeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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This entry was posted in 2000s, Ariel Levy and tagged 2005, Ariel Levy, FCP, female chauvinist pig, Female Chauvinist Pigs, female sexuality, male chauvinism, male chauvinist pig, misogyny, raunch culture, sexism. Bookmark the permalink.