October 2005

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

When Girl Power Isn't

A few years ago, in an especially masochistic mood, I read a bunch of books written by supposed "post-feminists." It wasn't pretty. Even having had time to process it all, I can't really explain what a post-feminist is, except to say that these books seemed to assume that there were no contentious issues or struggles within feminism itself.

Writers like those I read -- Wendy Shalit (A Return to Modesty), Katie Roiphe (The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism), Christina Hoff Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?) and Camille Paglia -- tend to get lumped together, but what they have in common is not their arguments: it's who they're arguing with. They all have various bones to pick with the so-called feminist establishment, and in some cases their views are wildly divergent. Shalit, for example, blames feminism for women's apparent immodesty, which she claims has made them vulnerable to assault and harassment. Roiphe contends that feminists have been too protective of women's sexuality, while Paglia equates femininity with weakness and thinks feminism is puritanical. What these writers have in common -- aside from a shared target -- is their fixation on sex as the area where most major problems take root.

Ariel Levy's book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture also focuses on cultural problems that follow from sexual issues, but Levy doesn't conveniently heap blame on an abstract and disconnected notion of feminism. As she reminds her readers, second wave feminism grappled with but never resolved the tensions of the sexual revolution. The feverish debate over pornography that took place between anti-porn and pro-sex feminist camps caused rifts in the movement that have never fully healed. One byproduct of the resulting confusion has been what Levy calls "raunch feminism," with women rebelling against the perceived inhibitions of the past. Among other things, this emphasis on sex-centric politics has been interpreted to mean that women can and should be uninhibited about sex. Or at least about being sexy.

Our repressed culture's fascination with a particular kind of sex and sexuality is full of contradictions. Not surprisingly, the sort of sexuality that is valued is one where women are (still) objects, and this doesn't change when women join in on the objectifying. Girls Gone Wild videos, Christie Hefner (daughter of Hugh and, since 1988, chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises) and The Man Show are all called on by Levy as examples of a chauvinist culture that increasingly employs women behind the scenes. These women claim to be empowered by their ability to be "one of the guys," proud to prove that they are cool enough to watch porn and get women to flash their breasts for the camera.

Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs are, most basically, women who objectify other women as a way of trying to be equal with men. Regardless of the intention, female chauvinist piggery does not result in empowered women, but in a stunted sense of what constitutes power, sex, and freedom. Since men are seen as the measure of sexual liberation, women have to not only construct themselves as sexual objects, but be willing and able to objectify other women.

In subsequent chapters, Levy explores how teenage girls are acting out female chauvinism, and she details raunch culture's ties to consumerism. She is careful to underscore the ways this all connects to current train wrecks like abstinence-based sex education and the gay marriage controversy.

Even though girls kissing other girls is a hallmark of raunch culture, sex as a performance divorced from pleasure seems like it is mainly a heterosexual problem. So it's interesting that Levy chooses to examine how female chauvinist pigs factor into the lesbian community. In her time spent at girl bars in New York and San Francisco, she finds a subculture where butch queer women talk about their conquests in the way usually associated with dudes drinking beer and slapping each other on the back. She meets female-to-male transsexuals, who she takes as evidence that "even in an entirely female universe, there are plenty of women who want to be like a man." As she traverses these places where "being like a man" has more than one meaning, things get kind of muddy. Levy belatedly acknowledges that "there are aspects of life in the lesbian community that are distinct and not really comparable to life in the heterosexual mainstream." Still, she relies on the idea that women want to be like men to conclude that there is a general distaste for being like a woman. The queer community's conception of gender allows for some flexibility between the rigid categories of "male" and "female," and so Levy's argument is weakened when she says nothing about effeminate gay men, drag queens, or male-to-female transsexuals, as if the only people who subvert their biological sex are queer women.

We're left with the larger point that objectification of women is not made less problematic by a person's sexual orientation or gender, because the damage is done to women as a group. The colorful descriptions of raunchy mainstream culture that make up much of Female Chauvinist Pigs would alone have made for a compelling book. Levy seems to have been torn between writing a straightforward exposé for mainstream consumption, and digging into more thorny issues of identity. Though her book might have been stronger had she stuck with one or the other, her unwillingness to disregard the more complicated ways female chauvinism plays out is, in the end, an admirable thing.

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy
Free Press
ISBN: 0743249895
240 Pages