Female Chauvinist Pigs:
Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
By Ariel Levy
(Free Press, 224 Pages, $25)
Once men like me were the enemy. Today we are the ideal. Well, not exactly. The drunken frat guy is the ideal. As are juggly strippers. As far as feminists are concerned, I still am the enemy.
That's pretty much what I got out of Ariel Levy's new study of raunch culture, Female Chauvinist Pigs, that the new feminism is simply the old objectification of women repackaged in a sleazy wrapper. Midway through Ms. Levy's treatise we hear this from one successful New York City arts administrator: "I feel conflicted being a woman, and I think I make up for it by trying to join the ranks of men. I don't think I have a lot of feminine qualities." "Making up for it" entails hanging out at strip clubs and flipping through the latest issue of Playboy. Anything to be one of the guys, and not one of the despised "girly-girls."
Reading Levy's chronicle of the exploits of America's coeds and yuppie nymphettes, one almost longs for the days of Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, when saggy-breasted, uptight feminists picketed the Miss America pageant and set their brassieres aflame. Misses Steinem and Friedan were frightening, but they and their demands (equal treatment, legalized birth control for singles, and legalized abortion) were at least comprehensible. Today's curious breed of feminist doesn't so much hate men as hate themselves.
The second wave of feminists, tenured and firmly ensconced in academia and publishing, were more philosophical. The Dworkins and Brownmillers would not rest until they had achieved the complete emasculation and neutralization of men. Their unreadable screeds hysterically proclaimed that all men were rapists, that all sex was rape. A backlash was inevitable.
Judge for yourself. In 1992, a Gallup poll found that 33 percent of American women considered themselves feminists. Less than a decade later, that number had plummeted to 25 percent, and the plunge continues. Today feminism -- at least feminism in a form recognizable to its founding sisters -- has all but vanished, save for a few rusty remnants tucked away in the dusty corners of women's studies departments of large universities. Meanwhile feminism's so-called third wave seems hell-bent on undoing all of the gains of the past thirty years of the women's movement.
All of this is seen as an obvious setback for women with beauty and brains. The highest ideal of the third wave of feminism, writes Maureen Dowd in her new book Are Men Necessary?, is "acknowledging one's inner slut." Its insignia is the oxymoronic "empowering miniskirt" and the stripper pole (available for $140 on Ebay). Even triple X-rated essayist Susie Bright is disgusted with the anti-intellectualism of the post-fembots. "The media image of women today is pathetic," writes Bright, "it's Barbie on Steroids. 'I Am Bimbo, Hear Me Roar! Tee-hee!'" Finally, in a fit of post-feminist pique, Levy writes: "We get to go to college and play sports and become secretary of state. But to look around, you'd think all any of us want to do is rip off our clothes and shake it."
This is what makes understanding these young women particularly frustrating. Like their mothers, new feminists affect a profound philosophy behind their outrageous antics, only to shrug it off with "it's all in fun," and "it doesn't mean anything." To these women, a lack of seriousness and purpose is liberating.
Levy too is stumped. "How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavored to banish good for women?" she asks. "Why is laboring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering?"
The gals Levy depicts have decided that being liberated means acting like drunken frat boys on a binge. Most disturbingly, these are not just Jerry Springer trailer brides, but middle class, educated women celebrating porn stars, strippers, and "liberated" exhibitionists like the ubiquitous Ms. Paris Hilton. Besides porn stars, their role models include the most obnoxious of men. "Women in America don't want to be excluded from anything anymore," writes Levy, "not the board meeting or the cigar that follows it or, lately, even the trip to the strip club that follows that. What we want is to be where it's at, and currently that's a pretty trashy place."
THE SUBJECT OF LEVY'S BOOK may be "stripper chic," or the "porno-ization of American culture," but that is just one manifestation of the larger raunch culture that is debasing American society. In other words, it is not just young women that have gotten raunchier, but television, films, music, clothing, decor, discourse, the language, sports, advertising, pretty much everything. Levy tosses out several theories to explain stripper chic, including generational rebellion theory. Levy points out that two of the most prominent spokeswomen for stripper chic are the daughters of second wave feminists.
No doubt part of it is generational rebellion. But as with all such binges there comes the unpleasant morning after. When the hangover wears off the gals try to legitimize their raunchy behavior with half-baked theories suggesting that stripping is "as valuable to elevating womankind as gaining an education or supporting rape victims." They also do so with nonsense comparing raunch to women's self-reinvention as autonomous beings taking charge of their own lives, and how stripping and porn are "empowering" because they're redefining gender conventions. The more esoteric and nonsensical the theory the better they feel.
My sister, who graduated high school in the mid-seventies, once told me that in her day if a girl got out of line -- meaning if she were promiscuous or dressed like a slattern -- the other girls in her class would confront her, shame her, and demand that she stop giving their school and their class a bad reputation. Three decades later the opposite holds: young women are pressured to -- in Levy's words-- "adopt an image of sexual willingness and to prove it."
If power is what these women are after (as Levy suggests) they are deluding themselves. Women gain power the same way men do: dedication to hard work, higher education, perhaps a bit of ruthlessness, and sometimes through connections. Not by fake humping a stripper pole.
By book's end Levy appears as conflicted as her new feminists. She is all about choice -- the choice whether to act liken a drunken frat boy or a chic young contributing editor to New York magazine. But her "it's all good" pose is a sham. Try as she may to remain PC, Levy cannot hide the fact that she despises and is embarrassed by her slutty sisters. It comes through in page after page. By being so nonjudgmental and pro-choice Levy shows the same lack of moral clarity as the young women she describes. It is not "all good."
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