Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press, 2005)
We don’t really need an introduction to the “female chauvinist pig,” because we’ve already seen her, heard her, had drinks with her, been compared to her, and possibly even emulated her. She’s the radio host bragging about her implants on-air; she’s the heterosexual co-ed making out with her best friend at a frat party; she’s the sales rep who loves entertaining her clients at strip clubs. What we are overdue for is an analysis of this complex creature, and that’s what Ariel Levy sets out to do in her provocative new book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
In this smart, insightful polemic, Levy defines FCPs as females with a taste for the lewd and lascivious, who see nothing wrong with objectifying women—as long as they’re the ones doing the objectifying (and it’s often self-inflicted). Levy is a contributing editor for New York magazine, where she’s written about the lesbian/“boi” scene in the city as well as the change in New Yorker’s attitudes towards sex post-9/11, and has profiled Andrea Dworkin and Candace Bushnell (I work for the same publication; our paths have never crossed). Levy’s reporting for New York clearly inspired and contributed to this, her first book—she coined the “FCP” label in a 2001 article for the magazine, and some of the same sources and scenes in that and her other pieces pop up again here.
In attempt to explain how self-described feminists went from taking back the night to taking off their clothes and taking down each other, Levy gives a Cliff’s Notes version of feminist history from the 1970’s to today, pitting Susan Brownmiller against Hugh and Christie Hefner; Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin against Candida Royalle. Levy implies that the sexual revolution caused a giant rift in the feminist community, separating women into groups according to how they conceptualized sex, and therefore how they felt about pornography, rape and men in general.
Here’s where things get complicated. In an interview with Levy, Royalle, a former porn star who now directs adult films geared to female viewers, makes it clear that she sees herself as a sexually liberated woman who gained autonomy, self-esteem and self-acceptance from the women’s movement and the sexual revolution.
In fact, that’s how most of the Levy’s FCP’s reconcile feminism and female-chauvinism. Carrie Gerlach, a former Sony Pictures bigwig, tells Levy in an email that she attributes her success in business to her “great legs” and “great tits,” and that she has no qualms about climbing the corporate ladder in “Chanel war paint” and “a short Prada suit.” “Sherry,” a advertising exec in her late-twenties who loves Playboy andHoward Stern, tells Levy that she’s “very pro-woman,” and likes “to see women succeed whether they’re using their minds to do it or using their tits.” However, when Levy probes Sherry about her feelings about stripping for a living, Sherry says she “can’t feel bad for these women…they’re asking for it.”
Levy’s building up to the modern women’s conundrum: either you think that we have come so far in the past thirty years that we are free to say, do, and like whatever we want (even if that could be construed as harmful to women as a group), or you believe that women are still second-class citizens, that we still need to band together against objectification, denigration, and humiliation.
In other words, are you an optimist—or are you a “feminist”
Even if one does allow that we live in what Levy calls a “post-feminist society,” does that warrant an attitudinal swing so far in the other direction? “How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavored to banish good for women?” Levy demands.
Unfortunately, in her eagerness to pin down the hypocrisy of the FCPs, Levy doesn’t offer them much wiggle room. Who’s to say that Candida Royalle didn’t derive genuine fulfillment from doing porn? Likewise, we can presume that there are healthy, secure women who truly adore the feeling they get from wearing a Playboy bunny costume, or from watching The Man Show with their boyfriend. And should women avoid doing things that bring them pleasure because of what it might imply to an intangible and, some would say, outdated activist movement?
She’s on more solid ground when she talks about raunch culture as a widespread obsession that obscures all other images, attitudes and expressions of sexuality. She writes, “Raunch culture isn’t about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular—and particularly commercial—shorthand for sexiness.” An exclusive model of “sexy,” whether it be the hypersexual Pam Anderson or anti-sexual Andrea Dworkin (or anything in between), is repressive for all sexual beings, male and female. Even worse is the situation Levy describes in her chapter “Pigs in Training,” in which teenage girls grow up in a schizophrenic culture that encourages them to look Paris Hilton-esque while simultaneously forbidding them to actually engage in sex or—god forbid—masturbation.
In a particularly sharp critique, Levy indicts everyday FCPs like Sherry for putting other women down in order to improve their status among the people who really count: men. These women make a special point to distinguish themselves from what they call “girly-girls” who “paint their nails every fucking second.”
“Gone is the sixties-style concern…about society as a whole,” Levy writes. “FCPs don’t bother to question the criteria on which women are judged, they are too busy judging other women themselves.”
Later, she adds, “The only alternative to (embracing this behavior) is being ‘uncomfortable’ with and ‘embarrassed’ about your sexuality. Raunch culture, then, isn’t an entertainment option, it’s a litmus test of female uptightness.”
There will be some who will read this as an admission of Levy’s own insecurities, and who will dismiss her argument against raunch as similarly defensive and “uptight.” But those readers are failing to see the forest for the trees (or the forest for the bush, as the case may be). Levy drives home the point that chauvinism is rooted in misogyny, even when it comes from women. She admonishes, “Even if you are a women 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 … you will be thought less of, too.”
Corrie Pikul is a writer based in Brooklyn.