Saturday, May 3, 2008

Female Chauvinist Pigs

I don't typically write about non-fiction books (mostly because I don't typically read non-fiction books), and I try not to blog about political subjects because I don't want to alienate anyone who comes here to read about books, not about politics. However, Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy was such a great book that I have to write about it...and in doing so, I must discuss political issues on some level.

The subtitle of this book is Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, and I felt that the book was really more about Raunch Culture than Female Chauvinist Pigs...but I suppose perhaps some definitions are in order here. Raunch culture is everywhere: Girls Gone Wild, Girls Next Door (the show about Hugh Hefner's girlfriends) and the resurgence of the Playboy Bunny, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian (who are both pretty much famous only because they have sex tapes), Rock of Love (the Bret Michaels show on VH1)...the list obviously goes on. Female chauvinist pigs are the women who embrace this culture, and in some cases participate in it - essentially, taking a "guys-eye view of pop culture."

"The proposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it." (pg. 197) While I always found something slightly uncomfortable with what is being presented on television as an empowered female - Holly, "Hef's" now-ex-girlfriend, for example - ...always getting up from the show and looking in the mirror and feeling off (is it guilt for watching such brain candy? is it self-evaluation in light of the fact that I don't look like those women who pose in Playboy? Why was I fine until I turned on this show and now I'm feeling insecure?)...After reading this book I now see the danger to myself and to women in general that is implied by raunch culture, and the danger that is the outcome of the behavior that constitutes raunch culture. The common belief of the day (or justification for women's participation) is that it is empowering: posing naked for a magazine, being a stripper (or learning how to strip), flashing your boobs for Girls Gone Wild, is all seen as taking control of one's sexuality...of attaining power. It is the "new feminism" and women who do not support or participate in it are Puritanical, uptight, etc.

But Levy clearly refutes the idea that these behaviors lead to the attainment of power: "Why is this the 'new feminism' and not what it looks like: the old objectification?" (pg 81). She goes on to state, "The new conception of raunch culture as a path to liberation rather than oppression is a convenient (and lucrative) fantasy with nothing to back it up. Or, as Susan Brownmiller put it when I asked her what she made of all this, 'You think you're being brave, you think you're being sexy, you think that you're transcending feminism. But that's bullshit.'" (pg. 82). What actual power has anyone ever gained by taking off their clothes for the enjoyment of men?

This is not the new feminism. It is not feminism, it is not female empowerment, and it does not advance the cause of women besides making certain careers - like stripper or porn star - more acceptable. Instead, it is the commodification of sexuality, and by making women's sexuality something to be consumed or bought - and the justification that it is using sexuality to attain power - isn't that a form of prostitution?

Sexiness is now something that can be bought: we are constantly being sold one particular type of sexuality, and we are buying it. People might come up with some logic as to why breast implants are to please themselves and not the opposite sex, but let's be honest, baring medical reasons, why would anyone get them - especially the clown boobs - except to appear more attractive? And more attractive to whom? "Making sexiness into something simple, quantifiable makes it easier to explain and 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; you need plastic sugery, peroxide, a manicure, a mall." (pg. 184). Advertisers (or somebody) are taking what is inherent in a female (sexuality, in a number of different forms), making it into a product, and selling it back to us.

What makes all this worse is that women are buying into it ourselves: we are actively and willfully participating in our own commodification, in our own subjugation, and at the same time creating an image of womanhood that is detrimental to our own advancement - effectively rebuilding the glass ceiling that is the way to attaining ACTUAL power. As Levy states, "If you start to think about women as if we're all Carrie from Sex and the City, well, the problem is: You're not going to elect Carrie to the Senate or to run your company. Let's see the Senate fifty percent female; let's see women in decision-making positions - that's power. Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven't come." (pg. 195) And what does participating in our subjugation make us? Uncle Toms: "deliberately uphold[ing] the stereotypes assigned to [our] marginalized group in the interest of getting ahead with the dominant group." (pg 105). Jenna Jameson is not Joan of Arc (implying a strong female who bucks the patriarchal system in the most dramatic way)...she is Uncle Tom.

Raunch culture also leads to the loss of identity for women. A woman is pictured nude in Playboy...how does this help you attain real power? Does anyone listen to someone just because they were in Playboy? No. The people looking at her "pictorial" aren't wondering what she thinks about illegal immigration, or the economy, or constitutional law. And the more that some women seek to objectify themselves, the women who have something to say about these issues will be increasingly ignored.

"The women who are really being emulated and obsessed over in our culture right now - strippers, porn stars, pinups - aren't even people. They are merely sexual personae, erotic dollies from the land of make-believe. In their performances, which is the only capacity in which we see these women we so fetishize, they don't even speak. As far as we know, they have no ideas, no feelings, no political beliefs, no relationships, no past, no future, no humanity...instead of advancing the causes of women's liberation movement and the sexual revolution, the obdurate prevalence of raunch in the mainstream has diluted the effect of both sex radicals and feminists, who've seen their movement's images poluarlized while their ideals were forgotten." (196)


This point is brought home most eloquently by Hugh Hefner himself:

[Levy writes,] "Women were meant to be ornamental entertainment, not partners in wildness, and their complicity - their obedience - was policed accordingly in the Playboy empire...A double standard was unapologetically built into [Hefner's] philosophy. In the first issue of Playboy Hefner's introduction read, 'If you're somebody's sister, wife, or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.' [Hefner later said]: "I do not look for equality between man and woman...I like innocent, affectionate, faithful girls. Socially, mentally, I enjoy more being with men. When I want to speak, to think, I stay with men."

I won't get into the equation of using sexuality for the attainment of power (in all its forms) to prostitution, but I think that a strong case for it could be made. The case could be made based on the quotes from Jenna Jameson alone. I also didn't really get into how the female chauvinist pigs contribute to all of this. Additionally, I don't want to get into a lengthy discussion of how raunch culture presents us with only one form or idea of sexiness, of sexuality, when there are so many other forms out there to explore, but I do want to include this extremely insightful quote of Levy's which makes that point:

"Looking like a stripper or a Hooters waitress or a Playboy bunny is only one, very specific kind of sexual expression. Is it the one that turn us - or men - on the most? We would have to stop endlessly reenacting this one raunchy script in order to find out...We have to ask ourselves why we are so focused on silent girly-girls in g-strings faking lust. This is not a sign of progress, it's a testament to what's still missing from our understanding of human sexuality with all of its complexity and power. We are still so uneasy with the vicissitudes of sex we need to surround ourselves with caricatures of female hotness to safely conjure up the concept ‘sexy.’ When you think about it, it's kind of pathetic. Sex is one of the most interesting things we as humans have to play with, and we've reduced it to polyester underpants and implants. We are selling ourselves unbelievably short." (198)

This book was extremely personal for me...I was very affected by it, and look at the popular media in a whole different light now. I am the same age as Holly, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Mary Cary, etc... and while there are women my age in the world doing amazing things, and even famous women my age who are not participating in this (Natalie Portman for example)...but turn on the television. Where are they? You can't find them. (And when you do find them, this is how people react.) In the popular media, it is essentially impossible to find a positive image of a truly powerful woman in her mid-twenties that is not portrayed in the uber-sexual Raunch Culture mold. I think that Levy's book did an excellent job of showing the dangers inherent in this system of commodification and self-objectification. I would definitely encourage all women at least my age and younger to pick up this book and take the message to heart: objectification is not empowerment. Subverting the system of objectification and refusing to be Uncle Toms is empowerment. It is the only way to real power.

I will leave you with the following quote: "We have simply adopted a new norm, a new role to play: lusty, busty exhibitionist...we need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to us as sexy. That would be sexual liberation." (200)

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