Female Chauvinist Pigs

A new book looks at women's evolving sexual identities and argues that 'raunchy' and 'liberated' are not synonyms.
Something is going on with this country when the only way to tell the hipster girls dry-humping one another on from the sorority girls parading around in wet T-shirts at MTV's Spring Break is by counting their tattoos (hint: the first group has more). In Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Free Press), thirty-year-old Ariel Levy posits that as pornography has permeated American society, a new and pervasive genre of woman has arisen: the Female Chauvinist Pig.

Anxious to be perceived as hot, and reluctant to feel left out of what Levy calls "the frat party of pop culture," FCPs eagerly make sex objects out of other women and themselves, claiming that watching Drew Barrymore whirl around a pole in the Charlie's Angels sequel and posing for Playboy is "empowering." Levy thinks they're kidding themselves, mistaking sexual power for real power and, worse, believing that mimicking the sexuality of strippers, Playmates, and porn stars -- women who are paid to simulate real women's sexuality -- is power in the first place. "'Raunchy' and 'liberated' are not synonyms," she says.

True. But they aren't necessarily opposites. As I was reading FCP, I kept remembering a scene from my youth. It was 1992 and I was in my kitchen, flipping through my dad's copy of Newsweek, when a picture stopped me cold. The girls in it were my age, but they looked a lot cooler than I did with their bleached blonde hair, arms crossed over their chests, and the word "Slut" scrawled in Sharpie across the defiantly unaerobicized stomachs protruding from their half-shirts. They were riot grrrls, "a sassy new breed of feminist for the MTV age." For the magazine's suburbanite subscribers -- who most likely couldn't fathom why a teenager would use her body as a billboard for high school's nastiest insult -- the article quoted one of the movement's zines: "SLUT. Yeah, I'm a slut. My body belongs to me. I sleep with who I want . . . I'm not your property." It was both no means no and yes means yes. To a seventeen-year-old girl, this was mind-blowing.

Levy is an ardent student of feminist history, eagerly chronicling how, in the 1970s, women's liberation and the sexual revolution overlapped, then diverged, before devolving into the sex wars of the 1980s that split the activists into two camps: "pro-sex" and "anti-porn." But besides a smackdown of purportedly pro-woman CAKE parties -- which "seek to redefine the current boundaries [of] female sexuality" via pole dancers; scantily-clad, pillow-fighting models; and the drooling guys who attend them -- Levy skips right over the riot grrrls and the rest of the feminists who began coming of age in the 1990s, the women who call themselves the third wave, who aren't just consumers of raunch culture, but helped create and define it.

It's a shame that Levy chooses to focus exclusively on young women who have nothing more on their minds than going wild, no political agenda other than getting ahead or liberating their own libidos. Because there are plenty of women who take a more socially conscious approach to smut. There are the women who, unhappy with a lack of girl-friendly porn, started Sweet Action, a glossy that showcases full-frontal rocker boys. There are the former editors of dearly departed teen magazine Sassy (which regularly and seriously used the word "patriarchy") who ran a monthly, guy-focused "Cute Band Alert" feature because "everyone needs someone to objectify."

But third-wave women did more than turn the tables on men; they questioned the very foundations of sexuality. Levy worries that one of the biggest sexual issues confronting women is "the prioritizing of performance over pleasure." And I concur that there's a serious problem when teenage girls feel like they need to show up to school tarted up like Christina Aguilera on the cover of her Drrrty album. But that isn't the whole story. As any undergraduate worth her Women's Studies diploma knows, third wave she-roes like Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble, and Madonna, star of Truth or Dare, have had a lot to say about how performance can be a part of pleasure. (One that guys may be cluing in to: An acquaintance recently told me about going to see friends of her daughter's play in a band. In the middle of the set, the two guys stopped performing -- in the acoustic sense, at least -- and began furiously making out. "It's almost like teenage boys have caught up to where teenage girls were ten years ago," the woman mused.)

Speaking of performance: Levy devotes an entire chapter to "bois," lesbians who dress androgynously, aggressively pursue casual sex, and otherwise mimic adolescent male sexuality. Some of them, she says, adhere to "almost comically unreconstructed gender roles." I have no doubt that some androgynous lesbians are sexist, but Levy is on dangerous ground when she suggests that when a woman impersonates a teenage boy it means she's part of the problem. What about the bois who are both skirt-chasers and feminists? I'm thinking of J.D. Samson, the mustachioed member of the hugely popular band Le Tigre, and probably the most well-known and vocal boi in pop culture. In 2003, she posed as a dog walker, pool boy, lifeguard and various other hetero boy archetypes in a popular lesbian pin-up calendar. It certainly wasn't Playboy, but it wasn't anti-objectification either.

In other words, raunch culture isn't all about fake boobs, and the women who embrace it aren't all FCPs. Purchasing the Aerosmith DVD with all three Alicia Silverstone videos on it (which I did) or being the pleased recipient of an old copy of Playboy as a Christmas gift (that was me, too) might not be, to use a word that Levy and the FCPs both love, "empowering," but that doesn't mean I'm disempowered. Participating in raunch culture may not always be a feminist act, but that doesn't make those engaging in it antifeminists -- or deluded. I'm thinking of the happily paired lesbian couple I went to a pro-choice march with who went to a strip club on a recent birthday. Or the feminist labor activist friend who finds Brazilian bikini waxes sexy.    Levy rails against a culture in which "the only alternative to enjoying Playboy is being 'uncomfortable' with or 'embarrassed' about your sexuality." But I know lots of women for whom there is a middle ground between rabid antiporn Dworkinizing and Girls Gone Wild vapidity. There are plenty of us who have put together our sexual identities from bits and pieces of our personal histories, our pop culture experiences, our love of certain parts of raunch culture that don't feel oppressive. Levy says, "We need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up as sexy." But for those of us not planning a move to a remote island without television, radio, or Wi-Fi, it's impossible to live a life untainted by Britney Spears. What the third wave has been so good at -- and what Levy doesn't talk about -- is taking the tropes pop culture has given us and transforming them for our own purposes.
Kara Jesella is a freelance writer in New York City. She is currently co-writing a book on Sassy magazine for Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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