14 January 2006

Women Aren’t Commodities

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Feminism & Me, Part II. A review of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy, published 2005 by Free Press, New York.

My familiarity with the video phenomenon known as “Girls Gone Wild” is limited to the advertisements one sees late at night on television networks like “Spike TV.” Reading Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs is both an inducement to go out and buy some of these videos – under the rubric of “research,” you understand – and an effective affirmation of what one assumes about the women who participate in their creation. The dominant themes are youthfulness, beauty, drunkenness, bi-curiosity, and regret (not necessarily in that order), all in service of male titillation, and under the guise of an assertion of liberty by those females who participate as well as those who watch.

So begins Levy’s book, as she follows a “Girls Gone Wild” crew around on location in Florida, interviewing the filmmakers and their subjects, and capturing the themes enumerated above while dwelling, in the end, on the presence of regret and what it means for the idea of women’s liberation and equality. Female Chauvinist Pigs is an entertaining read, fun and serious in turn, wittily-written, and definitely frightening for what it says about our culture and how we perceive and treat women and girls. Levy’s thesis is stated directly in her introduction, when she defines Female Chauvinist Pigs (FCPs) as “women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves.” (Page 4) The book proceeds to show how this kind of behavior (and the faux-feminist philosophy from which it stems) is not so much the next phase of women’s liberation as a tangential path to that long-term goal, a misunderstanding of the ideas of “liberation” and “equality.”

At its most effective, Female Chauvinist Pigs takes snippets of our culture and dissects them, throwing back in our face assumptions about women’s decisions to expose themselves, both metaphorically and not. Levy interviewed a broad range of people – feminists, pornographers, and feminist pornographers; women, girls acting like women, and women who call themselves “womyn” – and teases apart their actions and statements, and exploring the different definitions that underline some of the words they use. Throughout the book she tries to distinguish between “sex,” “sexuality,” and “sexiness,” in a way that acknowledges individual differences and desires while rejecting the implicit cultural assumptions that a woman needs to be sexy, or that there is anything wrong with being sexy, or that to be sexy requires (essentially) exposure. For example, after an interview with Playboy’s Christie Hefner (and others at the magazine), and after looking at a Playboy “pictorial” featuring American Olympic athletes, Levy expresses regret that women (or at least, those women) are not yet “ready to think of ‘sexy’ and ‘athletic’ as mutually inclusive,” thus the “spread” of these women on these pages. She pounds home her point about FCPs and expresses dismay that, with Christie Hefner at the helm, such treatments are women “doing this to ourselves.” (Page 44) A similar point is made about Sheila Nevins, the head of documentary programming for HBO and the executive producer of a show called “G-String Divas.” (Page 91)

One of the strongest chapters of the book is titled “The Future That Never Happened,” in which Levy explores the evolution of the feminist movement from its early days through the heyday era in the 1970s – and the impact of feminism on the subsequent creation of the FCP. Two characters feature most strongly here: feminist theorist, author and icon Susan Brownmiller, and, in notable contrast, author Erica Jong, whom Levy calls “one of the most famous sex-positive feminists.” (Pages 75-76) Unquestionably Jong emerges victorious from this virtual battle, as Levy makes the case for how Brownmiller’s uncompromising (Page 46) expression of feminism, its role, and the role of women – her Utopian vision of women in the world – slowly but surely squeezes all the joy from the very idea of sex and sexuality.

For Levy, it seems, the fact that the radical wing of feminism gained and retained control of the feminist revolution meant that for subsequent generations of women overt, seemingly-in-their-control expressions of sex and sexuality felt liberating and thrilling in its own right. Contrast that with Jong’s more realistic and grounded assessment: “The women who buy the idea that flaunting your breasts in sequins is power – I mean, I’m all for that stuff – but let’s not get so far into the tits and ass that we don’t notice how far we haven’t come. Let’s not confuse that with real power.” (Page 76) That, in a nutshell, is the mistake of the FCP.

Later, Levy moves on to the dazed-and-confused sexuality of today’s teenagers, raised within and confronted by a society that is split between two competing imperatives, one capitalist and the other moral. Arguably, those two do not have to be at odds; but Christian rock sales initiatives aside, they seem to be competing for the soul of the FCP and their younger “Pigs in Training” (also one of Levy’s chapters; Page 139). The capitalist goals are to sell products, an image, a style and a way of life, something to which teens are typically susceptible. The moral goals are driven by the increasing power of religious conservatives, who have (among other things) taken control of the American sex-education agenda and backed it into its unhealthy abstinence-only corner – a framework for looking at sex and sexuality that is as much of a Utopian fantasy as the goals of the radical feminists. Addressing the conflicting messages to teens, Levy writes:

If you process this information through the average adolescent mental computer, you end up with a printout that reads something like this: Girls have to be hot. Girls who aren’t hot probably need breast implants. Once a girl is hot, she should always be as close to naked as possible all the time. Guys should like it. Don’t have sex. (Page 158)

If that isn’t an effective teaser for Female Chauvinist Pigs, I don’t know what is.


Still, as much as Female Chauvinist Pigs is an enjoyable and compelling read, it is hard to escape discomfort at what is, in the end, a perspective as lacking in nuance as the very one Levy attacks. First are the differences in biology, and what that means in psychological terms. Levy does accept and acknowledge that men seem to find visual (sexual) stimuli more interesting than women, and her view on sex and sexuality seems generally healthy: that what consenting adults choose to do is, naturally and healthily, their business. Levy also tries to address the feminist movement’s failure to reconcile adequately people’s fundamental value of and interest in sex and sexuality, and to accept these as healthy; the uncompromising positions of Brownmiller and others, Levy implies, further lead to the movement’s fragmentation and the subsequent arrival of the FCP.

However, there is more to it – more that goes unexpressed in Female Chauvinist Pigs. If nothing else, the differing biological imperatives and views of men and women keeps the world interesting by providing a never-ending supply of sexual tension – and there is nothing implicitly wrong with sexual tension. Yes, humanity needs to continue moving to a healthy view of sex and sexuality – a view that can accommodate people making choices for themselves – and away from the unhealthy and inhumane, i.e., sexual trafficking in humans, or homophobia, or chauvinism. But there also needs to be more effort to locate, and support, the sex-positive middle-ground. Are women who buy sex toys from other women, toys that they may use by themselves or with others (male or female), buying into a broadly-degrading culture, or are they practicing their individual rights within that broader culture? Can’t the culture accommodate such individual choices without necessarily seeing them as detrimental to the larger women’s “cause”?

This feeds into another mistaken feminist theory: that male “enslavement” of women is predicated on male domination of the culture through brute force – and that for women, the path to victory is to reject this sexuality-driven servitude and, as Levy quotes feminist Jacqui Ceballos, “Women! Use your brains, not your bodies!” (Page 88) If only it were that simple. Anyone who has ever spent any time in the American corporate world knows that there can be a wide range within the behavior of men, and it is not based on any single stereotype. Some men lead, and others do not; some men lead through evident intellect, while others reveal forceful personalities, and still others use their physical attributes to attract and hold positions of power; some men even use all of these qualities at the same time. Nor is this just a recent phenomenon: look at how men are presented in movies from the 1930s or 1940s, well before the arrival of the so-called “metrosexual,” where they flirt, may be handsome or brainy, and seek victory through any avenue. Or the heroes of ancient epics, such as Odysseus, who exhibited brains, brawn, and beauty, and to some extent used all of these in an effort to achieve his goals.

Of course feminism in its radical-utopian form was doomed by its rejection of sex and sexuality as legitimate elements of womanhood, components that women could display, deploy as assets, and even enjoy. In declaring bodies off-limits, feminism simultaneously took away one weapon in the female arsenal while making the prohibited aspects of the body all that more alluring. While Levy addresses some of this, her argument would have benefited from being more explicit about it – and more accommodating of the idea that not all women who flaunt themselves (in whatever fashion) are FCPs by default.

Similarly, there is a very obvious Nietzschean analogy in this feminist project, a women-driven “transvaluation of values”: an attempt to redefine the “you’re good, we’re bad” construct, and to shift the focus from women-as-inferior onto men (and their all-consuming sex drive). Its failure is the result of this same biological imperative: many men like sex, but so do many women, and that fact cannot be changed by mere philosophy. As Levy points out, the Christian morality play that has pushed the abstinence-only sex-ed framework is a tough sell in the face of very natural, enduring, and powerful teenage hormones. But, again, looking beyond the terrors of pubescence at the world of grown women, not every woman who elects to buy “sexy” shoes, or to flirt with the person cleaning the pool, or actually likes looking at not-necessarily-artsy pictures of naked women is, implicitly, placing herself into the category of a Female Chauvinist Pig.

Finally, the biggest problem with Female Chauvinist Pigs is Levy’s inability or refusal to accommodate mistakes and the idea that people can learn from them. Her first chapter is highly effective and compelling, but when she interviews the tipsy young women who flirted, kissed, and flashed for the “Girls Gone Wild” cameras, their subsequent regret is characterized more in dramatic, end-of-life terms than mere end-of-innocence realizations. Most of us make mistakes, drunken or otherwise, sexual or otherwise. What characterizes our humanity as well as our intellect is our ability to learn from these mistakes, to avoid making the same poor decisions over and over again if we realize we are not happy with our actions.

Clearly, flashing for “Girls Gone Wild” is not for every woman. Clearly, “Girls Gone Wild” is hardly value-neutral; just because women freely agree to participate does not necessarily mean that the videos are not exploitative. And clearly, a society where the values of “Girls Gone Wild” dominate is probably not a healthy one. That said, society will never eliminate the FCP and her ilk entirely; such types have surely been around since the dawn of time, since the first cave-woman set out to steal her neighbor’s man by hiking upwards the bottom of her fur dress. As a society, we should teach women and girls how to make intelligent, independent decisions about their lives (and the same is true for boys and men), and to find the sex-and-sexuality path that truly makes them comfortable and happy. The health of women writ large will ultimately be improved most by striving for a community with such a broad and inclusive set of strengths and perspectives that it can accommodate and absorb even the occasional Female Chauvinist Pig.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I greatly enjoyed reading your article, but I think one of the main things that is not mentioned is the fact that women (and especially teenage girls) who do not flaunt their sexuality provocatively are seen as prude. Many other reviews that I have seen have said that this is not the case, but I would venture to suggest (being myself 18, and fully aware of the thought processes of my peers, both male and female)that if a girl refuses to put out, is not willing to flaunt her breasts or upper thighs and does anything other than giggle when someone makes comments regarding their sexuality, then they are a prude, or frigid. Just thought I'd point that out, but a really good article otherwise.

11:45 AM  

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