You'll recognize the female silhouette that leans against the title on the cover of Ariel Levy's new book, Female Chauvinist Pigs. She's the girl who in recent years has made the move from the mud flaps of big rigs right into pop culture, gracing trucker caps, baby tees, and gold necklaces as an emblem of sexy, empowered womanhood. Or at least that's what she'd like you to believe. But Levy doesn't buy it, and Female Chauvinist Pigs offers her opinions on why this new symbol of postfeminism—the girl gone wild, the party-like-a-porn-star striver, the woman who populates HBO's “educational” reality shows like Cathouse and Pornucopia—isn't nearly as groundbreaking as she thinks she is.
Levy, a contributing editor at New York magazine, delved deep into what she calls “raunch culture,” logging time with women like Sheila Nevins, the award-winning producer of HBO's G-String Divas; Playboy Enterprises ceo Christie Hefner; the sex-positive party promoters of Cake; Girls Gone Wild tour manager Mia Leist; as well as lesbian bois in San Francisco and high-school girls schooled in the power of skank. Levy's quest to find out how this new sexual liberation differs from early-model sexploitation yields far more questions than it answers, and the main one is this: If the standards and stereotypes by which women are judged haven't changed, isn't all this so-called sexual empowerment just a new twist on an old come-on?
Levy recently talked to Bitch about the difference between empowerment and reflex, what's wrong with making porn stars into role models, and the need to craft new language to discuss female sexuality and pleasure.
The difference between the classic male chauvinist pig and what you describe as the female chauvinist pig is that these women don't belittle or objectify men, for the most part. Rather, their chauvinism is in how they treat themselves and other women.
[Female chauvinism] is about saying, Okay, I'm going to accept the new standard put out there, which is that for a woman to be a so-called sexually liberated woman, she has to emulate a porn star or a stripper—a paid performer whose job is to emulate female sexuality.
I think it's a new coping strategy to deal with success, to deal with feminism, to deal with the accomplishments feminism has allowed women to make. It's about women imagining that hotness of one particularly commercial mold is the highest achievement of womankind. Which is essentially the perspective that people who we used to call male chauvinist pigs had. The idea is that if making pieces of meat out of women, seeing women as only hot things to be drooled over, is something that men have traditionally done, and men have traditionally had the power, [then] if we do it, that will mean that we are empowering ourselves. And my argument is that it doesn't work that way.
You discuss a couple of examples of this phenomenon, and one of those is the very successful video franchise Girls Gone Wild, which sends camera crews out to spring-break locales to shoot footage of young women pulling up their shirts or pulling down their pants.
Girls Gone Wild is really an ego fest, and I do my best to show that I'm not shaking my finger at these girls and saying, “Put your clothes on, you slut!” That's not the point. I totally understand why a woman—or any person—wants that ego rush. If you acquiesce to the call of the chanting crowds at spring break, and you show your tits or your ass, you're rewarded with claps; for one minute you're a star.
But when I called these women [who flashed for the cameras] a week or two later to check in, they felt horrible about having done it. Because you're not actually getting affirmation or positive feedback for who you just happen to be. You're enacting a script that's been set, and then you get attention because—Oh, look! Another girl has enacted what we've decided all women should be doing throughout the culture at all times, which is exploding in a little blast of exhibitionism.
One of [the women] said that it's like a reflex. And I thought that was such an insight. She's seen it in the culture so many times that it actually was a reflex: If people are chanting at you and saying, “Show your tits! Show your tits!” you don't say no. You don't think about whether you're in the mood to. You show your tits.
I don't mean to say that there are no women on Planet Earth for whom this is authentic. There are some people who are exhibitionists, and that's their authentic sexuality. And to them I say, Enjoy. You happen to exist at a time when exhibitionism is the cultural ideal that's being imposed upon all women, so you scored.
You argue that the culture of female chauvinism mirrors the coping strategy among African-Americans known as Tomming—basically, the idea that a marginalized person stands to gain more by aligning herself with the dominant group than by forging an alternative on her own.
And I don't think it's difficult to understand why anyone has done this, historically. It's very upsetting to imagine that the model in place is unjust and awful; what you want to think is that there's a way to work within the model in place to be respected and to get what you want. Tomming is a perfectly understandable coping mechanism; I just think it doesn't work in this case. The way I put it in the book is that if you're the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven't made any progress.
You also discuss the group Cake, which hosts parties that aim to allow women a safe space in which to express their sexuality. The intent behind it is definitely very pro-woman, as opposed to something like Girls Gone Wild. But the way it's superimposed on the existing culture really undermines those goals.
Melinda Gallagher, one of the founders of Cake, said something like, “You try to get 800 people to behave in a feminist way.” And I feel for her. That is a hard thing, to get a big group of women to celebrate their sexuality in a way that deviates from what's been stuffed down our throats for generations. But I think, as evidenced by the fact that the one Cake party I attended was attended by all women in lingerie and fully clothed men—it was so much like the Maxim Hot 100 party or other unabashedly beer-and-babes forms of culture that I saw while researching this book—they haven't managed to achieve what they set out to achieve.
Is the problem really about women needing a language to talk about being sexual that doesn't reflect a traditionally objectified place?
To some extent, certainly. It's a hard problem, to think of ways that are new and creative to express the concept of sexiness publicly without objectifying women. Because that's what we've always done.
It seems like there are a lot of class issues at play in how women justify their interest in Girls Gone Wild and Howard Stern and Maxim. It's sort of like, if you can intellectualize these things, if you can look at a career as a stripper as a sociological experiment rather than a financial necessity, then you can put yourself above it, on a higher plane of understanding.
In the higher ranks of pop culture, in recent years it's become faddish—for good reason!—to try to get off that intellectual, elitist pedestal. I'm thinking of things like the New Yorker under Tina Brown doing so much celebrity coverage. Or Slate, where I write sometimes, wanting to cover the latest book by a stripper or whatever. Or Jenna Jameson getting [her book] reviewed in the New York Times. There's plenty of good reasons that traditionally elitist media outlets are trying to be more of-the-people. I just think it's a mistake to imagine that this shift is offering some kind of awesome outlet for women of any class.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of women who are in stripping or pornography are there because they have few alternatives. The misguided sense that we get from a lot of the HBO reality programs, for example, is that these women just get up every day and are like, God, I'm so horny, I think I'll go spin around a pole all day.
My own magazine, New York, recently published this story about the highest-paid call girl in New York City. She said, in the story, “I just love my job. I love sex.” Now, maybe that's true. I didn't interview this woman, I don't know what she loves. But she is exceptional. It is not the case that most women in the sex industry are there because they just think it's interesting and weird.
So much of deciding whether something is feminist or not, or empowering or not, depends on having the language to talk about it.
I think that's true, but I also think that there's an element of Tomming there too. That's why Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star is so fascinating, because the whole book is about how utterly sexually victimized she's been in her life. How as a young girl she was gang-raped and beaten with a rock and left for dead, and all this atrocious stuff. And she writes that she can't watch her own sex scenes, and that she would lock her daughter in the house before she would let her be in porn.
But yet she writes that porn is one of the few industries that a woman can get in and look around and feel so powerful, so fuck Gloria Steinem. I mean, that's a perfect example of someone who cannot admit to us or to herself that she's coming from a place of being sexually traumatized. Because that's too upsetting. So instead, she lays it out as two totally disjointed things: 1) I've been sexually traumatized and I can't watch my own sex scenes, and 2) Porn is great, porn is empowering.
Something you touch on a little is that with all the sexuality on display and all the commodification of women's sexuality, there's very little talk of female pleasure.
Absolutely. And that's why I think it's funny that people are always saying that our culture is oversexualized, because I think we're totally undersexualized. All we are is overcommercialized. This isn't a moment of explosive sexual hedonism. It's just a moment where sexual performances of one particular kind are overvalued.
When people talk about female empowerment, what they usually mean is women accepting happily, or if not happily at least smilingly, where we're at. [The definition of a] sexually liberated woman right now is a woman who looks at Maxim and doesn't feel bummed out by it.
For feminists and progressives, part of why there's not as much of a dialogue as there could be is the dilemma about how to talk about consumerist sexual culture and not sound pro-censorship or anti-sex.
I think that's true, but I also think that what I call raunch culture, which is not just porn but the aesthetics and values of this red-light district that is spreading throughout our entire culture, isn't essentially progressive. It's essentially commercial, so to criticize it isn't antiprogressive. Although that's always been an issue within feminism—I mean, in the '70s, antiporn feminists were forever trying to craft new and more compelling ways to show that they weren't right wing, and that they weren't coming from a place of moral or religious condemnation. Well, I guess they were thinking about moral condemnation, but not with the connotations that that language has.
It's difficult, because no one wants to be the next Andrea Dworkin. So many people want to believe that those battles are no longer relevant, and what your book is saying is that they're still relevant, but they've morphed into the larger culture so we don't see them as much.
I interviewed Catharine McKinnon recently, after Andrea Dworkin's death, and we were talking about porn, and she said—I don't remember her language exactly—but she said something like, “Wow, we really lost that one.” But it's still alive and well for her. She is fighting actively under the assumption that it's still a possibility that [McKinnon and Dworkin's] antipornography statute will be adopted.
I'm not here to judge porn. The battle I'm more interested in is female public opinion. And the porn industry, to put it loosely, has won the feminism battle and co-opted our language. It's become so that Christie Hefner, who is the ceo of Playboy, can use catchphrases like “female empowerment” and “sexual liberation.” That's who won.
One thing that occurs to me about your book is that it touches on things that are very white corners of culture—Girls Gone Wild, Cake parties, the mating behaviors of private-school kids. Have you noticed this phenomenon occurring across race lines?
I've been very interested in this book by Karrine Steffans, Confessions of a Video Vixen, which is about her life as a dancer in rap videos. It's like the hip hop answer to Jenna Jameson's book. Except that the author, at the end, says something like, “To all the girls who kind of looked up to me when I was a hottie in rap videos, read my story. You wanna look up to me now that I'm seeing it in a different way, fine, but don't look up to me then, when I was enacting all the victimization I'd suffered.”
And I think that book is a very clear articulation of how this isn't about race—this plays out across the board. Karrine spent years being a dancer in hip hop videos, and what she's saying falls in line with what I'm trying to get across: that ultimately a lot of the women we exalt as the embodiment of unbridled, liberated hedonism aren't that. The underpinning of what I'm saying is that if we're going to have sexual role models, it should be the women who enjoy sex the most, not the women who get paid the most to enact it.
So, is there anything positive for women about raunch culture?
The only positive thing about it would be if we get past this point where we're fetishizing raunch culture and holding it up as the only thing that's acceptable for women who want to be funny and cool and smart and all the things we want to be. When we get past this point and it's not something we exalt so much—if we get to that point—and exhibitionism of this kind becomes one acceptable sexual role among many for women, that is the one sort of glimmer of positivity about this whole thing.
Do you see that happening?
I'm curious about the teenage girls you interviewed for the book, because what comes across is that young girls have gotten the idea that sexual power is the only power worth exercising. That idea has always been there at some level, but it's so much more explicit now.
And the sad thing is, they don't even have that. I mean, that's absolutely true; the way I put it in the book is that expressing imaginary licentiousness before you've even experienced lust is like this central project for teenage girls. They are taking up the challenge of seeming as wild as possible before they have even felt [sexual desire]. And that, to me, is just a huge bummer. It'd be one thing if they were focused on sexual power because they were in a frenzy of passion, but most of them don't even know what turns them on. All they know is that they are expected, as one girl put it, to “look the skankiest.”
And the only resistance message they get, the vast majority of them, is from their sex-ed class in school, which is often an abstinence-only curriculum. And that sends this incredibly weak countermessage: You need to look as sexy as possible, but you need to just say no to sex. And that's it. There's no discussion of sexual feeling, masturbation, the emotional complexity of sex, sexual self-image, none of that. It's just: Be hot, that's one message. And the other message is, Don't do it. There's this one public service announcement with Rachel Bilson, from The O.C., and it's a picture of her on a poster that reads “Be sexy. Don't have sex.” What does that mean? There's so much in between those two messages that we don't discuss, as a culture.
I think there are people who used to believe that as soon as men were objectified as much as women and recognized the horror of being objectified, then things would somehow get better for everyone.
Female chauvinist pigs imagine that if women as well as men get to judge the bathing-suit competition, then we've made progress. What I'm saying is that true feminism would say that a bathing-suit contest is the wrong way to assess any human being. The standards are wrong, not just the judges. So I feel like that's another articulation of that kind of thinking: If we just objectify men as much as we objectify women, then everything will be okay. No. The idea is not to make things shitty for everyone. The idea is to become more enlightened as a collective.