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Yes, something is going on with this country when the only way to distinguish the liplocked hipster girls on lastnightsparty.com from the sorority chicks parading around in wet T-shirts on MTV's Spring Break is to count their tattoos (hint: the first group has more). In a new book, 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 are allegedly eager to make sex objects of other women and themselves; they claim that watching Drew Barrymore pose for Playboy and whirl around a pole in Charlie's Angels is "empowering." Levy thinks they're kidding themselves, mistaking sexual power for real power and, what's worse, believing that the blind mimickry of strippers, Playmates and porn stars — women who are paid to simulate the sexuality of real women — is power in the first place. "'Raunchy' and 'liberated' are not synonyms," she writes.
True. But they aren't necessarily opposites. As I read Levy's book, I kept flashing back to a scene from my youth. It was 1992 and I was in my parents' kitchen, flipping through my dad's copy of Newsweek. A picture stopped me cold. The girls in the photo were my age, but they looked a lot cooler than I did, with their bleach-blonde hair, arms crossed over their chests, and the word "slut" scrawled across their defiantly unaerobicized stomachs. They were riot grrrls, "a sassy new breed of feminist for the MTV age." Distilling this for the magazine's suburbanite subscribers — who probably couldn't fathom why a teenager would use her body as a billboard for high school's nastiest insult — the article's author 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.
An ardent student of feminist history, Levy eagerly chronicles how women's liberation and the sexual revolution overlapped in the '70s, then diverged, before devolving into the '80s-era sex wars that split activists into two camps: "pro-sex" and "anti-porn." But besides a smackdown of the purportedly pro-woman CAKE parties — which "seek to redefine the current boundaries [of] female sexuality" with pole dancers and pillow fights — Levy skips right over the riot grrrls and other feminists who began coming of age in the '90s. These women call themselves the third wave, and they aren't just consumers of raunch culture — they helped create and define it.
It's a shame that Levy focuses 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
Performance can be a part of pleasure.
girl-friendly porn, started Sweet Action, a glossy that showcases full-frontal rocker boys. There are the former editors of the late, lamented teen magazine Sassy, who regularly and seriously used the word "patriarchy" yet ran a monthly "Cute Band Alert," because "everyone needs someone to objectify."
But third-wavers did much 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 when teenage girls believe that they must show up for school dressed like Christina Aguilera, there's a serious problem somewhere. But that isn't the whole story. As any women's-studies major knows, third-wave sheroes like Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble, and Madonna, star of Truth or Dare, have a lot to say about how performance can be a part of pleasure. (And that's something guys may only now be clueing in to: An acquaintance of mine recently told me about her trip to see her daughter's friends play in a band. In the middle of their set, two of the 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 she's part of the
Purchasing the Aerosmith DVD with the Alicia Silverstone videos doesn't mean I'm disempowered.
problem. What about bois who are both skirt-chasers and feminists? I'm thinking of J.D. Samson, the mustachioed member of the band Le Tigre and probably the most well-known and vocal boi in pop culture. In 2003, she posed as a dogwalker, pool boy, lifeguard, and various other hetero-guy archetypes in a popular lesbian pinup calendar. It 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 three Alicia Silverstone videos (which I did) or happily receiving an old copy of Playboy as a Christmas gift (that was me, too) might not be, to use a word Levy and the FCP's 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 women who do so antifeminist — or deluded. I'm thinking of my friends, a happily paired lesbian couple, who accompanied me to a pro-choice march but also went to a strip club to celebrate a recent birthday. Or another friend, a feminist labor activist, 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 many women for whom there is a middle ground between rabid antiporn Dworkinizing and Girls Gone Wild vapidity. Plenty of us have assembled our sexual identities from bits and pieces of our personal histories, pop-culture experiences and elements 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 who aren't 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 even begin to address — is taking the tropes pop culture has given us and transforming them for our own purposes. n°
To buy Female Chauvinist Pigs, click here.
©2005 Kara Jesella and Nerve.com.