Female Chauvinist Pigs : Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture

Dec 10, 2011 by     4 Comments    Posted under: gender, theory

Female Chauvinist Pigs : Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Freepress, New York, 2005, 240 pp. hc.)


Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs documents the rise of what she calls “raunch culture” and the roles that women in the United States play in that culture. The book documents something very real. However, it is not just a sociological report. It is also a polemic of sorts against the now-popular camp of bourgeois feminists known as “sex-positive feminism.” The book is a return to the second wave bourgeois feminism. Levy has more in common with a Catherine Mackinnon or Andrea Dworkin than her sex-positive contemporaries. The book represents one kind of bourgeois feminism arguing against another. The book never overcomes the limits of bourgeois thought and bourgeois conceptions of gender. The book does not cover how its topic intersects with global class and imperialism. Instead of following the data on raunch culture to the correct conclusion that First World women are overall beneficiaries of global systems of power, including patriarchy, that First World women occupy oppressive-social roles in a way similar to their male counterparts, Levy dogmatically implies that First World women are all oppressed victims of patriarchy.  She sees all women, in the First and Third World, as part of a great sisterhood. Why do women in the United States partake in raunch? Levy’s answer is that First World women suffer from a kind of false consciousness. Levy implies that the reason that there is no revolutionary-feminist movement in the United States is because women don’t understand that they are oppressed. While it may be true First World women suffer from various forms of false consciousness, the reason that they do not pursue their supposed gender interests by joining the revolutionary struggle is not due to lack of education. It is because their gender interests and other interests, in important ways, stand in opposition to the goals of real revolution. In other words, what Levy fails to fully understand is that women in the First World support the system because they benefit from it in important ways. Women in the First World do not seek to abolish gender oppression globally because they have an interest in maintaining it.

Levy gives many examples of the pornified and mass-media-driven raunch culture. Examples range from Playboy, “Girls Gone Wild,” the stripper and porn-star craze, Sex in the City, Britney Spears. Raunch culture is not limited to heterosexual males. Female Chauvinist Pigs is about the queer and heterosexual women who are increasingly a part of raunch culture. Levy sums up the female chauvinist pig:

“We decided long ago that the Male Chauvinist Pig was an unenlightened rube, but the Female Chauvinist Pig (FCP) has risen to a kind of exalted status. She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn’t mind the cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality, and she doesn’t mind a cartoonishly macho response to them. The FCP asks: Why throw your boyfriend’s Playboy in a freedom trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving — or getting — a lap dance yourself? Why beat them when you can join them.” (p. 93)

Many First World women go to great lengths to make themselves sexually appealing. They parade around in gogo boots. Some compete at clubs and parties to take off their tops or do sex acts for the camera. There are spokesmen for raunch who declare, like some “sex-positive” feminists, that these things are signs or even acts of liberation. In a culture where attractive “sexually open-minded” women are valued more than athletes and educators under most circumstances, as Levy observes, taking your top off can be an act of individual empowerment, albeit empowerment on the terms of patriarchy. Even though it is an act of empowerment, this is not empowerment as conceived by “sex-positive” feminists who Levy argues against.

Levy argues that the promotion of the raunch culture by women is an attempt to elevate themselves in a hierarchy of masculine sexuality while degrading their fellow sisters:

“So to really be like men, FCPs have to enjoy looking at those women, too. At the same time, they wouldn’t mind being looked at a little bit themselves. The task here is to simultaneously show that you are not the same as the girly-girls in the videos and the Victoria’s Secret cataloguers, but that you approve of men’s appreciation of them, and the possibility you too have some of that same sexy energy and underwear underneath all your aggression and wit. A passion for raunch covers all the bases.” (p. 99)

Women don’t just partake of raunch. In ever greater numbers, they have a hand in producing raunch culture. There are different roles. Some women stand above it; they engage in and consume raunch culture like men. There are different ways in which women in the United States engage with raunch. In a way, Howard Stern’s world is a microcosm of this dynamic between different kinds of female chauvinist pigs. Howard Stern’s female-sidekick Robin Quivers and her relation to the parade of bimbos on the show is a good example. Some of these savvy, powerful “female chauvinist pigs” include those who run parts of the sex industry. Others go to strip clubs to watch the girly girls alongside the boys. They too buy Playboy products. They  become “one of the boys” at workplaces by adopting the male raunch culture directed toward bimbos. Levy compares these women to Uncle Toms.  In some cases, they literally are the bosses in the sex industry like Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter. However, Levy implies, their price of admission is that they partake in the oppression of their fellow sisters who are lower in the First World gender hierarchy.

The Uncle Tom analogy doesn’t fit exactly. Levy seems pretty clear that she thinks those at the bottom of the raunch culture hierarchy — the Hooters waitresses of the world — are oppressed and have some mistaken ideas about empowerment. Levy even mentions Gloria Steinem’s exposé, “A Bunny’s Tale,” on the trials of Playboy Bunnies. However, Levy seems to think that those women at the top of the raunch culture hierarchy are also oppressed in some sense. That she compares those female chauvinist pigs at the top to Uncle Toms is revealing. But, the Tom comparison doesn’t fit. It isn’t a case of the house slave being oppressed less than the field slave. Tom never owned the plantation, whereas Christie Hefner is running the Playboy empire. Hefner benefits in very real ways from patriarchy.

“Tomming, then, is conforming to someone else’s — someone more powerful’s — distorted notion of what you represent. In so doing, you may be getting ahead in some way — getting paid to dance in blackface in a Tom show, or gaining favor with Mas’r as Stowe’s hero did in literature — but you are simultaneously reifying the system that traps you.” (p. 106)

This passage says a lot about Levy’s view. Despite all the evidence she herself presents, Levy simply assumes that women in the First World do represent something else deep down and are being deceived. First World women are deceived in some ways. However, women in the First World are not being deceived about the fact that they benefit from the system. They benefit. And many know and revel in it.

Levy’s conclusions are not entirely clear. She feels that raunch culture is ultimately not empowering for the individuals involved. She argues against “sex-positive” feminists that raunch is not a way to fight patriarchy. She is correct that it is no way to fight patriarchy. However, to claim that it isn’t empowering is not altogether true. In some cases it clearly is empowering, especially for those women who own or make huge profits off the raunch and sex industry. And we should not forget that the raunch in First World is only made possible by the super-exploitation of the Third World. Raunch is part of the culture of liberal Empire, a culture built atop and fueled by the oppression of women, including gender oppression, in the Third World. The bodies of women in the Third World are controlled by the worst forms of feudal patriarchy to better extract value that ends up in the pockets of the First World. Women in the First World have an expanded range of life opportunities made possible by the restriction of life opportunities of Third World women and men. Raunch culture is a sign of the gender privilege for First World women and men. However, for Third World women, raunch culture can sit atop the worst kinds of traditionalist gender apartheid or it can be part of a whole industry that turns Third World women into sex slaves. It can prop up traditionalism or it can undermines replaces local culture with a pornified Western one. Either way, liberal Empire strips Third World women of their power and humanity. Raunch is one arm of imperialism.

Levy is clearly in the bourgeois-feminist camp. Levy thinks all the women who actively participate in raunch culture are suffering from a false consciousness regarding their own oppression. She is holding out for a First World liberation from patriarchy while not overthrowing imperialism. So, she is confused when First World women take empowerment the same way men do, on patriarchy’s terms. Like men in the First World, women in the First World are gender oppressors in an overall sense. Long ago Karl Marx wrote about how capitalism affected the family. Friedrich Engels wrote how marriage was mere prostitution under capitalism. It is no surprise that a traditionalism has broken down, women take on the sexual psychology and raunch culture of men.

This passage sums up Levy’s perspective:

“Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will still always be a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too.” (p. 112)

For Levy, oppression is a thought. At bottom, Levy advocates the bourgeois position that one’s attitude toward global patriarchy must be tied to biological sex. Although making some good observations, Levy avoids the conclusion that most First World peoples are gender oppressors, be they male or female. Most adults in the First World share the same sexual and leisure culture, the same psychology and outlook. They all accrue benefits from gender oppression in the Third World. After all, expanded life options in the First World are almost always connected to the restriction of life options in the Third World. Gender oppression in the Third World is part of the system of control that guarantees the smooth transfer of wealth from the Third World to the First. The liberalism of the First World is propped up by terrible gender oppression — be it in its raunchy liberal or semi-feudal variety — in the Third World. Levy sees women globally in terms of some kind of sisterhood. She sees all women as, more or less, the same in terms of interests. Except, Levy thinks, that some women are unenlightened. For Levy, they do not realize that and suffer from false consciousness. Hence, they participate in raunch. Levy implies that a female chauvinist pig is similar to an Uncle Tom because she is a person “who deliberately upholds the stereotypes assigned to his or her marginalized group in the interest of getting ahead with the dominant group.” (p. 105) Levy’s First Worldist feminism just assumes that these gender aristocrats in the First World are oppressed by patriarchy in a way that allows them to be potentially mobilized against it en masse. Even Levy writes, “FCPs have relinquished any sense of themselves as a collective group with a linked fate” (p. 101), as though female chauvinist pigs do have a collective fate with all females globally. Levy simply assumes there is a collective fate to be lost. In reality, the fate of female chauvinist pigs is not linked with the majority of the world’s women the Third World. First World peoples, both men and women, are more similarly situated in terms of the global patriarchy. First World men and women have far more in common with rach other than either does with Third World men or women.

4 Comments + Add Comment

  • As far as I can see, this “raunch culture” is just a new trend in the broader First World sex industry. The women who participate in and profit off of the raunch culture might not be traditional prostitutes but they are using (what you refer to as) their “sexual capital” so in that sense I see them as sex workers. Does LLCO see it differently? It seems like the type of cultural products we’re talking about are the type that most Marxists would identify as pornography (even if they might not meet the First World legal definition of porn).

    Traditionally, Marxists consider sex workers to generally be a part of the lower classes (proletariat/lumpen) but I think that might be erroneously rooted in the fact that Marx, Engels and most of the 19th century Marxist canon were writing from Victorian, Protestant Europe. When you look at other parts of Europe in different eras (like the fact that the sex industry was controlled by aristocratic families/households in many parts of the continent in pre-Victorian times, and sex workers often had a higher standard of living than the peasants) or other parts of the world (the role of the courtesan class in Asia) you’ll see that this isn’t always the case. Sometimes sex work can be privileged (and, like I said, doesn’t necessarily have to actually include sex).

    This also makes me think of Engel’s views on marriage and prostitution. It seems like females on the whole are able to take a parasitical role in the class structure much more easily than males (depending on whether you view sex work as productive labor or not) due to sexual capital. Marxism hasn’t really tackled that, I don’t think. Nor has it really said much about reproductive capital and the role that the class structure plays in determining who has kids and how many, which is also integral to the issue of gender.

  • I still don’t see what is wrong with “raunch”, so long as it comes from a point of equal footing. In the non-hierarchical world we would like to see, I feel it’s perfectly fine for men and women to seek out whatever forms of sexual fulfillment that are safe, sane and consensual. A typical area for the 2nd wave “feminists” to target is BDSM culture – a culture I, a devout Communist happen to be a part of. A lot of their criticisms ignore the idea of consent all together, not to mention the fact that just as many men (if not more, in my experience – including me, though I identify more so as “genderqueer”) choose to enjoy the “submissive” role. I certainly don’t feel my girlfriend is “exploiting” me – and outside the bedroom, we are nothing but equals. Instead they focus on women who enjoy taking a submissive role in sex and victimize them far more than our little subculture ever could – Proposing a worldview where these women apparently do not have the capability to even decide for themselves what it is that gets them off. Our so called “raunch culture” really does much to support equal rights and consent, I’d say far more than the “vanilla” types do.

    Yes, sex with a ‘domme’ and a ‘sub’ is hierarchical – But we Communist’s are not automatically opposed to EVERY consensual hierarchy – there is some wiggle-room in most peoples books – For instance, a doctor-patient relationship etc. – and in this case, it’s a non coerced hierarchy (unlike say, wage slavery – which is coerced through economic inequality) that only temporarily exists in the bedroom – And one set up simply because it brings each party personal pleasure.

    The only valid argument I’ve ever heard put towards kink and sexual freedom automatically becomes void the moment we as Communists achieve our goals. Once we’re all on equal footing, living without class distinctions – there would be no way anyone could be coerced into doing anything – and it will be impossible for consensual sexual activity to be exploitative by nature. Even today, I feel it’s quite possible to avoid true exploitation of any kind simply by following the mantra “safe, sane and consensual” and well, not being an asshole. I really don’t get how sexual freedom and non-hierarchical government is incompatible at all.

    • What is wrong with the sexual culture of the First World, including raunch, is that is made possible by the exploitation of the Third World. First World people get access to more life options because those same options (and many others) are restricted for Third World people. It takes a lot of value to democratize patriarchal, hedonistic excess for both First World men and women. Think of all the value that goes into driving the kink movement, the products, the talks, the movies, etc. That value could be going toward ending starvation in the Third World rather than making sure every First World man has his Viagra and every First World woman has 10 vibrators. Despite what people think, the main trend in imperial culture is toward liberalism today. One-dimensional imperial culture is mostly a thing of the past. Imperialism today creates hundreds of niches, lifestyles, personality types, etc. Imperialism generally even tolerates so-called counter-cultures. An American youth today can move in and out of literally dozens of subcultures, taking and leaving identities as she goes about her merry way. Marx wrote that capitalism profaned everything holy, that even religion was no longer religious as it once was. How many religions does your average, hip American go through today before he is 35? There is a proliferation of ways to live in the First World. You can be an anarchist, Taoist, Islamic neo-folk punk, graver, vegan, kinky furry today and tomorrow, cool James Dean. It is like fashion. A lot of value is consumed by these largely unproductive subcultures. Propping up this expansion of ways of living for First World peoples is the exploitation of the Third World.

      It is not really an issue of vanilla versus kink. Within the First World, such a contradiction is a contradiction amongst the enemies. The culture of the vanillas is also propped up by imperialist exploitation of the Third World. However, there is a lot of misconceptions out there about what is mainstream and what is not. The trend is toward more and more liberalism, not toward A Handmaid’s Tale. Kink is so common that it has mostly lost its shock value. Kink is becoming more and more passe amongst the urban, hipster set. The exception here may be those smaller, First World countries on the imperial periphery, certain Eastern European countries or Greece where traditional fascism has a hold.

      What needs to be pointed out is that these supposedly liberating sexual practices that First World peoples engage in to have fun, feel dangerous, feel powerful, etc. do not happen in a vacuum. The whole web of interconnections that allow this kind of culture to emerge is based on imperialist exploitation of the Third World. In addition, there is something very self-serving and First Worldist about those who focus on these kinds of issues, which they usually make very personal. Elevating First World women to be equal partners in kink (or whatever) is not real feminism. The vast majority of the world’s women suffer greatly under ruthless comprador and semi-feudal regimes backed up by imperialism. The kink culture, like all First Worldist sexual culture, is based on exploiting the vast majority of women in the Third World. What kind of feminism is it that sells out the majority of women who happen to be Third World women for a minority of women who happen to live in the First World? And this is not just true about White so-called feminism, but also First Worldist types of people of color feminism.

      That said, we accept that we have to start somewhere with people in the First World in order to move them toward Leading Light Communism, the highest stage of revolutionary science to date. Sometimes Leading Lights have to involve themselves in movements whose overall tendency is toward First Worldism, i.e. Occupy. This is just a reality of gathering up anomalies in the First World for real revolutionary organizing. When one does this kind of work, one always has to make sure that Leading Lights are leading people to better horizons, pulling them forward, advancing people forward, not being pulled into meek and cowardly tailism. A communist who does not lead is not a communist. The kink politics seems somewhat self-centered and narrowly focused. In other words, it is probably one of the last places one will find potential Leading Light cadre recruits, those who will betray their First World interests to join the Third World in a real way. More promising areas might be the radical environmental movement.

      The Leading Light has never said anything prohibiting its cadres to live their lives as they please in the bedroom so long as they keep it legal. The Leading Light does not seek to be some weirdo sex police. Leading Light never advocated “puritan” ideas about sex nor crackpot claims that celibacy is the right choice as others have.

      The problem with your comment is a matter of emphasis more than anything. The fist 8 words of Mao’s Selected Works: Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? Think about it.

  • “It seems like females on the whole are able to take a parasitical role in the class structure much more easily than males (depending on whether you view sex work as productive labor or not) due to sexual capital”

    You have to be kidding me……..

    Actually Tectology, the statistically greater access FW males have to capital invalidates that line of thought, completely. While I agree with this article, it seems prone to garner attention from some MRA types’ with a penchant for ‘Communism’. You have to know who your audience is, and counteract it more definitively IMO. There are plent of First World Male Chauvinists eager to hear: ‘You’re not actually THAT bad, because you know, those FW women are so oppressive! And most of them aren’t Communists! So you FW men are the vanguard of FW! So revolutionary and allied with TW people!”

    I’m not blaming whoever wrote this article for this, but I am calling out those reading the article who will pursue that line of thought.

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