Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (Freepress, New York, 2005.)
2006 (edited 2007)
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 women in the Bourgeois “First” World are overall beneficiaries of global systems of power (including patriarchy) and occupy oppressive-social roles in a way similar to their male counterparts, Levy dogmatically implies that Bourgeois World women are all oppressed victims of patriarchy. She sees all women, in the Bourgeois World and Proletarian “Third” World, as part of a great sisterhood. Why do women in the United States partake in raunch? Levy’s answer is that Bourgeois 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 that Bourgeois 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 Bourgeois World support the system because they benefit from it in important ways. Women in the Bourgeois 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 Bourgeois 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 catalogues, 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 in 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 porn actresses and strippers 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 male raunch culture. 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 Bourgeois 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 Bourgeois World do represent something else deep down and are being deceived. Bourgeois World women are deceived in some ways. However, women in the Bourgeois 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 Bourgeois World is only made possible by the super-exploitation of the Proletarian 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 Proletarian World. The bodies of women in the Proletarian World are controlled by the worst forms of patriarchy to better extract value that ends up in the pockets of the Bourgeois World. Women in the Bourgeois World have an expanded range of life opportunities made possible by the restriction of life opportunities of Proletarian World women and men. Raunch culture is a sign of the gender privilege for Bourgeois World women and men. However, for Proletarian 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 Proletarian World women into sex slaves. It can prop up traditionalism or it can replace local culture with a pornified Western one. Either way, liberal Empire strips Proletarian 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 Bourgeois World liberation from patriarchy while not overthrowing imperialism. So, she is confused when Bourgeois World women take empowerment the same way men do, on patriarchy’s terms. Like men in the Bourgeois World, women in the Bourgeois 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 Bourgeois World peoples are gender oppressors, be they male or female. Most adults in the Bourgeois World share the same sexual and leisure culture, the same psychology and outlook. They all accrue benefits from gender oppression in the Proletarian World. After all, expanded life options in the Bourgeois World are almost always connected to the restriction of life options in the Proletarian World. Gender oppression in the Proletarian World is part of the system of control that guarantees the smooth transfer of wealth from the Proletarian World to the Bourgeois World. The liberalism of the Bourgeois World is propped up by terrible gender oppression — be it in its raunchy liberal or traditional variety — in the Proletarian 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 Bourgeois 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 Proletarian World. Bourgeois World peoples, both men and women, are more similarly situated in terms of the global patriarchy. Bourgeois World men and women have far more in common with each other than either does with Proletarian World men or women.