|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
By Ariel Levy
Simon & Schuster, 2005, £7-99
Reviewed by Sarah Mayo
FEMALE CHAUVINIST PIGS is a witty and fresh book that is frankly long overdue. It examines ‘female chauvinist pigs’ (FCPs) – US women who have embraced ‘raunch culture’. According to Levy, FCPs are women who love porn, see Paris Hilton as a role model, and will wear a Playboy bunny with pride. FCPs delight in making other women into sex objects (and themselves too).
Bizarrely, this is usually put forward as proof of women’s supposed new-found equality with men. Levy skilfully teases out the absurdity of this argument when interviewing female television producers, Playboy executives, students who strip off for shows like Girls Gone Wild, etc, often using light humour to do so. However, in Levy’s view: "The rise of raunch culture does not represent how far women have come but how far they have to go".
Levy interviews predominantly middle-class women in the corporate or academic world who actively promote ‘raunch’, as well as those impacted by it, including private high-school students and members of the San Francisco and New York lesbian communities. Female business executives and media producers, like the largely female executive board of Playboy corporation, have risen to the top and have adopted a so-called ‘male outlook’. In reality, it’s the chauvinist view of a traditionally male-dominated capitalist world. In Levy’s view, it is partly a survival strategy, but also a means to ‘fit in’ and get ahead. Tellingly, Judith Regan, the publisher responsible for ‘porn star’ Jenna Jameson’s best-selling memoir, "is fond of bragging, ‘I have the biggest cock in the building!’" In the business world, power is framed in terms of owning a penis, apparently! Levy compares the behaviour of FCPs with the concept of ‘Uncle Tomming’ in African-American slave culture, and draws a certain parallel. To ‘Uncle Tom’ is to imitate your master, toady up and be subservient to get ahead with the dominant group.
We should add that these businesswomen can reconcile themselves to selling women as commodities because they accept the logic of capitalism: that everything can be reduced to a commodity for sale. However, because women like Christine Hefner (Playboy CEO) cannot state this openly, when interviewed she claims that her corporation’s motives are a kind of altruistic bid for women to assert a positive sexual identity. Hefner claims that things like the Playboy rabbit head, "symbolises sexy fun, a bit of rebelliousness… It’s an obvious, ‘I’m taking control of how I look and the statement I’m making’ as opposed to ‘I’m embarrassed about it’ or ‘I’m uncomfortable with it’." Yet Levy’s analysis exposes the fundamental weakness of this argument. For Levy, in no way are women dressed as stuffed animals (for example) about women expressing their sexual desires and needs. Instead, Playboy models are "expressing that they are sexy only if sexy means obliging and well paid". Further, the reason why women buy the magazine and wear the bunny symbol is because cultural pressure makes women feel that if they do not they are somehow being "‘uncomfortable’ with and ‘embarrassed’ with your sexuality. Raunch culture… isn’t an entertainment option, it’s a litmus test of female uptightness".
Levy is very perceptive when analysing why raunch culture has gone so mainstream in Bush’s America – on the surface an apparently contradictory development, given the swing to the right. But big business has embraced pornography and the wider sex trade as a massive commercial opportunity. Levy observes that ‘porno chic’ is now so mainstream that famous ‘porn stars’ (female) are shown naked on Time Square alongside Disney adverts: "Raunch culture is not essentially progressive, it is essentially commercial… [It] isn’t about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular and particularly commercial shorthand for sexiness".
Marxists can add that what figures like Bush and so-called ‘progressives’, like pornographer Larry Flynt, have in common is that both are Republicans and ruthless capitalists. Flynt might claim to be against Christian morality, but he shares with Bush a bourgeois morality which is, ultimately, the defence of private property and the exploitation of the working class. It is a ‘morality’ that reduces everything, including women, to their exchange value in the marketplace. Right-wing Christians defend ‘the family’ and the traditional role of the ‘virtuous wife’. (Historically it was important that women of the ruling class were ‘virtuous’ to ensure property was passed to the legitimate male heir.) The sex trade, on the other hand, promotes women as sexually available but degraded – ‘dirty whores’ is the derogatory term. These two traditional female roles represent different sides of the same coin. Both are stereotypes: extremely limited, strictly controlled and oppressive dictates of how women should (and should not) behave. The mainstreaming of pornography, strip clubs, Girls Gone Wild DVDs, etc, is anything but a rebellion against Christian (bourgeois) morality. Rather, the commercialisation of raunch is an inevitable consequence of these hypocritical capitalist vultures’ so-called ‘morality’.
The major weakness of Levy’s book is its total absence of a class analysis. The history of the women’s movement, mainly in relation to the 1960s and 1970s, is examined mainly through the eyes of its middle class, academic, feminist leaders. Levy downplays or simply ignores the role of working-class women fighting alongside working-class men in the trade unions for social and economic change (for example, on issues like equal pay, against domestic violence, pornography in the workplace, etc). Yet the very negative impact of raunch culture, combined with Bush’s abstinence-only education programme, is examined when Levy interviews female private high-school students who are obsessed with conforming to a ‘slutty’ appearance yet show little knowledge or awareness of their right to enjoy sex, rather than simply be sex objects. The consequences of this are much more serious still for working-class teenage girls with much lower social and economic opportunities.
Levy makes an important contribution when she examines the splits which emerged between anti-sex trade feminists and so-called ‘sex positive’ feminists who support pornography and prostitution, etc. Levy is critical of both sides but, vitally, rejects the scandalous falsehood (repeated by some on the left) that anyone who opposes the sexual exploitation of women is somehow ‘anti-sex’ and ‘puritanical’. These accusations come from the keenest proponents of the sex trade becoming socially acceptable, including many feminists, like Camilla Paglia, and some anti-trafficking NGOs which act as a fig leaf for naked big-business interests. The fact that some so-called feminists accept this ideological offensive is a reflection of their theoretical weakness and, ultimately, pro-capitalist outlook. However, this trend was compounded by the very serious tactical mistakes made by anti-sex trade feminists, like Andrea Dworkin, who made an alliance with right-wing Christians and Republican senators in an attempt to ban pornography. This tactical error, totally unpalatable to many socialists and feminists, lay in the basic lack of confidence feminists, like Dworkin, had in the working class to achieve social change. However, to recognise this error in no way excuses the inherent betrayal of so-called feminists defending the indefensible and proclaiming it feminist.
Levy’s book is a welcome wake-up call to a new generation of women to reject the ‘limiting conformity’ of raunch culture. Levy calls for a society where women and men genuinely are free to explore their sexual identity, to recognise human sexuality in all its true complexity and variety. This could only be truly possible on the basis of the end of capitalism and the creation of a socialist society – based on a society run in the interests of the majority and not the minority. Socialism would mean people would be instead valued for what they contribute to society and be free to form relationships free from abuse and based on genuine equality.