'Female Chauvinist Pigs':
Girls Gone Wild
September 18, 2005
Reading "Female Chauvinist Pigs," Ariel Levy's lively polemic, gave me an epiphany of sorts. Finally, a coherent interpretation of an array of phenomena I'd puzzled over in recent years: the way Paris Hilton's leaked sex tapes seemed only to enhance her career; the horrifying popularity of vaginoplasty, a surgical procedure designed to make female genitalia more sightly; and a spate of mainstream books about stripping and other sex work, some reviewed in these pages. Levy has a theory that makes sense of all this. Our popular culture, she argues, has embraced a model of female sexuality that comes straight from pornography and strip clubs, in which the woman's job is to excite and titillate - to perform for men. According to Levy, women have bought into this by altering their bodies surgically and cosmetically, and - more insidiously - by confusing sexual power with power, so that embracing this caricaturish form of sexuality becomes, in their minds, a perverse kind of feminism.
Levy's evidence is unsettling: that a number of female Olympic athletes saw fit to pose nude for Playboy before the 2004 games in Athens, for instance, or that Crunch gyms in several American cities offer "Cardio Striptease" classes, where women work out in bras and thongs. Much of the reporting is Levy's own (she writes for New York magazine), and her forays into a "Girls Gone Wild" shoot, several parties hosted by the neo-feminist group Cake, the lesbian subculture of New York and San Francisco, and the private lives of sexually active teenagers make for smart, acerbic reading. She finds a similar geometry in all of the worlds she visits. Women are preoccupied with a "girly-girl" aesthetic originating with strippers and porn stars, but they tend to view these images from a crude, objectifying perspective that has traditionally been male. In the lesbian communities she visits, "bois," many of whom have had "top surgery" to remove their breasts, say things like, "Some of these chicks, it's like you top them once and then they're all up in your face." A female publishing executive boasts of having the largest example of male anatomy in her office. At the Cake parties, promoted by their organizers as "feminism in action," female audience members coolly assess the breast size of women simulating sex onstage.
Levy makes her most daring leap when she likens this reductive female sexuality and its correlative chauvinism to the coping strategies of two of the black characters.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin": Tom, who tries to fulfill his oppressors' every expectation, and George Harris, who is light-skinned enough to pass for white. In both cases, she writes, a subordinate group embraces stereotypes as a way to gain the dominant group's acceptance. A Female Chauvinist Pig deals with her femaleness by "either acting like a cartoon man - who drools over strippers . . . - or acting like a cartoon woman, who has big cartoon breasts, wears little cartoon outfits and can only express her sexuality by spinning around a pole."
Levy's argument is provocative - and persuasive - as far as it goes. But how far is that? She writes only about people and incidents that illustrate her theory; she doesn't discuss a single pop star or public figure who has escaped the reductive dichotomy of female behavior she describes. Madonna, for example, is mentioned only in passing - a damaging omission, given that she mesmerized a generation of young women by combining girly female sexiness with unmistakable sexual and real-world power. In writing about teenagers, Levy describes an alarming world in which young girls routinely lap dance for boys at school dances, perform oral sex on them without reciprocation and make out with each other in front of them, all for the ego boost of male excitement and the notoriety that follows. Levy says she spoke with 50 young people between the ages of 12 and 18, some of whom she quotes, but she doesn't explain how she arrived at this sample or how representative it is of American culture as a whole. Similarly, in the final pages she speaks at length with three sexually aggressive adult women whose descriptions of sex "sounded less than smoldering," and uses them to bolster her argument that female sexual desire is being ignored. Fair enough, but these are three people. Surely Levy must have encountered a few sexually aggressive women who did enjoy sex, but she doesn't mention them, and the anecdotal one-sidedness of her reporting hurts her argument.
Still, as a consciousness-raising call to arms, "Female Chauvinist Pigs" is clearly to the good. And it raises a question that reaches far beyond the faddish popularity of the sex industry. Levy never mentions John Berger, but at times her book strongly echoes his "Ways of Seeing." Berger wrote: "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. . . . The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object." "Ways of Seeing" was published in 1972, and Berger's theory of female objectification hinged on women's historical lack of real-world power or independence: "Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated." But things have changed a lot since 1972. Many women can buy their own plane tickets and pay their own rent. They can treat themselves. Why, then, do they persist in watching themselves through male eyes?
Jennifer Egan's new novel, "The Keep," will be published next year.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company