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Female chauvinist pigs.



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Perspective

Tuesday 1 November 2005

Ariel Levy, contributing editor, New Yorker magazine

 

Female Chauvinist Pigs  

 

I first noticed it several years ago. I would turn on the television and find strippers in panties explaining how best to lap dance a man to orgasm. I would flip the channel and see babes in tight, tiny uniforms bouncing up and down on trampolines. Britney Spears was becoming increasingly popular and increasingly unclothed, and her undulating body ultimately became so familiar to me I felt like we used to go out. 

 

Charlie’s Angels , the film remake of the quintessential jiggle show, opened at number one in 2000 and made $125 million in American theatres, reinvigorating the interest of men and women alike in leggy crime fighting. Its stars, who kept talking about ‘strong women’ and ‘empowerment’, were dressed in alternating soft porn styles - as massage parlour geishas, dominatrixes, yodelling Heidis in alpine bustiers. In my own industry, magazines, a porny new genre called the Lad Mag, which included titles like Maxim, FHM and Stuff , was hitting the stands and becoming a huge success by delivering what Playboy had only occasionally managed to capture: greased celebrities in little scraps of fabric humping the floor. 

 

This didn’t end when I switched off the radio or the television or closed the magazines. I’d walk down the street and see teens and young women - and the occasional wild 50-year-old - wearing jeans cut so low they exposed what came to be known as butt cleavage paired with miniature tops that showed off breast implants and pierced navels alike. Sometimes, in case the overall message of the outfit was too subtle, the shirts would be emblazoned with the Playboy bunny or say PORN STAR across the chest. 

 

What was going on? My mother, a shiatsu masseuse who attended weekly women’s consciousness-raising groups for 24 years, didn’t own make-up. My father, whom she met as a student radical in the 60s, was a consultant for Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and NOW. Only 30 years, my lifetime, ago, our mothers were ‘burning their bras’ and picketing Playboy , and suddenly we were getting implants and wearing the bunny logo as supposed symbols of our liberation. How had the culture shifted so drastically in such a short period of time? 

 

What was almost more surprising than the change itself were the responses I got when I started interviewing the men and - often - women who edit magazines like FHM and make programs like Blokes World . This new raunch culture didn’t mark the death of feminism, they told me; it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved. We’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes. Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. Instead, it was time for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along. If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would out do them and be Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves. 

 

When I asked female viewers and readers what they got out of raunch culture, I heard similar things about empowering miniskirts and feminist strippers, and so on, but I also heard something else. They wanted to be ‘one of the guys’; they hoped to be experienced ‘like a man’. Besides they told me, it was all in fun, all tongue-in-cheek, and for me to regard this bacchanal as problematic would be old-school and uncool. 

 

I tried to get with the program, but I could never make the argument add up in my head. How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women? Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? And how is imitating a stripper or a porn star - a woman whose job it is to imitate arousal in the first place - going to render us sexually liberated? 

 

Despite the rising power of Evangelical Christianity and the political right, this trend has only grown more extreme and more pervasive in the years that have passed since I first became aware of it. A tawdry, cartoon-like version of female sexuality has become so ubiquitous, it no longer seems particular. What we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality. As former porn film star, Traci Lords, put it to a reporter a few days before her memoir hit the best-seller list in 2003, 'When I was in porn, it was like a back-alley thing. Now it’s everywhere.' 

 

But just because we are 'post' doesn’t automatically mean we are feminists. There is a widespread assumption that simply because my generation of women has the good fortune to live in a world touched by the feminist movement, that means everything we do is magically imbued with its agenda. It doesn’t work that way. ‘Raunchy’ and ‘liberated’ are not synonyms. It is worth asking ourselves if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.  

 

Guests on this program:

Ariel Levy  

Contributing Editor 

New York magazine 

 

Author