Review by Rebecca Woolston
Ariel Levy’s book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, is an exploration of women objectifying themselves to the male gaze. In the entire first chapter, Levy follows around a Girls Gone Wild crew and interviews Christie Hefner, Hugh Hefner’s daughter and CEO of Playboy. Her argument is a bit foggy and it feels as if she is hiding behind the interviews, rather than using them to construct an argument. In some moments, Levy seems to be saying that it’s wrong for women who make themselves into objects appealing to men. In other moments, sometimes in the same paragraph, Levy argues that the women who make themselves into bunnies, flash a camera for a trucker hat, or imitate the culture, do it out of empowerment. It could be that she simply fails at making a differentiation between her voice and those of the interviews. They merge together and it becomes difficult to see from which side Levy stands. She clings to the shadows throughout the book, as she seems to do in this first chapter.
Levy’s argument grows with help from the counter-argument; this empowerment is sexual freedom—women can now represent their bodies sexually, and can now say, “I like sex too and I can have it just as casually as men.” Levy seems to balk at this behavior in the beginning. She is confused as to why women would promote their newly found sexual freedom by revealing more of their bodies to please men, and equally mesmerized by their nakedness. Perhaps Levy stifles her voice at first in order to set the outlandishness of the scene: our society where raunch culture has taken hold of our minds and birthed the Female Chauvinist Pig (FCP).
Slow to start, but still intriguing, the book carries on that the onset of “raunch culture” is not female empowerment. Women are still presenting themselves as sexual objects that are appealing to the male gaze. Even worse, they are adopting the gaze as their own and so misunderstanding male desire for that which had been suppressed for so long. I agree that women do this, but not all of them. I found myself wondering, what does the female gaze look like, without influence from the patriarchy? I have my own opinions and answers about why women might be motivated to embrace this raunch culture. Some women adopt the look (what Levy often refers to as a porn look: blonde, big breasts, tight clothing, bright white teeth, 23) and the attitude of an FCP (what Levy comes to define as the woman who is post-feminist—whatever that means), are funny, don’t mind “cartoonish stereotypes” regarding their own sexuality or the men they’re supposed to be with. The FCP is “one of the guys” because as Levy also points out, “Why try to beat them when you can join them?” We live in a patriarchy where the male gaze is the ruling gaze and it has become so indoctrinated in us that it is difficult to separate what the male gaze is, or what the female one is. Have the gazes merged, or has the male one consumed everything? How does a woman see through her own perspective, how and where can the female gaze exist? This issue with becoming “one of the guys” is that we are not men. We are women. We should begin to teach each other what is beautiful about the female body, rather then listening to what men find appealing about it. At what cost is it to become one of them by hypersexualizing our bodies and objectifying our friends, girlfriends, sisters, daughters, mothers?
I recommend hanging on through the first chapter of the book. Levy eventually adopts a stronger voice, historicizing feminist movements and showing that even inside feminism, there are different views, which is something I think many forget or neglect to acknowledge. I appreciated this, but felt like maybe that should have been the first chapter. This detailed history of what we have come out of, and the tensions among feminists and the branching out of new movements, could have grounded us better to see the trajectory Levy ends up showing us. From that point onward, the book is solid and the argument continues to grow, as Levy’s own voice feels more comfortable interjecting between interviews and history. It was not until page 81, with a particularly strong moment of interjection while relaying her experience at a Maxim Hot 100 party and drawing the connections to a CAKE party, Levy tells us clearly her stance, “I don’t feel titillated or liberated or aroused. I feel bored, and kind of tense.” I read this and immediately thought, “Finally.” Finally, I know what the argument here is, and finally, Levy has moved away from the wall and into the party. That is to say, it was not until I reached this point that I felt like Levy’s voice was taking hold and began balancing the focused interviews with her own perspective. Further down the same page, Levy shows us how ridiculous this raunch culture is and how hindering it (still) is to the female, “We have to wonder how displaying hot chicks onstage in exactly the same kind of miniature outfits they’ve always been in moves things in the right direction. If CAKE is promoting female sexual culture, I can’t believe there aren’t other ways to excite women. I even believe there are other ways to excite men.” That last bit is particularly important. Here, Levy offers a moment of introspection: how can we, as a culture, not only embrace other ways to excite women other than sexualizing ourselves, but what are other ways to excite men?
Levy challenges—and at times makes fun of—the new sexualization of culture and how women suddenly feel empowered by being the ones to objectify themselves. Of course, these women would not say they are doing this, but exchange the word “objectify” for “empower.” But how is this empowering? I understand that the choice to be a part of this culture is a new move in society and provides the opportunity for a woman to be part of the culture or not. What about what’s not happening? The women who choose not to be part of the culture? Are they more empowered, or less in comparison? Are they the women who end up being called prudes? This all forces the question of how a woman chooses to present herself, going back to the fact that they still present themselves to the male gaze, find ways to continue to feed it, or find ways to not feed it. Perhaps women knowing that they are in control by exploiting their own body (or not) is what negates the materialization of it.
This raunch culture has become a strange mutation of sexual freedom for women. A mutation Levy witnesses and shows that it’s led us to a place of limited choices, “The only alternative to enjoying Playboy… is being ‘uncomfortable’ with and ‘embarrassed’ about your sexuality. Raunch culture, then, isn’t an entertainment option, it’s a litmus test of female uptightness.” You’re either allowing yourself to be called a slut or a prude. You pick. The bottom line here is that either way, women are still allowing themselves to be represented as appealing to a heterosexual man’s sexual desires. And now women are accepting this as their own sexuality and desire. This began as a space for women to say, “this is what I like,” and while I think many have and do, this raunch culture still dictates what women should like, based on what the men they connect with like (or dislike).
I can’t say Levy ever answered my questions regarding the female gaze. She did show that women are adopting the male gaze as their own through numerous interviews and historicizing the second wave feminists, but her book and her writing gave me the space to further these questions of mine for future projects. When quality writing can do this for me, the writing itself moves up a lot of notches in my respect.
I don’t think the intention behind this book was necessarily to offer any answers, and to be honest, that’s not what I was looking for while reading. I was interested in the way the writing was opening my own opinions up and giving me a space to form my own arguments in a stronger fashion. I do think the message Levy was sending was that this raunch culture had been a long time coming, and when it hit, there were some steps backward mistaken for forward. Levy constantly reminds us of all the things women have gained in society and reminds us of how much further we still have to go. So, do you think the FCP is the answer to furthering women in society? Could you be one yourself? Pick up the book and give it a read. If nothing else, it will help you form an argument of your own, however you stand on the matter.
If we believed that we were sexy and funny and competent and smart, we would not need to be like strippers or like men or like anyone other than our own specific individual selves… the rewards would be the very things Female Chauvinist Pigs want so desperately, the things women deserve: freedom and power.
Ariel Levy writes for The New Yorker magazine. She has recently received the National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism for her essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” which will also appear in The Best American Essays of 2014. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture is her first book.