Sunday, June 19, 2011
Book Review: Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy
Criticizing other women can be a difficult thing to do when you're a feminist. You want to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, but it can be really difficult to reconcile one's feminist beliefs with women who either insist on being part of the problem or deny that the problem exists at all. Right-wing women like Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin are two fine examples of right-wing women who appropriate the rhetoric of feminism while actively seeking to deny rights and freedom to women. At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have people like Lady Gaga who are all about freedom of sexual identity and expression but all but develop the vapors and clutch their pearls if you suggest they're feminists. Then there are the hordes of women in between, those of Wollstonecraft's gilded cages and their modern equivalents (Sex and the City characters, for example). Then there are the Female Chauvinist Pigs, who Levy describes at length: women who join men in oppressing their fellow women by eschewing all "girly" forms of behavior, sexually objectifying other women (and sometimes themselves), going along with misogynist humor, and, of course, refusing to socially associate with women because they're backstabbing, cutthroat bitches.
Pointing out sexist (or even problematic) behavior on the part of other women is a fine line to walk. Everyone struggles with internalized sexism in some way or other, and the line between constructive criticism and rehashed misogyny isn't always clear. And blaming effects of a patriarchal culture on the women living in it is really...uncool, I guess, but at the same time, all people, even women, need to be held accountable for the effects that their actions have on others. That's my sticking-point: I try to avoid criticizing other women for things they have no control over, or for behaving in ways that they were socialized to, or for partaking in the girly-girl culture (much as I detest it). Often, hating on the color pink, or domesticity, or women's jobs quickly devolves into hating on the women who like pink, domesticity, or want to work in those positions themselves, and I'm really not a fan of that. I do, however, draw the line at women whose behavior actively oppresses other women, as opposed to mere passive compliance with existing sexual and gender norms.
Women who throw other women under the proverbial bus in an effort to score points with men especially irritate me, as their behavior isn't merely sexist in and of itself, but it reinforces the idea that sexism is okay with every man they interact with. Every time a woman tells a man that she refuses to make friends with other women because they're vapid, petty, or passive-aggressive, she reaffirms and justifies any pre-existing prejudices that man may have had about women being catty, immature, and impossible to deal with as equals. Beyond that, it's always a losing game: when you play the Women Are Inferior, And I'm The Best of All of Them Game, you always lose because, at the end of the day, you're still a woman and the men that you're trying so hard to impress will always look down on you for it.
Needless to say, Levy's thoughts on raunch culture walk a loosened tightrope, swaying back and forth between what I'd consider acceptable social critique and excessive shaming of other women's (particularly sex workers') choices. The main thrust of Levy's argument is that raunch culture, or the proliferation and mainstreaming of porn culture, does not represent authentic sexual liberation for women. Rather than facilitate freedom of sexual expression, it stifles all forms of sexuality that aren't geared towards exhibitionist competitions for the male gaze. Instead of liberating sexuality for all, it commodifies it and sells it. No matter how much feminist lingo is used to dress it up, raunch culture caters primarily to men and their sexual desires, not those of women. Women who don't buy into it are castigated as unenlightened Puritans or prudes who live in the past, hate sex, and may as well don a burqa already.
Can you tell that I've encountered this attitude before? (Those of you who know me well know how hilarious it is that anyone would ever call me a sex-hating prude. That should probably tell you something about the merits of the whole "objecting to raunch culture = repressed god warrior who hates herself" argument.)
Anyway, the thing that I found most appealing about Levy's argument was that she doesn't object to overt sexual expression in and of itself; what she objects to is the extent to which it has become compulsory, and the fact that it caters almost exclusively to men. That some women may enjoy that type of sexuality isn't a problem; that we're all expected to is. I believe that there's a wide range of legitimate sexual expressions, and, yes, Girls Gone Wild-esque exhibitionism is one of them, even though I, personally, do not care to partake in it. In short, I've never had a problem with someone choosing to show me (or the entire world, for that matter) her boobs, but I do have a problem with others expecting (and pressuring) me to flash mine because other women do it, or it's the cool thing to do in a bar, or whatever else. I also have a problem with using alcohol to coerce women into sexual behavior that they wouldn't engage in sober.
Another thing about Female Chauvinist Pigs that I really liked is the clear, cogent way in which Levy delineates the negative effects of raunch culture on women (and men, too: patriarchy does, after all, punish men with more "womanly" sensibilities, be they gay, bisexual, or simply not chauvinist assholes who actually respect women). Obviously, anything that retrenches the virgin/whore dichotomy is going to be damaging to women, and raunch culture has had the perverse effect of causing the conservative culture warriors to kick into high gear (in a self-reinforcing feedback loop o' irony). Beyond that, training teenager girls that sexuality is a performance to benefit men isn't exactly conducive to healthy attitudes toward sex later in life, and appears to lead to very unfulfilling relationships. It also leaves queer teenagers completely out in the cold (or, worse, aping the worst aspects of raunch culture for themselves). And, once again, the notion that it's okay to get women hammered so that they'll engage in sexual activities they wouldn't otherwise is fifty kinds of wrong. Finally, shoving everyone into one particular vision of what sex and sexuality should be like rather than allowing for the freedom of individual expression isn't doing anyone any good.
What I didn't particularly care for was Levy's overly simplistic, often ham-handed way of discussing porn stars, strippers, and other sex workers, which often sounded for all the world like a rehashing of the Great Feminist Sex Wars of the 1970's and 1980's. As someone who falls into the uncomfortable grey area in between the two sides, I found her assertions that sex workers shouldn't be emulated, that porn stars weren't really people (I know she was getting at the on-screen personae of porn stars, but her wording was seriously unfortunate), and that the mainstreaming of porn was Very, Very Bad a little too black and white and slut-shamey for my delicate Third Wave sensibilities. It often seemed like Levy was coming down on individuals (like Jenna Jameson) rather than the industry, and that's something that really didn't sit well with me. I also didn't care for the tired, hackneyed, totally unnuanced descriptions of What Sex Workers Are Like. While I understood what she was getting at with regards to the negative effects of the mainstreaming of hardcore pornography, her treatment of the sex workers themselves really weakened her argument.
My opinion on sex work (porn, stripping, prostitution, etc.), by the way, is that I have no objective problem with people taking their clothes off or having sex, filmed or not, for money. What I do object to is the exploitative nature of the sex industry, the often crappy working conditions those who are in it must deal with, the relationship between sex work and drug and sexual abuse, the reality that sex work is often the only way that poor women can put food on their tables, the way larger society stigmatizes sex workers, and, yes, the fact that I'm now expected to treat any and all acts depicted in those industries as a-okay normal. As I've said for several years now, the fastest way to kill the "But porn is GOOD for women!" argument (which I approve of about as much as I do the notion that porn is intrinsically bad) is by asking a room full of women to raise their hands if they'd ever felt pressured into performing a sex act they were uncomfortable with that their male partner had first seen in porn. None of these things, though, are the fault of the strippers or porn actresses or prostitutes themselves. If we don't blame Wal-Mart employees for sweatshop labor (and every other crappy thing that corporation does), we shouldn't blame women employed in the sex industry for the way the industry operates or the effect that it has on society. A lot of feminists fall into the trap of blaming the sex workers, and I was disappointed to find Levy among them.
Despite its flaws, Female Chauvinist Pigs is nevertheless a very thought-provoking read. 4.5 out of 5 stars.