Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, is a book that examines a new phenomenon in popular culture that Levy has identified—the “female chauvinist pig.” According to Levy, the female chauvinist pig is a post-feminist woman who has decided that physical sexuality is the best way towards liberation and thus these women chose to ignore the reality that women remain in positions subservient to men whether it is with the lack of women producing popular entertainment or controlling large corporations. Instead, the female chauvinist pig asks “why throw away your boyfriend’s Playboy in a freedom trash can when you could be partying at the Mansion? Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving—or getting—a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them?” The female chauvinist pig that has essentially decided that rather than adopt a form of collective struggle against patriarchal society, they will instead embrace some of the most crass male desires and attempt to manipulate these for their individual gain. Of course, there remain differences between men and women, but Levy describes how female chauvinist pigs deal with their femaleness by acting like cartoon men who drool over strippers or by acting like cartoon women with big breasts and wearing little outfits while being able to explore their sexuality only by “dancing around a pole.”
Levy’s explanation of how female chauvinist pigs deal with their femaleness may sound harsh, but it is a statement proven again and again throughout her book. Indeed, the forte of Levy’s book is the wealth of examples that she gives of the new raunch culture. Levy shows a broad awareness of popular culture and easily shifts her discussion from the increased prevalence of breast implants to the contents of a variety of television shows. Levy provides numerous examples of the ways in which television shows such as G-String Divas, the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, and reality television shows all aggressively promote the new raunch culture. The trend has permeated the publishing industry, with several x-rated titles being published by mainstream publishing houses and promoted by the publishing industry. Levy also describes the increased frequency at which women are believed to be attending strip clubs, the omnipresent scenes of women dancing with each other in sexually suggestive manners at popular dance clubs, and the new trend of “striptease” aerobic workout classes. Levy examines popular culture figures such as Paris Hilton, who in many ways epitomize the new raunch culture as her sex tapes and repeated flashing of the paparazzi demonstrate.
However, while Levy deserves credit for her willingness to write a book that is extremely critical of many simplistic “feminist” analyses of sex and hyper-sexualized behavior as a form of female power, her analysis leaves out an important aspect of feminist analysis—that of race and class. Of course, such an analysis was absent from early feminist writings, but for a contemporary feminist work, it is an unforgivable omission. The “female chauvinist pig” described by Levy is an almost exclusively middle or upper class person and quite likely white. If having access to the most exclusive and hyper-sexualized clubs and having money to spend on spring break trips to Florida are examples of the female chauvinist pig’s quintessential behavior, than it will follow that the cultural group that Levy is describing will be one that is made up primarily of those of a certain class and racial make-up. Still, while the class and race analysis is entirely absent, her book does examine how the mentality of the female chauvinist pig has permeated the GBLT scene, therefore showing that the through the dominant modes of cultural production—namely popular media—many of the characteristic behaviors of the female chauvinist pig spread to segments of society where they are typically not found. But while this analysis of popular media is important, different races respond differently to various forms of media, and as such, Sex and the City, may not mean nearly as much to the African-American population as rap does. One could probably argue that the many aspects of raunch culture cut across race lines, but without examining it, it remains nothing more that a hunch—and regrettably with Levy’s book—it is a hunch that remains unexplored. Similarly, with the ways in which Levy believes that the mentality and behaviors of the female chauvinist pig are coming to dominate high school youth culture, there could have been an analysis to explain how raunch culture spreads across classes in high school where the pressure to conform with the “popular” people is difficult to avoid.
Also absent is a through consideration of exactly who is benefiting from raunch culture. In the book, Levy makes it abundantly clear that women are not benefiting and her accounts of women who remain unsatisfied by sexual conquests, trips to strip clubs, or dressing in provocative clothing as a form of sexualized “feminist” rebellion certainly attest to this fact. However, one of the most important questions remains open—if women are not benefiting from raunch culture, who is? This question is broached somewhat in her brief discussion of the impacts of pornography on some of its participants, with Levy paying particular attention to Hugh Hefner and Jenna Jameson as examples of two aspects of the pornography industry. Throughout the book, Hefner’s assertions that he is a “feminist” ring hollow and would be laughable if they were not so enraging, as it is clear that Hefner has made millions of dollars off the women who are objectified in his magazine that is sold to men. While most men will not benefit from pornography in the way that Hefner does—and indeed will suffer if they chose to adopt the idea permeated through pornography that women are simply objects that exist to fulfill the sexual (and in pornography, often violent) fantasies of men—it is clear that they benefit in the sense that it is women, not men, who are expected conform to the physical standards and sexual expectations (i.e. submissiveness) of the pornography industry. Moreover, when talking about the “Girls Gone Wild” series, Levy aptly demonstrates how all college age women are considered by the series’ producers, and consequently its primarily male consumers, as potential candidates for its brand of pornography. Levy further describes these expectations when she talks about the origins of thong underwear in strip clubs, the prevalence of breast implants, and surgical alteration of the labia. However, Levy never comes out and clearly defines who is benefiting financially from these culture changes, which is of course white males. Perhaps the clearest indicator of who is benefiting is the fact that despite the power that some feminists may feel has come from these forms of sexual empowerment, as Eric Jong points out in Levy’s book the majority of men remain in the decision-making positions in society.
Overall, Female Chauvinist Pigs provides an intriguing introduction into a puzzling aspect of popular culture, but falls short of its potential. One cannot help but feel that the book is only half complete, with a wealth of examples included but the second half—a comprehensive analysis of the origins and consequences of raunch culture—remains unwritten. Female Chauvinist Pigs explores and documents a cultural shift, but it will be up to other feminists to fully examine it.
Ariel Levy, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, (Free Press, 2005).