Yay! Another feminist book review for your three-day weekend! This time I read Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy.
In contrast to the more general books on feminism that I’ve been looking at, this one takes aim at a very specific cultural phenomenon: the rise of what Levy terms “raunch culture,” the proliferation of Playboy-themed apparel, stripper-themed workout classes, and “one of the boys” behavior amongst young women.
The topics that Levy covers are definitely worth covering. As someone who considers myself a feminist, I see how many issues of sexual empowerment sometimes seem to walk a fine line between actual empowerment and objectification, and it’s often really difficult to tell where that line is. And of course, any time someone begins to catalogue instances of a phenomenon, it becomes easier to see the patterns as they begin to emerge. Levy obviously did a lot of research and spent significant time talking to people for this book, as she features copious interviews and transcripts from conversations.
I was particularly glad to see that Levy addresses the way that raunch culture has affected the lesbian community; one of my complaints about feminist books often has to do with their heteronormativity, so it was interesting to see these topics discussed from the points of view of women in an “alternative” community.
One chapter that I thought was particularly interesting involved Levy’s discussions of the consumerism of Sex and the City as it intersected with the show’s depictions of sex. She also points out ways in which the show was a product of raunch culture: for instance, in its insistence in dividing behavior into “like a man’s or like a woman’s,” often privileging certain types of behavior from each. Near the end of the book she also discusses the effects of this raunch culture and its inherent connections with consumerism on people like sex workers and pornography actresses, showing some of the most tangible effects of this culture.
One of the weaknesses of the book is its outdatedness. Levy’s observations are of a very specific moment in American culture. With the rise of ubiquitous internet pornography, racy YouTube videos, and sexting, the idea of Girls Gone Wild videotapes being sold on late-night infomercials now seems quaint (apparently many people feel the same way: the company filed for bankruptcy about a year ago). In addition, her descriptions of low-rise jeans with visible thong underwear and Playboy-branded accessories and school supplies may not resonate with younger women and girls today, who attended middle and high school in the age of leggings and tunics.
At many points during this book, I felt uncomfortable with the way that Levy seemed to be looking down on and condemning women who participate in the raunchy mindsets and behaviors she describes. Levy presents unflattering descriptions of women’s behaviors, implicitly criticizing them, without interrogating the greater cultural forces at play. When she says things like “It no longer make sense to blame men,” she is implying that 1) it once DID make sense to blame men (as opposed to patriarchal structures) and 2) that it NOW makes sense to blame women.
Furthermore, Levy repeatedly inserts her opinions into her writing in ways that come across as judgmental; referring to someone as “surprisingly polite” reveals certain assumptions that she’d already made about that person, and her assumption that a woman who had potentially had “top surgery” (a double mastectomy), “more likely […] bound her breasts down to achieve the look” turns a pretty significant personal choice into a matter of conjecture.
Throughout many of the sections of the book, Levy describes the raunchy, wild things that girls do for attention, popularity, or fun, but she doesn’t really offer much in the way of analysis or solution. You can only read so many breathless interviews with teen girls about their classmates giving blowjobs on the school bus before you begin to wonder what you’re supposed to be getting out of it. After a while, the stories begin to feel more sensationalist than substantial, and I began to skim over them in search of something more purposeful.
Who will enjoy it?
Female Chauvinist Pigs would probably be enjoyed by anyone interested in feminism, cultural perceptions of female sexuality, or popular culture in the early 21st century. As I mentioned earlier, the cultural references might be a little outdated for someone who’s currently in high school or college, but anyone older will definitely remember those early aughts (possibly with a sense of cringing nostalgia).