Ira Berkovic reviews Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture, by Ariel Levy
JENNA Jameson, apparently the world’s most famous porn star, recently had her autobiography How to Make Love like a Porn Star advertised with an enormous billboard featuring her semi-naked self in New York’s Times Square. Whatever you think about Times Square, advertising, Jenna Jameson or porn, you can’t deny that it was significant.
Pornography — seedy, illicit, marginal, surely? — being not only advertised but celebrated in the glitzy neon heartland of mainstream consumer capitalism. Seem weird? According to New York magazine journalist Ariel Levy it’s all to do with “the rise of raunch culture.”
“Raunch culture” looks like the antithesis of everything the feminist movement has historically stood against: a cultural framework in which women are explicitly objectified. That’s why Levy is so outraged that aspects of this culture have penetrated into the gay community, the women’s movement and the general understanding of what it means to be a liberated and empowered woman in the United States today.
It’s certainly difficult to ignore. From the success of the Girls Gone Wild franchise (essentially a bunch of beer-swilling lads with camcorders persuading inebriated women to take their clothes off) to Abi Titmuss’s Tone and Tease DVD here in Britain (a “strip yourself thin” workout video), the evidence of the growth of raunch culture is plentiful. So how is it that buying into a paradigm that sees women almost solely as sexual objects now passes for sexual and social liberation?
Levy examines Candida Royalle (a female porn director) and looks at the emergence within the lesbian community of “bois” (gay women who behave like male chauvinist frat-boys and use phrases like “bros before hos” and “bros up, bitches down”). These women, who believe that they have have appropriated “raunch culture” and made it their own, are the “exceptions to the rule”. But, Levy says, “if the rule is that women are inferior, you haven’t made any progress.”
It’s all underpinned with some genuinely fascinating historical background information. Levy looks both at the virulently anti-porn and occasionally anti-heterosexual tendency in 1970s feminism organised around figures like Andrea Dworkin and at the bizarre role played by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire in funding pro-choice and other feminist organisations. Levy’s examination of the extent to which the cultural phenomena she’s analysing are women-led backlashes against the puritanically anti-porn feminism of their mothers’ generation provides the book with an intriguing historical backbone.
It’s clear that Levy is alarmed by the “rise of raunch culture”, and while obviously fascinated by its female exponents and propagandists she is not reserved in her condemnation of them. At one point, she calls them “Uncle Toms”. She believes that our society’s aggressive agitation in favour of one form and one model of female sexual self-expression – to the necessary exclusion of all others – is having a devastating effect on women’s liberation and on their sexual self-determination.
Really look at the “raunch culture” that society pushes so vigorously, Levy says, and you’ll see it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Even Jenna Jameson — the queen of “raunch” — explicitly says that, if she had a daughter, she’d do everything in her power to keep her out of the sex industry. Perhaps it’s not so liberating and empowering then?
Levy’s book is not without its problems, and her lack of concrete political conclusions leaves a number of loose ends — not least the feeling that Levy thinks that everything would be okay if only more women had a liberal college education and were enlightened East Coast intellectuals like her. She also stops short of examining some of the aspects of “raunch culture” that socialists might find most interesting — “sex workers are workers,” she says at one point, but does not examine the role of women in the sex industry as a labour rights issue.
Despite these shortcomings, Female Chauvinist Pigs is a lucid attempt to analyse what is a clear and growing cultural phenomenon, and one that socialists should view with alarm. If capitalism is promoting a model of female sexual self-expression that casts women as objects — and if this model is being enthusiastically adopted by many women themselves — then the need for a militant women’s movement that can challenge this in the name of genuine liberation is as great as ever.