Ariel Levy’s book, whose full title is Female Chauvinist Pigs; Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, is nothing less than a page-turner. It is written in a witty and conversational style, with interviews interspersed here and there. Levy’s aim is to convince you that American culture has taken a turn for the sinister when it comes to female sexuality and to demonstrate how “female chauvinist pigs” are influenced by and active perpetrators of an anti-feminist cultural agenda. But perhaps you are wondering, what is a female chauvinist pig?
We decided long ago that the Male Chauvinist Pig was an unenlightened rube, but the Female Chauvinist Pig (FCP) has risen to a kind of exalted status. She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn’t mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality and she doesn’t mind a cartoonishly macho response to them. The FCP asks: Why throw 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? (93)
A female chauvinist pig is a woman who has made the decision to dissociate herself from femaleness by reproducing male chauvinism in a female body, even at the expense of other women. Rather than counter stereotypes through her own comportment or argue for a change in ideology, she accepts stereotypes of femininity and female sexuality as truth. The FCP insults women along with her male counterparts, but protects her own ego by painting herself as “one of the guys.” The problem with this type of anti-feminism, Levy explains, is:
Instead of trying to reform other people’s—or her own—perception of femininity, the Female Chauvinist Pig likes to position herself as something outside the normal bounds of womanhood. If defending her own little patch of turf requires denigrating other women…so be it. (110)
In this way, FCPs distance themselves ideologically from women as a collective group. Once appropriately separated from the stigmatized group, they are free to indulge in stereotype and denigration with members of the dominant group—men. Framed by Levy’s book, it seems almost inconceivable that smart, educated women would participate in this cultural phenomenon. After all, “Even if you are a woman who achieves the ultimate and becomes like a man, you will still always be a woman. And as long as womanhood is thought of as something to escape from, something less than manhood, you will be thought less of, too” (112, emphasis mine).
Levy’s book successfully argues that contemporary American culture actively encourages women to behave in ways that most please men, rather than in ways most natural and satisfying for the women themselves. For Levy, FCPs further patriarchal ideology through their complicity in anti-feminist behaviors like prioritizing men’s desires over their own and objectifying other women. Levy writes of the popular book and movie, He’s Just Not That Into You, whose ultimate goal is to teach women how to realize when they are not desirable to men, “Women generally find it pretty satisfying to get what they want too, but He’s Just Not That Into You is not about what women want. It’s about becoming better discerners of what men want. (And somehow that is true women’s liberation)” (175). The behaviors Levy attributes to FCPs are painfully familiar; what she describes is no rare phenomenon but a nationwide shift in ideology.
For me, the most interesting part of Levy’s book was the section on adolescent sexuality and performance. Levy references Deborah L. Tolman’s book, Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality, and quotes Tolman’s research: “‘In the many hundreds of studies that have been done to determine what predicts adolescent girls’ sexual behavior, only a handful ha[ve] identified girls’ sexual desire as a potential factor’” (156). Levy makes the point that for many adolescent girls, sexuality is about performance and the desire to appear sexy rather than actual sexual curiosity or fulfillment. I would have loved to read more on this topic and the research related to it; a review of Dilemmas of Desire may be in order.
Also fascinating was Levy’s exposure of the profit-driven advantage of the commercialization of female sexuality:
If we were to acknowledge that sexuality is personal and unique, it would become unwieldy. Making sexiness into something simple, quantifiable makes it easier to explain and to market. If you remove the human factor from sex and make it about stuff—big fake boobs, bleached blonde hair, long nails, poles, thongs—then you can sell it. Suddenly, sex requires shopping. (184)
Just as Jennifer Pozner’s book on the evils of Reality TV ultimately reveals the reliance of “unscripted” programming on commercial sponsors and product placement, Levy compellingly demonstrates the benefit of exploiting women’s self-worth by transforming female sexuality into a complex array of products.
The one issue I had with Female Chauvinist Pigs was that it was more of a survey than an in-depth analysis. Levy has one central thesis: that raunch culture encourages women to degrade other women and reject feminist solidarity. In order to prove this point, Levy discusses a wide array of topics. She writes about Lesbian youth culture in one section, adolescent sexuality in another, Girls Gone Wild in another, and 1960s and 70s Feminist history in yet another. Some of the time, her writing seems to merely skim the surface of the problem she is trying to dissect. It is admittedly difficult to take on such a broad trend and write only 212 pages, but I believe the book would be more powerful if less were covered and more were covered in depth. As it is, FCP often feels less like a whole book than a collection of related essays. Having said this, I enjoyed reading FCP and would recommend it to anyone interested in how contemporary culture intersects with feminism.
I will end with a quotation of Levy’s concerning America’s idolization of porn stars. Although her metaphor is somewhat cringe-worthy and simplistic, her message is powerful and clear: our culture idolizes porn stars as the end-all of all things sexually explicit and arousing. These same human beings have a 65-90% chance of having a history of sexual abuse and incest.
There is something twisted about using a predominantly sexually traumatized group of people as our erotic role models. It’s like using a bunch of shark attack victims as our lifeguards. (180)