Although I’ve been familiar with the concept for a while, I think I first came across the term Female Chauvinist Pig in Holly Bourne’s excellent How Hard Can Love Be?. In her novel, Bourne presents us with Melody, a stereotypical busty blonde who struts her stuff and embraces her sexuality and “hotness” because she believes that this is what makes her empowered in today’s society. It’s such an intriguing concept, something that interests me on multiple levels. My experiences growing up assigned male at birth mean I don’t really understand the pressures women find themselves under to behave in certain ways, or to exhibit empowerment in certain ways. Moreover, being asexual, I find a lot of the processes behind these behaviours, in people of any gender, slightly baffling. So I’m always interested in reading and learning more about how feminism intersects with portrayals of sexuality. I’m not sure, though, that this book really told me anything I didn’t already know.
In Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, Ariel Levy examines whether women are truly “free” in a sexually liberated sense. She posits that this freedom is in fact an illusion, that the anti-feminist goalposts have just shifted so that the pressure on women now is not so much to be the perfect wife or homemaker but instead to be the “sexiest”, the “most empowered”—where the definition of “empowered” is “most willing to exhibit oneself for the male gaze”. To substantiate this thesis, Levy presents a number of anecdotes, case studies, interviews, and editorialized glimpses into this world of raunch culture. She takes us behind the scenes of the Playboy corporation, gives us a little history lesson in second wave feminism, and analyzes how Sex & the City revolutionized certain segments of society’s relationships to sex and shopping.
Here’s the thing: I didn’t like this book, but I don’t actually disagree with a lot of it. I think Levy is, for the most part, spot on in her critiques of what our society is doing wrong. I agree with many of her points about how, in response to women fighting for more rights in the workplace and an equal spot at the sex table (so to speak), the capitalist elements of the patriarchy decided to regroup and simply absorb these changes instead of pushing back against them. But I don’t think this book does a very good job of tackling these issues in a meaningful way, and that’s what I want to focus on in this review.
Firstly, Levy approaches this very much from a journalistic perspective. That is not inherently a bad thing. However, it means that most of this book reads like a series of loosely-connected chapters, of interviews woven together to try to help Levy make a point. Levy jumps from example to example, essentially arguing her case at a very fine, specific level—so when she pulls back and tries to justify larger conclusions, I’m not sure they follow. I don’t think Female Chauvinist Pigs necessarily needed to be strictly polemical, but Levy’s tone and the way she includes other people’s points of view makes for a less-than-unified read.
Secondly, it matters whom Levy interviews. Obviously the author ultimately has the prerogative of which voices to include in her work. Yet I can’t help but notice that these voices inevitably skew towards certain stereotypes or perceptions of these industries. Levy interviews Christie Hefner and quotes at length from people like Jenna Jameson, but she never seems to bother to find someone like Erika Lust, who seems very dedicated to a positive portrayal of sex work, to talk to. (This book, incidentally, is now hella old by modern cultural standards, seeing as it references LiveJournal and Friendster as things that are not defunct, but I assume that there were Erika Lusts around even back in the ancient days of 2005.) Levy doesn’t quite come down on the anti-porn, anti–sex work side, but she heavily implies that sex workers are just victims with incredibly troubled pasts and are all being taken advantage of by …
… and that leads me to my biggest issue with Female Chauvinist Pigs. It’s really interesting how Levy goes about examining the causes or key figures of this raunch culture. She interviews a gay man who makes Girls Gone Wild! videos and Christie Hefner. She spends an entire chapter talking about how lesbian women, genderqueer or genderfluid people, and trans men are involved in shifting sexual mores and folkways in our hookup scenes. She points out that Sex & the City was created by gay men and this CAKE movement is run by women. So are queer people, and women of various sexualities, the problem here? I don’t know, because Levy only ever really gives us these various examples without connecting the dots into a bigger picture.
One thing that Levy does that I really like is how she talks a lot about the history of various parts of feminist movements in the United States. She points out how many of the more fractured elements of the movement emerged as disagreements over how to respond to an increasingly sexualized culture. As a fairly young person, I find these history lessons very valuable in helping me understand why feminism looks the way it does today.
But that’s why Female Chauvinist Pigs misses the mark, in my opinion. Unlike many of the seminal works that Levy cites in this book—works that may or may not have stood the test of time but are important nonetheless—Female Chauvinist Pigs does not present a clear, coherent feminist approach to dealing with the problem Levy identifies. I’m not saying Levy should be able to offer up a simple solution, but I’m looking for something a little more specific than the conclusion’s kind of self-evident conclusion that women should be free to create their own ideas of what sex and sexual power looks like. In her rush to point to all these specific examples of things that she sees as wrong or problematic in culture, Levy never really engages with the power dynamics that have created these problems.
So I’m left with a sense of … so what. Like, yes, I agree with a lot of what Levy has said. (Content warning, though, for that chapter “From Womyn to Bois”, which is filled with cherry-picked interviews and perspectives and language that is problematic and transmisic.) Nevertheless, there just isn’t enough analysis in here, not enough actual thought about the structural nature of the problem, for this to be a transformative feminist work.