Female Chauvinist Pigs: A Critical Review
Exhibition More like Exploitation than Empowerment
Within pages of delving into Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, my mind began to draw allusions between the events depicted in the book, and ones of a similar nature that I have been all too privy to in my own life. Almost instantaneously upon digesting the first references to the Girls Gone Wild phenomenon, I was transported back to the “fond” memory of when I attended a Guns’n’Roses concert, only a few years prior (Levy, 7-17). While between acts, the cameramen (and I emphasize the men part) thought it clever to amuse themselves by circling the stadium like rabid vultures seeking out their desperate prey: those being, women looking for their, in this case, 30 seconds of fame. I watched countless buxom blonde beauties get coaxed into granting complete strangers up close and personal encounters with their best assets. So, when my image was projected onto the mega screen, I held no reservations. I flashed them alright – the world has never seen such a dynamic profile of a middle finger.
As I hope made obvious by the aforementioned story, I’m one who believes that some things are better left up to the imagination. Though, I in no means, intend to come across as one passing judgment on others, exhibiting my T&A to a crowd predominately composed of aged marijuana smoking hippies who haven’t given up on their glory days so much to the fact that their mullets are still intact, just so that I can affirm that I’m grade A meat, doesn’t really hold much interest for me. But, I digress.
The point to my story is that it got me thinking. As someone who considers themselves a proud third waver who is not ashamed to own the term “feminist” as part of her self-characterization, I couldn’t begin to conceive of how it is that the women portrayed in Female Chauvinist Pigs, who willingly objectified themselves all in supposed good fun, could dare to suggest that they upheld a similar mantra.
Because it is difficult to place oneself in an objective stance when it comes to decoding the actions of others with whom you disagree, I felt the best way to get to the guts of this apparent discrepancy was to rely on scientific findings from an outside unbiased party. As the discipline of cultural studies borrows both from the Arts and Humanities tradition, as well as that of the Social Sciences, I felt that turning to the professional psychological literature on female exhibitionism and how it relates to self-esteem may be illuminative (McCutcheon, “Defining”). My findings, as I suspected, only worked to strengthen Levy’s argument that rather than being truly empowered, these women -these female chauvinist pigs- have merely, “adopted a new norm, another role to play,” prescribed to them by a popular culture that is deeply rooted in patriarchal values (200).
Far from the declarations of confidence and sexual liberation that Levy’s interviewees professed in order to justify their participation in raunch culture (9, 27), Hugh-Jones, Gough, and Littlewood found, in their 2005 case study on six British female exhibitionists, that their subjects participated in deviant sexual behaviour for two related reasons: 1) as an attention-seeking device and/or 2) as a means to boost their self esteem (265, 273). Further, in a separate study conducted by Dr. Charles Grob, one middle-aged female exhibitionist went so far as to admit to partaking in these behaviours in order to seek validation (253). It wasn’t until after her marriage fell apart, and she lost her highly prestigious job that she turned to genital exposure as a means to reclaim her sense of self worth and power; power, that she claimed, came from the fact that she chose when and to whom she would expose herself (253-255).
Turning back for a moment to the raunch culture participants in Levy’s book, it’s interesting to note that the FCPs, as Levy refers to them, offer rationale for their behaviour which could be seen as analogous to the previously mentioned initial reason offered by the exhibitionists: 1) they flashed for the brand (ie: Girls Gone Wild) and/or 2) for show (9, 11). It seems to me that both sets of ladies, based on their offered explanations for their behaviours, suffer from what I like to call, “celebrity complexes”. They’ve been taught by the media and through the success stories of talentless twits like Paris Hilton that they too can revel in the spotlight, if they are willing to flaunt a little flesh for the camera (Levy, 28). Naturally, this ties in directly to the second justification offered by the exhibitionists; that being, to boost one’s floundering self-esteem. Just as the “porno-nization of culture” has taught women that dressing like hookers, and acting like smut stars is acceptable, it has also worked to devalue other skills that women may possess, such as intelligence, charisma, ability, and perseverance, which could assist them in their goal of achieving fame (Levy, 19). By emphasizing “hotness”, defined by Levy as meaning both “fuckable and salable”, over hardiness, women have been instructed to solely value their sexuality, and sex appeal. Credence to this attestation can be found in Hugh Hefner’s illustration of the so-called empowered woman, modelled on the Playboy bunny: “She is never sophisticated…She is a young, healthy, simple girl…not [a] mysterious, difficult woman,” (58). Seeing as the female exhibitionists, from the aforementioned UK study, designated themselves as being, “extraordinary (distinctive, daring, even subversive)” - people who, by common standards, should be noticed – it only makes sense that they resorted to these behaviours; they were merely mimicking what society has prescribed (Hugh-Jones et al, 273).
A final rationale that Levy’s FCPs offered to legitimize their engagement in and/or, at the very least, their "condonance" of raunch culture was that they wanted to be accepted as “one of the guys” and/or experienced as a man (4). I found this last explanation particularly interesting because as Levy points out, “men [do not have to] parade around in their skivvies …to [attain] power…Proving that you are hot, worthy of lust, and –necessarily—that you seek to provoke lust [remains] exclusively women’s work,” (32-33). As evidenced by the brief account of the Girls Gone Wild beach taping described early on in Levy’s text, contrary to the contention that female exhibitionism allows women to hold power over their sexuality and sexual expression like men, participation in said behaviours is not always entirely voluntary. It wasn’t until after she was taunted and pressured by an ever-tightening circle of over 40 males that the blonde in the black bikini conceited to reveal herself (Levy, 15-16). Rather than being in control of the situation, the blonde in the black bikini gave the crowd what they wanted, likely, to shut them up.
As this above story exemplifies, exhibitionists, regardless of their logic for participation, maintain the position of being the object of another’s gaze; a position of subordination that, according to media scholar, Joyrich, has long been associated with pre-liberated women (McCutcheon, “Gender”). Further, the fact that the exhibitionists themselves, from the above mentioned psychological studies, acknowledged that men derive pleasure from looking at them, undermines the argument that these behaviours afford them autonomy (Jones et al, 267; Grob, 256). Instead of being progressive by partaking in exhibitionism, the behaviours of these women align more closely with tradition views on women’s sexuality: views that dictate that women are solely to exist as sexual objects to please men, and bear children. As elaborated by Levy, FCPs are simply, “conforming to someone else’s [ie: men’s] - someone more powerful’s – distorted notion of what [they] represent. In doing so, [they get] ahead in some way[s], but…simultaneously [reify] the system that traps [them],” a type of performance known as “tomming” (106). All of this, of course, brings me to beg the question of what exactly, then, is female empowerment?
According to Batliwala in her treatise, “The Meaning of Women’s Empowerment: New Concepts from Action”, female empowerment, “should lead to the liberation of men from false value systems and ideologies of oppression. It should lead to a situation where each one can become a whole being regardless of gender, and use their fullest potential to construct a more humane society for all,” (131). From this definition, Rowlands, in her work, “Empowerment Examined,” expands, “empowerment is not only about opening up access to decision making, but also must include processes that lead people to perceive themselves as able and entitled to occupy that decision-making space, “(104).
As I’ve attempted to demonstrate throughout this piece, rather than being empowered, FCPs are merely subjecting themselves to further exploitation based on male ideologies of “the progressive woman”, and may actually suffer from low self-esteem as well as body narcissism, a psychological disorder that explains exhibitionist behaviour, “as a manifestation of an overwhelming need for attention,” (Grob, 256). To end off with what I feel is a rather succinct summation of this view, Levy said it best when she concluded, “that women are now doing this to [themselves] isn’t some kind of triumph, it’s depressing. Sexuality is inherent, it is a fundamental part of being human, and it is a lot more complicated than we seem to be willing to admit, ”(44). True sexual liberation, in Levy’s eyes, would allow for a, “range of options as wide as the variety of human desire… [and] if we [truly] believed that we (ie: women) were sexy and funny and competent and smart, we wouldn’t need to be like strippers, or like men, or like anyone other than our own specific, individual selves,” (200). In four simple words, I couldn’t agree more.
Batliwala, Srilatha. “The Meaning of Women’s Empowerment: New Concepts from Action.” Population Policies Reconsidered. Ed. Sen, Gita et al. Cambridge,
Mass: Harvard Series on Population and International Health, 1994.
Grob, Charles S. “Single Case Study: Female Exhibitionism.” The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 173(4), 1985: 253-255.
Hugh-Jones, Siobhan, Brendan Gough, and Annie Littlewood. “Sexual Exhibitionism as ‘Sexuality and Individuality’: A Critique of Psycho-Medical Discourse from the
Perspectives of Women who Exhibit.” Sexualities 8(3), 2005: 259, 265-273.
Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2006.
McCutcheon, Mark. “Defining Popular Culture.” University of Western Ontario, London, ON. 16 Sept. 2008.
McCutcheon, Mark. “Consumption and Gender.” University of Western Ontario, London, ON. 4 Nov. 2008.
Rowlands, Jo. “Empowerment Examined.” Development in Practise. 5(2), 1995: 104.