Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Female Chauvenist Pigs and their defenders

This post is also my 3rd post as a "review of a review", criticizing the book reviewers opinions. Book reviews are an important part of the opinion media, and are an important place where secular apologists of ennui let their opinions hang out.

Ariel Levy's Female Chauvenist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture is a book that I refer to in my Crisis of Modesty in the Evangelical Church. Despite Levy's faults and naivete in certain areas of her analysis, Levy was one of a couple secular authors who began seriously questioning and confronting the raunch culture at large. I am particularly interested in writers like Levy, since secular writers arguing for social sexual boundaries cannot look to Scriptures to back up their arguments. They are often forced to construct better arguments from available evidence in society at large, often doing a better job than many Christians who care about the same topic.

While researching for my Modesty writing, I found that Levy coined the term, "Female Chauvenist Pigs", while it was Christine Smallwood who actually coined the term "raunch feminism" in her 2005 review of Levy's book entitled "Girls gone wild". There are many aspects of Smallwood's review that have vexed me, and I wanted to examine Smallwood's review in greater depth as part of my ongoing look at raunch culture and its apologists.

Here is the book review by Smallwood that was featured in in 2005

Girls Gone Wild

The second half of Smallwood's review has been copied to my post and is featured in blue. My comments are interspersed throughout it in black. Notice that Smallwood acknowledges certain aspects of Levy's analysis while disparaging/questioning others aspects of it. It is my critique of Smallwood that most of her criticisms of Levy are contradictory and are "red herrings" for a central viewpoint of Smallwood that is not contradictory to any other of Smallwoods remarks.

Levy extrapolates from her research subjects to all women, relying on a "we" without clearly defining who she's speaking about, or for. We revel in the porn aesthetic. We fetishize strippers. We do cardio striptease workouts. We have no real erotic role models. We are female chauvinist pigs.

But are we? It's clear that "we" live in a culture permeated by raunch and pornography -- at least white women do. Levy doesn't take account of black, Asian or Latino culture. She doesn't look at booty shakers pouring champagne on themselves, dripping with gold on the music videos on BET, or thumb through Confessions of a Video Vixen, the bestselling book about a hip-hop video dancer. She doesn't think about Japanese anime and manga, with their double-D heroines.

Smallwood accuses Levy of failing to look at non-white women, but it is not clear what the consequence is. At the beginning of the paragraph, Smallwood seems to be questioning whether “we”—in regard to the idea that “we” live in a culture permeated by raunch and pornography—is a tent that includes all women or merely just white women. Ms. Smallwood then promptly fills in the gaps to say that non-white women do live in their own versions of raunch culture.

After second-wave feminism was accused of being a white movement, women of color assumed an important position in academic and activist debate. "We" could have a lot to teach each other about the ways that we are uniquely, and commonly, misused across media. Female Chauvinist Pigs ignores that possibility.

Again, Smallwood is not criticizing Levy’s fundamental analysis that women are misused across the media, she is criticizing the fact that Levy has not done more to weave non-white women into the discussion. While this is not a bad suggestion, to conduct this cross-cultural comparative analysis Levy would have had to have written a longer book, maybe a much longer book. Levy is giving herself permission to be a bit polemic. Perhaps Levy should have described her current as an analysis of white culture and then write a second follow-up book that includes all of the other bits of analysis that Smallwood wants.

It also neglects any mention of class. Male-identified FCPs are financially successful. Even if they're not at the top of the ladder, if they're bartenders or registered nurses, they're not struggling to get by. They would never be forced to strip for money, for instance, which is one reason it's easy for them to dissociate themselves from women who do.

Who are these indentifying males and these dissociating financially successful Female Chauvinist Pigs? It's Smallwood's red herring and a meaningless pronoun minefield that has no bearing on Levy's analysis. If Levy wanted to deal with class nuances—a tangentially important area to her analysis-- she would need to have written a bigger book.

Aside from the question of "white-ness" and class, Levy is writing to and about those women who have the means to consume, who are knowingly or un-knowingly driving raunch into the mainstream by their consumption choices. As it relates to women who have the means to consume, Levy's "we" covers most of the bell curve of consumerist Western culture, and only excludes, perhaps, the utterly destitute poor, who might feel that they were "forced" to strip.

So you have to wonder why Levy doesn't take the time to interview strippers or sex workers. She quotes Jenna Jameson, but she doesn't get an analysis of raunch from the perspective of an actual sex worker. Presumably such a thing falls outside the scope of her subject matter, but you'd think that a G-string diva would have an idea or two of her own on her new role as cultural heroine.

Again, Levy could have written a massive tome to include every angle of cultural analysis that Smallwood criticizes her for not including. We can read Jenna Jameson’s book, How To Make Love Like a Porn Star to learn about Jameson’s own personal cocktail of pride, bravado, denial, ambivalence and cognitive dissonance.

Levy takes it for granted that Jameson's lifestyle is destructive. There are other things that one can read if one is unconvinced of this. If porn women like Jameson were interviewed so that their opinions could be taken seriously in answering the question whether porn as destructive, most would be in some degree of denial. If it is taken as a given that Jameson's public image is destructive as Levy does, then Jameson represents a proverbial "flame", and mainstream girls who aspire to be like her in some way represent proverbial "moths".

Levy's book is about the motivations of the "moths", and so it is actually far more important for Levy’s over-all analysis of mainstream culture to interview “normal” girls like Erin and Shaina than to further probe into what Jenna actually thinks of herself.

Raunch, whether or not we like it, is tangled and complicated, fraught with pleasure, voyeurism, mimicry, excitement, revulsion, exploitation -- a whole host of contradictory impulses.

Smallwood’s description of raunch also sounds like an addiction. At certain points in the midst of an addiction to drugs and alcohol, an addiction includes all of the impulses that Smallwood mentions – pleasure, mimicry, excitement, revulsion and exploitation. To admit that something is an addiction, though, requires that one be capable of super-imposing a higher and better and more wholesome image of health over and above the pleasure, mimicry, excitement, revulsion and exploitation.

While raunch is indeed a tangle of contradictory impulses, the question is whether it can be untangled. Is there is an image of health and wholeness that one can superimpose over and above the pleasure, mimcry, excitement, revulsion and exploitation of raunch or are the contradictory impulses are necessarily and inevitable linked in a sort of yin and yang, held together with an umbreakable centripetal force?

(There's a reason this stuff tore the women's movement apart.) But all is not a matter of false consciousness. Many women are savvy enough to recognize those contradictions and see through the charade that is broadcast into their lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The advance of raunch in our culture has come from the tandem forces of A) women at large and B) the men who pleasure from and consume raunch and C) the media who profit from raunch. Perhaps there are some women who are able to see this "through the charade”. There are also a lot of women for whom the media and the culture at large is a “super-peer” ("super-peer" was a brilliant term coined by Jane D. Brown, et. al. in an article in Pediatrics). Even if some women are able to see the manipulative element of the media’s involvement in raunch, many of them are not strong enough to resist the pull into raunch behavior and fashion, or they have thoroughly embraced raunch culture.

The essential drive toward raunch behavior in our culture is a destructive drive, and Smallwood has not denied its destructiveness. There is an element to this drive into raunch that Levy has correctly identified – that women, on some level, view it as an avenue to having power equity with men, or even power over men. As a mutated post-feminism that can bear little resemblance to earlier forms of feminism, raunch feminism is feminist in its essential belief in that women demand power equity with men. Raunch feminists seek this power even at the expense of doing destructive things with their sexuality, often aping and even one-upping various forms of male sexual conquest.

This tacit affirmation of power in raunch culture is “false”, in the sense that it is not a true and constructive measure of a woman’s value.

The ways that they consume and digest endless streams of newspaper stories, television shows, magazine covers, books, advertising campaigns, billboards and Internet pop-up ads would have been worth investigating.

Again Levy could have written a book the size of War and Peace, or could write a follow up book.

After all, being a woman faced with infinite images of other women taking their clothes off, gyrating, tittering, moaning and pushing product can be exhausting and demoralizing. (Shockingly, there are those rare mornings that the New York Times online goes down better without the Victoria's Secret pop-up ads.) Raunch, like so much of mass culture, is both out of our control and impossible to ignore. We must develop a smarter strategy for living with it than simply wishing it would go away.

Who’s "simply wishing" it will go away? Is it Levy? Surely Levy desires that it will go away, and which decent person wouldn’t desire that it went away? Smallwood seems to be implying that Levy has not done something constructive in trying to usher the end of raunch. In fact, Levy has done something in her effort to raise consciousness, and raised consciousness is always penultimate to action.

Raunch is a fungus that grows of a critical mass of popular ennui and blasé. If that ennui and blasé were to end, then raunch would diminish. If we believe that it is out of our control then it is. As Andrew Carnegie said, "Whatever you think, you're right", and any reform movement seems like an impossible dream to those who first dare to conceive of it.

Levy's book diagnoses, but it doesn't prescribe. After carefully documenting the sale of female sexuality, Levy closes with the call for readers to believe they are "sexy and funny and competent and smart." Apparently the solution to a system of objectification in which women themselves are complicit, in which feminism has been co-opted by and for profit, is for us to be ourselves. It's a little hard to swallow.

Smallwood seems to be saying that self objectification is in the very nature of womanhood. That for women to "be themselves" is to necessarily live out this impulse to self-objectification, and that to tell women to "be themselves" at the expense of self-objectifying is nigh impossible.

Unless there is a political dimension to our personhood that extends to other women, we will never be more than marketing niches.

"A political dimension to our personhood that extends to other women" that Smallwood suggests would require that women as a group presented a clear objective to the world that could be advanced through the peculiar medium of politics. Feminism was just such an attempt to define a political dimension to the personhood of women that extended to other women and, so says Smallwood, it was torn apart by the contradictions of raunch. So the raunch sexuality that split the political unity of feminism will be fixed by the political unity of feminism? Generally speaking, if this is the "smarter strategy for living with it" that Smallwood suggests, then it's not a very good one.

Raunch is about individual choices. It is a juggernaut that is created by what individual people wear when they get up in the morning, what they do with each other in relationships, what they consume and what they excuse. It is in the intimate realms of life that raunch must primarily be contronted.

Levy has done the good work of documenting raunch culture. What next?

Having offered no hint a substantive solution, and after hinted spuriously at fatal flaws in Levy's analysis, Smallwood is basically saying that self-objectification is an intractible part of modern womanhood.

So what is next? The patent destructiveness of women’s self-objectification and seeking power equity via raunch behavior and the destructiveness of men who participate in raunch will only end with this: when men and women are transformed by a God into the image of Christ who is higher than their sin. While it is possible for certain lone secular thinkers to grasp the problem of raunch, at bottom, there is not other "strategy" for dealing with it other than the individual transformation of people's hearts and minds to an image of spiritual health and wholesome-ness that lies outside of the human predicament of bondage to sin. This is the only strategy that will confront raunch in the intimate realms of life where it is flourishing.

If Smallwood were to consider this suggestion an intrusion of “conservatism” that would erode feminism “hard won gains”, then, for Smallwood, nothing is “next”, and people will continue to be titillated and excited and then demoralized and exhausted by an addiction to raunch that is, and always will be, out of control.

To her credit, Smallwood is at least willing to admit that there is a destructive aspect to raunch feminism. Read some the passionate letters in response to her "Girls gone wild" review, and you'll see the full-throated denial of any dark side to the raunch culture.

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