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Sunday Times (London)
Female Chauvinist Pigs reviewed by India Knight, January 22, 2006
Female society seems to be divided into women who find the pornification of their universe (Hollywood waxes, plastic breasts, group sex, lap-dancing classes at the community centre) cause for enthusiastic celebration -so post-feminist and empowering, don't you know -and those who look on, bewildered, creeped-out and really quite alarmed by the pert new tits-out, legs-apart world they find themselves living in. Many of that first group call themselves new feminists and feel they are evolved and modern, a hip young army breaking boundaries and redefining what it means to be female, particularly as regards sex. The other group have some difficulty processing the notion that their mothers' generation marched, made noise and burnt their bras so that, 30 years down the line, some of their educated, politically informed daughters could attend exclusive parties where they might put on a display of girl-on-girl action in front of baying strangers, or hop onto a stage and pretend to hump the floor. For a laugh. That would be after the strip club, but before the threesome, which isn't about threesomes per se, but more about celebrating being young, sexy and hot. And being a girl who can think about sex like a man. Woohoo!Ariel Levy, a young writer for New York magazine, falls into the bewildered category. Educated in America at the height of the campus political correctness of the 1990s, she cannot understand why so many women she knows find going to, say, a strip club "empowering". So she asks them. "I learnt," she writes, "that we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny... It was time for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along. If Male Chauvinist Pigs were men who regarded women as pieces of meat, we would outdo them and become Female Chauvinist Pigs: women who made sex objects of other women, and of ourselves."Unconvinced by the theory ("Why is labouring to look like Pamela Anderson empowering? How is imitating a stripper or a porn star -a woman whose job is to imitate sexual arousal in the first place -going to render us sexually liberated?"), Levy sets out to explore the practice. She visits the "sets" of Girls Gone Wild!, an American television series in which members of the female public strip -and the rest -pour la gloire and a cowboy hat. Levy is surprised by the eagerness with which the girls volunteer; she is less surprised when, in the cold light of day, they're not quite as eager as they were the previous night.The same scenario repeats itself in the fascinating reportage contained in Levy's book: she visits Playboy Enterprises, goes to a sex party for fashionable, affluent women, talks to young lesbians whose casual attitudes to sex are newly and depressingly male, and so on. Under the bluster and bravado, she finds singularly little joy, and not much satisfaction, either. She also wonders why, at a time when America is, under George W Bush, more politically conservative than it has been for decades, raunch culture should be quite so omnipresent. "It's not as if we're embracing something liberal -this isn't Free Love," she writes. "Raunch culture isn't about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It's about endlessly reiterating one particular -and particularly commercial -shorthand for sexiness."This timely book reminds us of the inanity at the centre of raunch culture: it pinpoints the profound stupidity of an entire generation of women believing that looking and behaving as if you work in the sex industry -the last refuge, then and now, of the desperate and the abused, of the sexually damaged, as Levy points out, not the sexually uninhibited -is somehow not only glamorous and "hot", but a real achievement. It also reclaims some ground for those of us who are as appalled as Levy and tired of our distaste being interpreted as mimsy prudery. And it makes some excellent and essential points about how raunch culture bludgeons true feminine desire. How did we get to such a sorry state of affairs? Levy's impassioned and entertaining polemic provides intelligent and thought provoking answers, with a little help from old-school feminists, many of whom give fascinating and often surprising insights into what happened, and why (Erica Jong, she of the old zipless f***: "Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven't come." Now she tells us).It's a very good read. British readers may shudder at how much more advanced, or rather retarded, America is in terms of raunch culture, but not to worry: we're catching up fast, with our prepubescent girls in Porn Star T-shirts, our fixation with breast surgery, our love of books by prostitutes, our cretinous belief that young binge-drinking women with three different kinds of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) by the age of 16 are only having a bit of fun.That's the really worrying thing: the women Levy speaks to are at least educated and articulate. The poor thick girls, who watch too much telly and follow in their shag-happy, silicone-breasted heroines' footsteps like lemmings, don't have even that luxury or safety net. In an ideal world, this book would be compulsory reading in schools, a desperately needed antidote to the notion, held by young (and old enough to know better) women, that being a feminist means growing your armpit hair and never having fun, and that to be a truly empowered modern woman today you need to look like a doll and be good at oral sex. Reading Female Chauvinist Pigs, you realise how badly those poor girls have been had -in every single sense.