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Cover story by Judith Timson, September 26, 2005SHE AND HER FRIENDS TALK about it constantly. How to go out and have a great time. How to make their way through a sexual landscape that somehow has upped the ante in racy behaviour. The challenge, says Shauna (not her real name), a 20-year-old third-year psychology major at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., is how not to feel like a misfit just because she thinks that the sexual titillation factor has gone too far. "One thing I have noticed more and more," she says of the student scene, "is that girls spend as much time, if not more, dancing provocatively with each other as they do with men. Many girls have made out with each other in front of a group of boys, or for their benefit after having been dared, or even without provocation. I was recently at a bar with a group of friends from high school," she continues, "and a group of girls came wearing short skirts and low-cut tops -- they had each written words on their breasts or upper thighs and were willingly showing this to the guys when asked. The club scene where this behaviour often happens is one that I avoid most often, and look for other ways to have fun -- and I am in a minority in that respect."
So what's the majority up to? New York journalist and author Ariel Levy thinks she has the answer in her compelling new book, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. And that answer isn't pretty. Witty and provocative, painfully funny and just plain painful to read as it documents the rise of trashy, raunchy, really really bad female behaviour, Levy's newly published book may well provide the next "aha!" moment in how North American women see themselves. At the very least, it will make you wonder how, in the past decade, the culture has become infused with what Levy describes as porn or red-light aesthetics and values, which used to be confined to the tawdry outer limits of girlie mags, adult films and strip clubs but have now become part of everyday life. She's not the only one to perceive the intersection of porn and ordinary life. In Pornified, another newly released book, American Pamela Paul declares "pornography has not only gone mainstream -- it's barely edgy."Levy, at 30, is no prude (after all, she admits she got a Brazilian bikini wax at least once in her 20s, hoping to capitalize on her "feminine wiles"). Nor is she a hardline ideologue of any persuasion with an agenda to shut down sexual expression. "I'm for more sexual liberation, not less," she told Maclean's in an interview, "and I don't think the answer is more chastity. I'm not here to outlaw pornography or impose a minimum-fabric requirement for high school girls." When she started work on Female Chauvinist Pigs, which grew out of an article Levy wrote for online Slate magazine, she intended to dispassionately document the new raunch phenomenon. "But as I got deeper into it," she says, "I began to think, 'This is ridiculous.' So I had to weigh in." What she concluded is that "raunchiness and liberation are not synonymous."Levy became fascinated by the fact that many women who no longer remotely see themselves as victims in an old-fashioned feminist's exploitation scenario are now whole-heartedly embracing this culture. At its most benign, they're enrolling in cardio-striptease classes, learning how to provocatively pole dance and playfully allowing their pre-teen daughters to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the Playboy bunny.But Levy also found some eye-popping examples of a new kind of woman she came to call the "female chauvinist pig." Among them were university students on spring break and at other party-hearty locations shouting "whoo!" as they riotously flashed their breasts, buttocks and even genitals for one of the cheesy, direct-marketing Girls Gone Wild videos while the producer -- also a woman -- yelled, "Show them your tits!" One segment featured a trio of university-aged women, all of whom, said one of them abashedly, would have their Ph.D.s in three years in anthropology. Recently Mantra films, which produces Girls Gone Wild (infomercials for it air on late-night TV) released Girls Gone Wild Canada. "We couldn't believe just how far these hot co-eds were willing to go," the cover enthuses, "and you won't either." While the California company's president, Joe Francis, has become a very rich man from his soft-porn peddling of naked, often inebriated young women, the subjects who bare themselves end up with only a souvenir T-shirt and trucker hat, and hopefully a good excuse if anyone asks why on Earth they did it.The website of Girls Gone Wild proudly boasts that whether it's Girls Gone Wild Doggy Style or Girls Gone Wild Spring Break, the product does not feature "used up porn hags" but "real college girls." In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Levy describes one girl masturbating for the Girls Gone Wild camera (and claiming to be a virgin) who said she was having so much fun that "the only way I could see someone not doing this is if they were planning a career in politics."Levy's slim book is a call to arms. It is not a big-statement book -- it doesn't have the intellectual heft of a Germaine Greer polemic or even the emotional resonance of a Naomi Wolf cri de coeur. But in a sophisticated, breezy way, it does pose a series of compelling questions as it wonders why, despite years of feminism and progress on so many professional and social fronts, many women are allowing themselves to once again be held hostage by such a narrow definition of sexuality. "Sex is one of the most interesting things we as human beings have to play with," writes Levy, "and we've reduced it to polyester underpants and implants. We are selling ourselves unbelievably short."It's certainly true women are flocking to get breast implants (page 44). Levy sees the relentless pressure women place on themselves to look a certain way as evidence of a return to "plasticity," a mass conforming to a Hooters ideal of what a woman should look like. "How is resurrecting every stereotype that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women?" she asks in her book.It's also true, and baffling, that despite so many years of feminism, you-go-girlism and impassioned crusades in women's magazines for women to accept themselves as they are, there is if anything more pressure than ever to look not just good, but bodacious. "Nobody wants to be the frump at the back of the room anymore, the ghost of women past," writes Levy. And why should they? But combined with a certain sleaziness that is everywhere in the culture, there's a growing sense that young women especially may have equated their own liberation simply with outrageous displays of the body and not with bold action in the world.In Female Chauvinist Pigs, Levy describes a visit to a club that sponsors "sexy positions" contests, in which co-eds fuelled by liquor participate in a classic porn trope that is now likely to be on display in any setting where young women in high spirits gather: girl-on-girl simulated sex. Apart from university students, Levy also lays the oinker label on high-end female cable executives, admired and awarded in the industry, who produce cable shows like G-String Divas that equate stripping with female "empowerment" (surely one of the most co-opted words ever applied to women's lives, slyly used by everyone from purveyors of Botox to divas who feel they are empowering themselves and other women by, say, dancing their derrieres off in rock videos wearing butt-less leather chaps). Closer to the truth was how one female executive explained why a show glorifying strippers had universal appeal: "Everyone has to bump and grind for what they want." Stripping is, as Levy points out, above all a commercial transaction.She also notes the success of porn movie actress Jenna Jameson's 2004 bestseller, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star. As Jameson's publisher, Judith Regan (famous, writes Levy, for declaring at one meeting, "I've got the biggest cock in the building"), puts it: "I believe there is a porno-ization of the culture. What that means is that if you watch every single thing that's going on out there in the popular culture, you will see females scantily clad, implanted, dressed up like hookers, porn stars and so on, and that this is very acceptable."To Levy, who remembers from her own high school days yearning like every other girl to be "pretty and popular," it was seeing how modern-day high school girls and their younger sisters have embraced raunch that plunged her into despair, and turned her book into more impassioned fare -- what she calls "an open letter to everyone.""I was pretty stunned by what I saw in high school students," Levy says. What she observed was girls everywhere, even at the most progressive schools, doing their best to look the "skankiest," trying to "look as slutty, willing and wanton" as they could. Snapping their thongs and baring their cleavages, these girls had astoundingly gone any sexist male one step better: they were treating themselves and each other like pieces of meat.When Levy asked one high school student why she was dressed like that and told her that in her own day, "you would have been embarrassed, ostracized to look like that, she looked at me like I was absolutely from Mars and she said, 'How did you get the guy? Charm?'"And forget about blaming guys for this travesty, argues Levy: "Men no longer have the hegemony they once had. It's transcended that -- we've internalized it all together." In other words, to borrow a phrase from Aretha Franklin's liberation anthem, "sisters are doing it to themselves."Levy's "female chauvinist pig" tag line is a great sound bite, but a bit problematic if you accept the classic definition of chauvinism as "unreasoning devotion to one's sex" along with contempt for the other sex. If anything, admits Levy, women who are caught up in the "liberating" aspects of raunch "think of men as superior. Over and over again these women are telling me they want to be like a guy. It's really fascinating. It's fetishizing masculinity in the sense that maleness in this equation means smart, funny, capable, brave, sexually adventurous, all of that."The contempt implied in chauvinism is there all right. But it is, sadly, that old female self-contempt, as girls and young women today put pressure on themselves not just to be pretty and popular -- that now sounds as quaint as something out of Anne of Green Gables -- but to be "hot." Hot, hot, hot. Even Olympic athletes, with their gorgeously powerful bodies, have to be hot, writes Levy, posing in Playboy with their rears pointed provocatively at the camera. Even top-ranked female tennis stars have to be hot, showing up for play with a hint of cleavage and a skin-tight ensemble.Hot has replaced beautiful as the ultimate compliment and hot, according to Levy, means "f--kable" even when you're not -- legally, or inclined to. One of the strangest things about the rise of raunch, she argues, is the separation between how young women look today -- sporting more cleavage at family functions than most Hollywood stars of yore did at the Oscars -- and their actual desires or sexual activity. Women today, Levy says, are not more in touch with their sexuality as a result of all this display, and in fact they may even be less so. "It's about inauthenticity and the idea that women should be constantly exploding in little bursts of exhibitionism. It's an idea that female sexuality should be about performance and not about pleasure."As a result, says Levy, high school girls in particular are always looking "for that new way to get more attention. I interviewed high school students and they were always telling me that at their dances and parties girls were constantly giving guys lap dances or making out with each other to attract attention to themselves. They were always thinking, "what kind of performance can I put on that's going to be slightly more provocative than the last performance?"And the provocation almost always pays off socially. In her book, Levy tells the now-infamous story of an eighth grade student at one of New York City's toniest private schools who made a digital recording of herself "masturbating and simulating fellatio on a Swiffer mop." After the entire clip of this girl's amateur porn was posted on a website called friendster.com, the girl experienced "a major uptick in her level of popularity and celebrity." And what's the cultural precedent for that? Paris Hilton of course, the exhaustingly ubiquitous star of everything and nothing whose sexual performance over the Internet, which showed her looking bored and even making a cellphone call during sex with her boyfriend, not only did not plunge her into social disgrace, but actually made her, writes Levy, a kind of "mascot" of the new culture.Some of Levy's chapters work better than others -- an analysis of how the feminist movement became confused as it pushed for true sexual equality feels a little light, although quotes from old hands like Susan Brownmiller and Erica Jong are illuminating. Jong, author of the 1970s runaway classic Fear of Flying and coiner of the term "zipless f--k," which contained the important idea that casual sex was not just the prerogative of men, now says, "I would be happier if my daughter and her friends were crashing through the glass ceiling instead of the sexual ceiling."Challenging this culture is a tricky business, as any parent of a teenage daughter (or son) can attest. Even parents who are tolerant, passionately anti-censorship (as is Levy) and willing to embrace the idea that every generation needs to sexually act out in its own way will tell you they think the current culture is a sewer. And yet what do you do about it? "Making more rules is not the answer," says Levy. "The job of a writer is to make people think -- that's my grand project, to make people think about this."So let's think. There are all sorts of fascinating theories to explain the rise of raunch. There is the Internet, and the way it aids in the quick dissemination of provocative material, much of it amateur porn. There is the dominant social ethos that anything goes; if you rail against it, you can be unfairly labelled a prude or a reactionary. Remember back last year to the infamous half-time show at the Super Bowl, and the outrage over Janet Jackson's coy and silly one-breast peep show. While conservative and antifeminist commentators like Phyllis Schlafly blathered on about the gross indecency of it all, practically no one from either end of the political spectrum talked about what it signified about the renewed sexual objectification of women when Jackson's onstage partner Justin Timberlake sang, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of the song." Nobody cared.And then there is the very sophisticated notion that returning to bimbo-esque stereotypes is perhaps modern women's attempt to appear less threatening to men -- to, in effect, apologize for their success.There is also the well-argued thesis that all stereotypes no longer apply -- it's open season out there for women to pick and choose what or who they want to be, and by the way, the Playboy bunny is now an ironic symbol, for goodness' sake. But as Levy points out, the youngest generation of girls has grown up without knowing anything else, so how could that be ironic?But let's not participate in another gratuitous orgy here -- an orgy of lock-up-your-daughters hysteria. Raunch culture isn't the worst threat facing civilization, it's just a dreary and unimaginative sensibility that at one time in the not so distant past seemed, well, fresh. Think of Madonna's first brazenly sexual shows and videos -- they had energy and raw power. Now think of every rock video that features a stripper, or every urban rap video that time and again fetishizes women shaking -- hell, vibrating -- their booty. It's as unrelenting today as it is banal and expected. And yet many people, men and women, do resist it. Even the Girls Gone Wild crew, rolling into various Canadian towns and cities on the Girls Gone Wild bus, found a hostile reaction in and around a few Canadian campuses, including Dalhousie and Lakehead, as university staff and students said a frosty "no thanks."What Levy is saying loudly in her book has been on many women's minds lately. And when you ask her what her solution is to a culture that is not just hyper-sexualized but also hyper-commercialized, she hesitates and says it's as "simple and as complicated" as it always was: "Making the young women in our lives aware that this is the culture they live in, but they don't have to take part in it, they will still be attractive to men, because people have managed to recreate the species for some time now." It's nurturing in them the sense, she says, "that you're a real person, you're not here to put on a performance, the main focus of your energy does not have to be how do I get a guy. You will find a partner. But the main project is you. What do you want to be? What do you want to think about? What makes you happy? What turns you on?"Ultimately it is, she says, "instilling in young women a sense of the value of their humanity. It sounds like a ridiculous, pat new age thing, but that's the whole ball game."We could call it Humanity Gone Wild and get a bus.