Friday, October 07, 2005

Female Chauvinist Pigs: Ariel Levy

"Female Chauvinist Pigs" is a big, messy, troublesome, exciting book. It doesn't take up much space on a bookshelf - it's only 212 pages long, including the notes - but in terms of its impact, it can be compared to the other Big Books of feminism, including Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae" and Germaine Greer's "The Female Eunuch." Like Paglia and Greer, Levy talks back to feminism, addressing its perceived failures and asking for more. Unfortunately, along with Paglia and Greer, Levy often delivers old stereotypes in shiny new packages. Many of her would-be "radical" statements are just re-phrased puritan cliches.

Levy argues that the images of hetero pornography -- blonde, skinny/curvy, ultrafemme women performing for the male hard on -- have become mainstream. She also argues that, whereas straight pornography used to be an imitation of sex, straight sex now tends to imitate pornography. She cites women who perform pornographic tricks for men or present their bodies in a porn-o-riffic way (bleached hair, long nails, high heels, skimpy clothes, bodies exercised or altered to meet stereotypes of "hotness") without bothering to figure out what feels sexy or beautiful to them, women who are "sexy, but not sexual." And she blames women - women who, she says, watch "The Man Show" or go to strip clubs or consume mainstream porn in order to be "one of the guys," and to prove that they're not "prissy little women." Women who aren't performing the porn-femme are embracing a frat-boy aesthetic in order to win male approval; in either case, we're doing it for the boys, for a taste of their money or their power or their freedom. Rather than being a personalized, fluid expression of identity, gender is increasingly being locked into a mutually repressive, male-supremacist binary.

That portion of her argument is right on. But it's buried in messed-up generalizations, obviously skewed reportage, and heterosexism. She cites only the porn that fits her argument, and ignores the radical queer, feminist, and amateur pornographers who make porn that challenges conventional power dynamics and beauty standards. She devotes one chapter to young queer women, but she only acknowledges genderfucking and genderqueer people by claiming that bois are misogynist and femme-phobic and that many transgender men are "confused lesbians." (In a book filled with fairly offensive and inaccurate generalizations, this one ranks at the top of my list.) The rest of her book is devoted to the power dynamics of heterosexuality. It's also mostly about white people. Her book would have been much stronger, in my opinion, if she had consistently drawn correlations across the lines of race, gender, and sexuality. But for the most part she treats white, heterosexual culture as the only reality that exists, as if it were the only culture that could indicate anything important about gender relations. She says very little about straight men who feel oppressed by the need to "be men" or to embrace conventional "manliness." And despite her fixation on pole dancers - she mentions them obsessively, once every few pages - she interviews not a one. She has plenty to say about their motivations, about their looks, about their victimization, but she doesn't have much to say to the actual people who work the pole. For an author so obsessed with sexual performance and sex work, Levy doesn't engage with many sexual performers. She quotes sporadically from Jenna Jameson's memoir, holds a brief interview with feminist porn director Candida Royalle, and talks to a few of the performers at a "Girls Gone Wild" video shoot. The rest of the book, for the most part, is representation without interaction. This points to one of the key flaws of the book: Levy seems to feel that the sex industry is inherently, irredeemably dirty, and that anyone who participates in it or enjoys it is a woman-hater or a victim. Rather than wanting it to change, she wants it to go away. She does make some fairly compelling statements about women owning their bodies and their sexualities, rather than imitating a commercial brand of "hotness," but too much of her book seems to echo the famous second-wave idea that "if pornography is a part of your sexuality, then you have no right to your sexuality." Instead of offering alternatives, she corrals sexuality into a retro moralism.


Blogger Knitty Kitty said...

very interesting.. I love a good book review.
The question of porn comes up when people find out you are a feminist, and its a perplexing question.
Most mainstream porn involves sex acts that aren't inherently gratifying for a woman, and can make them not all that fun for a woman to watch. Porn for women, by women and gay porn are an important equation.

Sometimes writers forget there are cultures other than their own, and that can be sad.

Great posts all around!

9:15 PM  

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