The title of Ariel Levy’s book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, seems at first a paradox. In the post-feminist world that we live in, women continue to serve as advocates for their independence and freedoms—right? As Levy astutely points out on her website, ariellevy.net, “just because we are post- doesn't automatically mean we are feminists.” It turns out that “chauvinist” isn’t a gendered term at all; men and women alike have the capacity to act in anti-feminist ways.
Levy, who has appeared on The Colbert Report, Oprah and NPR’s Fresh Air, spoke in the Fillius Events Barn on Tuesday. Establishing her candid speaking style right from the start of her talk, she greeted the audience, “Hi, giant hoard of young people.” A graduate of Wesleyan University, Levy felt right at home on a NESCAC campus, in the company of liberal arts students.
Levy began her journalistic career working for CBS as a Late Show with David Letterman page. Then, she took an intern position at New York Magazine and remained on the publication’s staff as a writer for 12 years. An article she wrote for the magazine served as the basis for Female Chauvinist Pigs.
“Every time I’d turn on the television, there was something on about strippers,” Levy said. She described the programs as “harem-themed” and focused upon “who could seem the most insanely exhibitionistic.”
Shows like these make up just a part of what Levy calls “raunch culture,” which thrives on “cartoonish images of female sexuality.” Raunch culture arose, Levy said, to provide “an antidote to the humorlessness of the politically correct language from the ’80s.”
In part, Levy said, women felt a need to rebel against the generation that preceded their own—their mothers, the feminists. But on the other hand, some women felt that, through their exhibitionistic behavior, they were “continuing the work of the Women’s Movement” and empowering themselves.
“We’d earned the right to dress like strippers,” Levy said these women believed. Adopting an “if we can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality, some women resolved that the next step in the movement was to level with men and partake in their own objectification.
For her book, Levy interviewed Christie Hefner, former CEO of Playboy Enterprises. The way Hefner saw it, the “post-sexual revolution, post-women’s movement generation… has just a more grown-up, comfortable, natural attitude about sex and sexiness that is more in line with where guys were a couple generations before.” To Hefner, the Playboy bunny serves as a symbol of these values.
On the other hand, Hefner’s father, Hugh, selected the bunny as Playboy’s icon for its “shy, vivacious, jumping, sexy” traits. He perceived it as wholesome, in contrast to the “femme fatale… sad, and somehow mentally filthy.”
“We’re fighting to be real people, formidable people—not sudsy bunnies,” said Levy.
When asked how he would feel if his daughter were to pose for Playboy, Hefner said that he would be fine with Christie putting on a show, of sorts, but that he would never encourage her promiscuity—a striking double standard.
Levy pointed next to Britney Spears, who—during her prime—was fetishized for embodying this same double standard.
“She was a ‘virgin,’” she said. “Everyone was watching her slither, but inside, she was clean and pure.”
“That’s why you have sex workers at the top of this raunch culture,” Levy explained. “They’re faking lust.” What the culture craves most is, in fact, nothing more than “an imitation of an imitation of real pleasure.”
“Raunch culture is not progressive,” Levy asserted. “It’s not free love. It’s commercial; it’s about selling sex.”
Levy noted that the effect of this culture on young girls is especially problematic. “They’re learning that it’s their job to put on a show before they’re old enough to experience desire,” she said.
“It’s not that they’re oversexed,” Levy continued. “They’re reducing sex to something much less complicated and much less interesting than it is.”
With regard to the notion of post-feminism, Levy affirmed that we’re not quite there yet.
“So many of the goals of the Women’s Movement still haven’t been achieved,” she said. Women still receive lower wages than men do, and female veterans return home with PTSD at twice the rate that men do, a statistic largely attributable to sexual assault experienced during service. Levy urged the audience to consider these issues as the 2012 presidential election approaches.
“The point of feminism is to have the courage to question these things,” she said.
After concluding her talk, Levy invited the audience to ask questions. The dialogue that ensued covered topics such as CAKE parties, the reconciliation of feminism and femininity, progress in America and the male reception of Female Chauvinist Pigs.