I’ve been wondering for years about something in our commonplace culture that encourages women to please men many times over before pleasing themselves. Everywhere I look American women wax, buff, dress skimpily and strut, offering transient enjoyment and asking for transient approval. (UPDATE: This was a bad lead. I should have made it clear that I'm talking only about a very specific style, not female beauty and adornment in general. The topic of Levy's book is raunch culture, the idolization of porn and celebration of stripper-chic. Oonaballoona and team have called me out on this! I suspect that many of these women are talented fashion designers like Oonaballona herself: in no way did I mean to suggest that intelligence and looking good are antipodes. I am following Levy in lamenting a rising tide in American culture that glamorizes the sex industry and pressures women to appear sexually available. Don't take my word for it, just read the book.)
Traveling home yesterday from Sea-Tac to JFK I witnessed several thongs as low-cut jeans rode down. It’s kind of great, for me and other susceptible heterosexual males, anyway...but there’s a hollow note, a chime in the symphony that asks, “What is really going on here? Aren’t all these provocative bodies also supposed to house a brain that is my potential intellectual equal, if not my superior?”
Many of my questions were answered this past weekend while reading Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy. It’s from 2005, and while I wish I’d known about it then, in the last two days I’ve been working overtime to internalize and develop Levy’s strong ideas.
Because of the feminist movement, women today have staggeringly different opportunities and expectations than our mothers did. We have attained a degree of hard-won (and still threatened) freedom in our personal lives. We are gradually penetrating the highest levels of the work force. We get to go to college and play sports and be secretary of state. But to look around, you’d think all any of us want to do is rip off our clothes and shake it.
Some version of a sexy, scantily clad temptress has been around through the ages, and there has always been a demand for smut. But this was once a guilty pleasure on the margins—on the almost entirely male margins. For a trend to penetrate political life, the music industry, art, fashion, and taste the way raunch culture has, it must be thoroughly mainstream, and half that mainstream is female. Both men and women alike seem to have developed a taste for kitschy, slutty stereotypes of female sexuality resurrected from an era not quite gone by. We don’t even think about it anymore, we just expect to see women flashing and stripping and groaning everywhere we look.
One of my favorite parts of the book was a short history of the feminist movement. There’s also a provocative look at the qualities that make an Uncle Tom, and she convincingly applies those parameters to Female Chauvinist Pigs. But really, any page has some insight. Levy is also very funny: the book just soars along.
For me, transcendent art is the ultimate human achievement. If you can take a place at that top table, I’ll overlook all sorts of racism, sexism, or other kinds of negative behavior. Vladimir Nabokov comes to mind, whose supreme ability almost made child molestation acceptable. "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita."
I loved it when Levy pokes fun of a certain kind of East Coast liberalism that can’t agree with this.
I went to Wesleyan University at the height of the “politically correct” craze in the nineties...
...I remember a meeting we once had, as members of the English majors committee, with the department faculty: We were there to tell them about a survey we’d given out to English majors, the majority of whom said they wanted at least one classics course to be offered at our college. We all bought the party line that such a class should never be required because that would suggest that Dead White Men were more important than female and nonwhite writers. But we figured it couldn’t do any harm for them to offer one canonical literature course for those of us who wanted to grasp the references in the contemporary Latin American poetry we were reading in every other class. It seemed like a pretty reasonable request to me. After I made my pitch for it, the woman who was head of the department at that time looked at me icily and said, “I would never teach at a school that offered a course like that.”
It was a pretty weird time. It was not okay to have a class tracing the roots of Western literature, but it was okay to offer a class on porn, as a humanities professor named Hope Weissman did, in which students engaged in textual analysis of money shots and three-ways.
Still, as some kind of old-school leftist, I do see all art as political. “Are you for advancing the human race?” is the question, and “By any means necessary!” should be the answer.
In that regard I appreciate music that is upsetting, destructive, or even nihilist in intent. The most aggressive outbursts of Stockhausen, Black Flag, or Ayler holler, “Let’s wake up! And deal with some of these problems!”
But all the most terrifying Modernist European, Punk, or New Black Music sounds ever made are harmless aural wallpaper compared to the all-out assault of “Game On,” the country-rock anthem written in support of Rick Santorum. This music makes me queasy. It is “anti-art” of the highest order, a bitter pill that makes life suddenly seem worthless.
I link the two beautiful sisters in First Love to the Female Chauvinist Pigs of Levy’s book. Don’t these young damsels know that the feminist battle hasn’t yet been won?
The mothers of some of their classmates know better. The Republican front runners are doing an incredible job of alienating traditionally conservative women nonetheless possessed with a modicum of commonsense.