Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture takes a provocative look at how women in today’s society are seeking empowerment by embracing raunch (a.k.a. porn culture). As Levy describes, a Female Chauvinist Pig is a woman who thinks that by being in on sexist jokes, wearing as little as possible, and either being or seeming to be promiscuous that she is an empowered, liberated woman. But these women are not the projection of liberated feminist womanhood. Rather, they are the projection of womanhood as distorted by the male gaze. These are inauthentic women who believe that by using the tools of porn culture and sexiness they are giving themselves power. In fact, these women are not powerful, nor are they free. They are still living in a world created by men for men. The only real difference is that these women are choosing to objectify themselves rather than be objectified by men. Levy shows many, wide-ranging examples of Female Chauvinist Pigs throughout her book. From the women who throw CAKE parties, to Girls Gone Wild, to teenage girls, Levy shows us a world we don’t often stop to notice: a world where the only thing that women understand is that sex sells and, if you want power, you have to sell yourself.
In Levy’s examination of CAKE parties, we see women putting themselves on display by wandering around scantily clad and performing imitation sex acts on stages while men stand eagerly by to watch the spectacle. Supposedly the women who participate in these parties feel liberated, free, and powerful. The question is, however, would these same women feel liberated, free, and powerful if they were performing like this in front of other women rather than in front of a gaggle of drooling, fist-pumping men? The truth is that this kind of performance is specifically for men. It is for men to look at, for men to experience, for men to enjoy. Which makes one wonder: if the act is strictly for the pleasure of men, in what way is that empowering? It certainly doesn’t help the cause of women all over the globe because it further establishes that women should be viewed as objects for the enjoyment of men instead of thwarting that notion by asserting that women are, in fact, people in their own right and that they do not exist solely for the purpose of pleasuring men or the male ego.
The argument that these and other women make, however, is that by choosing to display their bodies, by choosing to perform in this way, they are liberated. Somehow, the simple act of making the choice is what gives women power. But power is not in the ability to choose. It is in the choices you make. Unfortunately some women don’t realize that they can make the choice not to pander to the male gaze. This is especially true of the young women who end up in the Girls Gone Wild videos. It is also painfully true of today’s teenage girls, or Pigs in Training, as Levy calls them.
The ‘Girls Gone Wild’ are often young women in college who are egged on, either by producers of the series, their friends, or men in nearby crowds, to perform for the camera by flashing their breasts or making out with other girls. Sometimes the girls do these things just to get hats or t-shirts with the Girls Gone Wild logo on them, but sometimes they do these things because they feel they have no choice. And, more often than not, they feel cheapened by and regretful of the experience. During these mob-like experiences however, they feel like they have no choice but to do what is asked of them. The producers of the series will say that this kind of behavior is empowering for these young women, that the young women do it because they love it. They don’t see, or they choose not to see, that this behavior is more about approval and fitting in and going along with the mob mentality. These young women perceive that the only way to get what they want – be it logo-ed merchandise or escaping a mob of horny frat boys – is by flashing their breasts or making out. And while they may feel powerful and sexy at the time, when their cooler heads prevail, they don’t feel quite so free.
Pigs in Training are also seeking acceptance. In fact, they are seeking to be wanted and desired. The sad thing is that these girls don’t even really understand what they themselves want or desire. They do know, however, that in order to be liked, in order to be popular, they must seem as sexy as possible. They must wear the smallest and the fewest clothes they can get away with, they must wear make up and fix their hair just so and they must, above all else, have all the appearances of a girl who ‘gets around’. They understand that ‘sex is bad’, but they also understand that sex is what young boys want, so they do their best to appear as if they can offer everything a teenage boy could dream about. If pressed, they will probably even give a boy oral sex.
These girls see no choices beyond those they feel they have to make in order to be popular, to be liked, to be cool. In what way, then, are they empowered? It is not empowering to be enslaved by an ideal of beauty that is not only unattainable, but unhealthy as well. And it is not empowering to seek to be sexy and sexual before you even understand what those things really mean. These ‘Pigs in Training’ are not learning to be powerful and free, they are learning to be disconnected from their bodies and their own sexuality. They are learning that their own pleasures, wants, needs, and desires do not matter. The only thing that matters is that they are liked and popular and wanted by boys. How, then, are these girls going to learn to be women who are empowered and liberated? They don’t even understand that they can make choices for their lives that don’t revolve around boys.
Far from being the liberated, powerful women they believe themselves to be, Levy shows us that Female Chauvinist Pigs are perhaps even more fully enslaved than their mothers and grandmothers were. Rather than being enslaved by men and patriarchy, they are now enslaving themselves while thinking they are free. The Female Chauvinist Pig locks herself inside a cage that is all the more insidious for the fact that she does not see it and cannot feel it. Worse yet, they are building the cage out of, as Audre Lourdes would put it, “the master’s tools”. They are modeling themselves on a vision of Woman that is seen through the male gaze, and defining themselves according to what men want and need, and acting in ways that they believe men will find more acceptable and inviting, never realizing that they are not acting as empowered women. They are, in fact, acting as empowered men.