Journalist Urges Reconsideration of “Raunch Culture”

Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, spoke at Garrison Theater on Tuesday. The talk was part of Scripps College’s Alexa Fullerton Hampton Speaker Series: Voice and Vision.

Levy’s speech drew on her experience interviewing and researching for Female Chauvinist Pigs, which addresses the contemporary confusion of liberation with raunchiness, of feminism with self-objectification.

About seven years ago, Levy joked, she turned on the TV to find “there was always a show on about strippers.” The rise of reality TV was hitting its stride, with shows like “The Bachelor” and “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” typifying a trend of women flaunting not their sexuality but their willingness to turn themselves into sex objects for attention.

“Attention’s not the same thing as power,” Levy said.

A key ingredient of what Levy has termed “raunch culture” is the “cartoonish images of women” increasingly visible on reality TV shows and music videos, among other places. Levy quoted from a 1967 interview with Hugh Hefner, in which he explained his choice of the bunny as the Playboy symbol for its “shy, vivacious, jumping, sexy” qualities. He condemned, on the other hand, the “femme fatale” who “wears elegant underwear, with lace, and is sad, and somehow mentally filthy.”

Levy emphasized Hefner’s unapologetic double-standard: a woman who gets pleasure out of wearing lace is “mentally filthy” but the bunny-like girl—who gives pleasure to men, demanding none for herself—is his ideal.

Levy acknowledged that this belittling image of women has been around for a long time in pornography. But until recently, porn was seen as “sleazy and antifeminist,” she said. Now, as former adult film star Traci Lords said in 2003, “It’s everywhere.”

“Women edit magazines like Maxim and make programs like The Man Show and Girls Gone Wild,” Levy writes in Female Chauvinist Pigs. Christie Hefner—Hugh’s daughter—served as chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises for more than 20 years. Why, Levy asked, do women allow and even perpetuate Hugh Hefner’s ideal?

Female participation in raunch culture is increasing, and increasingly mainstream. While interviewing women for her book, Levy found that those who watched porn or went to strip clubs did so because they “didn’t want to be seen as girly-girls…No one could ever say that they were prissy little women.”

This misunderstanding of “exhibition as empowerment” is an ongoing problem for feminism. “How to have sex and how to represent sex have always been complicated issues for the women’s movement,” Levy said.

From the passage of the 19th amendment through the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Levy explained, the focus of feminism was a “politics of equality.” However, the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant marked a turning point for the women’s movement. Women had fought to be seen as equals in the law and in the workplace, and now wanted to be equals – not objects—in the bedroom as well.

Feminism began “encouraging the lady of the house to have orgasms and arguments,” Levy said. But the problem of how these orgasms should be discussed in the public sphere remained a problem.

“What the radical feminist movement didn’t succeed in was figuring out how to represent sex,” Levy said, discussing the “porn wars” of the 1980s and ‘90s. She added that raunch culture is the “residue of this confusion.”

“I don’t think our culture is necessarily oversexed,” Levy clarified. But she thinks that sex is being marketed as Brazilian waxes and lap dances, rather than recognized as more than the sum of these parts.

The goal of raunch culture is not, Levy said, enhancing or enabling female pleasure. Instead, raunch culture encourages an imitation or performance of that pleasure. Levy, who interviewed high school students while writing Female Chauvinist Pigs, fears that girls “are being taught that it’s their job to perform.” More and more, she said, this lesson occurs before girls even know what they themselves find sexy or pleasurable.

“You don’t want to take something that personal from the outside,” Levy said. She argued that more sex education is needed in America, to provide young people with an understanding of sex that doesn’t revolve around Playboy bunnies and porn.

“The way things are right now is not good for girls,” Levy said. “We have more freedom and more power, economically and politically, than ever before…We’re ahead in all these quantitative ways and behind in this much murkier one.”

Levy’s talk touched on feminist issues other than the rise of raunch culture, including the presence of women in the 2008 election. (Levy covered the election for The New Yorker and other publications.)

“The success…and language of the women’s movement have been used to justify all sorts of things,” she said, on the nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

Levy was critical of Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez’s anger that more women didn’t “get behind Palin.”

“It’s not about fairness or parity, it’s not equal-pay-for-equal-work—which we still don’t have,” Levy noted. “When the candidate is underqualified, you can’t talk about fairness. It’s identity politics.”

Levy did address the interesting fact that Palin was able to portray herself to the public as a traditional woman and mother, despite being the governor of Alaska. The fact that we don’t stutter over that juxtaposition, Levy said, is a mark of how much feminism has accomplished.

After delivering her speech, Levy fielded questions from the audience. Among other topics, she defended her decision to include “female” in the book’s title. She acknowledged that men play a significant role in the dominance of raunch culture, pointing out, “[Women] are not coming from a free place. That’s the problem.”

However, Levy said, “Those books have already been written.”

Levy urged the audience to pursue the problem of raunch culture, whether through writing, conversation, or another medium altogether.

“Why are we buying into this?” Levy said. “We have the power to do something about this.”

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