The Sexualized Male: Why Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs is Only Half Right
This view informed Naomi Wolf's influential 1991 best-seller The Beauty Myth: How Images of Women are Used Against Women and featured prominently in Susan Faludi's Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women in chapters titled "Dressing the Doll: The Fashion Backlash" and "Beauty and the Backlash." Most recently it was taken up in Ariel Levy's much-publicized, and critically lauded, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture.
Leaving aside the fact that the book grew out of a series of articles that the author wrote for publications like New York magazine and Slate, and is a case study of the problems of using journalism as cultural criticism, the book can serve as a framework for discussing the limitations of this influential "male gaze" theory, particularly its sexism and its reification of heteronormativity.
Levy lays out two problematically simple theses throughout the book. First of all, she claims that there is a new figure in popular culture, both behind the scenes of the cultural stage and in front of it: the female chauvinist pig. She defines this figure as "women who make sex objects of other women and of ourselves." If one removes the tone of moral indignation implied in the title, this is simply a restatement of John Berger's more rigorous conclusion about a specific art practice.
In fact, Levy's real interest lies in her discovery that, at the level of cultural production, women who are in positions of power at corporations such as HBO or Playboy, cater to the marketplace and allow production of representations of women that Levy finds degrading. For Levy, these women are "the kind of man we used to call a Male Chauvinist Pig. But no. I'm talking about the Jewish woman of inspiration. I'm talking about an urbane, articulate, extremely successful woman who sits on a high perch in the middle of the mainstream, and I could be talking about any number of other women, because the ideas and emotions...are the status quo." Again, if one removes the tone of politicized indignation and the sexist emphasis on gender, this is simply a restatement of Laura Mulvey's dissection of the patriarchal institutional status quo in cinema.
In even broader terms, Levy argues that this figure is a byproduct – almost an exemplary figure – of what she claims is a "mainstreaming" of raunch culture, a porn sensibility that has invaded American culture producing a situation where "what we once regarded as a kind of sexual expression we now view as sexuality."
Pier Dominguez is an M.A. candidate in American Studies at Columbia University in the City of New York. He is the author of Amy Fisher: Anatomy of a Scandal (2001), Christina Aguilera: A Star is Made (2002), and "From Art Criticism to 'Art' 'Criticism': Susan Sontag to Rosalind Krauss" in States of Art Criticism (forthcoming).