Every decade or so, a young, very smart, often photogenic woman comes along and produces a book that identifies an ugly fact of female life in America. Susan Brownmiller, Naomi Wolf and Susan Faludi have all contributed to this canon. Now attempting to join them is Ariel Levy, who presents us with the problem of the moment: young women eagerly participating in their own degradation by dressing, acting and physically remaking themselves as though Hugh Hefner owned the rights to their bodies.
Ms. Levy does a fine job lining up the evidence for the pornification of American women. Her thesis is that the female self-image has a reached a new low. Heiress/porn star/actress Paris Hilton is only the poster girl. Ms. Levy presents dozens of other real-life examples—from middle-class college girls who beg to strip and fake “hot” lesbian action for the Girls Gone Wild cameras to porno writers on the best-seller list, Olympians posing for Playboy, the scary ubiquity of boob and vagina jobs among the middle class, misogynistic San Francisco lesbians remaking themselves as boorish teenage boys, pre-teens in thongs, teen girls hosting “rainbow parties” and, worst of all, women who should know better—well-educated women, veteran female entertainment industry hands—working behind the scenes producing this crap. These are the women Ms. Levy calls Female Chauvinist Pigs.
The premise lacks a wee bit of historical perspective. Anyone remember the 1970’s? At least in the venial-sins department, we’re not that much closer to hell’s burning lake today than we were back then. Coming of age in that raunchy decade, my pre-teen girlfriends and I dressed like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver whenever we could get away with it. Wild horses—let alone our horrified mothers—couldn’t have dragged us away from the blue eye shadow or our tube tops and “hot pants.” And when we graduated from that look, we squeezed ourselves into the slipperiest thigh-slit disco halter dresses and sallied forth to have as much sex as we could procure.
But that was before Ariel Levy’s time. The progeny of two 1960’s radicals, she came of age in the ultra-P.C. 1990’s and was educated at Wesleyan University, where the English department did not offer a class in the Western canon—and actually refused to add one to the curriculum when students asked for it. Instead, students got classes in how to deconstruct porn. (One wonders whether the Wesleyan English department has yet arrived at its “What were we thinking?” moment. Perhaps that’s for Ms. Levy’s next book.)
In any case, she somehow learned how to write very well. This book is deeply researched, sparkling with witty outrage, readable. What’s missing, though, is a stringent analysis of the cause of the problem, the succinct J’accuse.
Reading this litany of “raunch,” I tried to identify the common denominator between this era and that of my sordid youth. The obvious similarity is the high price of oil—perhaps some freakonomist will demonstrate a correlation between the rising price of Saudi crude and the willingness of American girls to dress and act like street whores.
Ms. Levy doesn’t go there. Instead of searching for answers in the larger political-cultural moment—wartime, economic uncertainty, vast right-wing hypocrisy—she looks to the women’s movement of the 1970’s and finds her culprit there. Talk about blaming the victim.
In Ms. Levy’s analysis, the schism that erupted in the women’s movement between the Andrea Dworkin–Catharine MacKinnon anti-porn faction and the “pro-sex” sexual-liberation feminists ultimately left women in a quandary. The women’s movement was blown apart when its leaders split on whether sex with men was tantamount to rape, or pornography was the starting point for liberation. To Ms. Levy, today’s “hot” baby hos are paying the price for this confusion.
She’s quite right that that split was bad news. But the women’s movement was ultimately beaten by the stronger forces of darkness that opposed it, specifically the powerful alliance forged to kill the Equal Rights Amendment, which then brutally turned the argument about women’s liberation away from the finer points—day care and equal pay, for example—and into a desperate trench war simply to keep abortion legal. Distracted for decades by that fundamental threat, the women’s movement has been unable to deliver other benefits that it might once have promised, including offering a path to healthy sexuality and self-image for women.
Though it misplaces the blame, Ms. Levy’s provocative book identifies a trend. The current pornification of America has coincided exactly with the triumph of the right wing. This shouldn’t surprise anyone: Prick a radical conservative and the kink oozes out. You can bet your riding crop that Capitol Hill’s dungeon dominatrices, strip-club owners and proprietors of members-only “swinger” boîtes welcomed four more years of W.
Pundits on the right will of course reply that “blowjob” only became part of the national pre-teen lexicon thanks to Bill Clinton’s lascivious ways. But haven’t Presidents—even Presidents from Texas, where such acts are illegal—always had the pleasure of oral ministration? It took the Republicans to bore a keyhole through which the nation could peer.
Ms. Levy doesn’t have much to say about the right’s taste for voyeurism, though that’s certainly part of the story. She’s too busy damning the plastic-fantastic, pole-dancing, X-rated Paris Hilton version of female sexiness that so many women of all ages, and especially the youngest, have accepted as normal sexuality.
Back in the 1970’s, women expected to enjoy sex—or anyway, my girlfriends and I did. According to Ms. Levy, today’s commodified hotties aren’t in it for fun. She argues that the garish pornification of women’s sexuality, and women’s willingness to go along with it and to pretend to like it, is damaging women. She cites example after example of thong-wearing, blowjob-giving high-school girls admitting to having sex without feeling anything at all, and without expecting to, and of American women everywhere who have completely internalized the notion that their bodies exist not for their own but for male pleasure. She’s right on, if a little gynocentric. She might have discussed how porno makes rotten lovers of men, too.
On so many levels that it would require a full-length term paper to quantify (perhaps some Wesleyan professor of porno deconstruction has already assigned it), George W. Bush is the quintessential Hooters guy. What Ariel Levy’s research shows is that during his ignominious reign, the entire country has become Hooterville—not the mythic cracker town, but a national amusement-park version of the bigbusted franchise. Women’s real sexual needs (such a quaint notion; even quainter to find there’s actually a thoughtful 30-year-old woman still writing about them) are simply irrelevant in a nation where the female role has been reduced to its darkest primordial essence: entertaining the troops.
Nina Burleigh’s most recent book is The Stranger and the Statesman (Perennial); her next book, about the French scientists who founded Egyptology, will be published by William Morrow in June 2006.