Ariel Levy’s book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture rips the lid off the stunning rise and widespread acceptability of sexist culture in the United States. It investigates a number of cultural phenomena that reveal how pervasive and commonplace the objectification of women is, how normal it has become. It’s about time someone took notice and wrote about the myriad ways that sexist ideas continue to saturate our society. The mainstream media either ignores or endorses these sexist trends. Moreover, for those of us who still believe women are oppressed, the book is a sharp rebuke of the ludicrous idea that raunch culture is a sign that women are liberated – which is what those who produce and profit from the objectification of women would have us believe – both men and women.
Raunch culture is everywhere and impossible to avoid. Its toxic presence is found in all mass media outlets: internet, television, radio, films. And even bars and restaurants.
There has been a truly staggering explosion of television shows whose plots brazenly and unapologetically revolve around displaying women’s body parts. Not a brain to be found. Fembots. Stepford Wives. The success of these shows depends on the copious use of soft-core pornographic imagery. Shows like: Girls Gone Wild, The Real World, Pussycat Dolls Present: Search for the Next Doll, The Bachelor: Officer and a Gentleman, America’s Next Top Model, Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire, and The Girls Next Door. Notice how often women are referred to as “girls.” Decades after the movement for women’s liberation, even a seemingly simple change like referring to females correctly has not been achieved. In most of these programs women compete against each other for male approval and attention. The contestants reinforce the worst female stereotypes, that women are conniving, backstabbing, jealous, insecure, and crybabies. And they are also “bitches,” the second most popular word to refer to women, after “girls.”
The female body has never been under such extreme scrutiny. A punishing beauty and weight standard has been established that doesn’t exist in nature – pert, symmetrical features atop an anorectically thin body with large breasts (pejoratively called “tits-on- sticks,” think Pamela Anderson). Television, Hollywood (with its obsessive and sick celebrity culture), advertising, music, and the fashion industry all promote these images of women. In order achieve the body type two things are necessary: starvation and surgery. Starving is free, surgery costs money. Enter the cosmetic surgery industry which creates and defines images (often unattainable) of women’s beauty, and depends on women feeling insecure and dissatisfied with their bodies. Dolly Parton said in an interview that when she sees a part of her body that is “dragging, sagging or bagging,” she opts for surgery.
The latest offering from the industry: labiaplasty. It’s a surgical reduction and reshaping of the labia minora–the “inner lips” that cover the vaginal opening and clitoris. Lovely. No one really noticed a woman’s labia minora until the waxing-off of all pubic hair (the infamous Brazilian bikini wax) became the rage. What’s next? What’s left? Surgical interventions are not being offered to modify men’s genitalia, of course. But what about all those hanging, swinging, and sagging scrotal sacks? Surely there is a surgical procedure to lift and tighten up those “balls-in-a-bag.”
The international restaurant chain, Hooters, (the word is slang for women’s breasts) are playboy clubs that masquerade as eating establishments. Business is booming. They are disgusting places that lure customers with the promise of being served by young, large breasted women while drinking beer and eating lousy, overpriced fried food. But no one goes to Hooters expecting great food, they expect something else. An all female waitstaff called “Hooters Girls” are required to wear the Hooters Girl uniform (there’s that word again.) It consists of a tight white tank top, skimpy orange shorts, and suntan hose. It’s a new version of the playboy bunny outfit, more athletic and bouncy, no bunny ears or cottontail, now that would be sexist. The website explains, “There is no set requirement in order to be a nearly World Famous Hooters Girl! We look for the All-American cheerleader/Surfer-Girl-Next-Door image to fill our restaurants. In other wordsvery bubbly, outgoing personalities.” But what about large mammary glands? That isn’t a requirement to be a Hooters Girl? Filthy Liars.
The Hooters Empire is vast, much like the Playboy Empire. There is a Hooters magazine, a Hooters Girl of the Month, and affiliations with NASCAR and other sports franchises. At many Hooters, Mondays are “Military Mondays,” 10% off with a military ID. Hooters even raises money for charity – they have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to breast cancer research and to a former Hooters Girl who has breast cancer.
Now close your eyes and imagine this: a restaurant chain called “Dicks” that entices its customers with the opportunity to be served by an exclusively young male staff dressed in skintight orange shorts that accentuate their penises. Dick’s signature dish is a kosher, all-beef hot dog that can be served “All The Way.” And Dicks donates money to prostate and penile cancer research. Laughable if it wasn’t so degrading.
The widespread acceptance of raunch culture has legitimized the use of pornography and glamorized prostitution. >From Julia Roberts in the film Pretty Woman, to Demi Moore in Striptease, the cruel realities of prostitution are sanitized. There are more “Men’s Magazines” published (Maxim) and they’re no longer considered “dirty” and hidden in boxes in closets or under the bed. Now they are on coffee tables and in waiting rooms. Hanging out in strip clubs, which are never called that, but instead “Gentleman’s Clubs” (a misnomer if there ever was one), watching women pole dance and lap dance is just good, clean fun – entertainment. Sex workers are now “stars.”
No one exemplifies this trend more than Jenna Jameson whose 577 page autobiography including nude photos, How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, A Cautionary Tale, was on the New York Times Bestseller list. Jameson is one of the most successful and highly paid actresses in porn. She credits Howard Stern with jump-starting her career, and dated Tommy Lee of Motley Crue and Marilyn Manson. Her book is required reading for anyone who wants to understand how women get into the porn industry and how sex work degrades them and makes a normal life virtually impossible. Jameson is both a victim and a survivor. Her life is marked by drug addiction, horrific violence and alienation. A relative of one of her boyfriends attempted to rape her (she was able to fight him off), and while living in a small town in Montana, Jameson was brutally beaten, gang raped, and left for dead in a field by four male athletes. She woke up, staggered home, her eye swollen shut, body bruised and bleeding, and never told anyone what happened to her. To see how she is doing, check out her website: www.clubjenna.com .
We will need another women’s liberation movement to challenge raunch culture and the sexism that is so endemic in this society. That movement couldn’t come too soon.
HELEN REDMOND is a licensed clinical social worker in Chicago and a contributor to the International Socialist Review.