Ariel Levy wrote Female Chauvinist Pigs in 2006 and I’ve been wanting to read it for a while. The book is a critique of one element of third wave feminism: raunch culture. She makes a fascinating argument, attributing raunch culture to the confusions of the women’s lib movement and the masked patriarchy it has resulted in.
Crash Course in the History of Feminism
The first wave of feminism happened circa 1900 when women decided they wanted the vote. They were fighting for intellectual recognition. The second wave happened during the 60s and 70s and called themselves the women’s liberation movement. When most of us hear this, we think of a stereotyped feminism – it’s all about girl empowerment, burning your bra, having hairy legs, hating men, legalising abortions, etc. The Third Wave is a reaction to that, more of a social phenomenon than a movement. It’s about saying, actually, I don’t have to fit into that stereotyped role. I can express my sexuality as I want to – from wearing a push up bra to staying at home with my children. Where the second wave celebrated femininity by re-defining roles for women, the third wave purports to celebrate femininity by empowering women to choose for themselves, free of expectations from other women.
Raunch culture is the part of Third Wave feminism which sees women on the more extreme end buying Playboy and going to strip clubs and women on the less extreme end of things wearing rabbit heads on their lingerie and taking burlesque dancing classes with their girlfriends. Playboy CEO Christie Hefner (yes, she’s Hugh’s daughter) says it’s about choosing to be in control of your body, unembarrassed about sex. But Levy sees the roots of this in the unresolved issues of the second wave. One of the early debates in feminism was about pornography. At first, they campaigned against it because it objectified women (and some even joined forces with conservative lobby groups to do so!) But which was better – to campaign against it or to defend a liberated woman’s right to look at or star in it?
Levy argues that this confusion has led to a degrading of femaleness, that women do not know how to cope with their sexuality. There are two strategies to employ: “either acting like a cartoon man – who drools over strippers [and] says things like “check out that ass”… or acting like a cartoon woman, who has big cartoon breasts, wears little cartoon outfits and can only express her sexuality by spinning around a pole.” It’s all about power – power over other women by objectifying them like a man; or power over men by being desired by men. One of the people she interviewed said she would never be a stripper but would love to feel like one. And so while the Third Wave purports to celebrate femininity, it does so on a man’s terms. Women themselves sell out to patriarchy and themselves become female chauvinist pigs.
Levy’s Problem with Raunch Culture
Levy says this is the very core of the problem. Women are competing to ‘get the guy’ and so, movies like He’s Just Not That Into You are shaped around helping women to discover, not who they are or what they want, but what men want and how to please them. The Third Wave, says Levy is not about female empowerment, but about women once again falling prey to the standards set by men. Whether it’s becoming a slave to his desire or feeling the need to be ‘like a man’ women are defined in relation to men. Levy believes that our so called sexual freedom is a smoke screen for how far we haven’t come. She sees raunch culture as “a testament to what’s still missing from our understanding of human sexuality with all of its complexity and power.”
Diagnosing the real problem
Yes, Ariel! There’s a big hole in our understanding of sexuality – knowing the creator God who designed sexuality and made us for his pleasure and each other’s gain. If we try to do sexuality apart from him, we will always end up in a mess.
As I read Levy’s book, it was like opening up a ‘how-to’ of the Fall. Men and women are set against each other; women and women are set against each other. There is a grab for power, at the expense of the sanctity of one’s own sexuality and at the expense of others’ worth. This is women trying to be “like a man” or to dominate a man. This is not a new idea – Lisa Bevere made similar comments in her Fight like a Girl. But it’s much older than that too. The curse to the woman in Genesis 3 says, “your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”. The power imbalance the second wave fought against, repeating itself in the Third Wave, is the result of sin!
A better way
It is Jesus who has defeated sin and brings true liberation. It is his redeemed people who are being set free from the power of sin’s shackles, to live out their sexuality in a God-honouring, people honouring way. And so the Bible has plenty to say about sex. Levy argues that many Third Wave texts such as Sex and the City or He’s Just Not That Into You focus on becoming better discerners of what men want (at the expense of the woman’s dignity and desires) but the Bible affirms the sexual fulfilment of both women and men and mutual service. (see 1 Cor. 7:3-6)
While Levy may scorn the Third Wave appropriation of stereotyped feminine roles such as the bimbo, I suspect that what’s going on there is that that is the most attractive of the roles open to women. It’s the best of a bad lot in a world that has subtly or not so subtly oppressed women for thousands of years. That’s why some women are turning to putting on this masculine role – if you can’t beat them, join them! But there is a third way – an alternative to either objectifying oneself or becoming “like a man”. The Bible’s picture of women is far richer than anything our world can offer. Reading the unabashed celebration of her lover by the Song of Songs maid, the Bible’s celebration and proclamation of true sexual liberation is breathtaking. God’s way offers what neither second or third wave feminism has achieved: safety, fulfilment, honour and empowerment for women.
A way forward
Finally, I think that one of the great strengths of the Third Wave is that there has been a reaction against the stereotyped feminist role of the 60s and 70s. This celebration of femininity leaves room for you to choose how you express that. What that means is that the door is wide open, such as we have never seen in history, for Christian women to have an opinion – and be listened to! What an opportunity to testify to God’s good plan and the work of the gospel in our lives! Girls, we have to work out who we are, what the Bible says about our sexuality and how to live that out. We have to be sure about it and that God’s plan is good! Because women in our world are selling themselves far short of God’s good plan for them. Remember the story of the broken and degraded woman at the well from John 4 and Jesus’ revelation to her that he is the living water? Women in our society are broken and degraded too and they also need the living water of Jesus. Let’s offer it to them!
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.