This past week, I was able to attend a talk given by Ariel Levy, a journalist and staff writer at the New Yorker, who authored the bookFemale Chauvinist Pigs, which I have not yet read. She also wrote a really fantastic article about Cindy McCain, which I posted to delicious a while back. Her talk was about her book, and about what she calls raunch culture. In a nutshell, raunch culture is the Girls Gone Wild brand of “feminism”…this idea that women who flash their breasts for trucker hats, spin around on poles for money, or wear playboy bunny clothing are in fact empowering themselves by expressing their sexuality. I should note that she was not promoting this viewpoint. Far from it. What she raised were a some very interesting points about where our culture appears to be at this moment, a culture that supports and applauds this brand of false female empowerment. She very adeptly traced some of this back to the feminist movement, in particular the debate about pornography, and whether or not it is empowering or not. Most importantly, though, she pointed out the absurdity that takes place on television every day, on billboards across the country, and in the lives of high school students, who apparently now compete to see who can be sluttier (just another reason to not have kids).
Her talk made me think about a couple of things, which I thought I’d write about. First, is the effect of raunch culture on men. A lot of the conversation at the talk skipped over talking about men at all, besides alluding to the mystical, invisible “they” who are behind the cameras and pulling the strings. This bothered me some, because I think that criticizing raunch culture as something that isn’t actually empowerment, but in reality is consumed as a product, should lead to a discussion about who is doing the consuming. Men are the ones who are being marketed as the consumers of raunch culture. This is done in a very simple way, but one which most people don’t recognize: you develop a television show such as The Man Show, which shows how men are supposed to behave. During commercials you throw in a bunch of commercials about men who drink beer, watch sports, drive fast or big cars, and get beautiful women to swoon whenever they finish shaving. Then you close out the show with women in bikinis jumping on trampolines. Men watch this show, and think, “wow, this is what being a man is? I need to mimic this as much as possible so that my friends don’t think I’m a sissy.”
This type of marketing to men has been going on forever. We have been socially constructed to believe that we have this natural need to reproduce, and that we must use any means necessary to make sure we can do so. If this means overpowering women, so be it. Corporate America has been able to manipulate men in all kinds of ways to consume products that will help us do this: Axe Body Spray, Maxim, and so on all advertise or provide articles that will help us “seduce” women. What raunch culture has done is make women think that, for some reason, giving men what they are told they want is actually empowering. Women are being told that in order to be empowered they should get in touch with their sexuality, and in order to do that they should show their breasts to any camera they can find. Choosing to do this is not empowering; it’s succumbing to societal pressure. So women are behaving in ways that men (supposedly) want them to behave, but they aren’t doing it for men, they are (supposedly) doing it for themselves. But in reality, they aren’t. They are doing it because that’s what they think women are supposed to do, instead of thinking critically about what it is they as humans want to be doing. Same for men. It’s a mess.
We are all caught in this web, and the only way out is to talk about it. To produce dialogue that recognizes where these things are coming from, and what the ramifications are, and how important it is to be cognizant of things that keep us from acting in ways that reflect who we want to be.