Most of the time, the phrase“I had to recover from that experience” is not intended to be complementary. My response to Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Ranch Culture is a wonderful exception to that rule. Levy takes on a range of issues related to our cultural view of women– and in particular, women’s sexuality–in 21st century America with a well-negotiated balance of unflinching frankness and true professionalism. Levy, a columnist for the New York Times, discusses both male and female attitudes toward women in a “post-feminist” America with a journalistic restraint that, if anything, makes the disheartening portrait she renders even more poignant.
When I said that I had to recover from Levy’s work, I wasn’t kidding. She fills her discussion with disheartening statistics and sometimes disturbing imagery that speaks volumes without any help from outside commentary; however, the overall picture of women, sex, and gender relations in our culture is just as fascinating and insightful as it is incredible. Levy draws from a broad range of arenas and topics—including television, literature, modern publishing, the sex industry, and the history of feminism—to discus a drastic shift in the modern understanding of Feminine “empowerment.”
Levy’s work is a complex look at femininity that considers women from a variety of age demographics and walks of life, raising a hundred fascinating questions as it seeks to understand its subject from a variety of different angles.
This attempt to include such a broad scope in such a short piece (the 2005 edition is a modest 200 pages) left me slightly inundated in the best way as I tried to wade through the variety of delicious ideas and tantalizing questions and emerge with an overreaching message. In the end, I have to admit that there are several, but the one that hit me the hardest, as an Amateur Feminist, was the shift in definition of terms like “empowerment” and “liberation.” Throughout the work, Levy points out the employment of these terms in our culture as compared to their original meanings during the early years of the Women’s Rights movement, illustrating just how badly these ideas are misused and misunderstood. Levy creates a portrait of gross distortion and re-definition that would have Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem weeping in the corner in sack cloth and ashes.
I will be thinking—and probably writing—about the ideas and arguments that Levy lays out here for a while, and I look forward to giving the whole, wonderful ride a re-read one day soon. For anyone interested in the history of feminism, the current cultural climate toward women, or the impact of media on female sexuality, to miss out on this book would be to miss out on a pure pleasure.