What happened to feminism? Ariel Levy asks. Her book explores how a predominant culture of ‘surfaces’ has produced women who admire ‘sexiness’ without necessarily being sexual. What happened to pleasure?The interviews Levy presents and the sub-cultures (eg. ‘Girls Gone Wild’) she immerses herself in are disturbing, in that most of these women feel lost and confused despite being accepted for their looks and their ability to plasticise sensuality. It’s also disturbing that raunch and pornography has reached a level of accepted normality in western culture. What kind of a world is it when Hugh Hefner believes himself a liberator of women, when he keeps ‘bunnies’ young enough to be his granddaughters under strict control in a gated mansion? Others can look but not touch.
One thing lacking from Levy’s book is a counter-argument, interviews with women who are either not aspiring to female chauvinism, who may be collecting notches in their belt for true satisfaction, or who are all out feminists in the 70s liberatory style. Perhaps she couldn’t find too many of these women, or perhaps she just felt so strongly about her point that she didn’t want to contradict it. The problem is, at times the narrative is confused within itself. Levy seems to enjoy ‘Sex and the City’ for its entertainment value, but then believes it may have had an adverse effect on female attitudes. She notes how integrated the show is with consumerist culture, displaying shoes and handbags as interchangeable as boyfriends. But then, she notes, buying expensive shoes is Carrie’s way of asserting her independence.
Levy has a very strong point in that there is a danger for young people in confusing sexual visuality with sexual desire or pleasure. And due to the levels of exposure of sexual imagery, and sexual denotation, children and young teenagers are ‘experimenting’ as play, well before they are actually aroused by one another. Levy interviews high-school students and finds that the more ‘skanky’ ones are considered popular. Again, though, it doesn’t look like she attempted to interview the quiet, bookish girl, or any other group besides those indulging in these behaviours. Perhaps she would have found that behind their back, these ‘popular’girls are not respected by everyone just because they wear a ‘headband’ for a skirt.
Levy explores a short history of feminism, its subgroups and its manifestations in literature and other industries. She also looks at lesbian culture and questions how ‘liberating’ it is to ‘act like a man’. She wonders where women and society have gone wrong as they no longer seem to define themselves as a sex with unique attributes, equal to man without an aspiration to be him. This argument is very strong. If the trend of female chauvinism and raunch culture pervades, it is true that there will not only be lost women out there, but unsatisfied men. While men naturally enjoy the visage of a woman, is it healthy for them to grow up with ideals of submissive Barbie dolls who wear masks of pleasure? They themselves will be missing out.
Overall, the book is provoking. And it has caused discussion and debate. It would be great to see a follow-up with some examples of modern-day open-minded feminists that Levy could bring together as a positive ideal. In my own experience, while I have been frustrated time and time again with raunch culture (especially its effect on socialisation), there is most certainly a counter-culture. Many young women know their bodies, find their way through a variety of cultural influences (as we are none of us completely autonomous) and are not saturated by plastic ideals of sexiness. These women have voices, satire, elegance, and often partners (men and women) who happily share in equal pleasures.
See Ariel Levy’s website.