On Female Objectification

I had a one-night stand with Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvenist Pigs last night. It swept me off my feet with its promising premise, and it was really quite good… I suppose… while it lasted. But her analysis seemed to climax a bit early and left me feeling unfulfilled and cold.

Ms. Levy’s arguments appeared to boil down to more-or-less as follows: Women are confusing power and attention and oversexualizing to get attention, resulting in 1) a growing schism between actually-powerful women of business and all other American women and 2) a generation of girls that don’t understand their sexuality. “Why is this the ‘new feminism’ and not what it looks like: the old objectification?” she asks, concluding that “The truth is that the new conception of raunch culture as a path to liberation rather than oppression is a convenient (and lucrative) fantasy with nothing to back it up.”

I think that’s a great claim to make.  But by the early end of the book, I was saddened by Levy’s inability to push her analysis out of now-classic feminist gender studies. On the one hand, I find her personal perspectives on terms and definitions positively endearing — for example:

To me, “sexy” is based on the inexplicable overlap of character and chemicals that happens between people… the odd sense that you have something primal in common with another person whom you may love, or you may barely even like, that can only be expressed through the physical and psychological exchange that is sex. When I’m in the plastic “erotic” world of high, hard tits and long nails and incessant pole dancing… I don’t feel titillated or liberated or aroused. I feel bored, and kind of tense.

which, of course, echoes the effect that Albert Camus noted where excessive lust piles up into “that dreary accumulation of erotic and criminal scenes in Sade’s novels, which, paradoxically, leaves the reader with the impression of a hideous chastity.” On the other hand, she seems to be basing a substantial amount of her concern about feminine sexual maladjustment caused by rauch’s monopolization of mindshare as distracting from transcendental effect that fulfilling sexual fantasies should be producing in women. Now I’m going to ignore that she seems to think men (generally, but not quite categorically) are adequately fulfilled by climax just like she ignored Nietzsche claiming that all women (categorically) wanted was to be pregnant, but I am going to bring in Foucault via Gutting:

[A]m I really freeing myself, or am I just reshaping my life in accord with a new set of norms? Isn’t promiscuity as demanding an ideal as monogamy, the imperative to be sexually adventurous as burdensome as a prudish limitation to the missionary position? … in both cases, the acceptance may merely be an internalization of external norms. The irony of our endless preoccupation with our sexuality… is that we think that it has something to do with liberation.

Put another way, Levy’s objection that

Raunch culture isn’t about opening our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality. It’s about endlessly reiterating one particular — and particularly commercial — shorthand for sexiness.

sets a necessary assumption that we should have Freedom To open our minds to the possibilities and mysteries of sexuality instead of just the Freedom To check into the Heathman (and we’ll come right back to that). But what Foucault got to is where Erich Fromm was at earlier than that: that Freedom To do something may be liberating but Freedom From being, or even just feeling, compelled to do it is liberation. Levy isn’t wrong to attack the monopoly, but she is wrong to set up a teleological objective for sexuality — remember, Stalin’s gulags were justified by the teleological goals of the USSR and don’t rely on the day after tomorrow to make you feel better about a dumb decision tonight, and that’s even before the lexicon of the new goal gets corrupted by Herd Poison to bring us right back to raunchy base sexuality on display.

I’d like to go on a brief tangent here to the Heathman. TheLastPsychiatrist wrote a blurb about Fifty Shades of Grey that leaves me unsurprised: “the book captures precisely the ambivalence of a modern woman: the only thing she’s not allowed to do is not desire everything.” (Emphasis added.) Compare this to Brené Brown’s analysis of shame in women (at 15:56, but the whole speech is good): “For women, shame is do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you sweat… Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be.” There was a book on how to sell to women called Women Want More, but this very obviously feeds that shame of not being able to do it all because the point is to sell them not quite enough, and prompted me to — tongue-in-cheek — riposte that “Women Need Less,” concluding that “The thing to remember is that ultimately you can’t just pay somebody else to be happy for you, so get your priorities straight.” And I advocate that for both men and women.

A word on the power of priorities: One of my friends mentioned that I always seem so happy, which surprised me. But on reflection, I was doing what I’d chosen to do, having rejected the things I chose to not do; what could I have been unhappy about at that moment? Happiness for me is doing now what I choose to do now with such certainty that I’ll be unable to utterly regret it in the future.

One of the things that I like about Levy’s journalistic style in Female Chauvinist Pigs is that she doesn’t turn away from the loathing, contempt, debasement, or flat-out regret coming out as afterthoughts of the interviewees. She sums up the frequent experience as such:

[W]omen in America don’t want to be excluded from anything anymore: not the board meeting or the cigar that follows it or, lately, even the trip to the strip club that follows that. What we want is to be where it’s at, and currently that’s a pretty trashy place.

And this brings me to the other element she stopped short of, which is capitalism and leisure class economics. In Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen posits — in an atrocious writing style — that wealth is an evolved sign of one’s ability to get away with “exploits,” from (historically) pillaging a neighboring village to (more recently and potentially) managing a hedge fund, and that wealth is displayed via conspicuous consumption, either by the self or vicariously through one’s chattel. And the way Veblen writes about this sounds really kind of sexist, except that he was writing about prehistory evolving into the present in 1899 some two decades before (white) women had a certain right to vote in the United States.

So, bearing the consideration that many capitalists maintain an objective of joining the leisure class and demonstrate their progress via conspicuous consumption, let’s review Levy’s look at successful businesswomen:

Women who’ve wanted to be perceived as powerful have long found it more efficient to identify with men than to try and elevate the entire female sex to their level… There is a certain kind of woman—talented, powerful, unrepentant—whom we’ve always found difficult to describe without some version of the phrase “like a man,” and plenty of those women have never had a problem with that. Not everyone cares that this doesn’t do much for the sisterhood.

Levy’s postulation becomes incoherent when you replace “man” with “capitalist” because there’s no apparent dichotomy between “woman” and “capitalist” like there is between “woman” and “man.” The grand Sisterhood she appeals to was, historically and from a capitalist perspective, the subset of poor people with boobs. And this shows up in the way numerous interviewees describe girls, for example:

“Yeah, we’re all women, but are we supposed to band together?” said Anyssa. “Hell, no. I don’t trust women. Growing up, I hung out with all guys… these are the first girls I ever hung out with who had the same mentality as me and weren’t going to starve themselves and paint their nails every fucking second. I’ve never been a girly-girl, and I’ve never wanted to compete in that world. I just didn’t fit in.”

Anyssa’s use of the term “girly-girl” isn’t an anatomical designation; it’s a euphemism for “over-entitled under-achiever.” And while I’d like to blame Disney for this, since every girl is a princess who just has to wait around being pretty enough for a prince to claim and then die (or at least vanish mysteriously) after having a child, I’d rather stick with Levy as she goes after Sex and the City:

Rather than the egalitarianism and satisfaction that was feminism’s initial promise, these sexual marketplaces offer a kind of limitless tally. Like the teenagers who put the cart before the horse and want to “get” sex before they feel desire, the protagonist of Sex and the City often thought more about the way she was experienced than about what she was experiencing. She usually “couldn’t help but wonder” what was going on in the head of the man she was seeing, and rarely evaluated her own happiness as such.

What I noticed about Sex and the City, other than it seemed to be an American import of Absolutely Fabulous by some people who weren’t in on the joke, was how little time any of the women spent actually working in such a way that would allow them to afford their lifestyles and the ability to “paint their nails every fucking second.” Only Miranda seemed to have an actual career, which seemed to be represented by her spending less time on-screen. (I didn’t really track that, I’m just going with empiricism — can somebody with a stopwatch and a fanaticism confirm or deny that Miranda had the least amount of screen time for at least the first two seasons?) While Levy — rightly — sees how Sex and the City puts sex before identified desire, I’m looking at how it puts consumption before income. And this is what become relevant when Levy considers what an interviewee told her:

[W]hat is Frailey’s primary explanation for why she enjoys a “titty bar”? “The bored looks on their faces” when the dancers in “those really tacky high-heeled white patent leather pumps” are “just staring up at the ceiling.” That is not a description of arousal, it is a description of barely muffled contempt. Why would you take pleasure in seeing a person wear a compromising costume and watching the tedium of her life unfold? Because you felt she deserved it.

Put bluntly, the money is power being deployed to demonstrate conspicuously to the point of spectacularly that The Socioeconomic Woman Can Consume. At this point, gender stops being about masculine and feminine and starts being about rich and poor, about power and coercion. And there’s plenty of appearance and feeling of power in having the Freedom To start something and then Freedom To stop it again on a whim, especially if people you might identify with don’t have that freedom. But that only brings me back to Guttering paraphrasing Foucault: “What we may think is our freedom is, like modern sexual liberation, only an internalization of the constraints of power relations.” And when we compare Levy’s adolescent trends:

We are doing little to help them differentiate their sexual desires from their desire for attention… These are not stories about girls getting what they want sexually, they are stories about girls gaining acclaim socially, for which their sexuality is a tool.

to Graham’s:

We have a phrase to describe what happens when rankings have to be created without any meaningful criteria. We say that the situation degenerates into a popularity contest. And that’s exactly what happens in most American schools. Instead of depending on some real test, one’s rank depends mostly on one’s ability to increase one’s rank.

we ought to be wondering if there’s something more systemic that we’re not seeing.

I was reminded across the course of this past year about what differentiates the adult from the student. My students are going to debate tournaments and hoping to not just win, but also have some physical token to show for it. When I was their age, I accumulated rather a lot of those physical tokens which were later given away or repurposed or simply thrown out (except for one). And I didn’t even notice because I’ve got gainful employment and tokens and accouterments of actual socioeconomic power.

So what I would suggest in conclusion, to cross the economic power gap that Levy saw but did not describe as such, is three things:

  1. We need more successful women in business, and business to support women being visible role-models of socioeconomic achievement. Have I pointed out how awesome Diane Bryant is lately? How about Genevieve Bell? I don’t think I’ve mentioned Nicole Sullivan, which is a major oversight on my part because she’s super awesome too.
  2. We need more entertainment that does, in fact, feature women Working for a Living. Most of the bits of 30 Rock I’ve seen have featured Tina Fey’s character at work. Imagine that. Oh wait, we don’t have to, it’s on our television (or Hulu or whatever). Similarly, while I’m not a fan of the Crime & Punishment genre, I would give props to the Law & Order ilk for showing women at work. I recall hearing that NCIS had a “perky goth” lady that listened to Collide — an actual indie band that also works for a living. So can we be done with this strange notion that shows featuring women not working are empowering? (Answer: No, because that’s how the leisure class not-works. Argh.)
  3. We need to provide adolescents more meaningful opportunities for socioeconomic advancement. Which is going to be hard because the overall system is working on cracking itself like a crab-leg, but if we don’t set an alternative metric and — critically — a meaningful metric, then schools are going to continue being cesspits of popularity contests among young people prematurely burning through their 15 minutes of fame. Ideas welcome.

By way of postscript, however, there were a couple of other things I noticed about Levy’s book in terms of design and editorial choices that I didn’t care for, but didn’t really mitigate the quality of the book.  First, I read a lot of stories about Miami, San Francisco, and New York. But what about my town?

Even though Portland is the only town that seems eager to claim the ranking of most strip clubs per capita, so why not just keep the crown on the Rose City? “If anyone could make the title of more strip clubs per capita look good, it’s Portland, Oregon,” says Voge.

we didn’t warrant any particular scrutiny. Okay, so I wouldn’t want to scrutinize us either — but it’s still a pretty glaring oversight in the journalism.  Secondly, if you are an enlightened and sensitive kind of guy reading this book, you are going to be lonely.  While Levy occasionally acknowledges that you might exist, she’s much more interested in making her point than making you feel included.  I didn’t have much problem with this excepting the points where females had the options of individuality while males were addressed as an aggregate pack (presumably of dogs).  But I read sexist pigs like Nietzshe, Jung, and Feynman, so I can overlook this — unlike Bollick who not only grossly over-generalized, but also ignored her own evidence.

But what have you just read?  Well, the pervasiveness of power has me promoting capitalistic achievement while disavowing ongoing teleological goals from external sources.  That’s totally a weakness in my position which will probably bite me when I’m 50 and ready to retire to a career that is noble rather than lucrative but don’t because I’m in the habit of being well-paid.  Shawn Achor describes this in the single best 12-minute speech I’ve seen in my life when he says:

[E]very time your brain has a success, you just changed the goalpost of what success looked like. You got good grades, now you have to get better grades, you got into a good school and after you get into a better school, you got a good job, now you have to get a better job, you hit your sales target, we’re going to change your sales target. And if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never gets there. What we’ve done is we’ve pushed happiness over the cognitive horizon as a society. And that’s because we think we have to be successful, then we’ll be happier.

And when this is internalized, it’s because it’s easier to change your goals than to change your practices such that you’re doing something new.  If I’m in the 75th percentile for household income, I want to be in the 80th, vague long-term-plans of nobility and altruism be put on indefinite hold.  If Annie — one of Levy’s interviewees near the end of the book — can have unsatisfying sex with 35 guys, then of course she might as well go for 100.  After Faust gets domestic with Helen he… actually realizes there’s nothing more to really pursue there, so he goes and does something else — and that’s part of why Goethe’s Faust, Part 2 is epic mythology.

In the end, the point I’m trying to make is not, as Foucault wrote, “sex is boring,” and certainly isn’t “don’t wear that phenomenally sexy leather top and come-hither thigh-high stockings.”  The point I’m trying to make is this: separate yourself from false dichotomies, find and think about a plethora of options, and then conscientiously  choose the one that is most likely to make you the person you want to be now, fully aware that whoever you’ll be in the future is going to be stuck with who you are now.  Even if you’re going back to Fake Option #1, you’re doing it because you’ve considered what it is, not that it’s just better than Fake Option #2.  And that’s how you get away from having the Freedom To choose option 1 or 2 and move toward Freedom From being pressured into sub-optimal decision-making and identity-building.