Monday, September 19, 2005


The NYT book review below is a bit more sensible than the book it reviews but it is still feminist nonsense. She is appalled that lots of women try to please men. But no mention that lots of men also try to please women. And sexy women are VERY bad. That lots of normal women really enjoy normal sex and are selective about their partners seems to be ignored. Most of her data seem to come from lesbians and I am inclined to think that what we read below is essentially a lesbian viewpoint. But the basic folly of both the book and the review is to treat "women" as just one big category. That there are all sorts of women with all sorts of attitudes and behaviour is given very little weight. I am an old guy now but I still have some fairly recent memories and I can assure you that there are lots of modest and respectable women who have a ball behind a closed bedroom door with a valued male partner and regret none of it. THAT in my view is the norm, insofar as there is a norm.

"Reading "Female Chauvinist Pigs," Ariel Levy's lively polemic, gave me an epiphany of sorts. Finally, a coherent interpretation of an array of phenomena I'd puzzled over in recent years: the way Paris Hilton's leaked sex tapes seemed only to enhance her career; the horrifying popularity of vaginoplasty, a surgical procedure designed to make female genitalia more sightly; and a spate of mainstream books about stripping and other sex work, some reviewed in these pages. Levy has a theory that makes sense of all this. Our popular culture, she argues, has embraced a model of female sexuality that comes straight from pornography and strip clubs, in which the woman's job is to excite and titillate - to perform for men. According to Levy, women have bought into this by altering their bodies surgically and cosmetically, and - more insidiously - by confusing sexual power with power, so that embracing this caricaturish form of sexuality becomes, in their minds, a perverse kind of feminism.

Levy's evidence is unsettling: that a number of female Olympic athletes saw fit to pose nude for Playboy before the 2004 games in Athens, for instance, or that Crunch gyms in several American cities offer "Cardio Striptease" classes, where women work out in bras and thongs. Much of the reporting is Levy's own (she writes for New York magazine), and her forays into a "Girls Gone Wild" shoot, several parties hosted by the neo-feminist group Cake, the lesbian subculture of New York and San Francisco, and the private lives of sexually active teenagers make for smart, acerbic reading. She finds a similar geometry in all of the worlds she visits. Women are preoccupied with a "girly-girl" aesthetic originating with strippers and porn stars, but they tend to view these images from a crude, objectifying perspective that has traditionally been male. In the lesbian communities she visits, "bois," many of whom have had "top surgery" to remove their breasts, say things like, "Some of these chicks, it's like you top them once and then they're all up in your face." A female publishing executive boasts of having the largest example of male anatomy in her office. At the Cake parties, promoted by their organizers as "feminism in action," female audience members coolly assess the breast size of women simulating sex onstage.

Levy makes her most daring leap when she likens this reductive female sexuality and its correlative chauvinism to the coping strategies of two of the black characters in Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin": Tom, who tries to fulfill his oppressors' every expectation, and George Harris, who is light-skinned enough to pass for white. In both cases, she writes, a subordinate group embraces stereotypes as a way to gain the dominant group's acceptance. A Female Chauvinist Pig deals with her femaleness by "either acting like a cartoon man - who drools over strippers . . . - 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."

Levy's argument is provocative - and persuasive - as far as it goes. But how far is that? She writes only about people and incidents that illustrate her theory; she doesn't discuss a single pop star or public figure who has escaped the reductive dichotomy of female behavior she describes. Madonna, for example, is mentioned only in passing - a damaging omission, given that she mesmerized a generation of young women by combining girly female sexiness with unmistakable sexual and real-world power. In writing about teenagers, Levy describes an alarming world in which young girls routinely lap dance for boys at school dances, perform oral sex on them without reciprocation and make out with each other in front of them, all for the ego boost of male excitement and the notoriety that follows. Levy says she spoke with 50 young people between the ages of 12 and 18, some of whom she quotes, but she doesn't explain how she arrived at this sample or how representative it is of American culture as a whole. Similarly, in the final pages she speaks at length with three sexually aggressive adult women whose descriptions of sex "sounded less than smoldering," and uses them to bolster her argument that female sexual desire is being ignored. Fair enough, but these are three people. Surely Levy must have encountered a few sexually aggressive women who did enjoy sex, but she doesn't mention them, and the anecdotal one-sidedness of her reporting hurts her argument.

Still, as a consciousness-raising call to arms, "Female Chauvinist Pigs" is clearly to the good. And it raises a question that reaches far beyond the faddish popularity of the sex industry. Levy never mentions John Berger, but at times her book strongly echoes his "Ways of Seeing." Berger wrote: "Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. . . . The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object." "Ways of Seeing" was published in 1972, and Berger's theory of female objectification hinged on women's historical lack of real-world power or independence: "Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated." But things have changed a lot since 1972. Many women can buy their own plane tickets and pay their own rent. They can treat themselves. Why, then, do they persist in watching themselves through male eyes?"


Making public debate history

Why should the authorities have the right to shut up both Make Poverty History and the BNP? (Article from the British e-zine Spiked)

Q: What do the Make Poverty History campaign and the far-right British National Party have in common? A: Both were subject to official censure this week, for daring to express a political opinion.

Following the widespread broadcast, during the recent Live 8 jamboree, of celebrity-filled ads for Make Poverty History, UK media regulator Ofcom (the Office of Communications) has banned the campaign from any further advertising on TV and radio, on the grounds that it 'seeks to achieve important changes to the policies of the UK government and those of other Western governments'. And the Communications Act 2003 prohibits advertising 'by or on behalf of a body whose objects are wholly or mainly of a political nature'. It's worth noting that the ban was prompted not by complaints from the public, but by nervous broadcasters approaching Ofcom for advice on whether they could show such ads.

Sadly, but entirely predictably, Make Poverty History protested against the ban, not by insisting upon its right to promote and elicit support for its views, but by denying that its aims or its ads were in any way political: 'This advertisement simply highlights the fact that a child dies every three seconds because of preventable poverty. The millions of people who are wearing a white band or taking action as part of this campaign do not see it as a narrow party political issue. They see it as the great moral issue of our time.'

It seems that Make Poverty History and its supporters subscribe to the general consensus that the worst thing anyone can be these days is explicitly political. In claiming that they represent 'the great moral issue of our time', those behind Make Poverty History seek to place themselves beyond political criticism.

This moral high ground is not available to this week's other victim of contemporary censoriousness, the widely reviled BNP. Little or no sympathy is likely to be expressed over the fact that the entire print run of the September issue of the BNP's newspaper, The Voice of Freedom, was impounded after arriving at Dover from abroad. The police seized the newspapers, after being alerted to their existence by customs officers, to check whether any public order offences had been committed. The newspapers are now to be handed back to the BNP, but sample copies will be retained by the authorities, who may still seek prosecution on the grounds that the content constitutes incitement to racial hatred.

You don't have to be sympathetic either to the bigoted rubbish put about by the BNP or to the moralistic rubbish put about by Make Poverty History, to be concerned by the official restrictions placed on these two very different institutions. When objectionable views can be suppressed on the grounds that they amount to 'incitement' (a dangerously nebulous legal category that fudges the distinction between speech and action), and when even the most popular campaigns can be suppressed because they are 'political' (even as those behind them seek to disassociate themselves from politics), then you have a depressing picture of the state of public debate today.

Public debate thrives on openness and confrontation. If groups such as the BNP harbour views that are moronic and objectionable, then let these views be published and expressed in the open - all the better to defeat and ridicule them. The current situation, where every pronouncement by a crank on the far right (or on the fringes of militant Islam, come to that) is scrutinised for 'evidence' of incitement, simply makes martyrs of those who deserve nothing more than our contempt. The BBC's 2004 undercover documentary The Secret Agent, which prompted the latest series of inquiries into the BNP's activities, did more to promote and inflate this fringe organisation than it could ever have done off its own bat.

Similarly, scrutinising advertisements and other broadcasting content for evidence of political opinion, and then treating such opinion as problematic wherever it is detected, lets the likes of Make Poverty History off the hook. Politics is treated with suspicion and cynicism these days, because it is unfashionable to be associated with self-interest or any form of vested interest. That's why Make Poverty History seeks to establish moralistic rather than 'narrow party political' credentials. But if politics is the process whereby we deliberate about the issues that face us and the future direction that society should take, then popular philanthropic endeavours deserve to be subjected to the same standard of rigorous criticism as does the BNP's bigotry.

The attempts to purge the media of political content - or rather to label political content and restrict it to its appointed slot, as though it were some sort of radioactive contaminant - help to create an ever blander public sphere, where mainstream political assumptions go unquestioned and alternative opinions struggle to make it out of the starting blocks. Ofcom has done much to promote this unhealthy combination of blandness and unaccountability, acting upon complaints about media content regardless of the number that it receives (one complaint can justify a ban), and issuing decisions that are unintentionally comical in their po-faced pedantry.

Earlier this year, for example, the BBC was rebuked by Ofcom for two consecutive editions of the children's programme Blue Peter, that between them allegedly managed to offend just about every political constituency in Northern Ireland. In one episode, a Blue Peter presenter apparently caused offence by referring to the fact that the Irish province of Ulster is represented by a red hand on its flag. Then the following week's episode caused further offence, by featuring a map of the British Isles - submitted by an eight-year-old - that was entirely covered by the Union Jack.

How did the BBC respond? According to Ofcom, 'the BBC said that Blue Peter had no political agenda and aimed to be fair and even-handed to every sector of the community', 'senior management in Children's BBC had since drawn the attention of the team to the need for greater care with such matters', and 'BBC Belfast's political editor had also briefed the team'. Ofcom was satisfied by this, declaring that 'in view of the action taken by the BBC, we consider the matter resolved' (8). Well that's all right then.

Only it isn't all right. If the BBC is compelled to apologise and take action for such bizarre overreactions to the minutiae of its children's programming, then one hesitates to contemplate the restrictions on adult political debate that exist today. Just about the only forceful opinion that is popularly entertained and encouraged in today's media - not least by the BBC - is a generalised cynicism about politics, and a general hostility towards politicians. This cynicism is routinely mistaken for robust political debate; in fact it is corrosive of political debate.

As I have argued previously on spiked, restrictions on free speech have evolved from old-fashioned censorship of specific ideas considered beyond the pale, to a broader hostility towards confident and forceful opinion (see 'Communication ethics' and the new censorship). Since those in authority lack ambitious ideas, and feel increasingly isolated from the public, they are jittery about anything that might seize the public's imagination - to the extent that they unwittingly draw attention to and promote every crackpot who has the temerity to stand on a soapbox.

New powers of censorship, wielded through bodies such as Ofcom - and through laws such as those prohibiting incitement to racial or religious hatred - combine with popular cynicism towards politics to denigrate public debate. Instead of a situation where a popular campaign is banned from advertising on the grounds that it is political, and the campaigners respond to the ban by insisting that their campaign is no such thing, we should aspire to a world where all political opinions - from those of Make Poverty History to those of the BNP - can stand or fall on their own merit in the court of public opinion.

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