Monthly Archives: August 2012
When my kids were in middle school, they loved to dance along with Beyonce’s videos, copying the moves as closely as they could. They knew I would lose my patience with degrading language, but I didn’t want to break it to them that many of the dances and lyrics they loved were double entendre. They are teenagers now, and they let me listen to their music as we drive to town. They often give fair warning and proclaim the value of the song despite despicable words.
I admire their critical thinking, but what happens when demeaning women is just blithely taken for granted, not only in the songs but in the culture I hear reflected in them? And not just by men, but by young women themselves? It’s not the explicit sex that concerns me, it’s the carelessness and callousness of it. Where are the stories sex for joy, intimacy and connection?
I worry about these things, and Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs affirms my concerns. Levy writes about conversations she had with beach babes happily, consciously showing more than cleavage just to win a prize hat, and with self-styled corporate killers who work hard to look like Barbie dolls, but have the knowledge and skills to turn corporations around.
Raunch culture, according to Levy — is beer, boobs and the hyper-sexualization of women. No longer does a perfect body suffice, now women feel they have to be bootylicious, too. The women Levy writes about defend their conscious participation in this culture as a path to power. This reminds me of my kids defending repetitive obnoxious lyrics with a great beat, as if the great beat somehow makes the humiliating lyrics okay. I don’t think so, and neither does Levy. She makes her case clear; raunch culture doesn’t add up to freedom and it sure does nothing to empower women.
This book is titillating and terrifying. Levy skips beyond mean girls and goes directly to girls and young women drinking, playing, and even tells us about the new fashion of bois, women dressing like young boys. This trend doesn’t seem to be so much about transcending gender (which I’d admire) but about just not growing up, modern day Peter Pans. It worries me. It seems to promote perpetual youth, pulling these young women away from thinking, creating — using their minds with as much energy as they use their bodies.
It is clear to Levy, and to me, that women focused on sexual conquests, good times, and spending money on surgery to enhance or remove body parts isn’t leading us to actual liberation. It is leading to an industry in a plastic surgery and porn industry. Maybe we can counter that by taxing those industries double, and put it all toward education and health care – sex education for sure.
And where is feminism in all this? My undergrad students declare ardently that they are not feminist, at least until mid-semester. Women have legal rights, they argue, so who needs feminism? To my students feminists have hairy legs and no sense of humor. Levy is deeply concerned about this kind of lack of greater world awareness. She tells us about the sexual conquests — like having thirty some lovers and striving for 100– of girls and young women who think that means they’re powerful, enlightened, successful. This is success? I shiver at the thought.
Despair? Not Levy. She is creative and insistent: teach teens the difference between sexual desire and the desire for attention. Teach them to conceive of sex as “something thrilling and interesting you engage in because you want to” (163). I particularly love this line: “Sex is one of the most interesting things we as humans have to play with, and we’ve reduced it to polyester underpants and implants. We are selling ourselves unbelievably short” (198).
Published in 2005, Female Chauvinist Pigs speaks to the issues women face in 2012. If anything, the current political debates about women’s rights suggest that more people need to read this book. Men and women alike could use the enlightenment and encouragement Levy offers. Raunch culture offers only small possibilities, sexual success defined by numbers and reconfigured body parts rather than greater focus on mindful action and great thinking. It lacks idealism, Levy argues, and I say it lacks imagination and creativity, even courage. And a little of all of that – Levy and I agree — could go a long way toward invigorating our world right now.
I just re-read Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons (1996) by Jane Lazarre.
Jane Lazarre is a white, Jewish woman married to a Black man. She writes of coming into a new identity and awareness as wife, mother, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law in a welcoming African American family. She describes the terror a mother feels as her Black teenage sons walk out into city streets where she knows they are scrutinized and assumed dangerous. One son has the experience of sitting next to a woman with a concentration camp identification tattoo on her arm. The woman appears to move away from him as soon as she can. He wants to say to her as she goes, “I’m Jewish too!” but the moment is lost. His identity is foremost decided by the color of his skin.
Lazarre writes, “The whiteness of whiteness is the blindness of willful innocence” (p.49). When Trayvon Martin was murdered (February 26, 2012) I responded on the Change.org petition with a comment asking how is it possible that Emmitt Till’s death was in 1955, and here it is 2012? Till and Martin had each gone to a local store and died unarmed thereafter. Lazarre writes about her son’s response to learning about Till with a litany of contemporary young men (as of 1996): Yusef Hawkins, Michael Griffith, Philip Pennel, Michael Stewart (p. 78). I had not remembered all these young men of the Eighties and Nineties and I know there are many, many more. I am humbled by my persistent innocence.
Lazarre describes the patience and loving of her mother-in-law, the family gathered around her gay brother-in-law dying of AIDS, the joy both sets of grandparents express in loving their grandchildren. Children bring worlds kept apart by the long-held political and social systems together and Lazarre’s stories prove divisive walls can be breached. Lazarre writes of the challenges and the wonders of living life with her heightened vision and awareness as a Jewish woman with Black sons.
My own two children, a daughter and a son, are teenagers, adopted African American siblings. I first read Lazarre when I had a toddler and an infant, hoping for a road map, a guiding mentor. I wondered then at her relentless focus on raced experience. I was busy then with diapers, naps and the cuteness of teeny kids. I re-read her last month for a brush-up on negotiating the teen years and had a better appreciation for that very relentlessness! White parents of children of color cannot afford the luxury of “willful innocence.” We must teach our family, friends, and our children’s teachers the languages of identity, including their whiteness (try it: my White friend, my Black kids, my adopted White niece, ….). Our children are complex individuals in very complicated times.
We have come so far in the fifty-seven years since Emmitt Till’s death (for instance, White Lazarre is legally married to her Black husband). Yet the horror remains that mothers (and fathers) can’t trust their boys will get home safe with Skittles and tea in hand. How far have we come then?