Recently I met some old male school friends, and they suggested, predictably, that we go to the pub. I wasn’t thrilled to discover that the Ashes would be showing, but I had another female friend to catch up with, so we ignored the throng and chatted as best we could above the commentary. On going to the bar to buy a round, I was joined by a woman from our table, dressed quite provocatively in a very short skirt and knee-high boots. I’d never met her before, and I asked what she’d like to drink. “Oh, well,” she paused, “I don’t really like beer, but . . .” She gestured towards her boyfriend. “But what?” “Well, when you’re watching sports with the boys, you have to drink beer, don’t you?” I pondered my vodka and cranberry, before inquiring, “Do you actually like cricket, then?” “No, course not,” she shrugged, “can’t stand it” – before sitting back down, taking a gulp and proceeding to cheer more loudly than any of the men.
Paying more attention now, I realised that she wasn’t alone. It was a weirdly Twilight Zone-type moment. Apart from my friend and me, all of the women were scantily clad and cheering wildly, and there was something oddly fake about it, insincere, as though they were performing specifically for the male audience, competing for kudos and attention.
I quickly forgot about this, putting it down to my own cynicism, until reminded this past week, when a survey of 2,000 people found that 4 per cent more women than men understand football’s offside rule. It would be natural to put this down to a deep love of the game, but 75 per cent of the women admitted that it wasn’t the reason. In fact, they said, it was simply a tactic to curry male attention and approval.
Which prompts the question: why do some women do it? You can’t imagine a man memorising details of the latest shoe collections, just so that women might like him. And if he tried such a tactic, he’d immediately be jeered at by his male peers. Why, then, in this apparently post-post-feminist age, do some young women still feel a need to perform for men, to conform to male desires rather than their own?
I tend not to pay much attention to the regular diatribes against “ladettes” in the newspapers, because I don’t see anything wrong with young women drinking, smoking and carousing just as much as men. There’s nothing gender-specific about having a good time. There is, however, something distinctly creepy about drinking beer if you don’t actually like it. And when this is combined with watching a sport that you actively hate, the whole picture becomes even stranger.
The question of why some of today’s young women might want to buy into “the frat party of pop culture” is also one that intrigues the American journalist and author Ariel Levy, and which she addresses in her new book, Female Chauvinist Pigs. In her view, female chauvinist pigs have two strategies (although, as I found, these aren’t always distinct). Either they act like “a cartoon man – who drools over strippers, says things like ‘check out that ass’, and brags about having the ‘biggest cock in the building’ – or 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 main subject is how women have recently bought into another bastion of male chauvinist culture: the sex industry (her book is subtitled “women and the rise of raunch culture”). Not so long ago, the very idea of an educated, independent woman attending a strip club, or expressing a deep desire for pole-dancing lessons, would have seemed bizarre. After all, in the most basic sense, strip clubs just aren’t geared up for the tastes and desires of your average woman. Now, however, Cambridge University runs a pole-dancing club, a Yorkshire WI group has apparently attended the lap-dancing club Spearmint Rhino (for tips on their own technique), and British University Babes 2006 is expected to be one of this year’s biggest-selling nude calendars.
Especially strange is the fact that we smuggle much of this conformity to male culture under the guise of “feminism”. Over the past decade it’s become commonplace to define visiting a strip joint, for instance, or stripping yourself, not even just as morally benign activities, but as “empowering” choices. It’s an outlook that Levy has difficulty understanding. “I could never make the argument add up in my head,” she writes. “How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish good for women?”
Well, the answer seems to be that it’s not. In fact, the truth is that buying into and participating in male chauvinist culture is something else entirely: a devil’s bargain, a barter and a compromise. It’s a deal, specifically, that enables women both to attract men and to compete in a male world without threatening its pride and prejudices.
As Jennifer Heftler, one of Levy’s interviewees and an executive producer on a television programme and tit-fest called The Man Show, says: “One of the perks of this job was that I wouldn’t have to prove myself any more. I could say, ‘I worked on The Man Show‘ and no one would ever say, ‘Oh, that prissy little woman’ again. Women have always had to find ways to make guys comfortable with where we are.” As Heftler notes, it was ever thus, but, for a brief moment in the 1970s and 1980s, the women of the second-wave feminist movement were radicalised and invested enough to fight publicly against the stigmatisation of women and women’s culture. Their project is often described as the battle for rights in the workplace, but in fact they aimed for a full-scale revolution in women’s experience. They wanted to win women’s right to exist as proper subjects – free to follow all our own desires – rather than as objects corollary, and in service, to the male gaze. But they paid a huge price. Feminists of that time threatened male supremacy and they were quickly derided as ugly, stupid and boring, a stereotype summed up by Viz‘s Millie Tant cartoon.
All of which has been absorbed by the generation of women that followed. As young women, we want all the advances won by feminism, to get ahead in the workplace and have the choice to stay at home, but ideally we’d also like to sidestep the criticism that afflicted our forebears. No working woman can be unaware of the backlash against female success, the constant stream of disparagement that assails any ambitious woman. Every day come stories that pick apart the rise of women (claiming that working women are “bitchy” bosses, neglectful mothers and selfish, barren singles, for instance); the subtext always being that it would be much better if we would just retreat to our homes to practise our baking and child-rearing. (Many of these stories are written by women – career women themselves – clearly a form of female chauvinist piggery.)
Given all this criticism, it is tempting to try to become what Levy calls a “loophole woman”. By going to football games and shouting the loudest, going to strip clubs and leering the hardest, competing in the pub to drink the most beer, we show, individually, that there’s no need to fear us, that we pose no threat to male culture. In fact, we readily uphold it by besting the most chauvinist of all men. Unfortunately, though, this conformity comes at a definite price (quite besides having to drink booze you don’t like and attend events you don’t enjoy). As Levy writes, “It can be fun to feel exceptional – to be the loophole woman, to have a whole power thing, to be an honorary man. But,” she warns, “if you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven’t made any progress.”
So, before acting like a female chauvinist pig, there are two big problems to bear in mind. One is that your actions are bound to undermine other women, and there can never be anything cool about that. The other, which is perhaps even sadder, is that you are, by necessity, bound to undermine yourself.
Female Chauvinist Pigs: women and the rise of raunch culture, by Ariel Levy, is published by Simon & Schuster on 21 November (£17.99)