October 26th, 2005


Raunch feminism

I love sex and eroticism. But I don't love the lewd choreography of raunch, and I particularly don't like the current Western ideology that raunch is a form of empowerment. Ariel Levy, in her interesting new book Female Chauvinist Pigs, calls this ideology "raunch feminism":

"Our popular culture," says the New York Times, paraphrasing Levy, "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."

When I think about the reasons I reject both raunch and the idea that raunch is a form of feminism, I have to admit that they relate to class. Raunch as choreography emerges from working class strip bars, cheap Western porn tapes, sexist rap videos. It confuses sex with the sex industry, and sexiness with pimping and whoring. It also confuses all sex with dick sex: its main move is the thrust, and its main facial expression the rock-guitar-solo "gurn". There's a whole other thesis in which I accuse raunch of being the rockism of sexuality, and rail once more against the cabaret of empowerment unleashed on the world by the "Chicks with Dicks", Peaches and her ilk. And there's the "moronic irony" line, in which I accuse raunch feminism of being a performance inside quotation marks in which ambivalence about the choreography of raunch is acted out, underwritten by the insurance policy of "oh, we're just being ironic". Moronic irony lets the other side win by allowing us to ape its moves without reaping its profits (which, in the case of the porn industry, are considerable).

My main objection (apart from the visceral aesthetic objection) to raunch feminism is this. Feminism as a project has two sides: the dismantling of patriarchy, and the empowerment of women. Raunch feminism proposes that women can be "empowered" without dismantling patriarchy... in fact, by embracing "the male gaze" entirely.

In an interview with Salon, Ariel Levy says: "In this new formulation of raunch feminism, stripping is as valuable to elevating womankind as gaining an education or supporting rape victims. Throwing a party where women grind against each other in their underwear while fully clothed men watch them is suddenly part of the same project as marching on Washington for reproductive rights."

If you want to see the ideology of raunch feminism—the idea that women can achieve empowerment without bothering to dismantle the male-centric values of patriarchy— in action, you just have to turn to an article in last week's Sunday Times. The article ran in the Style section which, from the URL, you'll notice the Sunday Times groups as a "women's interest" (presumably on the assumption that only men are reading the politics and economics sections of the paper). "Tokyo is still the most mind-melting city on the planet, but, as Jessica Brinton reports, its radical fashion, sexual bravura and cultural weirdness are finally beginning to liberate its women". And there we have it, the usual idiotic, cliched Western take on Japanese women. They are "behind" Western women, diminutive, cute, squeaky-voiced and "submissive" creatures who are only now beginning to catch up thanks to... well, thanks to raunch.

"Japan may be one of the most patriarchal, male-dominated countries in the world," says Brinton, "yet top of last year’s Japanese bestseller list was a novel by the young Japanese female writer Hitomi Kanehara, called Snakes and Earrings. The story was about a young girl obsessed with extreme body piercing, tattoos and violent S&M." The implication here is that being obsessed with self-injury is a radical blow against patriarchy rather than its internalisation, its utter penetration of a woman's mind and body.

Japan is conservative, says Brinton, "a country where females are still not allowed to ascend to the throne. The 1960s and its feminist revolution never happened there." Wow, so feminism was all about allowing every country to have its own Queen Elizabeth II! Who knew? Brinton continues with her catalogue of "feminist" developments in Japan: male hairdressers are now trained to flirt with their female customers! And there's something we might call 'equal-opportunity objectification' going on: "We all know about hostess bars, the men’s pleasure domes that hit the big time during the 1980s economic boom. Now there are host bars too, for Japan’s rich and independent-minded women."

Inevitably, the Sunday Times gets around to the old prostitution-as-empowerment line: "The Japanese are the mad professors of consumer desire, and Shibuya girls — female teenagers who treat this place like their playground — are the most brand-savvy of all. They congregate inside the auditory bedlam of the Shibuya department store 109. Or outside McDonald’s, where they occasionally pick up older men for a few hundred yen (the extra cash goes towards the latest Chanel handbag). Aggressive, self-empowered and sexy, they dress as they want — from orange tans, razor-sharp stilettoes and microskirts, through Victoriana to extreme punk with pink nail varnish — shop as they want, and behave exactly as they want."

Woooh! Yeaaaaaah! How much for thirty minutes? Raunch feminism, you rock!