Ideas April 2003

The Return of the Pig

The revival of blatant sexism in American culture has many progressive thinkers flummoxed

Have you noticed that male chauvinism is making a comeback? Thirty years after the feminist revolution, if you look at the rap videos on MTV or BET, you'll find that "ho" and "bitch" are just about the nicest words used to describe young women. Hooters is now so mainstream as to be just another link in the chain of familiar eateries. If you turn on The Man Show, on Comedy Central, you can watch women in teddies jumping on trampolines and men getting spanked by bikini-clad "juggies" —the show's term for its female cast members.

Elsewhere on the cultural landscape can be found the Wonderbra, Howard Stern, Joe Millionaire, Victoria's Secret specials on network TV, Anna Nicole Smith, and Lara Croft. The leading laddie magazine, Maxim, has 2.5 million subscribers; its chief competitor, FHM ("For Him Magazine"), has more than a million. And then there are Gear and Stuff, and the various swimsuit monthlies, which among them must have topless, carefully angled models posing on beaches by the hundreds.

To enter the world of Maxim is to enter a world entirely free from the taint of polite opinion. Even the editors of Playboy and Penthouse maintain intellectual pretensions, but the single-minded pursuit of horniness is the Maxim editors' most striking trait. Women in the magazine's pages are reduced almost exclusively to cleavage. Men exist solely at the crossroads where babes in lingerie meet power tools and serial-killer computer games. The articles—which tend to fall into the "How to Score at Funerals" genre—are short lessons in ways to become even more shallow than you already are. (To the Maxim Man, size matters in every aspect of existence except attention span.)

The men depicted by Maxim are not without cultural interests—for instance, they are likely to have participated in prestigious chugging contests. They are capable of emotional bonding—mostly with their remote controls, and with their voyeur buddies at wet-T-shirt contests. And they are not incurious about the world: their wanderlust can be aroused by the mere mention of the word "Tijuana."

But these men have not a hint of any quality that might make them attractive to progressive and mature women. Their world has been vacuumed free of empathy, sensitivity, and sophistication. It is as if millions of American men—many of them well educated—took a look at the lifestyle prescribed by modern feminism and decided, No thanks, we'd rather be pigs.

Considering that for at least a generation polite opinion has been unanimous in the view that women should not be objectified, this chauvinist revival is astonishing. What caused it?

Some believe that it is a product of masculinity in crisis. Insecure men, sensing that their position in the world is threatened by a generation of strong women, have reverted to the most offensive and primal versions of manhood. There's clearly something to this theory. But the lack of any sense of crisis in retro-sexist culture is striking. In the 1970s and 1980s men's magazines were notably defensive in the face of the feminist critique. In the newest men's magazines feminism simply doesn't exist. The women's movement is something that happened in Mom and Dad's time. Now the attitude is, Gather up the boys and girls, and let's all be sexist pigs together. Women are allowed to be as open about their sexuality as men; "hooking up" is common; and we're all free to treat one another as sex objects. We men can leer at your breasts, and you women can leer at our buns. We can all be Bob Gucciones, and we'll call it gender equity.

Another theory is that Maxim-style retro-sexism is just a self-conscious, deliberately ironic joke. The men are making fun of themselves as much as they are degrading women. Besides, it's not reality. It's just a normal urge to flout convention, to have some bawdy fun. It doesn't mean anything.

There's some truth to this theory, too. Scanning an excerpt from the theme song for The Man Show reveals an obviously playful element.

Grab a beer and drop your pants,Send the wife and kid to France,It's The Man Show!!!Quit your job and light a fart,Yank your favorite private part,It's The Man Show!!!

But there is more than irony at work here. Participants in these bits of public theater are somehow simultaneously engaged in both play and not-play. Readers of Maxim may put invisible quotation marks around their leering at women, but they are still leering at women. In fact, the quotation marks constitute an easy escape hatch in the event that anyone ever challenges these men. They can say, not least to themselves, "I'm not a crude ogler or a loser porn addict. I'm a hip ironist. I'm playing a media-savvy game, and therefore I have permission to spend hours looking at women in their underwear."

The most interesting thing about the surge of retro-sexism is how unprepared feminists and other enlightened thinkers are to deal with it. The ironic tone of the material defeats them. Feminists seem to know they are being toyed with. They don't want to appear to be earnest plodders in the face of hip, playful gestures, and they don't want to grant that anyone is more postmodern than they are. The British feminist Imelda Whelehan wrote a book on laddie culture called Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism, in which she seemed to be completely flummoxed by the phenomenon. "Classic notions of distinctions between the sexes appear to be reinforced, but it is never easy to determine to what extent parody and irony support or undermine those distinctions," she wrote.

Presented by

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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