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.

I can't entirely blame the feminists for being flummoxed. It is hard to figure out how seriously to take this stuff. On the one hand, if your kid spent a lot of time reading Maxim and watching rap videos, you'd know in your gut that it was damaging to his soul. On the other hand, human beings, even at young ages, are pretty good at distinguishing fantasy from reality. A young man can listen to Eminem while driving his Camaro, imagine himself as an angry young badass, and then have dinner with his girlfriend and her mom and be perfectly polite and civilized. Eminem himself is regarded by his neighbors as a pillar of the upscale gated community in which he lives.

Another unnerving feature of retro-sexism is that much of it comes from an unexpected direction. Many progressive thinkers, having inherited a century of radical European thought, assume that the most oppressive and reactionary parts of society are the rich, the powerful, and the wellborn. Partly for that reason they have tended to direct their protests against elites. They know how to handle discrimination when it is found among the corporate muckamucks at the country club.

The rise of misogynistic rap culture dramatizes the inadequacy of that approach. The notion that a self-confident elite exercises cultural hegemony over the masses and that big media corporations and advertising geniuses create ideas and products and then manipulate society into accepting them was always badly oversimplified and often completely misleading. Outsiders, from James Dean to Allen Iverson, have an innate appeal. The cultural elites may have money and position, but the definition of cool, and therefore the influence over what will enter the culture, generally comes from the fringes. Rap and hip-hop came from the urban lower class. N.W.A., 2 Live Crew, Tupac Shakur, and Eminem may have been co-opted by record companies, but they emerged authentically from the streets. As it happens, the parts of society that, according to the class-conflict model, should have been the most reactionary—the affluent classes—have been the quickest to adopt progressive mores. It is the least privileged parts of society that are often the most sexist, reactionary, and even materialistic. We have a dynamic urban culture that treats women like whores and that regards owning a Mercedes as the highest possible human aspiration, and the leading articulators of progressive opinion have almost nothing to say about it. They can't seem to bring themselves to admit out loud that their most effective ideological enemies have turned out to be the same underprivileged people they wanted to rescue from exploitation.

To take just one example: Robin Chandler is a member of the Department of African-American Studies at Northeastern University and teaches a course that includes discussion of hip-hop and rap. A 2001 interview with her in The Boston Globe included this exchange:

Q: How about the misogyny, violence, and profanity in much rap?

A: As professors with an enormous concern for intellectual freedom, we have to be careful not to indoctrinate or moralize while at the same time providing opportunities for people to explore and clarify their values ...

Q: You're a peace activist, and some rap glorifies murder.

A: I object to it in heavy metal, in Hollywood films, and in rap. I've told students that, but what's important is the construction of classroom debate and allowing students to have an intellectual space where they can argue and understand the other person's position, increase their tolerance for diversity, and defend their preferences with rational explanations.

Society is not run from the top, or from any one place. Instead it involves a complex dance of different groups rebelling and innovating, co-opting and exploiting. Feminists or progressives or conservatives who blame the cultural elites for most of society's ills are attacking a monster that can't control its own movements. The elites are often a step behind, trying to catch up to the real innovators. All of this raises a set of hard-to-answer questions. How do you react when people further down the social pecking order—whether they are disenfranchised whites or underclass urban minorities—are creating a culture you find degrading? How do you criticize that culture without seeming square, elitist, or even racist? No one has figured out the answers.