Outskirts online journal

Angelique Bletsas

About the author

Angelique Bletsas is a lecturer at the University of Adelaide, and a member of the Fay Gale Centre for Research on Gender.

Publication details

Volume 25, November 2011

Sex and the feminist subject: negating/engaging ‘difference’ in ‘raunch culture’.

The line between subjectivity and subjection is crossed when I subject myself,
when I align my personal goals with those set out by reformers – both expert
and activist – according to some notion of the social good.
(Cruikshank 1996: 235)


In this paper I provide a critique of Ariel Levy’s 2005 book in which she diagnoses mainstream western culture as a ‘raunch culture’. My critique is that her analysis fails to adequately accommodate ‘difference’ and that this has implications for popular feminist movements on raunch culture and sexualisation. In putting forward this position I am not commenting on the content of Levy’s claims about raunch culture. I do not take a position as to whether the current cultural moment proliferates ‘raunch culture’. Nor do I take a position on whether or not such a development ought to be read as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for women. Rather, acknowledging that this issue is established terrain for popular feminist activism, (as well as critical feminist writing), I am interested in the process by which Levy makes her argument. I seek to show that her approach ultimately occludes ‘difference’ as a meaningful political and conceptual thematic. Specifically, my argument is that though Levy acknowledges differences among women, the model she forwards for understanding this ‘difference’ is one which aims to recuperate a common or shared identity. In my view this is a limited account of difference and throughout the paper I aim to demonstrate how this narrow understanding of difference has negative consequences.

The argument that I make in reading Levy’s book, though circumscribed in this way, can nonetheless be seen to have significance in relation to a wider public debate on raunch culture which encompasses issues of ‘pornographication’ (McNair 1996:137), ‘sexualisation’ (McNair 2002) and post-feminist sexualised representations of women. Indeed, part of my interest in focusing on Levy’s text is that it has come to be treated as exemplary of popular feminist responses to these apparent trends. It is therefore important to clarify how this paper sits in the context of the wider, heavily contested, literature on sexualisation (a term I take as encompassing pornographication, and raunch culture) and I address this now.

The idea of a growing sexualisation of and in western culture has become increasingly salient in recent years. It has been put forward by a range of authors, some popular and others critical, and generally concerns the widespread dissemination of cultural media in which allegedly sex-positive values permeate social life in contemporary ‘western’ societies (for example Levy 2005; McNair 2002; Gill 2009; Roach 2007). Many of the (often) feminist critiques of sexualisation have focused on the way that this cultural trend reintroduces gender norms – and in particular understandings of women and girls – that are anti-feminist and potentially damaging (for example Levy 2005; Gill 2009; Shalit 2007; Walter 2010: 3-38). As Wencke Mühleisen (2007: 175) writes:

Sexualization, as well as post-feminist sexualized representations in popular culture, has mainly been perceived as de-politicized, and part of the anti-feminist backlash, emphasizing individual lifestyle choices and personal desires delivered by the commercial media culture. The “backlash” point of view regards the trend of sexualization and the sexualized post-feminist representations as a pronounced expression of popular culture’s, and society’s, response to, and at the same time dismantling of, feminism.

Though this is the dominant response to sexualisation, one which is consistent with Levy’s own analysis (explicated below), not all feminist critics take a ‘negative’, or a purely negative, view of sexualisation. An intense debate continues over the politics of sexualisation: whether they are necessarily regressive and damaging or whether they hold progressive, even libratory potential. A related debate arises over how we understand women in their engagement with ‘post-feminist sexualised representations’ – as ‘duped’ subjects of consumer power or as critical and reflective agents. I consider one example of this debate below.

In 2007 a public debate arises between Rosalind Gill and Linda Duits and Liesbet van Zoonen following publication of an article by Duits and van Zoonen (2006). In their article Duits and van Zoonen (2006) compare what they consider a ‘moral panic’ over young girls dressing in clothing which exposes their bare midriffs with the moral panic over young girls wearing the burka. Duits and van Zoonen (2006) argue that, in representing the clothing choices of girls as the result of coercive social powers (capitalism and Islam respectively), both ‘panics’ foreclose the possibility that girls might be making complex political statements in their engagement with clothing – a possibility which, they assert, is not denied boys. For Duits and van Zoonen to deny young women the possibility of agency in this way is blatantly sexist.

In her response to the article, Gill (2007: 72-75), who is in large measure sympathetic to the argument put forward by Duits and van Zoonen, expresses concern that coercive power and the pliability of young (and older) women, is being overlooked in their analysis of girls and fashion. Gill (2007: 74) raises her concerns in the following way:

In this literature [which focuses on women’s choices as consumers], practices that would once have attracted criticism from feminists are presented as playful, resistant or at least as the outcome of active, knowledgeable deliberation.
But an interesting paradox becomes clear when we look at beauty practices in relation to ‘race’. In this new, choice-inflected feminist literature breast enlargement surgery for white women is framed within a discourse of postfeminist consumer choice, but eyelid reshaping surgery for Korean women, leg lengthening surgery for Chinese women, or skin whitening for women of African origin are all understood as racialized practices, related to white western norms of physical beauty. ... Why, in short, is the repudiation of cultural influence limited to gender, while theorists remain content to talk about racism as exercising material impacts on black women’s sense of self? It is almost as if such writing believes that postfeminism has ‘come true’, that white women are no longer subject to any kind of domination or disciplinary power.

The debate between Gill and Duits and van Zoonen is representative of the kinds of debate which regularly occur over how to understand women’s engagement with the artifacts of sexualised popular culture. As stated above, my aim in this paper is not to engage this debate. My interest instead is with the way ‘women’/‘woman’ are deployed as signifying categories in this literature. In relation to the present paper, therefore, what is interesting in the passage above is that the move from gender to race treats ‘general’ critiques of the beauty industry as regarding white women’s experience of beauty and its demands. It is only explicitly racialised beauty practices that are spoken of in the context of women who are not white. Yet analyses of the beauty industry to which Gill alludes are rarely raised in a manner which explicitly suggests they are focused on the consumer practices of white women only. Responding to these tensions, my goal in this paper is to question how it is that arguments on sexualisation seem to focus narrowly on the experience of a single class of women though they continue to use the term ‘women’ as an unproblematic universal sign. After all, commentators in this area (such as Gill) frequently acknowledge differences among and between women. Yet despite this awareness of the political importance of difference, the terms of the existing debate on sexualisation seem to render it a secondary concern: difference sits on the margins of a literature which repeatedly invokes it only to then evade it (see for example Walter 2010: 15).

This paper responds to existing work by feminists like Gill (2011:64-65) who has noted that the literature on sexualisation has primarily taken middle-class young white women as its focus. My aim is to show how it is that ‘woman’ is constructed as a unified and singular subject in the literature on sexualisation and to argue that it is the model of difference implicit in this work, not the object of the research itself, which is problematic. My analysis is therefore structured as a close reading of Levy’s work highlighting the way difference is first acknowledged and then ‘sameness’ is quickly reinstated. Having demonstrated that her argument rests upon a particular construction of women as a singular subject category, I draw on the work of Michel Foucault to argue that this approach makes arguments on raunch culture potentially divisive. The intervention which I thus suggest is not one that tries to identify what might be ‘empowering’ or positive in raunch culture/sexualisation, though there is a body of literature which does argue that such possibilities are at least worth considering (for example Duits and van Zoonen 2006; Mulheisen 2007; Vanwesenbeeck 2009; Roach 2007). Instead the intervention which I suggest here is to theorise raunch culture, whether understood as purely negative or in more complex ways, in a manner which engages the multiple significations ‘women’. offer this intervention as a complement to existing literature on sexualisation which already attends to the way specific differences are central to constructions of sexuality. R Danielle Egan and Gail Hawkes (2008; 2010: 56-73), for example, repeatedly point out in their work that historic constructions of sexuality implicitly rely on classed understandings of women, propriety, and deviance. Though sensitive to class differences, Egan and Hawkes do not make difference itself central to their analysis. I do not make this observation as a critique of their work, but rather to point out that theirs is a slightly separate project to that attempted in this paper. The point of interest in this paper is not simply with particular differences, but with suggesting ‘difference’ itself as a necessary thematic in analyses of sexualisation.

Debating Difference: Contextualising the Argument

A guiding presupposition of this paper is that the political need to acknowledge and accommodate ‘difference’ is one of the most pressing and enduring concerns in contemporary feminist politics. ‘Difference’, in effect, means different to/from the subject position white, middle-class, heterosexual woman. Recognition of difference as a key problematic in feminist theorising arises from the debates on identity politics, essentialism and difference of the 1980s and 1990s (West & Fenstermaker 1996: 360; Spelman 1988: 1-17). The central critique in these ‘difference’ debates was that the subjectivity presupposed in much mainstream feminist analysis was not only unified and singular, but was also implicitly constructed as heterosexual, white, and middle class and that, moreover, this narrowing of ‘women’ to implicitly mean white heterosexual, middle-class women was, and is, politically problematic (for example Crenshaw 1989: 152-160; Spelman 1988: ix). As Judith Butler (1990: 3) puts it:

Apart from the foundationalist fictions that support the notion of the subject, however, there is a political problem that feminism encounters in the assumption that the term women denotes a common identity. Rather than a stable signifier that commands the assent of those whom it purports to describe and represent, women, even in the plural, has become a troublesome term, a site of contest, a cause for anxiety. As Denise Riley’s title suggests, Am I that Name? is a question produced by the very possibility of the name’s multiple significations. If one ‘is’ a woman, that is surely not all one is; the term fails to be exhaustive, not because a pregendered ‘person’ transcends the specific paraphernalia of its gender, but because gender is not always constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts, and because gender intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual and regional modalities of discursively constituted identities. As a result, it becomes impossible to separate out ‘gender’ from the political and cultural intersections in which it is invariably produced and maintained. (Butler 1990: 3, emphasis in original)

In other words, failure to acknowledge the diversity of women’s experience is not only problematic if it makes feminist projects exclusive projects – excluding, obscuring, even obfuscating, the experiences of women who are not white, middle-class, heterosexual. It is also problematic because, as Elizabeth Spelman (1988:1-17) articulates, where it relies upon a false universal, such feminist theorising implicitly reproduces the norms of privilege that it critiques in mainstream texts (See also Crenshaw 1989: 154, 166-167). For this reason where feminist political theorists have been concerned to address, and perhaps, redress, the ‘problem’ of difference, they have been concerned to rework, rethink, revisit, and review the ways in which normative political theorising occurs. The goal of such work is a feminist theorising which is more inclusive, more responsive, and more ethically responsible in its aim to reflect upon the experiences of women and the political struggles in which divergent groups of women are globally situated. In other words, in these critical accounts it is not adequate to simply attempt to recuperate some commonality or commonalities owing to all women. Instead there is a need to find ways to do politics which take as their starting point the idea of the human subject as the subject of ‘multiple identities’: not ‘a’ woman, but a woman of a particular class, ‘race’, age, ethnic and sexual identity (Crenshaw 1989: 137-140).

In the diverse theoretical accounts that have attempted to take seriously the essentialist critique and the difference debates of the 1980s and 1990s, class, ‘race’, ethnic and sexual differences amongst and between women are thus not ‘added on’ to gender. Rather, difference becomes a key problematic in gender theorising (Ngan-Ling Chow 1996: xxi). As described above, the aim in such work is not to try and reconcile the differences between categories and groups of women in order to salvage use of the terms ‘women’/‘woman’ as unproblematic. Instead, the aim is to develop theories of the human subject that recognise the complexity of its lived political significations. As this area of critical feminist literature is both dense and extensive, for the purpose of this paper I simply wish to review key examples of gender theorising which responds to the essentialist critique. These examples serve as counterpoints to the singular construction of ‘woman’ I go on to identify in Levy’s book and wider public discussion of raunch culture.

One example of innovation in feminist political theorising is associated with Judith Butler (1993; 1990) and her understanding of gender as performative. Butler (1990: 134-141) situates and expands on the conceptualisation of gender on the model of ‘drag’. She argues that what is politically and conceptually relevant about drag as a motif for theorising gender is the idea of drag as a ‘copy’ which highlights the ontological ambivalence of ‘the original’. In this account gender is not a fixed reflection of true sexed identity but a performative which itself highlights instability in the supposedly ‘original’ binary categories of biological (hetero)sex. What such an approach offers in response to the difference debates is a way of understanding gendered identities, not as reflecting an essential or ‘true’ character that forms the basis of a common identity, but as performative. The performance of gender is understood as compulsory – not simply the ‘choice’ to behave in a particular way. Nonetheless, as a model it acknowledges that such performances rely upon socio-cultural codes: different performances of gender may be appropriate in different locales. Understanding gender as performative in this way is an advance from the view of gender as reflecting a singular innate identity.

Along this same conceptual trajectory is a body of critical literature which substitutes an analysis of gender – as if its categories were fixed – with an analysis of gendering. Here gender is not only explicitly theorised as performative but as an on-going and unfinished political, frequently institutional, process. Carol Bacchi and Joan Eveline (2010: 87-105) have made important contributions to literature on gendering, arguing that gender needs to be thought of as a verb rather than a noun (2010: 87, 95). They further argue that critical attention needs to be brought to where, when, and how gendering occurs in order to interrogate and disrupt the institutional attribution, and thus political significance, of gender ‘difference’ (Bacchi & Eveline 2010: 95).

An additional area of literature which responds to the essentialist critique and the ‘problem of difference’, and which, thanks to the seminal work of feminists such as Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), in fact spearheaded the difference critique, is intersectionality studies. Intersectionality studies respond to essentialist tendencies in mainstream feminism by arguing that political oppressions happen at the intersections of identity categories/markers (Crenshaw 1989: 137-140; Chow 1996: xix-xxiv; Verloo 2006: 212-214). Thus, in this literature, the argument is that critical theorising cannot proceed through notions of unified and singular subject positions, but rather, accounts of power and disadvantage need to attend to the way that the intersections of gender, ‘race’, sexuality, and other politically meaningful identity markers, bring about marginalisation and oppression.

From this brief review of some exemplary theoretical responses to the essentialist critique it is apparent that ‘difference’ has come to be a key problematic in much critical analytical feminist writing. Against the background of this theoretical literature I consider the way the problematic of ‘difference’ is treated in popular arguments on raunch culture.

Raunch Culture: Popular Phenomena, Popular Critique

Ariel Levy’s (2005; 2010) book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise of Raunch Culture is a timely, interesting, and important popular account of what she considers to be the increasing dominance of a commodifying heterosexual aesthetic in popular culture, and of (some) women’s engagement with it. Levy (2005) puts forward two central propositions. One is that the current moment is defined by ‘raunch culture’. This term refers to the supposed proliferation of a particular sexual aesthetic, once relegated to the margins of society as exclusive to and defining of pornography, now pervasive and widely accepted in the mainstream (Levy 2005: 5). Levy (2005: 30-31, 197-200) is clear as to what she considers problematic about this cultural development. Her critique, with which I am not here concerned to disagree, is that the proliferation of raunch culture is problematic because it reduces and diminishes the diversity of human – and in particular female – sexual experience, (or, as it would be more precise to say, sexual aesthetics), to a single manifestation that becomes normalised as definitive of heterosexuality.

The second key proposition in Levy’s book concerns the so-called ‘Female Chauvinist Pig’ (FCP). For Levy (2005: 94-96), the female chauvinist pig is synonymous with what she terms a ‘loophole woman’, perhaps more familiarly, the ‘exceptional woman’. The ‘loophole woman’ is, according to Levy (2005: 94-96), the woman who succeeds in male-dominated industries or pursuits and who does so by appropriating a caricatured masculinity. The ‘loophole woman’s’ success thus emerges not as proof of gender imbalance, but rather as proof that it is femininity itself which holds women back: if women just ‘acted like men’, then there would be no further problems. For Levy (2005: 92-96), women who contribute to such static notions of innate female ineptitude and male superiority are, unquestionably, female chauvinist pigs.

Levy further extends the term ‘female chauvinist pig’ to encompass women who actively engage artifacts of ‘raunch culture’ in ways which reduce other women to their sexual attractiveness. Here her critique is broad enough to include women who work in raunch industries such as then CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Christie Hefner, and women who uncritically consume raunch culture, for example, female viewers of the Howard Stern program in the US (Levy 2005: 187-193; see also Walters 2010: 32). Levy (2005: 193-200) considers these women to have confused ‘real empowerment’ with the appropriation of an overly sexualised and masculinist posture. It is on this point that her second key premise rests. Levy’s argument appears to be that today it is increasingly women who are responsible for their own subordination, by accepting static notions of femininity and masculinity and aligning themselves with a masculine model of ‘empowerment’. On this point Levy’s observation signals an early reflection on what continues to be a heavily contested debate in feminist analysis over how to understand ‘post-feminism’.

Since the book’s publication in 2005 the term ‘raunch culture’ has become a part of the Australian vernacular, and while this might not be exclusively attributed to Levy, her book has made a significant contribution to the popularisation of the term. Levy toured Australia in 2005 and, according to the book’s Australian publishers, this tour in part contributed to the book finding a wide and responsive audience in Australia, selling proportionally more copies locally than it did in the US (Schwartz 2009: 3-5). The book was republished in Australia in 2010. The popularity of the book in Australia may also in part be attributed to the books’ conceptual connection to on-going debates on the sexualisation of children – by which is generally meant the sexualisation of girls. Arguments on the sexualisation of girls have attracted significant media attention in recent years and correspond with the burgeoning literature on sexualisation (for example Rush and La Nauze 2006; Bray 2008; Shalit 2007). Having contextualised this literature above I do not intend to review it further here, I merely highlight the connection between arguments on raunch culture and current debates on the sexualisation of girls in order to establish that the arguments on raunch culture are very much a part of a wider social trend in discussing sexual aesthetics in popular culture.

Interest in the theme of the sexualisation of children has featured prominently in Australian media this decade, largely as a result of the publication of two articles by The Australia Institute, a leading Australian think-tank, in 2006 (see Lumby 1998: 50-52 for a critical overview of this field prior to this decade). Part of the controversy of the 2006 articles is that, in one, ‘Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of Children in Australia’, authors Emma Rush and Andrea La Nauze (2006) charge major retailer David Jones (among others) with ‘corporate paedophilia’ for their representation of children in their advertising catalogues (Overington 2006). The retailer initiated a defamation action in response, insisting its name be dropped from the on-line article (Overington 2006). In making their case of the growing sexualisation of children and its negative effects on girls in the original Australia Institute article, Rush and La Nauze (2006: 43) make explicit reference to Levy’s book and its argument of a pervasive ‘raunch culture’. Following this initial and explosive interest in the theme of child sexualisation, in 2008 the Australian Senate initiated an Inquiry into The Sexualisation of Children.

Continuing the concern with child sexualisation in Australia, in May 2008, as is now well documented, police were ordered to remove artwork by internationally-renowned Australian artist Bill Henson depicting a naked pre-pubescent girl from the Rosyln Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney. Though no formal charges were ever laid in relation to the raid, the incident demonstrates the level of political and public interest in the issue of child sexualisation. Further to this now notorious event, and once again establishing a link between concern over child sexualisation and arguments on ‘raunch culture’, in March 2010 a headline in The Australian newspaper declared ‘Feminists in anti-raunch culture revolt’ (Neill 2010). What the article described was the emergence of a growing protest, headed by former Cosmo, Cleo, and Dolly magazine editor Mia Friedman, and her on-line website ‘Mamamia’, against the ‘hypersexualisation’ of popular culture and, in particular, the targeting of sexually explicit consumer items to young girls (Neill 2010). Examples such as these evidence the wide acceptance of the language of Levy’s book if not the specific terms of its argument.

As stated, I consider Levy’s book in many ways to be timely and important and my interest in this paper is not to discount the key premises of her argument. Nonetheless I consider a key limitation to arise in the way the book addresses both phenomena that it diagnoses from the presumption of a singular and unified subject category. Elizabeth Spelman (1998: 4) argues that what is necessary in engaging and accommodating difference is an understanding of privilege not ‘merely as a characteristic of individuals … [but] as a characteristic of modes of thought’ (West and Fenstermaker paraphrasing Spelman 1996: 360). In the preface to her 1988 book, Inessential Woman: Problems of exclusion in feminist thought, Spelman situates her analysis in the context of a very different book she had once planned to write on the place of women in classic western philosophy. Spelman (1988: x-xi) describes the way that the project of examining the taken-for-granted privileging of the views and experiences of white middle-class women in much existing feminist analysis prompted her to reconsider tendencies in her own practice:

Thanks to the many writers whose work is referred to and echoed in what follows, I finally began to take notice of the ways in which so much of Western feminist theory has referred to women as if all women were white and middle-class. Then I began to wonder to what extent such theory implicitly endorses forms of hierarchy it explicitly critiques in the writings of figures such as Plato and Aristotle. I turned back to my own analyses of these philosophers to see whether I was replicating some undesirable aspects of their thought even while undertaking to criticize and distance myself from specific positions they held. Though I had in other places examined how thinking about ‘women and Blacks’ in fact typically obscures the existence of women who are Black, I had written (to take just one example) about how Aristotle’s treatment of ‘women’ was similar to his treatment of ‘slaves’, never thinking to ask of women who were slaves. … Once I had asked that question I had to rethink everything I and many other feminists had written about Aristotle; for we in effect had decided that in order to get at Aristotle’s account of ‘women’ we would explore the lives of free women rather than slave women. We didn’t pause to think about where such a decision came from or what it meant. (Spelman 1988: xi)

There are at least two points in her book where Levy can be seen implicitly to reproduce white middle-class bias as Spelman (1988: xi) describes it in the quotation above. One is in her analysis of why some women become female chauvinist pigs, and the other in her critique of the ‘bois’ movement in lesbian and transgender communities living in San Francisco. Both examples are addressed below.

In accounting for the behaviour of the FCP Levy (2005: 103-109) draws an analogy to the idea of ‘tomming’. This highly pejorative and often offensive term, derives from the novel by white author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the vernacular the designation ‘Uncle Tom’, after an African-American character in Beecher’s novel, is applied in a highly pejorative way to an individual of African American descent who is accused of being overly willing to accommodate the oppressive white cultural system. An ‘Uncle tom’, Levy (2005: 103-108) explains, is someone so eager to get along and fit in that they are willing to ‘act white’ rather than ‘act Black’. Though quick to point out that such essentialist designations of Black and white are today deemed ridiculous, Levy (2005: 108) uses this analysis of ‘tomming’ as a way of explaining the behaviour and motivation of the female chauvinist pig as someone who is willing to reify notions of male and female and ‘act like a man’ in order to avoid being in the ‘out group’.

There may be some merit to Levy’s claim about the motivations of some women in certain contexts and the pressure and desire to fit in with a mainstream masculinist culture. Yet, in setting the category ‘women’ as analogous to the category ‘Black’, Levy implicitly obscures the experience of women who are Black. By reducing ‘race’, and specifically Black people, to an analogous category, a group ‘outside’ the mainstream like women, Levy implicitly reinstates the conception of ‘women’ as, by definition, white.

A similar tendency to obfuscate difference exists in Levy’s (2005: 118-138) analysis of ‘bois culture’. Bois culture – as defined by Levy – is the practice, popular in some lesbian communities, of lesbian women adopting the persona of a young boy in dress, appearance, and vernacular, and a correspondingly misogynist and dismissive attitude towards the lesbian femmes that they date. Levy (2005: 137-138) points out that bois culture is not representative of broad lesbian cultural experience and that it can mean different things to different people. Nonetheless, by focusing exclusively on the reproduction of what appears to be a heterosexual dynamic in lesbian relationships, Levy’s analysis implicitly constructs lesbian experience as consistent with, indeed, as readable through the lens of, a heterosexual frame. She concludes the chapter asserting: ‘This isn’t about being a lesbian, it’s about being a woman’ (Levy 2005: 138). For the remainder of the book, however, the women whom Levy describes are all heterosexual. Thus, in contrast to the theoretical approaches considered above, Levy acknowledges that there is no singular female sexed or sexual identity, but does not allow this recognition of difference to transform the nature of her understanding of the category ‘women’. In Levy’s analysis our divergent experiences as women can still be read through a singular narrative of what is ‘common’ to all of us. The impulse behind such an approach may well be a positive one, to build communities of shared interest. Yet, in this account what is represented as common to all women is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the experiences of the dominant category – white, heterosexual, middle-class women.

Importantly, in making this critique my argument is not that Levy’s analysis of cultural trends ought to be dismissed on account of these limitations in engaging difference. More precisely, my argument is that, because of its significance in highlighting a topical and politically relevant trend for feminists, these limitations in Levy’s text warrant further attention. My view is that the tendency to negate, or at best diminish, difference in this manner impacts the terms of the debate over raunch culture and, relatedly, the sexualisation of girls and of culture. The argument in this section of the paper is that, as it exists presently, discourse on raunch culture, in failing to address the multiple significations ‘woman’, risks functioning as what Michel Foucault (1983: 208) termed a ‘dividing practice’.

Dividing Practices: Subjectivity and Subjection

The notion of a ‘dividing practice’ derives from Michel Foucault’s (1983: 208) work on subjectivity and subjection (see also Foucault 1980: 96-108). Foucault (1980: 96-98) formulated his understanding of the human subject as a means by which to dislodge sociological and philosophical accounts of the human agent as an autonomous self-determining being. In contrast to theoretical accounts of the human agent, the subject is not considered to exist prior to social relations of power, but instead is produced through them (Foucault 1980: 98). This understanding of the subject, as a partial being who is endlessly constituted through the social relations of discursive practices, has resonance with the critical feminist literature on difference, reviewed above. Both reject essentialist and singular understandings of human being, providing scope for understanding human subjectivity as an activity – the effect of a set or sets of practices – rather than as a property or innate characteristic. It is in the context of this notion of the subject as produced through relations of power that Foucault (1983: 208) defines a ‘dividing practice’ as a process by which ‘the subject is either divided inside himself [sic] or divided from others. ... Examples are the mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy, the criminals and the “good boys” [sic]’.

Dividing practices split people into recognisable and often antithetical categories, affecting the way individuals think of, and act on, themselves and their others. Foucault (1983: 208) states that his interest in exploring dividing practices in his genealogies of crime, penality, madness, etc, is to explore ‘the way a human being turns him- or herself into a subject. For example, I have chosen the domain of sexuality – how men [sic] have learned to recognize themselves as subjects of sexuality’ (Foucault 1983: 208). Central here is the way that dividing practices, the construction of ‘categories’ of subject, generally occur in those fields where individuals come to ‘know’ themselves as subjects. As I elaborate below, this understanding of subjectivity and subjection is also what Barbara Cruikshank (1996: 235) refers to in the epigraph to this article.

I have noted that, unlike sociological accounts of the agent, in Foucaultian (1980: 98) accounts the subject is considered to be produced through interstices of power. This, however, is not to say that the subject lacks capacity for action. Capacity for action and indeed, for considered reflective action, is central to Foucault’s unique understanding of power (see Foucault 216-222). Rather, it is the case that agency is not understood as an inherent property or quality of individuals but as produced in the context of relations of power, (and also as presupposed by such relations). In accounts that take this understanding of the subject, the focus, therefore, is on articulating the ways in which power functions to induce subjects to act upon themselves in particular ways in line with particular (external) goals. Cruikshank (1993; 1994), for example, whose work is focused upon democratic practice and the construction of the citizen subject, examines the way that particular tactics of power are deployed in order to induce subjects to become more ‘empowered’ citizens. These technologies of power are formalised and instructive ways of conceptualising effective citizenship as requiring a particular kind of subjectivity which individuals are encouraged and induced – not forced – to adopt (Cruikshank 1993: 328-331; 1994: 29).

Importantly Cruikshank (1993; 1994) sees the same tactics of self-government at play in the empowerment programs directed at the poor as a part of the US ‘War on Poverty’ in the 1960s, and in the self-esteem movement initiated by feminist Gloria Steinem in the US. A key insight of Cruikshank’s (for example 1993; 1994) work is to show in this way that it is not just state governments but also resistance movements that employ tactics of subject-formation in the pursuit of particular political goals. That this is so is not necessarily politically problematic, but it does establish the need to carefully interrogate how well the goals of reformers match up with the goals of the subject groups that they target. On this point, and where the reformers in question are feminists, differences between women ought to emerge as central considerations in evaluating the effects – and methods – of particular reform projects.

Drawing on Foucaultian notions of subjectivity and dividing practices, the argument advanced here is that, where discourse on raunch culture negates difference, reinstating singular conceptions of the agent rather than complex accounts of the subject in its critiques, it risks functioning as a dividing practice. The division serves as an uncritical delineation of categories of sexual subject, normalising some forms of female sexuality as ‘appropriately’ feminist and constructing as aberrant others. What this amounts to, I suggest, is the potential subjugation of particular groups of women who are already marginalised politically.

As established above, discourse on raunch culture, as it exists in Levy’s book, functions as a critique of the way ‘women’ engage, or are ‘co-opted’ by, raunch culture. What results from this analysis is a tacit construction of a single and singular properly-feminist subjectivity that is implicitly set in contrast to all others. Thus while I am in agreement with Levy that sexual styles should be interrogated critically for the way that they encode gender relations, unlike Levy I do not think that the practice of doing so is straightforward. My specific concern here is not that there should be no focus on how women – and indeed men – engage with so-called ‘raunch culture’, but that the particular way that this critique is established in present analyses does not accommodate difference. Sexual aesthetics do not merely represent gender dynamics – sexual aesthetics are very much mediated by ‘race’, class, ethnicity, and sexuality. ‘Raunch culture’ is mediated by, and mediates, class, ‘race’, ethnicity and sexuality. The singular subject position produced in the dominant account of raunch culture fails to acknowledge this. In so far as this is so, and difference among women is not acknowledged, the existing feminist critique of raunch culture risks becoming a ‘dividing practice’.

A practical example illuminates the point. Recently in the UK a debate occurred over particular items of clothing being sold for young girls by retailer Primark. The sale of the items, including a padded bikini for prepubescent girls, prompted protest by a mothers group who claimed the clothing was part of the growing trend to ‘sexualise’ young girls and to proliferate raunch culture. Not all feminist participants in this debate took their view. In particular, some participants in the debate expressed concern with the way that the retailer targeted in the protest, Primark, was noted for its large clientele of working-class mothers and children. The implication was that these working-class mothers were being judged for taking a different position to middle-class mothers in dressing their children.

Laurie Penny (2010), in an article published by The Guardian in April 2010, described the situation in the following terms:

The pubescent padded bra has been hijacked by the faux-feminist family values brigade as a symbol of moral decline, along with the kiddie pole-dancing kit and the playboy bunny pencil case. With weeks to go before the General Election, politicians are falling over themselves to support Mumsnet's Let Girls Be Girls campaign, which pressures retailers to discontinue products that 'sexualise' young girls. Primark has become a particular focus of public disapproval, and the clothing outlet's pledge to stop stocking padded bikinis for seven-year-olds has been targeted by all three major parties, with David Cameron declaring the products a ‘completely disgraceful’ example of ‘premature sexualisation’. (Penny 2010)

The campaign by ‘Mumsnet’ in focusing on the particular items identified – a pole dancing kit, the playboy bunny pencil case, and the padded bikini bra – is very much aimed at characteristic products of Levy’s ‘raunch culture’. In making this point there is no suggestion that these are items that should be available to young girls or that they are politically unproblematic. The relevance here is in the way that The Guardian journalist, Laurie Penny, who herself takes a defensive approach to the campaign, puts forward her objection:

There is a distinct class element to this puritan agenda. Although the Mumsnet campaign is a broad one, politicians and the press have reserved special disdain for Primark, whose brand has become shorthand for cheap clothing marketed at the working class. This strategy sustains the idea that it is specific groups of young girls who are ‘sexualised’ by corporate culture, and specific, morally bankrupt working-class mothers who buy padded bras for their daughters. There has been no concomitant attack on Marks and Spencer's ‘Angel’ range, which offers a similar demographic of young girls the chance to wear boulder-holders in broderie anglaise just like grandma. (Penny 2010)

Penny’s (2010) comments here are significant because they highlight the extent to which the coding of a particular sexual aesthetic is not class neutral – indeed it is not neutral at all, it has cultural, historical, and political baggage.

As theorists such as Valerie Walkerdine (1997) and Gail Reekie (1998), among others, have articulated, the sexual morality of working-class women has historically been constructed in symbolic relation to, and as the deviant other of, middle and upper-class women (see also Egan and Hawkes 2008; 2010: 56-73). Nor is this simply a fact about class. The sexual morality of ‘other’ women has always been constructed in relation to an elevated and idealised conception of prurient sexual modesty encapsulated by the imagined white middle to upper-class heterosexual ‘lady’. Crenshaw (1989: 157-160, 164-165), for example, in making her case for a need to focus on intersections of disadvantage powerfully demonstrates the racialised construction of female sexual propriety and the very different positioning of Black women and white women in US rape law. Crenshaw shows that women’s sexuality is clearly constructed at the intersection of gender and ‘race’. Similarly, any critique of the raunch aesthetic and its increasing prominence in mainstream culture needs to acknowledge this on-going cultural history otherwise it risks simply reproducing sexuality as a ‘dividing practice’. This is the impulse that Penny’s (2010) comment defensively responds to.

In making reference to Penny’s (2010) argument here I am not suggesting that her position overcomes this problematic dynamic. Rather, her article reflects a defensive posture which is similarly limited: she talks of ‘broderie anglaise boulder-holders’ being ‘like grandma’ (Penny 2010). If there is a dividing practice at work then here is the division: where working-class girls in their padded bras are hypersexualised and debased, middle and upper-class (white?) women in their embroidered lace are asexual and antiquated ‘grandmas’. In this example the critique of sexual aesthetics is no longer a critique of gender relations, or the nuanced analysis once apparent in Levy’s (2005: 197-200) claim of the emerging dominance of a singular and masculinist conception of (hetero?)sexuality, but a way of policing the sexualities of women in a superficial and divisive way. Importantly, as shown here, this policing occurs both ways. It is not just the case that ‘conservative’ accounts of raunch aesthetics are divisive: Penny’s ‘subversive’ or ‘accepting’ approach is similarly divisive. Both fail to adequately accommodate difference in their analyses.

To reiterate, the suggestion is not that these difficulties arise from what is theorised – the allegedly pervasive ‘raunch culture’ – but that they arise from how it is theorised. The argument developed in this paper is that the failure to acknowledge difference as a theoretical problematic is what ultimately creates ‘difference’ as a problem. Taking the difference debates seriously requires that the critique of ‘raunch’ cannot focus simply on the way it constructs gender as if it affects all women in the same way. Instead, the focus of analysis shifts to an account of the ways ‘raunch culture’, as a discourse, delimits subjects in terms of gender, race, class and sexuality. On this account raunch culture, and all other sexual aesthetics, are to be assessed for their gendering functions. More than this however, sexual aesthetics can be seen to not only have gendering functions but class-ing, ‘rac-ing’ and heterosexual-ising functions.

A challenge that feminisms face today is to find ways to make their critiques that do not divide women from themselves and each other but that are instead focused on critically analysing the ways multiple female subject positions are produced, recognising that women are gendered in the context of particular articulations of ‘race’, class, ethnicity, and sexuality. Popular, and indeed certain critical, accounts of raunch culture and what is problematic about it do not quite seem to have succeeded in this endeavour. As a way forward, and in keeping with the more nuanced critical accounts of sexualisation mentioned above, the argument advanced in this paper is that a more useful way to critically address raunch culture is to resist setting fixed judgements on the way women engage its artifacts, and examine instead the way ‘raunch’ functions at, and produces, the intersections of gender, ‘race’, class and sexuality. Given that Levy’s stated aim in her 2005 book is to react against what she claims is a narrowing of sexual possibilities for women, I would hope that this focus on difference would be read as consistent with that goal rather than anathema.

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