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Me Tarzan You Jane

With "Thong Song" on the radio and The Man Show on the tube, pop culture has become a frat house -- and women are joining the party by acting like frat boys. The new Female Chauvinist Pigs are definitely funny. But is the joke on them?

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Recently, the organization New York Women in Film & Television threw a breakfast to honor Sheila Nevins, a 22-year veteran of HBO and its executive vice-president of original programming. The vibe was more Lifetime Intimate Portrait than Sex and the City: "I was growing up in a society where women were quiet, so I got to listen," Nevins reflected from the podium. "I like to laugh, I like to cry; the rest is paperwork."

All the women wore glazed, reverential expressions as they picked at their melon wedges and admired Nevins's sharp wit, keen intellect, and zebra-printed slides. "Who opened your career doors for you?" one wanted to know. "Me," Nevins replied. A tweedy fellow with a bow tie started his question with "I'm just the token guy . . ." Nevins gave a little snort and said, "You're all tokens," and the gals had a good laugh.

But then a woman in the back brought up G-String Divas, the late-night docu-soap that Nevins executive-produces, which treats audiences to extended showings of T&A between interviews with strippers about tricks of the trade and their real-life sexual practices. "Why would a woman -- a middle-aged woman with a child -- make a show about strippers?" the woman asked. Everyone was stunned.

Nevins whipped around in her chair.

"You're talking fifties talk! Get with the program!" she barked. "I love the sex stuff. What's the big deal?" In fact, there was something vaguely Betty Friedan- esque about this woman compared with the rest, in their Eileen Fisher knits and lip liner. She adjusted her glasses, visibly shaken, but persisted: "Why is it still the case that if we're going to have a series about women on television, it has to be about their bodies and their sexuality?"

Nevins shook her head furiously. "Why is it that women will still go after women taking off their clothes and not after all the injustices in the workplace? I don't get it! As if women taking off their clothes is disgusting and degrading. Not being able to feed your kids, that's disgusting and degrading!"

"But -- "

"Everyone has to bump and grind for what they want," Nevins interrupted. "Their bodies are their instruments, and if I had that body, I'd play it like a Stradivarius!"

"But -- "

"The women are beautiful, and the men are fools! What's the problem?"

"But you're not really answering my question."

Of course not. Because part of the answer is that nobody wants to be the frump at the back of the room anymore, the ghost of women past -- it's just not cool. What is cool is for women to take a guy's-eye view of pop culture in general and naked ladies in particular. This is an amped-up, horny moment in our culture, and "getting with the program" requires a boys-will-be-boys attitude. Better yet, act like a frat boy in a Wonderbra yourself. Don't worry, everyone's doing it.

There's Madonna gap-toothed in a white cowboy hat in her "Music" video, stuffing a wad of cash into a stripper's G-string. There's the Playboy Mansion in the society pages again, a must-visit Los Angeles stop for female celebrities from Gwyneth Paltrow to Debbie Harry. Last August, California congresswoman Lorretta Sanchez scheduled a fund-raiser there. The January issue of W magazine features a spread with Balenciaga-clad Playmates, and at Betsey Johnson's spring show, Bunnies went down the runway with neon-orange ears and tufty white tails on their bottoms. The designer gushed to reporters about "empowerment" and "freeing women's sexuality." Maxim magazine has a monthly "Letters From Ladies" section to showcase feedback from females (about a quarter of its readership). In November, the film remake of the quintessential jiggle show, Charlie's Angels, opened at No. 1 and made $75 million in ten days, reinvigorating the interest of men and women alike in leggy crime fighting. On a flight to Los Angeles a few months ago, I happened to be seated next to Evan Lowenstein of the identical-twin-pretty-boy band Evan & Jaron. He told me he had been partying with some chicks at his hotel room the night before, and "they were trying to convince me to go with them to Scores to meet Howard Stern, but I was too beat."

There was a time when it seemed as if the unintended consequence of the women's movement was the feminized New Age Man. But the newest hybrid of the gender wars is an even more unusual creature: the Female Chauvinist Pig.

I'm 26, Jewish, raised in Westchester. My mother, a shiatsu masseuse who attended weekly women's consciousness-raising groups for 24 years, met my father, a consultant for nonprofits like Amnesty International, now, National Abortion Rights Action League, and so on, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the sixties. I went to Wesleyan University, a place where you could pretty much get expelled for saying "girl" instead of "woman." But somewhere along the line, I developed a taste for Howard Stern and started using the word "chick."

You could write it off as an Alex P. Keatonish sort of rebellion in my case, but most people I'm friendly with -- both men and chicks, regardless of background -- have taken on a similarly loutish posture about what in my Wesleyan days I would have called gender. Partly, it just seems prim to dress up our conversation in the party clothes of political correctness. (Think about it: When was the last time you heard someone you like use the word objectification?) But there's also a way in which a certain lewdness, a certain crass, casual humor that has at its core a "me Tarzan, you Jane" mentality, makes us all feel equal. It makes us feel that way because we are all Tarzan, or at least we are all pretending to be.

"Feminism has evolved to the point where women are no longer satisfied being equal to men; they actually have to be men," laments a character on Darren Star's failed series The Street.

"What have I been saying?" his friend replies. "They're trying to make us obsolete, dude. You can't turn on the TV without seeing two chicks tonguing each other."

The Female Chauvinist Pig is not a lesbian. But she couldn't have existed before Lesbian Chic magically reconfigured the American conception of lesbian from bull dyke with crew cut to Sharon Stone with ice pick, and made it okay -- sexy! racy! -- for women to ogle strippers or porn stars or Alyssa Milano on the cover of Maxim. The Female Chauvinist Pig doesn't want men to disappear, far from it. She wants to sleep with them and be like them.

By the way, you couldn't have had Female Chauvinist Pigs before the women's movement, either -- it's hard to attain that porky swagger when you can't get a job. But whereas the nineties "do me" feminist was a distinctly female, sex-loving, hard-rocking badass, the Female Chauvinist Pig is just mimicking manliness. The she-wolf has had her moment; even Courtney Love has gotten rid of her combat boots and half her nose.

So we've adapted. Women are not about to stand around the sidelines in the frat house of popular culture. If girl rock is going to be about Britney and Christina now, then damn it, we're going to talk about their tushes and learn the words to "Oops! . . . I Did It Again." Because women in America don't want to be excluded from anything -- not the board meeting or the cigar that follows it or, lately, even the trip to the strip club that follows that. What we want is to be where it's at, and right now that happens to be a pretty trashy place.


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