Many of us got tired of being pissed off. Termagant insubordination can be a drag, and no one wants to be a drag. How much easier it is to laugh. How much more appealing to be perceived as funny and with-it. "It's a way of flaunting your femininity -- that's what you think," says Susan Brownmiller, who's definitely not one of those feminists renowned for their senses of humor. "You think you're being brave, you think you're being sexy, you think you're transcending feminism. But that's bullshit."
This time, however, Brownmiller and the sisterhood aren't going to ruin our fun. Things have changed, we reason. What's the harm? Surely all those Playmates and Angels and strippers are supposed to be ironic. So if you feel stirrings of righteous indignation when you realize that everywhere you look, some demoralizing stereotype is being resurrected in a giggly, bouncy way, just remember: They're only kidding. At least that's what they think.
My friend Charlotte has developed a taste for bimbos. Though she's both an avid heterosexual and a modest dresser, there's something about porn stars and bikini girls in music videos (who more and more frequently are porn stars) that grips her the way the Beatles used to bewitch my parents. "The women in these things have these ridiculous bodies with big orb boobs and long legs with fuck-me pumps," she says. "They're plastic -- literally plastic -- like live Barbie dolls. I grew up playing with Barbie dolls."
Charlotte is from a nice family in Boston, where she attended a top-tier prep school. In college, she worked at the Women's Center, went to Take Back the Night marches, and scared her mother with her hairy armpits. But she feels that this new "guiltiest of pleasures" is just too much to fess up to, so she asked me to refer to her by a pseudonym in this article. "The thing I used to like about this stuff is that at least it was refreshing, it was completely aboveboard," she says. "You felt like Howard was just this one funny, misogynistic guy who said what no one else had the guts to say. But now it's so pervasive: It's like VH1 is covering the porn-rock connection, and it's cool to be a stripper, it's cool to be tarty."
Charlotte has other friends who are unconflicted about their connoisseurship. Getting together with them for the first time, I feel as though I am at a meeting of the Raunch Appreciation Society. Last year, the four of them went to Puerto Rico for a postcollege spring break, and Rachel, a tough, compact girl in platform boots and black pleather pants, has brought Charlotte a memento: a postcard picturing a woman's tumescent breasts against a background of blue sky with the words breast wishes from puerto rico scrawled in loopy cursive across the top.
"I was always the girl in the group who showed my tits," Rachel says. "When I first moved to New York, I couldn't get over Robin Byrd. I wouldn't go out till I watched Robin Byrd, and when I did go out, I would talk about Robin Byrd." Rachel is a 24-year-old registered nurse at Beth Israel with a strong Southern Massachusetts accent. She pronounces the public-access porn queen's name "Rawbin." "Watching Robin Byrd doesn't turn me on, though," she says. "It's for humor."
"Yeah, it's all comical to me," concurs Sherry, a 25-year-old advertising account executive. Today she started working at a new company, and she's still in her office outfit of cotton blouse and gray stretch-wool skirt. It's Sherry's first big-deal job, and Rachel has brought her a little congratulatory gift: a thick red pencil with a rubber Farrah Fawcett head smiling on one end. "I loved Charlie's Angels," Sherry explains.
Lately, Sherry and her roommate, Anyssa, have become "obsessed" with Nevins's show G-String Divas. "The other day we were on the subway and I wanted to dance on the pole in the middle," says Anyssa, the daughter of a cop and a florist. "I could never be a stripper myself, but I think it would be so sexually liberating." It isn't her looks that are holding her back; Anyssa is a built, beautiful young woman with icy-pale skin and a broad, lipsticked mouth. Right now she bartends at Bowlmor Lanes, but she wants to be an actress.
"When I'm bartending, I don't dress up because I have to deal with enough assholes as it is," she says. "In college, Sherry and I, by day we would wear these guy outfits, and then at night we'd get dressed up, and people would be like, Oh, my God! It's like a card: It's like at first you let them like you for your personality, but then you pull out the hot card and let them look at you like that and it takes it to a whole different level." Anyssa smiles. "And maybe you get to feel like a stripper does."
Everyone is quiet for a moment, savoring that possibility.
I suggest that there are reasons one might not want to feel like a stripper; that perhaps spinning greasily around a pole wearing a vapid, sexy facial expression not found in nature is more a parody of female sexual power than an expression of it.
This doesn't go over well. "I can't feel bad for these women," Sherry snaps. "I think they're asking for it."
Sherry considers herself a feminist. "I'm very pro-woman," she says. "I like to see women succeed, whether they're using their minds to do it or using their tits." But she doesn't mind seeing women fail if they aren't using either effectively. She likes the Stern show, for example, because his is a realm in which fairness of a sort pervades. Women who are smart and funny like Sherry, or Robin Quivers, the original Female Chauvinist Pig, get to laugh along with the boys. Women who are pathetic enough to go on national television and strip down to their G-strings in the hopes that Howard will buy them a boob job are punished with humiliation.
"Growing up, I hung out with all guys," says Anyssa. "These are the first girls I ever hung out with who had the same mentality as me and weren't gonna starve themselves and paint their nails every fucking second. I've never been a girly girl, and I've never wanted to compete in that world -- I just didn't fit in."
"My boyfriend got mad that I was going out to a strip club!" Rachel offers suddenly. She's drinking an oversize vodka tonic, and it seems to be leading her comments just south of apropos. "We're like the guys in our relationships: We make more money than our boyfriends; we live in better apartments," she explains to me.
"He turned down a chance to work a shoot with Pamela Anderson Lee the other night so he could be with me!" she explodes. "When I found out, I was like, I would have gone home twelve hours late to see Pamela Anderson Lee!"