Me Tarzan You Jane

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.

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!”

Comedy Central airs a program called The Man Show, which exists solely to celebrate the beer-and-babes lifestyle. I used to watch it once in a while because it’s so unbelievably out of hand, and because hey, I can take a joke. When I found out that 38 percent of the viewers are female and that it’s co-executive-produced by two women, Jennifer Heftler and Lisa Page, I went out to L.A. imagining I could confirm what everyone’s been saying: that all of this is just a benign goof.

The night I show up for a taping, there isn’t enough space for all the guys who’ve lined up, and a team of heavy-limbed boys in matching green T-shirts from Chico State is pumped to have made it into the audience.

Don, the bald audience fluffer, seems to be looking directly at them when he yells from the stage, “A few weeks ago, we had trouble with guys touching the women here. You can’t just grab their asses – you don’t do that in real life, do you?” Beat. “Welllll … so do I!” The frat boys cheer, but not with the alarming gusto of the man in front of them, a scrawny, bespectacled computer technician who resembles one of the P’s in Peter, Paul & Mary. “To the women,” bellows Don, “today only, you’re an honorary man! Grab your dick!”

Snoop is rapping over the loudspeaker:

Guess who back in the motherfuckin house/With a fat dick for your motherfuckin mouth.

Abby, a brunette in tight white jeans, is called up to the stage for her big chance to win a T-shirt. Honorary man status notwithstanding, she is asked to expose her breasts to the crowd. Abby declines, but agrees brightly to kiss another girl instead. A pert redhead in her early twenties races up from the audience to wrap her hands around Abby’s back and put her tongue in the stranger’s mouth. “Yeah! Yeah! You’re making me hard,” shrieks Peter/Paul. He is nearly hit in the head by the Chico Statesman behind him, who is pumping his fist in the air in front of his crotch.

Soon after, the stage doors open and out pour the Juggies, nine dancing girls in coordinated pornographic Mother Goose costumes: Little Red Riding Hood in spike-heeled patent-leather thigh-highs, Bo Peep in a push-up bra so aggressive you can almost see her nipples, and, of course, Puss in Boots.

They shimmy their way around the audience, and some of them do tricks on the poles. After the shouting dies down, the show’s hosts, Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla, emerge from backstage, fresh as daisies in matching his and his gingham shirts. “Who knows a good joke?” Carolla asks.

“How do you piss your girlfriend off when you’re having sex?” a guy in the back volunteers. “Call her up and tell her.”

Then they show a pretaped spot about a mock clinic for wife evaluation, where a prospective bride is assessed based on her grasp of football and her aptitude at administering fellatio to Ron Jeremy.

“There’s a side of boydom that’s fun,” declares Jen Heftler, a big woman with frizzy hair and two tattoos, one of a rose and the other of a dragonfly. “They get to fart, they get to be loud – and I think now we’re saying we can fart and curse and go to strip clubs and smoke cigars just as easily and just as well.”

As for the Juggies, we are supposed to understand that they are kitsch – boobs, yes, but in quotes. “In the sixties, Dean Martin had his Golddiggers, and they were basically Juggies,” says Heftler, “but the audience wasn’t in on the joke. It was just pretty girls because that’s what a guy would have. Then it was, you can never have that, you can’t show a woman as a sex object, that’s terrible. Now we’re back to having it, but it’s kind of commenting on that as opposed to just being that. The girls are in on it, and the women watching it are in on it.”

But after sitting in that audience, I have to wonder: What exactly are they in on? That women are ditsy and jiggly? That men would like them to be?

Bob Guccione Jr., the publisher and editor of Gear, says, “In our pictures, there’s a sense of mystery, as if the woman is one step ahead of you. There are women who have a knee-jerk reaction – you know the kind of women I’m talking about – women who just don’t like to see guys having fun and are uncomfortable with sex.”

The women in front of the camera are in control, the argument goes; what’s wrong with you that you can’t see it? Except that you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the Juggies – who end every episode of The Man Show by bouncing around in a section aptly titled “Girls on Trampolines” – are “one step ahead of you.”

“Listen, our generation has gone past the point where The Man Show is going to cause a guy to walk into a doctor’s office and say, Oh, my God! A woman doctor!” Heftler counters. “Women have always had to find ways to make men comfortable with where we’re at. One of the perks to this job was that we wouldn’t have to prove ourselves anymore,” she continues. “We could say, ‘We worked at The Man Show,’ and no one would ever think, Oh, those prissy little women again.”

It’s an old strategy. Women who’ve wanted to be perceived as powerful have long found it more efficient to join forces with men than to try to elevate the entire female sex. Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick were famously contemptuous of “women’s libbers,” for example, and were untroubled about striving to “write like a man.” Not everyone cares that this doesn’t do much for the sisterhood.

The night after the taping, I have dinner with Adam Carolla, Jimmy Kimmel, and The Man Show’s co-creator, Daniel Kellison, at the restaurant inside the W Hotel in Westwood, a place that resembles Asia de Cuba in its penchant for hot white lights and giant pieces of fabric draped over everything. I ask why they suppose 38 percent of their viewers are women.

“We did a little research,” says Carolla, “and it turns out 38 percent of all women have a sense of humor.”

I laugh. I want to be one of those women. The ladies here at the W are like another species: There are lush curves bursting off impossibly thin frames everywhere you look, and miles of hairless, sand-colored skin.

“It’s a whole power thing that you take advantage of and career women take advantage of,” Kellison offers. “If you read Maxim or watch our show or Howard Stern or whatever, you have an overview of a cultural phenomenon, you have power. You take responsibility for your life and you don’t walk around thinking, I’m a victim of the press! I’m a victim of pop culture! So you can laugh at girls on trampolines.” He smiles warmly. “There’s nothing ominous about this; it’s just guys hanging out. You get it.”

For a moment, I allow myself to feel vaguely triumphant.

Kimmel sucks an oyster out of its shell and then snickers. “At TCA,” the annual Television Critics Association conference in Pasadena, “this woman asked, ‘How does having big-breasted women in the Juggy dance squad differ from having black women in the darkie dance squad?’ I said, ‘First of all, that’s the stupidest question I’ve ever heard.’

“Then Adam said, ‘Let me put your mind at ease: If we ever decide to put together a retarded dance squad, you’ll be the first one in it,’ ” says Kellison, and all three of them laugh.

“What kind of women do you hang out with?” I ask.

Kimmel looks at me as though I’m insane. “For the most part,” he says, “women don’t even want to hang out with their friends.”

For my final field trip, I accompany Charlotte and the gang to Ten’s on 21st Street. The room – dark, air-conditioned – glints in pink, then green, then orange as dozens of tiny neon stars on the wall flash with color. A bald bouncer in a three-piece suit of sorts leads us to a table near the stage, and we sit down next to two guys in business suits. While one talks on his cell phone, the other is looking up slack-mouthed at the woman twisting in front of him in her underpants. “You’re the most beautiful girl in here,” he pants. She keeps her face frozen in a slit-eyed half smile until he slips the money in her G-string. Then she walks away, yawning.

Charlotte looks like she may try and make a run for it, but Anyssa decides she’s ready for a lap dance. “Oh What a Night” is blaring on the sound system as two strippers approach and peel their dresses off. They don’t strictly resemble Barbie dolls, but there is that plastic quality – a body without flaw, skin that looks as if it’s been poured from a tube. One stripper slips in between Sherry’s legs. Seconds later, a bouncer comes over and grasps her by the arm. “Put your dress on,” he says.

“Hey,” Sherry yells as the woman is escorted away. “Where’d my girl go?”

Onstage, the blonde who best approximates Pamela Anderson Lee is writhing against a pole. “You should get her on your lap,” one of the bouncers tells Sherry, winking.

But her original stripper has returned with a friend, and they settle in next to Sherry and Anyssa. It seems they are getting on swimmingly for a while, but then Anyssa turns to Charlotte, suddenly sullen. “Pass me my wallet,” she says. It seems the strippers expect around a hundred dollars for their little chat.

Just then, a tall Russian woman still in her blue polyester dress approaches and rests her hand on my arm. “Are you gay?” she asks. “No? Do you want to be a stripper?”

Because, really – and she was right about this – why else would a woman choose to be here?

Me Tarzan You Jane