It was a splendid time for a teen girl to become a feminist. The Year of the Woman, 1992, saw a record number of American women elected to public office, the riot grrl scene was in full swing, and Bill Clinton was feeling our pain years before he would feel up his intern. Influenced heavily by Madonna’s merging of sexual display with money and prestige in the 1980s, I embraced a nascent form of feminism claiming women could fuck their way to equality with men if we were just sexy enough. Young women like me were hanging our sexual self-definition on the fashionable hook of whore chic and called ourselves “third wave” feminists in ideological opposition to second wave women’s liberationists of the 1970s who rejected sexual objectification and opposed pornography. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
What’s sometimes known as “fuck me feminism” has been much discussed lately, thanks to the recently published Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, by Ariel Levy, a third-wave feminist who crashed on the shores of failed expectations. The book dissects the rotting carcass of modern American feminism like a CSI specialist and finds a hollow heart where once pumped a riot grrl love muscle. Amid this shit storm of criticism aimed at pro-sex feminism comes Liz Phair’s new album, Somebody’s Miracle.
After watching the video for the first single, “Everything to Me” and sampling songs from the lackluster new release, I realize the timing couldn’t be better, because Phair is so remarkably similar to the women Levy writes about in Female Chauvinist Pigs that I’m tempted to send her a copy. The video for the single features legs sticking out from under a guitar and cleavage bared as rain whips the clothes covering Liz tautly around her body (her hair stays oddly windswept). I wondered what happened to the brazen third waver poster girl, and I wondered what happened to the agenda of sincere sexual satisfaction we young feminists seemed so keen on in the 1990s.
And Phair, smart woman that she is, wonders too. On October 8 she told the St. Petersburg Times, “I start to look around and it’s like, ‘God, it’s depressing how many images of scantily clad women are everywhere.’ Part of me starts to think, ‘Doesn’t this mean something?’ “
When Liz Phair’s 1993 record Exile in Guyville, came out, featuring Phair on the cover with wide-open mouth and wide-open shirt, third wavers like me picked up enough to recognize her sexual explicitness was different than Madonna’s boy-toy shtick. The music was as sexually aggressive as the cover and slightly out of tune in charming ways that worked. Liberally sprinkled throughout the lyrics were mentions of blow jobs, cunts, sucks and fucks, words bluntly used by many third wave feminists to try to reclaim them from their traditional place in guyville, much as queer was reclaimed by gays.
Exile‘s paean to abject horniness, “Flower,” received particular attention because of its frankly sexual lyrics (“I want to be your blow-job queen”), but the album’s relevance to young feminists is more properly found in such songs as “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and “Fuck and Run.” The first chronicles crass power-playing through sex and features Liz licking the sugarcoating off boy-girl relations as my friends and I had experienced it. Sex for us was more about ego boosting and one-upmanship than mutual, pleasurable activities undertaken for their own sake. Despite shouts of sexual liberation and the rush of discovered sexual power, the emotional hollowness of one-night stands — as captured in the flagship song “Fuck and Run” — told a different tale. A veritable third wave anthem for good reason, “Fuck and Run” combines the yearning for sexual pleasure young women were beginning to demand with the lack of good sense this burning urge led us to adopt when conducting our affairs: “I woke up in your arms / And almost immediately I felt sorry.” The song is the female equivalent of the Jewish saying “A stiff prick turns the mind to shit” and wryly admits that sometimes promiscuity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Critics loved it. Young women really loved it. Liz Phair became an overnight indie sensation. Madonna had recently released the insanely overpriced and embarrassingly tacky photo book Sex, but we burgeoning anti-capitalistas — starting our own zines, knitting our own clothes, starting our own bands rather than passively accepting Cosmo, designer duds and just listening to music — were seeing through such slick marketing tactics. It was the new age of grunge and self-deprecatingly sincere rock music. Phair seemed to fill the void Madonna left with a new sensibility, and the press was eager to see how she would fare in the changing feminist and musical worlds. Phair opened her 1994 album Whip-smart with devastating lyrics sung monotonously over plodding piano accompaniment: “I met him at a party and he told me how to drive him home / He said he liked to do it backwards / I said that’s just fine with me / That way we can fuck and watch TV.” Once again Phair chronicled an experience both intensely personal yet bizarrely common to myself and other young women I knew. I was in college at the time, going to strip clubs and engaging in sexual adventuring that usually seemed a hundred times sexier in drunken theory than in drunken practice. My friends and I knew we liked and wanted sex, but the power games and awkward, disconnected rubbings that made up the bulk of our sexual experiences weren’t fulfilling our robust desires.
The confessional, intense singer-songwriter women of 1994 helped young women find their way to third wave feminism. They embodied the feminist slogan “The personal is political” and gave it a fresh rereading. Tori Amos sang about masturbation and humped her piano, Ani DiFranco bent sexual orientation and gender rules, and Sarah MacLachlan sang about an obsessed stalker. The zine scene, led by Bratmobile’s Girl Germs zine, showed us sisters doing it for themselves whether “it” was being in an all-woman band, writing a magazine photocopied at the library or otherwise butting in where musical and political alternaculture dominated by men usually told women to butt out.
But it wasn’t long before such earnest singers and zines were supplanted by the more sexualized feminist culture cropping up, notably the hypersexualized zine-turned-glossy Bust. It became a rule, for example, that every other article about the band Le Tigre had to mention singer Kathleen Hanna’s stint as a stripper. From these swirling pop culture waters “fuck me feminism” properly arose, and those feminists who presented themselves and feminism most sexually, like Susie Bright and Annie Sprinkle, were crowned by the media as new heirs to the feminist throne.
In the four long years between Whip-smart, and Liz Phair’s next album, the underrated Whitechocolatespaceegg, we third wavers sure could have used her sisterly advice. Britney Spears was leaving Lolita in the dust as she raced to be the most masturbatable girl-woman in the world, and the Internet made every home computer an outlet for hardcore pornography. During Phair’s hiatus, she got married and had a child. Phair’s new album was more polished, but it was undeniably Liz. Yet nestled between the upbeat, catchy songs “Baby Got Going” and “Ride” was the off-putting, S&M-themed “Johnny Feelgood”. I would always raise a brow at the lines, “I hate him all the time but I still get up / When he knocks me down and he orders me around / Cause it loosens me up and I can’t get enough.” I consider myself an experienced, sexually educated woman but something about eroticizing abusive imagery didn’t sit right me. All the postmodernism and deconstruction I cultivated in college couldn’t make that song all right, and I often skipped to the next track, “Polyester Bride,” because I was much more onboard with drinking for free because the bartender thinks I have pretty eyes.
As Phair had a few years earlier, I moved from East to West and settled in Portland, Oregon. There, in the thick of alternative culture, at the birthplace of riot grrl, I lived across the street from a strip club, where I would watch prostitutes turn tricks in the parking lot from my living-room window. I had moved my porn collection with me but found myself not wanting to watch them for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. I became a serious activist for women’s reproductive rights, first with Planned Parenthood and then as leader of a local sexual health activist group. I read the third wave essay anthology Cunt, by Inga Muscio like every other young feminist at the time and waited patiently for the next Liz Phair album.
Liz Phair, released in 2003, literally laid bare what was going wrong. The cover image of a mostly naked Liz straddling a guitar with windswept hair made her look like every other bleached blonde sex kitten saturating the music scene. Scorn for this Waterworld of an atrocity has been heaped on by many before me, but I’m not going to point the finger at Liz or even the producers who helped create this album-ination. Liz Phair needs to be plugged into a larger cultural context in order to figure out what went wrong for both female musicians and the young feminists who used to attend Lilith Fair.
Madonna made a comeback in the new millennium with a song whose video featured her as a pimpette stuffing bills into bras at a strip club, and Britney’s 15-minutes of fame didn’t fade but revved into a 24-hour downloadable porn loop. Punctuate that last sentence with the painfully publicity-minded fake lesbian kiss at the 2003 MTV music awards. Formerly earnest Jewel bared her midriff on the cover of her forgettable 2003 album, and suggestively named artists Peaches and Pink were singing about sucking on everything they could get their mouths around while putting on stage shows with stripped blow up dolls, dominatrixes, and lap dancing. I can’t fault Liz for trying to keep up appearances with the repressively commercial sexual atmosphere at her workplace, but the air of resignation in the lyrics of Liz Phair I can’t abide.
In “Love/Hate,” Phair sings about giving up the quest to understand the war between boys and girls. She decides there’s no point in trying to change anything so “you might as well get on the train.” More often thrashed in the media was “H.W.C.” (Hot White Cum), a simple tune that praised sperm as a beauty product and completely lacked any of the self-effacing complexity of her earlier work. “Fuck and Run” expertly merged casual sex with vulnerability and the alienating feelings that accompanied fucking when you didn’t really want to, and it even managed to toss in a hopeful yearning for a boyfriend “who makes love cause he’s in it.” “H.W.C.” replaced the fleshed-out range of conflicting emotions surrounding sex with a facile ode to splooge. Like Phair, I grew up and found a delightfully fulfilling sexual partner too, but the joys of sex I’m experiencing these days are more profound than a fixation on fluids.
Is Liz Phair a female chauvinist pig? When Levy writes about young women being female chauvinist pigs, she’s not necessarily pointing the finger at them for pro-sex-industry feminism gone awry. She is simply not taking their word that stripping is beneficial for women just because it’s marketed as being feminist. When Phair sings in the new song “Table For One” that “I want to bring down all those people who drank with me / Watching happily my humiliation,” I hear the women interviewed in Levy’s book question the binge fucking that hasn’t made them happy but don’t know who to blame for feeling degraded. I hear myself at the strip clubs I used to visit, joining with men in humiliating other women on sexual display, happy to not be the target of such judgments for a short while. I believe that Phair, like many women, cut the best deal with patriarchy a talented, attractive woman can make, and she shouldn’t be cast off as a sexed-up sellout any more than other women forced to navigate the choppy, pornified currents of our time.
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S.M. Berg is an activist writer whose work has been published in Portland’s oldest progressive newspaper, The Portland Alliance, and in the USA’s oldest feminist news journal, off our backs.