In a recent Sunday Times article, Naomi Wolf joined the ranks of those claiming Sex and City is a ground-breaking neo-feminist epic. Alexandra Kokoli discusses Wolf’s article and questions whether all that shoe shopping is really as liberating as it appears to be.
The opening paragraphs of ‘Sex and the Sisters’ are squashed under an enormous colour photograph of its author and Candace Bushnell, creator of Sex and the City, engrossed in conversation. I am inclined to consider the size of the picture not as an indication of Wolf’s narcissism (after all, the writer of The Beauty Myth is too aware of the pitfalls and joys of reading too much into appearances), but as a key to her argument. Along with its evocative title, the review unequivocally suggests that Wolf and Bushnell, the feminist and the New York It-girl, overcome their differences to be ‘united by a modern female sensibility’. Wolf chronicles her seduction by Bushnell and the new, clearly post-second-wave brand of feminism, which the latter’s writing embodies.
Sex and the City may be cast as the four women’s search for the happy ending – marriage and family life – but what the viewer gets instead, in each episode and over every season, is the constant deference of this goal. In fact, Wolf maintains, the show’s driving force and popularity lie in its ability to quietly overturn its own thematic and ideological parameters. It is not a marriageable male but the process of dating, in all its delightful seriality, that Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha seek out. They are not really in need for the security, financial or emotional, that an alliance with a man supposedly provides because they are all reasonably well-off and, at the end of the day, they always have each other. They never settle for ‘cads’ or ‘mummy’s boys’ although they often do have sex with both categories. It is precisely the unsuitability of their transient partners that makes up and maintains the connective tissue of this particular group. Their dating habits guarantee for “the delicious prolongation of a late female adolescence. […] It means that the late-summer delight of unfettered female eroticism can proceed without restraint. It means nobody yells at the women for spending too much on their shoes.” Wolf relishes in the immaculately accessorised, girly and Neverlandish existence propagated by Sex and the City. She is compelled to evoke her quasi namesake Virginia Woolf (who is often called upon throughout the review), in asking what women would do if they had “500 a year (NB that’s old money) and a room of their own (read condo). According to S & C, they would shop, f*** and talk about it with each other, in no particular order and not always in equal measure. Elsewhere, Wolf draws a parallel between V. Woolf’s ‘iconic take on female friendship “Clo” liked Olivia”‘ with the following, allegedly ‘portentous’ sentence: “The next day Samantha and I went to the Valley for Fendi bags. We had found fake Fendi paradise.” I am confused. Unless the fake Fendi bag doubles as some mystical friendship charm, I fail to see why Carrie would like Samantha any better on account of a shared shopping adventure at the wrong side of town.
Although for the most part this is a pretty accurate description of Sex and the City, I am not so sure that it justifies its underlying qualification as a ground-breaking neo-feminist epic – a televised Iliad for women, of sorts, to follow up on one of Wolf’s telling comparisons. It is the presumed novelty of it all that gives me the most trouble. In my eyes, instead of landmarks of feminist change, all the aspects that are singled out in the review brand the show as – oh, the sartorial horror! – a very, very old hat. To recap, it’s a soft spot for fashion, hard bodies, shopping and talking that connect and empower the fabulous four. And yet who ever doubted that women always gagged for such things? No Victorian would hesitate to acknowledge the weaker sex’s ‘natural’ attraction to pretty things, especially if these can be used for self-decoration. And is there a more pervasive misogynist chiche than that of the female chatterbox? More to the point, the idea of an excessive and insatiable female sexuality is far from a feminist invention. The myth of the angel in the house is built on its negative, the harlot in the thoroughfare and, more insidiously, the loose woman lurking within every angel, disguised beneath a mere veneer of respectability, good manners and authoritatively imposed self-control. In the patriarchal imagination, the whore and the Madonna have always been suspiciously adjacent and in constant danger of merging into each other. In other words, ‘angels’ are only kept angelic by the skin of her teeth and, given half the chance, they would be knocking those kinky laced-up boots of theirs against those of any passing male. To put it simply, I fear that Samantha’s character, an exaggerated but revealing model of female sexual behaviour, is the product of a male chauvinist mind. A lad’s dream-come-true and a prude’s nightmare, she summarises all that has traditionally been dreaded and valued – only for use and abuse – in women by men. Far from advocating temperance, I still feel that a clear line needs to be drawn between having a sexual appetite (and defending one’s right to express and satisfy it) and bingeing, or, worse, acting out semi-pornographic male fantasies.
Whereas the financial independence of the characters is pivotal to the plot (since it finances their expensive, infectious tastes) and is often brought up as proof of the show’s feminist allegiances, not much is ever made of their professional occupations. Despite their high-flying careers, none of the women appear to gain any significant job satisfaction, with the sole exception of Carrie, of course, whose journalism on sex and gender relations is simultaneously a dominant plot device and overriding theme. (Come to think of it, even Carrie would rarely turn down a good date for the sake of writing). Charlotte has no qualms about leaving her job at the gallery in the prospect of marrying into money and starting a family (ironically, she soon discovers that she’s practically infertile and her marriage breaks down, followed by bitter financial negotiations). All that the viewer is ever allowed to know of Miranda’s successful law practice is how excessively stressful and exhausting it can be; there was actually a single early episode where she discovers that she has a better chance of promotion as a paired-up lesbian than as a single heterosexual woman, but that plot line was quickly dropped. As for PR-consultant Samantha, the examples of how little she values her career are too many to enumerate: she famously blows her chances of representing Lucy Liu by conspiring to possess a to-die-for designer bag; she then hooks up with her hotelier employer, thus tying the fate of her most prestigious and profitable assignment to date to that of an expectedly brief and, as it turns out, hurtful affair. Samantha’s emotional involvement with Richard is no redeeming factor but merely a reminder and reprise of another compromise: on their first professional encounter, Sam’s ballsy retort to his sexist employment policy may get her the job, but does not give her the astuteness to keep it. Her sexual openness is once again exposed as a sign of vulnerability instead of empowerment and self-determination.
To return to the dominant subject of shopping, I remain unwilling to celebrate it as a site of a woman-specific culture or, even more bizarrely, a realm that fosters the exercise of free will; (in all fairness, this latter position does not appear in Wolf’s review, but it has been aired in the media all the same). Call me Marxist if you must, but since when does blowing away money on overpriced, inessential and short-lived goods – their lack of durability being contingent not on their poor quality but the fast-spinning circularity of fashion – constitute a subversive act? (Actually, there are many who fervently believe that it does, but that would be the subject of a different review). It is not just that shopping is cast as an inherently positive activity, the springboard for female bonding and sexy mutual confessions. Quite unashamedly, the show has become the platform for advertising a whole array of luxury items, ranging from vibrators to shoes. Thanks to S & C, Manolo Blahnik has now become a household name, even in households whose monthly upkeep equals the price of a pair of his sandals. Moreover, I suspect that the real reason why the girls keep their bras on during sex is not that American men have suddenly developed an allergy to silicone (as A. A. Gill spitefully suggests) but that bras are easier to sell than plastic surgery (although the wind may soon be changing on this issue). For those not savvy enough to know where to buy all this stuff, there is plenty of help at hand: hardly a month goes buy without some women’s or gossip magazine running a feature on the coveted S & C lifestyle and how to get it. Wolf interprets the rising popularity of the Magic Wand vibrator as a sign of ‘the power of the show to set sexual trends’, yet I would be inclined to count it among the achievements of a very strong marketing team.
What bothers me most about the overriding compulsion to celebrate Sex and the City (a compulsion of which Wolf’s review is after all a relatively reflective and cautious example) is that it puts me in the compromising position of agreeing with A. A. Gill (The Sunday Times Culture, 3 August, pp. 12-3). Having reached fashion overdrive, the four heroines are indeed starting ‘to look like Joan Rivers’ bridesmaids’ and just like Joan Rivers herself, they are sad rather than funny. Unlike Gill, however, their downfall does not leave me cold. While I find the very premise of the show irritating at best, this conclusive season promises to be tainted by an unintended melancholy on top of everything else. I would not dare suggest that the fabulous four are getting too old for their own gig (as many have done), but the show itself beats me to it. In the case of S & C, the inevitable fatigue that afflicts all but the very best TV series in their final round has unfortunately encroached on every aspect of the plot: Carrie has her eye on yet another bushy eyebrowed, emotionally unavailable forty-something (this new one only looks younger), Miranda is once more wondering whether Steve is the one (even though he clearly does not dress the part), Charlotte is on the verge of a new engagement, and Samantha – well, here’s a change – is now giving away fruit baskets in an attempt to lure young buff things into her, eh, bed. Since the show has now come so close to parodying itself, I say why not go all the way and give it a Reservoir Dogs-style denouement, with Carrie getting stabbed by a – fake! – Manolo Blahnik heel and Charlotte choking on a pearl necklace. I wonder what (post?) feminist statement that would make.