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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

sex and the city and postfeminism

by Catherine Partin

What is postfeminism?  Janelle Reinelt defines it in States of Play: Feminism, Gender Studies, and Performance as “[A] time when the residue of feminism is still with us in terms of its history and some of its commitments, but without the overarching umbrella of an organized social or political movement at either grass roots or national levels.” In popular culture, the idea that we inhabit a postfeminist society is clearly demonstrated in the television series Sex and the City.

As most readers of this blog will probably know, the series focuses on the lives of four fictional upper-class white women in New York: Carrie, who writes a newspaper column on relationships; Samantha, a powerful publicist; and Charlotte, an art dealer; and Miranda, a lawyer.  At one point in the series, Miranda muses, “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?”  As the least fashion-conscious and most career-oriented woman on the show, she is portrayed as the most neurotic because her drive for success at work hinders her in more traditionally feminine pursuits (i.e., dating and motherhood).  But despite her professional success, her personal life is depicted as lonely and pathetic because she does not place the same priority on marriage and children as do Charlotte and Carrie. 

As Suzanne Leonard writes in I Hate My Job, I Hate Everybody Here, “Feminist-inflected discussions of the importance of finding suitable, lucrative, and relevant labor have thus receded in a postfeminist culture far more concerned with reminding women of all the personal and romantic goals their laboring might put in jeopardy.  This shift in tone is also naturalized, thanks to the implicit suggestion that the particularities of work are no longer something with which women need concern themselves.  Postfeminist culture assumes, in fact, that all women possess the requisite credentials to lay claim to the jobs they desire and that once they do so they will be well compensated for their efforts.” (104)  If postfeminism is a taking-into-account of all that feminism worked to achieve, then Sex and the City is a perfect example of postfeminism in popular culture, with work and class as issues that manage to be smoothed over or ignored. The characters lead highly privileged lives, enjoying many of the rights that Second Wave feminists fought hard to achieve, but despite their success and independence, they are obsessed with relationships, and the show revolves around their search for romantic fulfillment.

 The women of Sex and the City are all well-educated, wealthy, and white; their jobs hardly seem to matter, except in Miranda’s case, when it is implied that her interest in a successful law career is the hindrance that keeps her from marriage, children, and the traditional fairy-tale ending that it is assumed all women secretly want.  Carrie’s research for her column on relationships, for example, involves dating, going out to nightclubs and parties, and dining at trendy new restaurants.  In one episode, she explains to an exboyfriend whom she spots on the terrace of a café that she is working, when actually she’s gossiping with her friends and sipping a cocktail.  Any serious work done by the characters on the show (like Miranda’s need to invest time and effort to her high-stress job as a lawyer) is seen as a threat to their romantic and personal fulfillment.

In contrast to Miranda, Charlotte’s career is of little importance to her, but she is portrayed as the most cheerful and optimistic of the bunch because she believes wholeheartedly in old-fashioned romance and is the first of the four women to enter into a traditional marriage.  “In the postfeminist popular media, these celebratory representations of marriage are even less tempered and often take on an additional valence wherein they emphasize that if push comes to shove a woman’s marital status is indeed more important than her career.  Such portrayals frequently emphasize that female employment, far from being the sort of life necessity that feminists advocated, has the potential to be a hindrance to her ‘feminine’ aspirations.  Thus, recent cinematic offerings frequently school twenty- and thirty-something women in the importance of not allowing their careers to overwhelm their marriage or maternal prospects.” (Leonard 103) 

Though Samantha is not interested in commitment or motherhood, she is equally dependent on men, but in a much less obvious way.  Samantha is characterized throughout the series as an empowered and independent woman who enjoys sex free of the emotional entanglements that plague her friends.  Samantha is a smart businesswoman, but her self-esteem relies mainly on her ability to attract men, suggesting that as a woman, her value still lies in maintaining her physical appearance and not in her achievements at work.  Both Samantha and Miranda have successful, high-paying jobs, but Samantha is the happiest and is seen as having more control over her life because she adheres to a stereotypical definition of outward femininity in both appearance and behavior.

The theme of Sex and the City seems to be that, although the characters have all the freedoms afforded them by past struggles undertaken by the feminist movement, a traditional model of romance, marriage and motherhood is needed for women to find personal fulfillment.  Since Carrie and her friends don’t have to fight for their right to work in the business world, to control their reproductive health, or to wear trousers, they’re free to dream of a domestic life as a stay-at-home mother (like Charlotte), to find empowerment through casual sex (like Samantha), and to wear flimsy Jimmy Choos (all four women, but I suppose particularly Carrie).  Does Sex and the City have a feminist message?  I don’t believe so, but fans of the series might beg to differ.  What do you think?

*References available upon request.

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