Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Are Sex and the City and feminism incompatible?

With the Sex and the City movie premiering in London and about to come out in theaters soon, the news media has begun to spin their wheels over the show yet again. BBC News has this article about how men are often confused by the appeal of Sex and the City, especially to women who identify as feminists. British comedian Kate Smurthwaite asserts that you can't like Sex and the City without being a feminist:
"If you can watch the amount of sex Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda have without shouting 'harlot' at the screen; if you're not horrified by the idea of women having professional jobs, living alone, talking about sex, drinking alcohol, having children out of wedlock, experimenting with lesbianism, owning vibrators and all the other stuff they do, then you support a level of freedom for women that is a very long way off for a majority of women in today's world."
True, the women in the show live their lives however they wish, regardless of what society expects of single, 30+ women. They choose their careers and lovers on their own terms; for example, Samantha owns her own PR firm and her significant relationships on the show are with an older business man and a younger waiter-turned-actor. However, one could argue that the depiction of women on the show glamorizes and reinforces industry beauty ideals, that what liberated women really want is to spend $400 on shoes and get dressed up in order to find men. One of the men interviewed for the article said,
"It made it seem sexy and normal, rather than mind-numbing, to spend hours painting your nails. Its sleight of hand is to make this seem like a post-feminist choice, rather than sexual enslavement. As a man, I shouldn't really object - go right ahead, make yourselves look gorgeous for me and my leery mates."
I don't think we're at a "post-feminist" stage, but for his sake, I'll humor him. SATC promotes women making their own choices and doing whatever they want, but in a way, is it also showing women making choices that contribute to the patriarchal society in which they still function? Is it promoting female liberation only to have those liberated females choose to act in un-liberated ways?

One of the most interesting parts of the article is the comments. There are men who think SATC isn't feminist and women who enjoy it and identify as feminist, and men who like the show and women who don't. By and large, though, people like the show for its realistic portrayal of women (even if their shopping budgets aren't). SATC passes the "do two women have a conversation not about men" test* with flying colors; the women spend lots of time discussing other things besides men, especially as the series moved out of the first season. It's rare to find a show that has as many strong, central, complex female characters as SATC. When Joss Whedon is asked why he keeps creating such strong female characters, he replies, "Because you keep asking."

Some of the commenters don't like the show because they view the characters as shallow, "obsessed with men" and don't believe the often extravagant lifestyle the women lead. Others think the women shouldn't be using "men's behavior" and one commenter says, "Whatever spin feminists put on it, it's just not normal behaviour for women to act like they do on this show - women trying to be men. What needs to be stressed is that women are biologically different to men." I definitely disagree with that writer based on the strict adherence to perceived gender roles (what's normal behavior for women, anyway?), plus they don't sound like much fun.

I did, however, like what this commenter had to say: "I'm a single woman in her 30s: I'm not into shoes, not into fashion and not into endless hours of pampering & preening & I don't believe in romance. The reason I like SATC is that, like most HBO productions (Oz, Six Feet Under etc), it treats its audience like they're adults and doesn't patronise."

To make my own biases clear, I love SATC. Between my mom and I, we own every season on DVD. If I come across it on tv, there's a 99% chance I'll watch it. And personally, I think the women, even if they play into and encourage the consumerist culture we live in, do not embody this "slight of hand" where post-feminism convinces us we want to be objectified. To see this aspect ignores the complex relationships between the women and the other characters in the show, to reduce it to the wardrobe and shoe choices the women make. This viewpoint, in my opinion, doesn't see the nuanced characteristics of the show or the people in it and patronizes the show, to borrow a bit from the commenter above.

The show does have an influence on its viewers; there's a chance I wouldn't be nearly as comfortable with my own sexuality if I didn't watch SATC (or read Dan Savage). However, to assert this idea of post-feminist "slight of hand" trickery where women unknowingly decide to oppress themselves ignores the ways the characters break stereotypes and offer on-screen relationships that reflect real experiences. While the show may not patronize viewers, this viewpoint of simplistic female spectators does.

*If anyone knows who/where that idea came from, I'd love a link. Many thanks in advance! Edit: 5/15/08 Through sheer coincidence, I found out today that this originated in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, now commonly known as the Bechdel Test. By the way, Bechdel's Fun Home is really, really good.


Jen said...

I will be seeing the Sex in the City movie, only because I grew up with that show.

However, it's a horrible example of "feminism". Feminism is when women go about their lives doing things for themselves and by themselves. Feminists are women (and men) that spend their lives doing what's right rather than frivolously spending money to objectify themselves in order to get into alcohol-soaked clubs filled with sleazy men looking for a quick hump 'n dump.

Regardless, Sex in the City is about as close to mainstream as anything remotely feminist has got. Even though I view the antics of the female leads as some drunken sexy version of Disney's Princesses, there really aren't that many other shows and movies that would have women drinking, masturbating, dating, and working good jobs without the requisite slut shaming.

So while I feel guilty about wanting to see the movie, I still think it's better than most other media images of femininity.

Of course, that isn't much of a compliment.

Kate said...

I love Sex and the City too; I actually just finished watching an episode. And I will be seeing the movie.

My GWST 101 professor explained it this way. Sex and the City is "power feminism." Basically, I get mine, and I don't really care about you. It plays into stereotypes, but also defies some of them.

I think the SHOW is feminist because it allows women to seek their own pleasure and think about things other than men. But, I don't think the CHARACTERS are explicitly feminist. I think they are a great example of Female Impersonators, women who work hard to fit a certain ideal of feminity. It isn't the "traditional" idea of female, so it does move forward, but it is still an ideal (wealthy, white, beautiful) that is unattainable by most women.

Michael said...

I once heard Dr. Drew, of Loveline fame, give a short rant on how horrible a show Sex and the City was. He said something to the effect of, "These women are not empowered. They're profoundly disturbed and disconnected from sex, and it's really not the kind of thing women should emulate or idolize." I rather wish I knew exactly what he meant by that. I've never watched Sex and the City, so I can't say I really know what he meant. It was an interesting comment.

Lindsay said...

It isn't the "traditional" idea of female, so it does move forward, but it is still an ideal (wealthy, white, beautiful) that is unattainable by most women.

That's a really good point. For the most part, the show doesn't do very good job in covering racial or class diversity.

It's pretty sad when that's the best we've got. I suppose some movement is better than none at all... sad.