During my college years I researched women in media a lot and for the research purposes (and for fun of course) I explored women’s magazines and tv shows focusing on the messages they are mediating. Even if this is a very popular and a bit trivial topic, it doesn’t mean it can be approached without any scientific method. It is easy to get seduced by certain assumptions and it is easy to develop (and incorporate) your own opinion in your research process, which could be tricky (concerning the fact that it should be strictly objective). Anyway, this time I’d like to share a part of my research work on one of the most popular series of all time: “Sex and the City”. If you are interested in research about women in popular media in general, check out my book published under the title: “Femininity Image in Popular Media” (2015).
Now, let’s discuss the “Sex & the City” adding some theoretical background to it.
Many scholars researched this type of media content before and put it in a post-feminist era, where “women’s material needs have been met and politics of feminism is no longer necessary for women’s advancement” (Vavrusi, 1998), but women of post-feminist era (in media as well as in real life) are still struggling with social norms and labels trying to shape their own identity in tensions between the traditional and the new meanings of femininity (their roles, appearance, sexuality, behavior…). Who are these fictional female characters in media representing? What messages are they mediating?What are the “new social rules” they want to create and why?
Performances of female gender in popular culture present a sort of “information” for “real” women (and men) who consume that content and in a way also a “guide” for identity building and current trend-setting. There are many films and series of 20th century portraying stereotypically feminine woman as romantic, helpless and wanting to be “saved” by a “Prince Charming” (f.e. Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, 1990), and those elements have not disappeared today, but are incorporated in the “new archetype of contemporary women” that is “less anchored in pursuing marriage as an ultimate goal, but more focused on carrier and relationships” (Tuncay Zayer L. and others, 2012). Gill (2007) talks about the shift from objectification to subjectification of female body and the focus on individualism, choice and empowerment considering women’s sexuality and body image in post-feminism. Scott (2010) defines the post-feminist subject as a woman who possesses active political agency and subjectivity, control of her body and is liberated, a woman who chooses between work and home, straight and gay, butch and femme style. “One of the ideal representations of the post-feminist subjects (smart, successful, single) is Ally McBeal” (Jackson, 2006).
Except the struggle between “feminism vs. femininity” (meaning-> strong independent vs. stereotyped and dependent woman), Southard (2008) mentions two more, equally important struggles of a post-feminist era: “agency vs. victimization” and “individual vs. collective”. The first one suggests that there is a complex treatment of empowered “women of action” and the “victimized women” who need a help from a man. The second one means that a woman has a sense of “fierce individualism” (autonomy, privacy), but also identifies herself as a “member of a collective force” (friendship, sisterhood, public).
Sex & the City (SATC)…
…is based on female friendship, (mostly) heterosexual relationships and professional success of four women living in Manhattan, NYC. The series approaches femininity differently from any other cultural products by that time, characters cross traditional gender role boundaries and set new forms of femininity (and masculinity). According to the description of T. Zayer and others (2012), “the bold sophisticated and knowing voices of the protagonists mask their very ordinary, traditionally feminine desires”. Characters’ conversations in coffeehouses and bars represent an important part of the show. They share their experiences, laugh together and discuss their problems. Their dialogue incorporates big issues and taboos of that time such as abortion, miscarriage, menopause, breast cancer, single parenthood, interracial relationships, homosexuality, masturbation, phone sex, golden showers, sex in public and many others with “humor and severity in equal doses” (Southard, 2008). In her analysis of SATC, Cramer (2007) mentions the “undesirability of the single status and the elusive goal of marriage”. It is true that these 30 and 40-something women sometimes feel a “state of panic” for not being married (especially Charlotte), because they are often confronted with not only social judgment and discrimination (others their age are “all” married), but experience loneliness and fear of “dying alone” (Miranda freaked out because of the thought of her cat eating her face after she dies alone in her apartment). On the other hand, they often joke about marriage and enjoy the singlehood (“If you’re single, the world is your smorgasbord”, Samantha). Male characters are “stereotyped, undeveloped and often labeled” (Cramer, 2007), so they are sometimes subjects of jokes (“Mr. Cocky”, the “We” guy, “Catholic guy”, “Mr. Pussy”). Only the ones in serious relationships with the ladies have real names (except “Mr. Big” whose name is revealed in the last episode). Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte all put their friendship in front of every relationship and stay loyal to each other all the time (at least that’s the intended message). In Dykes’ words (2011), “family bonds are replaced by friendship bonds”, because characters’ biological family is not even mentioned in the show (except when Miranda’s mom dies). The question is: is their friendship really always their top priority (especially when it comes to “men hunt”)?
Brasfield (2007) criticizes the series for being too stereotypical about other races, classes, religions and sexual orientations and represents only “white, heterosexual, upper middle class women”. Miranda and Samantha dated afro americans who were stereotypically presented and both relationships ended quickly by ladies insulting them. Lesbians are showed as cold, rude and unfriendly in the episode where they visit Charlotte’s gallery and then reject Charlotte’s company because of her heterosexuality. Miranda declared herself as an open-minded for dating a bartender, but she felt uncomfortable in Steve’s “shitty apartment” as she calls it. Miranda’s and Steve’s relationship ends when she admits to herself that she is ashamed of Steve and they didn’t get back together until Steve became a business owner. “On the surface, gender and sexual orientation are intersections within the story line…a deeper understanding of this presentation shows us that patriarchal thinking is internalized within these women” (Brasfield, 2007).
Humor is also a big part of the show. Characters make fun of themselves for “their devotion to their quest to find the perfect man” (Dykes, 2011). This irony about the conventional social norms is a new big thing as well as the open women’s conversation about sex and laughing about their experiences with men. “SATC” might be “attempting to figuratively deconstruct the status quo of gender (patriarchy) and its essentialist ethos” by playing with reversing the idea of gender and conventional characterization of the female role, as well as, ”depictions of ‘new’ empowered woman” (Lorie, 2011).
Lorie (2011) talks about fashion in the show and the symbolism behind it: the characters build their own style (identity), but also confirm their status and income. An example is the scene where Samantha sees a Birkin bag and says: “When I’m seen tooling around town with that bag, I’ll know I’ve made it!”. Samantha celebrates the power of “female unity and empowerment” and “having it all” (Lorie, 2011) when she opens a window on a girls’ party in her apartment and screams: “New York, we have it all: great friends, good jobs and plenty of sex!”
Characters have dated various types of men, broke the heterosexual boundaries, got engaged and married, broke engagements and marriages, had sex “like men”, were obsessed by men, enjoyed their singlehood and felt miserable and alone. All that represents a mixed and unstable process of hetero-socialization and dating practice of the “new” women. In Samantha’s words: “This is the first time in history the women of NY have had as much money and power as men, and the equal opportunity to treat men as sex objects”. The assumption about sex in the series is that sex and sexual pleasure are fundamentally positive, fun, good and moral thing.
“Moral reasoning” in “SATC” is mostly created by Carrie’s thoughts, questions and interactions with her friends and at the end of each episode, she “comes to some truth or value about relationships, sex, herself and her friendships” (Cramer, 2007). The biggest value in the series is finding your own female authenticity, meaning: finding your “real self” and your “real love” (Zayer and others, 2012). As much as characters loved sex and freedom of choices, they often felt hurt and got emotional because of that “deliberation”. In the first episode, Carrie decides to have sex “like a man” as a part of the research for her column. When she though she made it, she got stuck by emotions and was hurt in the end. The opposite representations of “agency vs. victimization” are Samantha and Charlotte. Samantha “embodies the politics of second-wave sexual liberation” and Charlotte offers a more “conservative perspective on women’s roles”. Both women are often left unsatisfied and punished by post-feminist politics (Southard, 2008). Miranda wanted “no rescue” after her eye surgery from her boyfriend Steve but in the end, embraces Steve for his help. All of them are in a space between the empowered and the victimized post-feminist, just in different ways and situations.
…a newspaper columnist, holds the group together and presents the narrator of the program, so she is interpreting her and others girls’ stories and she creates the most intimate relationship with the audience (sometimes even talks directly into camera) while she writes and researches for her column. She is “both inside and outside of the plot, subverting the traditional Hollywood formula of what constitutes integrity in voiceover” (Dykes, 2011). Carrie is searching for “the man in her life” while at the same time, she struggles to maintain her independence, and this is where the show’s central emotional story line happens. The tension between femininity (search for the man) and feminism (independence) is evident in many aspects of her character. She is a fashion addict and spends a great amount of money on shopping (she couldn’t pay her rent once because she spent all of her money on shoes), she likes to change outfits and wear high heels and she talks a lot and gets emotional. On the other hand, she depends only on herself, earns her money and doesn’t have to ask anybody to approve her decisions about her ridiculous expenses, neither her dating of various types of men (as “trying on different outfits to find the one that suits her best”, Zayer and others, 2012) and she doesn’t need to apologize to anyone for her regular sex life (feminist empowerment and independence). When it comes to “Mr. Big”, Carrie’s biggest love, her femininity comes out in a very strong and often very traditional way (even desperate). She is willing to do whatever to make him say “Carrie, you’re the one”. She pretends to be perfect in front of him, she suffers, feels pain and cries when their relationship doesn’t work and feels like the happiest person in the world when it does. In short, her life (and happiness) revolves around men, mostly around “Mr. Big”. No matter what happens, she will always stay loyal to herself (and her friends) and rationalize every situation as a learning experience (“Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with” (Carrie)).
She finds the biggest support and love in her friends and knows that, whenever her heart gets broken by a man, they are the ones that will always be there for her (“It’s hard to find people who will love you no matter what. I was lucky enough to find three of them” (Carrie)). Carrie is the voice that speaks directly to women and for women, she questions things you are not supposed to question, she shares her private (sometimes embarrassing) experiences (with readers of her column and with the “real” audience of the show). With her talking out laud, the show “breaks the silence, so that women can begin to tell their stories and speak about sex differently” (K. Akass, J. Mccabe). She “establishes intimacy and honesty” between the viewer and herself and interprets male-female conversations by “filling ‘the gaps’ between what is spoken and what is meant between men and women” (Dykes, 2011). When the four women are chatting, there’s no need for “filling the gaps” because it’s all “on the table”, revealed and honest.
…a corporate lawyer and a relationship cynic, presents a woman who puts her career first and finds it hard to commit in a relationship. She has a skeptical and ironical view on marriage and makes jokes about it, but in the end, she finds herself with a child and in love with Steve. Southard (2008) argues that “Miranda clearly gives voice to the conflict between feminism and femininity- she embodies second-wave equality politics as she finds in her high-powered career all the evidence necessary to release her from expectations of feminine behavior”. Sohn (2004) explains the character of Miranda: “With her quick wit, pragmatism, and deeply held opinions, Miranda Hobbes represents the realist in all of us”. Further on, Sohn (2004) points out that Miranda was “the most brittle of the women until she met Steve”. Steve was sweet and caring and patiently tolerated her pessimism and excessively commitment to carrier. They broke up twice in the show, but after all, ended up together. Miranda faced her biggest fear of “feminine world” when she got pregnant. She considered abortion, but didn’t do it. “During her pregnancy, Miranda was such a non-traditional expectant mother that she made us wonder if she’d made the right decision” (Sohn, 2004). She was always busy and very confident in her professional life, but at home, she often felt insecure, lonely and lost. That’s why she hired a maid and a nanny. There was a conflict between Miranda and her maid, a traditional Ukraine woman Magda. This is one of the examples:
Magda: “You should make pies. It’s good for a woman to make pies”
Miranda: If I want a pie, I can buy it”
As time was passing, she became more confident in her motherhood, but from time to time she felt uncomfortable about her body and lack of femininity. In one episode, she attended a belly dance class to release an “inner goddess” in herself, but she couldn’t feel comfortable and ran away from the class. She also felt like men are threatened by her success, so once she lied about her job on a date and introduced herself as a stewardess because it sounds more “helpless” and “dumb” and that’s what men search for according to her. “It’s like when single men have a lot of money, it works to their advantage. But when a single woman has money, it’s like a problem, you have to deal with it. It’s ridiculous. I want to enjoy my success, not apologize for it” (Miranda).
…a PR executive and a sexual libertine, is a confident and powerful female who knows what she wants and goes for it. She’s the oldest of the women, but preserves her youth by wearing provocative outfits, exercising, dieting and visiting spa centers. She is successful and independent, very bold in her shocking statements (“My weekends are for meeting new guys so I don’t have to keep fucking the old ones”, Samantha) and very opened about her rich sex life. There is no sexual act she will not try, no kink she won’t indulge. She’s self-made, self-protective and, for a long time, saw monogamy as a disease she didn’t want to catch” (Sohn, 2004). Nevertheless, she was caught in emotions several times and even considered short monogamous relationships (even with a woman), but it didn’t work out until she met Smith Jerrod, a handsome young actor who became a star thanks to her. When she found out that she has a breast cancer, Smith was there for her as much as her girlfriends were. One of the rare moments she felt miserable and vulnerable is when she woke up one morning with the flu and broken shades and there was nobody to help her. But Samantha was mostly very confident about her lifestyle and often brought up intimate details and taboo issues in conversations with her friends. Samantha is not attracted to the idea of marriage at all and domesticity is a foreign term in her language. “Marriage doesn’t guarantee a happy ending. Just an ending” (Samantha).
…an art gallery owner and a romantic optimist represents the most traditional female example of all the characters. She dreams about a fairytale, a perfect wedding and a perfect husband. She disagreed with Miranda about buying an apartment: “Everyone needs a man. That’s why I rent. If you own and he still rents, then the power structure is all off. It’s emasculating. Men don’t want a woman who is too self-sufficient” (Charlotte). Of all the women, she suffered the most because of her singlehood, so she ran into a marriage that didn’t work in the end in the way she had imagined. She always “stayed resilient, left when she wasn’t satisfied, and never lost sight of her dreams” (Sohn, 2004), even though she grew a bit more over the time and became little more open-minded. Her story ended happily, but in the different way she had imagined. Her Prince Charming, Harry, didn’t look as the perfect man in her head, but it turned out he was exactly what she wants. She converted to Judaism to become his wife, had a “disaster wedding” and adopted a child after miscarriage. In spite of all “imperfections”, she found her real happiness.
We could see development in representations of female identity over time, but also the same stubborn post-feminist struggle of self-definition that characters are facing. The post-feminist freedom is obviously not only a challenge for the patriarchal system, but for women, too. They have the freedom to make their own choices and create their lives by their own rules, but still experience insecurities and dependence in many ways. “Heroines of typical post-feminist television have too many choices, too much freedom, too much desire and this has led to never-ending searching and to depression and dysfunction.” (Ya-chein Huang, 2007).
I’ll finish this article with one of the lines from the series:
“What if Prince charming had never showed-up? Would Snow White have slept in that glass coffin forever? Or would she have eventually woken up, split out the apple, gotten a job, a health-care package, and a baby from her local neighborhood sperm bank? I couldn’t help but wonder: inside every confident driven single woman, is there a delicate, fragile princess just waiting to be saved?” (Carrie)