Monday, 2 May 2011

Essential Reading: Representation in Sex and The City

Following on from last lesson, here is an interesting article which will really help you write about representation of women in Sex and the City, and will complement the other reading material I distributed in class. It is a useful example to use in your essays.

Sex, the City and the American Dream

‘Two-point-four children,’ ‘white picket fence,’ ‘the ‘burbs.’ All familiar images in contemporary society: we all know what they mean, but more importantly, what they represent. These features are in fact often used as a common representation of the American Dream. One show which dares to both embrace and challenge elements of the often archaic American Dream is Sex and the City.

Sex and the City is a popular American TV show based on the book of the same name by Candace Bushnell and centred around the ‘sexploits’ of four friends living in New York City. A hybrid of genres, the show was primarily classed as a sitcom, but encompasses elements of soap opera and romantic drama. Often dealing with relevant social issues, it could be argued that Sex and the City has changed the way many of its viewers think about sex, gender and marriage.

The show stars Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw. The main narrator and protagonist, and a closet romantic, she is a sex columnist for fictional newspaper the Daily Star. Also starring are Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbs, a corporate lawyer with a cynical outlook on life; Kristen Davis as Charlotte York, a WASP obsessed with the idea of love and marriage; and Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, a charismatic PR rep. who always gets what she wants in the workplace and the bedroom. The four women are all in their thirties and looking for love as well as balancing their careers and sparkling social lives.

Sex and the City came out of the Home Box Office channel, creator of many successful American imports: shows such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and most recently Entourage have all heralded success and made a name for themselves on this side of the pond as well as in America. Channel 4, renowned for being less mainstream than other terrestrial channels, was the first to bring many of these shows to the forefront of popular culture. All of these programmes are aimed at a higher socio-economic group of twenty-somethings who are educated and aware of current events and media trends; the buzz generated by such shows exemplifies the Uses and Gratification theory that ‘everyone is talking about it.’ All of these shows have brought something fresh and unique to the TV schedules, boasting an original setting or theme which has never been explored before in mainstream viewing. Sex and the City has arguably liberated modern working women in their twenties and thirties by showing them a world which is believable and sympatheticially realised, yet still has an aesthetic to which they can – and do! – aspire. Other shows such as Entourage do a similar job, but this time for the men. In a world where reality TV is king, the smart drama series can sometimes seem a rare commodity.

A feminist text?

Throughout the course of the show’s six-year run, one of the key underlying themes has been feminism and gender roles in a contemporary society. In the show all four women are trying to survive and prosper in a patriarchal society and looking for equal opportunities in the workplace. The women are independent, earn their own money and look after themselves; this aspiration to be the best and to achieve financial security could be said to be a core aspect of the American Dream, and to follow its capitalist ideals.

However, in opposition to this, the women live unconventional lives in terms of the expectations of The American Dream. The show is set in the fast-paced city of New York, where the women are looking for men but are not willing to settle. They apparently pity friends who have married and moved to the suburbs – although ultimately they admit that this is what they really crave. The show has been criticized for taking a step back from the Women’s Movement; feminist critics have argued that it is wrong to portray these smart, single women as just wanting to get married. As Miranda says:

How is it that four such smart women have nothing to talk about other than boyfriends?

This ambivalence is part of the show’s appeal.

All four protagonists are strong, confident, independent career women; they make their own money and don’t need a man: they just want one. Arguably, it is a new variation on feminism: the fact that the women still want to fall in love and get married shouldn’t mean they are undermining the women’s movement, and they shouldn’t have to apologise for it.

Material girls – elitism or realism?

All four main protagonists in Sex and the City are in prestigious career positions in the upper groupings of the socio-economic scale, with large amounts of disposable income which keeps them kitted out in the latest designer clothes and Manolo Blahnik shoes. As unattainable as their lifestyles may seem, it is the aspiration to be like them which makes the show so popular. The aesthetically pleasing settings and iconography make for a pleasurable viewing experience. But at what cost? The show glorifies the materialistic, does this excessive spending on material items present a bad set of values or is it simply a true representation of the lives of modern working women?

I like my money right where I can see it; hanging in my closet – Carrie (‘To Market, To Market’, Season 6, Episode 1)

In the episode ‘A Woman’s Right to Shoes’ (6.9) Carrie is ‘shoe shamed’ by a friend who thinks that spending $485 on a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes is ‘insane’. She claims ‘Chuck and I have responsibilities now; kids, houses!’ This ideological view that your life is somehow more complete when you are married and have children is closely related to the American Dream. It is an aspiration to reach this type of happiness that is instilled in society as a whole.

Is it bad that my life is filled with shoes and not children? – Carrie

There is a divide between material possessions and family life; the aspiration is to be able to have both. But do material possessions fill a gap only until a family does eventually come along? Maybe there is a new type of American Dream which follows the same capitalist ideals but says you don’t need another person to feel complete, and that you aren’t a failure if you don’t have a family.

This ideology is what Sex and the City is all about. Its ‘new’ ideals address the single thirty-something woman who wants to be reassured that she is not alone; and indeed this type of situation is much more prevalent in today’s society where people are getting married and having children later and later.

21st-century fairytales?

The basic narrative of the show follows a modern day fairy tale format similar to the theories of Propp. All four women are looking for love and, as Charlotte says in the episode ‘Where There’s Smoke...’ (3.1) ‘Women really just want to be rescued’. These women don’t want to admit that they need a man or that they want to be rescued; but actually this ambivalence forms the basis for the entire show. Their unwillingness to admit to their true motives is a subversion of the dream to which, as single women, they are expected to adhere: an emotionally and financially secure marriage.

Throughout its six seasons the four women have been represented as damsels in distress when faced with various relationship situations. But they have also turned the tables on traditional gender roles as they are in essence the heroes battling the day-to-day dramas of careers, men, sex, relationships, and gender inequality. At times they are the embodiment of the ‘anti-damsel-in-distress’, a kind of modern day heroine who is independent and self-motivated.

All the women in a sense play up to the idea of the American Dream, all strive for success and want to beat the competition both in life and love. Whether consciously or unconsciously, they are following the ideals and beliefs of the American Dream. The elitist, capitalist lifestyle that it preaches supports the ideology and shows contemporary audiences that the American Dream is still relevant to today’s society, very much followed, and inspiration for a great many Americans. However, it is an unconventional view of the American Dream which is represented in Sex and the City; there is no white picket fence or house in the suburbs. The main protagonists mock this type of conventional conformity; instead they talk about ‘having it all’ which includes the perfect job, a perfect apartment, and the perfect man. This is their view of ‘The Dream’. They are popularising a new American Dream, an adaptation of the old form, which encompasses the needs, and desires of a new generation of Americans. The new dream embraces the single lifestyle, accepts the unconventional family and champions working women who make their own money and live on their own terms – be that with or without a man.

Cait McNamee is now studying Media and Cultural Studies at Lancaster University.

from MediaMagazine 22, December 2008.

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