Modern Woman as Love Machine: The Post-Feminist Landscape, as Projected by 'Sex and the City'

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If
you stand outside on quiet Sunday nights, with your ears turned
in the right direction (that is, toward Manhattan), you can hear
the faintest of echoes wafting in from up north: the death rattle
of HBO's "Sex and the City" program, whose last season
(its sixth) began June 23. And none too soon; the sooner it starts,
the sooner this farcical bitch-slap to the feminist legacy will
be finished.

I
write having seen every episode to date, and I was eager to see
if the show's plot trajectory stayed on its usual course before
writing this. Now, being fairly confident that its creators are
unlikely to end the show on any kind of redemptive note, I am empowered
to make this single point: "Sex and the City" is quite
possibly the most viciously misogynistic television show of all
time. Now that's saying a lot, given that the exploitation of women
is a fundamental trait of pop culture, but I don't think I'm going
too far here.

For
the uninitiated, "Sex" is told from the perspective of
Carrie Bradshaw, who writes a sex column in New York City. (Carrie
is based on one Candace Bushnell, who wrote the book upon which
the series is based; she also dated Bret Easton Ellis, the ever-sensitive
author of American Psycho.) She likes clothes, she likes boys, and
she loves her friends: Miranda, a lawyer; Charlotte, an art gallery
docent; and Samantha, a high-powered publicist. Carrie and her friends
are presented as people to envy, because they're stylish, because
they get into all the important places and occasionally meet celebrities.
They are also 30-somethings who drink to excess and exist to be
laid by guys who, this being Manhattan, have no incentive whatsoever
to love them. Not that love really matters in the real world anymore;
it's all about money and power and control. Love, as a modus operandi,
is a pursuit best left to those for whom it is their only salvation
from a life at the bottom of productive society.

The
show is either about the characters' quest for love and satisfaction,
or else it's a dismal, existentialist critique of Manhattan's elite
and their influence on the whole of American life. Either way, it
only reinforces the damage done to women as a social and political
force since American feminism peaked in the early 1970s. As the
saying goes, You've come a long way, baby – to the point that their
unequivocal advocacy of preemptive infanticide is now the only real
position they seem willing to take. That, and the firm belief that
teenagers should be allowed to wear thong underwear in school. Freedom!

The
modern American girl eats food pumped full of BGH, steroids and
other chemical additives that make their bodies develop sooner.
They are likewise fed a battery of propaganda from various entertainment
conglomerates that shows them exactly how to use their bodies to
get attention that they are increasingly unable to attain by other
means. Music videos, especially, portray them as sex machines, all
high heels and bikinis and makeup and skin, because "it takes
skin to win," as they say. The result is a youth culture that
more or less forces girls to put out, lest they be deemed unpopular
by the only person whose opinion has ever really mattered – the alpha
male.

On
"Sex and the City," there are few if any consequences
to sleeping around. We've seen no scenes of the assorted paramours
trading details of their encounters with the women, clueing each
other in as to how best to bag one lady or another. Concepts such
as restraint, decorum, reputation and (watch out!) feminine virtue
are scarcely mentioned. The awkward exit that often caps an urban
one-night-stand is only alluded to in the show's opening sequence,
which shows Carrie hobbling on her heels, hailing a cab in last
night's finery. Because she's an independent woman, with her own
money and (we assume) goals, it does not matter what happens to
her reputation in the most densely-populated place on Earth. Watching
her is like watching a young Helen Gurley Brown, certain in the
knowledge of what she would become.

In
six sexy seasons, those responsible for "Sex and the City"
have provided next to nothing in terms of character development.
Any changes the characters go through tend to result from the flaws
of the men they associate with, and any emotional trauma resulting
from those changes are alleviated by other men. Any points to be
made about the nature of sexual relations in modern America have
been obscured by free-love frivolity, although apparently unprotected
sex is okay as long as one does so only with wealthy white males
one has met at a trendy nightspot. The idea that three of the four
characters have had abortions and regretted it is floated only to
persuade the fourth that single motherhood in New York City is a
better option. All told, the show has done less to advance the study
of sex as an extension of the human personality than the "Brenda
Chenowith" character (played by Rachel Griffiths) did in just
13 episodes in the second season of "Six Feet Under."
(But they were trying.)

None
of this, mind you, is to be taken as criticism of the thespians
who bring the characters as close as possible to life each week.
Indeed the cast, led by Sarah Jessica Parker, has come close to
genius at times. They have made a money-machine out of material
that had no business ever getting on TV. In fact, it's arguable
that "Sex and the City" would have never aired had it
not debuted as part of AOL/Time-Warner's campaign to run one of
the broadcast networks onto the auction block. This campaign has
led HBO to run some of the most brutally subversive programming
ever to reach the viewing audience, but that's another subject for
another time.

HBO
claims that 93,000 girls aged 12–17 watch the show, often with
the approval of their parents, which perhaps explains why parents
are irrelevant these days. As a 16-year-old wrote to Sarah Hepola
of the still-esteemed New York Times, "I am so Carrie!"
This is apparently a phenomenon worth celebrating in the nation's
paper of record, which neglects to mention the stake they and others
in the media have in propagating the values inherent to "Sex
and the City." The show gets such good press because it's about
New York and New York's consumer-goods industry. It is a shameless
advertisement for the kinds of businesses that would buy time to
push their wares and their agenda if HBO didn't run commercial-free.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of young women (by which I mean
those 21 and under, though it's been said that one hasn't truly
"matured" until age 25) in less cosmopolitan locales are
getting the subtle message that sexual promiscuity is not just cool
and fun, but absolutely essential to marrying up. And men are learning
that marriage is for suckers. These lessons, internalized, will
comprise the core values for this and succeeding generations of
Americans, further impairing their ability to sustain the promise
of America in these dangerous times.

June
30, 2003

Shelton
Hull [send him mail] is
a columnist and writer based in Jacksonville, Florida. His work
has appeared in FolioWeekly, Counterpunch, Ink19 and Section
8 Magazine.


     

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