Sex and the Dystopia
by Anne Helen Petersen
Television critic Emily Nussbaum has an outstanding piece on Sex and the City — and how it lost its “good name” — in this week’s New Yorker. When people tell the story of quality television, Nussbaum argues, they talk about The Sopranos and the raft of other HBO shows that followed. They might acknowledge Sex and the City, but their scorn is palpable: “It might as well have been a tourism campaign for a post-Rudolph Giuliani, de-ethnicized Gotham awash in money,” writes Brett Martin, author of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad.’
But Sex and the City was doing many of the same things, and sometimes doing them even better, than The Sopranos. As Nussbaum points out,
“Sex and the City,” too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of “The Sopranos,” albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows — those are formulas with gravitas. “Sex and the City,” in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, “Sex and the City” was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.
The reasons for reading (and liking) this piece are manifold: I like that Nussbaum explicitly calls out the revisionist history that elides the presence of shows geared towards women and other “feminized” objects. I like that she reminds us of how nuanced the characters and their plotlines actually were. I like how she emphasizes how much friendship mattered to these women, and I really like that she told me on Twitter that she wanted to call the sex interludes “Chauceurian fabliaux, down to the farting.”
But I also have some problems with a secondary claim of the article, namely, that these characters were feminists:
Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere — and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties — the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles.
These claims are ostensibly correct: Miranda and Carrie were very much invested in egalitarianism. They were bread-winners; they didn’t expect others, and men in particular, to provide for them. I’ve often heard guy friends refer to Miranda as a “ball-buster,” which is another way of saying that she acts like a man. Charlotte and Samantha were also focused on exploiting femininity, whether in the form of traditional demureness or sex-positive self-objectification.
But I don’t really know if any of these women — with the pointed exception of Miranda — were actually feminists at all. I don’t think that they were pre-feminists (even though Charlotte could, at times, have exchanged places with an obedient Henry James character). They reaped the benefits of second-wave feminism (reproductive rights, sexual freedoms, access to workplace), but, given their sexual and financial freedoms, who needs the actual politics and rhetoric and discomfort of feminism? They weren’t emblematic of second or third wave feminism, but of postfeminism — the belief that feminism, as a movement and a real politik, is no longer necessary.
Under postfeminism, freedom to choose becomes freedom to consume: which shoe (Jimmy Choo), which drink (Cosmopolitan), and which meal (brunch) defines me as a person? It also marked the return of many of the things for which first and second wave feminism fought so ardently to leave behind: staying at home and funneling your energy into “putting a ring on it.”
But it’s not like postfeminism was an identity marker — no one goes around saying “I’m a postfeminist,” and Carrie certainly didn’t, either. It’s a cultural mode, like “post-9/11” or even, to some extent, postmodernism. When I teach postfeminism, I point to Pretty Woman and the students kinda get it; then I point to Sex and the City and they really get it.
Which is part of why Sex and the City has curdled in my memory. Like many of you, I’m guessing, I had a period of obsession when it initially aired; I remember renting the DVDs (you could get the entire season at once) and ordering Cosmopolitans and consuming the series wholly uncritically. Today, Sex and the City stands in for the time in my past when, for better and for worse, I played with behaviors and tastes that grad student me would call “problematic.” I don’t regret them, per se, but I do think it’s important to be able to look back and see what they suggested in terms of norm, whether in terms of dealing with vaguely and not-so-vaguely misogynist men or the need to buy lots of shit.
But as I read the article again, and discussed it with Nussbaum, I realized I was being unfair. When milk curdles, you don’t take a deep drink and really taste it; you spit it out. And that’s what I’ve done with Sex and the City, neglecting the ways in which the narrative never straightforwardly endorses Carrie’s consumption (at least in the beginning, she’s always haplessly broke) or romance (the Big storyline up until the final season, wow), and uses the supporting characters to explore all manner of crucial, generally ignored women’s issues with genuine grace and humor.
So I was being unfair, but it wasn’t entirely my fault. As Nussbaum points out, the fairytale ending of the series goes a long way towards unraveling the otherwise progressive storylines. But you know what else makes me think bad thoughts? The movies. The first one, sure, but the second one is an abomination. I realize it’s unjust to blame the original for the sins of the offspring — Star Wars, I’m so sorry for your loss — but with the movies, we had the same characters, the same actors, and the same plotlines, only now they were hackneyed, reductive, and completely evacuated of nuance. The postfeminism of the series was complicated; in the movies, there’s nothing complicated about it. SATC2, especially, is racist and xenophobic and, ironically, somewhat woman-hating. You don’t look at these women and see someone you want to emulate; you look at them and understand why patriarchy endures.
Sex in the City the series is arguably less white than Girls, but it treats race much in the way that it treats gender politics: as something we’ve moved beyond. When the series aired, no one (that I read) was making arguments about how the show’s title, coupled with the casting, suggests that sex in the city is the unique provenance of white upper class women. It wasn’t because the show was somehow more sophisticated or meaningful in its handling of race — it’s that those weren’t the conversations critics were having, at least not broadly, at the time. When critics talked about Sex and the City, they talked about sex, the new HBO and fashion. (Also remember: this was pre-blogosphere, where the critiques of Girls and other shows largely originated). But maybe we can restart that conversation now, and think about the ways in which SATC — and its often unspoken racial politics — shares DNA not only with Girls, but also Grey’s Anatomy, Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and countless other shows.
Here’s what I want to do: revisit Sex and the City and think about the ways that it might actually function not as an endorsement of postfeminism, but as an early artifact of postfeminist (and “postracial”) dystopia. I’ve used this term to describe Girls, Bachelorette, and Revenge: these are all texts that represent the “fruits,” for lack of a better word, of postfeminist culture. It’s a world filled with really bad sex, catty infighting, and generalized dissatisfaction with what you thought you wanted.
Girls never celebrates this life; it makes it seem murky, scary, and sad. Sex and the City did celebrate this life, but it was never as straightforward as I like to remember. Carrie was, indeed, an anti-hero, and a large part of that might have been due to the difficulty of reconciling feminist tendencies (she, too, could be a ball-buster) with the societal imperatives of postfeminism. Sex and the City may not be dystopic in the manner of Girls, but it’s also not exactly utopian. Pretty Woman it most definitively is not.
So maybe I’m ready to rethink. Are you?