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    « BACK to Julie Leupold's portfolio

    Posted 12.05.03
    Sex and the City screws with feminism

    A bow-chica-bow-wow tune with a subtle electronic twinge usually reserved for "adult entertainment" movies fills the apartment from the direction of the soft cathode glow in the corner. The room explodes with girlish giggles as the sound of creaking bed springs adds a new baseline to the ditty. A half-a-dozen women shoot a round of knowing looks and no one seems particularly embarrassed to be watching the Kama Sutra acted out on TV. They aren't watching a pay-per-view version of "Debbie Does Dallas," but something just as close. They're watching "Sex and the City."

    "I watch Sex all the time. It's like an event on Sunday nights to watch the latest episode or On Demand older ones," said 23-year-old Caroline Fallon, an avid viewer of "Sex and the City" who draws parallels to her own New York life. "To see these older women who aren't necessarily living like what you grew up thinking women in their 30s should be doing. It is refreshing to see their worlds are not coming to an end because they don't have a steady job or a husband. They are normal, or even slightly better than normal."

    This controversial and massively popular HBO series that follows the lives of four single, almost middle-aged women as they mate and date in New York City has pushed the boundaries of socially accepted views of sex on television. In the first season of the show, which is based on author Candace Bushnell's column in the New York Observer, the four characters vow to detach emotion from relationships and "have sex like men." The women have one-night stands, engage in fetishtic fantasies from having sex in a firehouse to being peed on, and cheat on boyfriends with reckless abandonment.

    "Many women have this romantic fantasy, and I am showing them something different," Bushnell said in an interview with Naomi Wolf. "One woman called from a TV show in Ireland and said, 'You don't really believe that women have sex like men.' And I said, 'Well actually, I do.' I'm sorry but women can be just as promiscuous as men."

    The show gathered an initial cult following just by shock value of the sexual adventures of the characters coupled with humorous writing and fabulous designer fashions. The premise of the witty, women-centered show had feminists clamoring on the "Sex and the City" bandwagon when the series launched in 1997. But as the Emmy award-winning show finishes its sixth and final season in January 2004, the story line may have ventured too far from Fendi feminism and into the realm of just popular porn. And with girls as young as 12 watching the show and emulating the behavior of the characters, a red flag is flying over the sexually explicit show.

    Sex and the City is one of the first television dramas to have such a tangible effect on society. It's been singularly responsible for a massive sales increase in Cosmopolitan cocktails and the Rabbit vibrator. Its fashion choices have infiltrated the runway from Prada couture to H&M knockoffs. And its own version of feminism has trickled down through the psyches in women of all ages, extolling the values of cutting-edge fashion, female friendship and a good f*** every now and again.

    A Woman's Epic
    The boundary-pushing weekly series chronicles the dating misadventures of the four career gals as the comb the city for non-toxic bachelors. The spectrum of characters includes the prim-and-proper Charlotte, the oversexualized Samantha, the every girl Carrie and the career-driven Miranda, giving a diverse group of women a single character with whom to identify. Although the series revolves around their individual relationships with men as a means of dispensing a modern moral about life or love, the writers keep the plot lines focused on what is important to women, from shoes to sex.

    "This is the first time we've actually set out to do a show that we thought, 'OK let's address the women subscribers,'" said Chris Albrecht, HBO's president for original productions.

    And it succeeded, garnering 13 Emmy nominations in 2003 alone. Despite marked industry success, some fans feel the popular show promotes a vapid, very un-feminist portrayal of four women who hang their lives on men and shopping.

    "Sex and the City has been derided as fashion fetishism, lightweight escapism, anti-feminist slush, a parable of the pathos of four oversexed women who can't hook a man, or even a gay saga," said Naomi Wolf, author of myriad feminist literature, in an article entitled Sex and the Sisters. "In reality it is the first global female epic - the answer to the question posed in Virginia Woolf's essay, A Room of One's Own. What will women actually do when they are free?"

    According to Wolf and Bushnell, they would f*** a lot.

    And that to Bushnell is very feminist - the embodiment of sexual liberation for the new millennium. "Sex and the City is a show about female choice, not female rejection. All the straight men are crazy. Women viewers get the naughty thrill of seeing their own gender portrayed for once as sane, sentient and decent, while men are trolls and buffoons, mommy's boys and neurotics," Wolf said. "These are white, well-educated women who are economically; they are no longer have to marry in order to eat or to feed their children. They can cut loose -- and the do."

    Beyond the novel idea of women taking charge of their own sex lives, this show places new importance on the things that matter most to women. Silly as it may sound, many American women mark the important milestones of their lives through such "trivial" things as a new outfit or new haircut and place sex and relationships as life-defining events. This is the first show to place that gender-specific practice at a level of supreme importance.

    "Sex and the City also resonates because it is the first cultural document to treat women's concerns on an epic scale," Wolf said. "In a woman's epic, sex and intimacy, fashion and matrimony are the landmarks on the horizon."

    Setting a Bad Example
    For some viewers the fact Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) puts fashion before financial stability is a humorous reality of life. What's not funny about Bradshaw realizing she has $957 in her bank account and $40,000 worth of designer shoes in her closet? But to others, the focus on fashion and fast relationships is the antithesis of female empowerment.

    "Perched on Jimmy Choos and wrapped in Gucci, sipping pink Cosmopolitans with an assortment of handsome suitors, the women (of Sex and the City) are witty, glamorous, independent and sexually liberated -- in short, who wouldn't want to be them?" asks Catherine Orenstein, author of "Little Red Riding Hood: Uncloaked Sex and the Evolution of the Fairy Tale." "Me, for one....under the guise of being salaciously liberating and radically feminist, the vision of modern femininity in Sex and the City is in fact surprisingly retrograde."

    The cast of girlfriends hangs their happiness on material goods and shoddy relationships, drawing on each other only for comfort when one of the two goes bad. "I definitely don't think it is degrading to women, but every episode is about someone dating someone," avid viewer Fallon said. "It is sometimes annoying that all they talk about is their relationships with men when they obviously have other things going on in their lives."

    The fact that all four women are successful in several careers (lawyer, writer, PR firm owner, art gallery dealer) rarely takes precedence over the current sexual problem, placing the perils of hair care "down there" ahead of making rent payments.

    "More dated still, especially for a show that supposedly celebrates the joys of single life and female friendship, is its preoccupation with snagging a man," Orenstein said. "When did haute couture fashion and prÍt-a-porter men come to eclipse all the other elements of independent womanhood?"

    Orenstein concedes this almost caricature of the daughters of "women's lib," i.e. the second wave of feminism, is what makes the characters so popular. Sex and the City accentuates and then glamorizes the tenets feminists fought so hard for: the chance at being equal to men in every capacity from the boardroom to the bedroom. But in trivializing sex so that the finer points of the blow job becomes standard breakfast instead of boudoir conversation may have more damaging consequences than the writers originally intended.

    "In the case of the New York bar and bedroom situation comedy Sex and the City, viewers have even started to date and mate like the stars," said Andrew Freeman Bock, a newspaper columnist for The Age in Australia. "It is as if the line between hunting for clothes and hunting for men has finally dissolved. So too, the line between the shopper and the shopped. In case no one noticed, the women have remained apolitical, self-focused, materialistic and slightly narcissistic about love -- qualities they criticized men for having in the first episode."

    Nikki Gemmel, author of the racy novel Bride Stripped Bare, postulates that the personification of a sexually confident woman, illustrated to extreme by Samantha Jones (played by Kim Cattral), puts forth an unrealistic image of the modern woman.
    "Popular culture, through TV shows such as Sex and the City, feed us the idea that we are all like Samantha Jones and her friends," Gemmel said. "People think women are confident, sexually aggressive, know exactly what they want and demand it of their men. In reality, we are the flip-side of that."

    If Gemmel is worried that the 30-something generation feels threatened by not being able to match the sexual force the characters exude, author Marty Beckerman is worried that the 'tween generation will feel just the opposite - empowered to match it. "This is a generation for which there are only one-night stands, nothing meaningful or lasting," said Beckerman, author of the upcoming book Generation SLUT. "We need some real heroes. Our parents had John Lennon, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., John Glenn. But all we've produced so far is people like on Sex and the City and the Queen Whore herself, Britney Spears."

    The fact that many teenagers are emulating the sort of behavior seen on "Sex in the City" obviously cannot be directly attributed to the show. However, an easily observable trend of young girls becoming the sexual aggressors in high school or junior high dating relationships has been documented in schools across the country. The Center for Disease Control reported that around 50 percent of girls admit to losing their virginity before they graduate high school, though in reality the number is probably even higher. With a teen acquiring an STD every 8 seconds, maybe this new form of sexual aggressiveness isn't the best lesson.