I am not the first person to ask whether or not feminism and the hit HBO TV series “Sex and the City” are compatible. It has long been regarded as the pinnacle of female television; the ‘Bridesmaids’ of sitcoms. And to be sure, there are a lot of great things about the show that provide a generally applicable narrative on the value and experience of women in modern society.
Sex, for example, is frequently discussed in terms of female, rather than wholly male, agency. Experiencing life as an older single woman is also a theme that accumulates a sizeable discourse, and there are pretty profound moments of reflection driven by female empowerment. It is still, however, permeated by old stereotypes of women that at times negate the potential of the series. TV is one of the main ways through which men and women understand each other and the world around them, but always has ‘someone else’ to respond to in order to gain a following. Gender stereotypes exist, therefore regardless of a producer’s intentions they also must exist in television to connect show with viewer. As such, Sex and the City is no exception to gender-based stereotyping not only against men (which at times appears to be the main point of each episode) but also, and somewhat indirectly, against women.
In a highly symbolic allegory of what it means to be a woman, Sex and the City lays out four main choices. Carrie, the insightful, somewhat selfish and irritating shopaholic/journalist who spends most of the series wondering why the proverbial ‘Mr. Big’ won’t commit to her; Charlotte, the somewhat WASP-y art gallery owner who dreams of the perfect man; Miranda, the successful, sarcastic, and uptight lawyer who is often labeled by her fellow characters as ‘judgmental’ and finally, Samantha, the promiscuous, loyal and liberated Public Relations director who provides the show with most of its comedy.
All of these ‘types’ indicate classic visions of women that are often typified by some sort of radically prominent characteristic. Especially in the first few seasons, Carrie is depicted as annoyingly clingy and emotionally volatile, attributes that have historically and culturally been engrained in the female experience. She throws food around when she senses her boyfriend’s unwillingness to commit to her, punches him in the face when accidentally kicked out of bed in the middle of the night, drunkenly telephones him to complain about his moving to Paris for the week without telling her, and so on. Obviously every woman has the right to act on these and other emotionally charged impulses, but why are they constantly shown as acting on them in immature, uncontrolled ways? This is not the norm in feminine experience, and the fact that many episodes introduce these types of responses in some way sadly suggests the opposite.
Miranda is, as implied by one particular episode in Season 2, described as a feminist, but she is still defined by a particular type of feminism that no longer exists: the man-hating, argumentative, overly aggressive woman who rigidly rejects the good in men. This is not what feminism means, and perhaps it never did. Charlotte, too, substantiates the stereotype of women who pair their ‘good girl’ charm with an unwillingness to perform fellatio, date ‘flawed’ men, and so on. Samantha, out of all four women, is portrayed as the one with the most progressive vision of her role in society, but every time she closes the door behind herself and a naked man I wonder if the show is really saying what we think it is. Samantha has lots of sex. Is this the only way women can be empowered? Can a woman be empowered in a monogamous relationship? To make matters worse, Samantha breaks down at one point and admits to her need to have a man around, throwing the authenticity of her lifestyle in jeopardy.
The truth is, women (and men) are made up of different selves. We are all repressed in some way (Charlotte), we all feel insecure in our relationships, be they romantic or platonic, (Carrie), we all enjoy sex and the freedom to express ourselves sexually, (Samantha), and we all have that tendency to judge that ultimately prevents us from seeing people in deeper ways than who they are on the surface. (Miranda) But possessing one of these qualities does not cement us in that ‘type’ for life. Rather, the beauty of being a human means flexibility, change, and the opening up of opportunities that allow each of these attributes to inform each other and allow a person to grow. These are not female mentalities, they are human.
That said, maybe the real issue I have with the show (something that critic Alice Wignall also proposed in 2008) is the fact that it packages pretty heavy subject matter in shiny, somewhat shallow wrappings. Can something serious be taken seriously if it is presented casually? Can we trust people to have the ‘intended response’ producers so desperately hope for? It addresses quite a bit, but ignores its fair share of other experiences- what about the life of a Black, Hispanic, or Asian woman? The program spanned over six seasons, so the whole ‘pressed for time’ defense doesn’t really apply.
Despite the show’s shortcomings (after all, nothing’s perfect) feminists like myself can and do watch the show because it allows them a space to consider and reflect on the issues I just mentioned outside of HBOGO or TBS. And maybe that’s the most important thing a TV show like Sex and the City can do: inspire thought, discourse, and maybe even action.