Friday, September 05, 2003

Feminists v. Fashionistas

This article in today's NYT will do little to dispel the myth of the no-fun feminist. The writer, Catherine Orenstein, seems to have a bone to pick with "Sex and the City," but she can't quite get her own arguments straight.

The thesis is essentially that the supposedly liberated women of the show, and the show's feminist philosophy in general, are deeply flawed and limiting visions of femininity.
But 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 heroines spend most of their time on shopping, cocktails and one-night stands. Charlotte dreams of bridesmaids' dresses. Miranda frigidly "dates" her TiVo, while nymphomaniac Samantha — a blond bimbo who combines old-fashioned objectification with postmodern "do me" feminism — plows through the Kama Sutra. And in one episode Carrie discovers that she has only $957 in savings — but $40,000 in designer shoes in her closet.

Orenstein would be absolutely correct if, in fact, these women had no choice but to lead the hedonistic lifestyle. If they were barred from child-bearing and meaningful careers. But feminism is about the whole spectrum of choices, including the choice to lead a potentially self-destructive lifestyle. If they adopted this lifestyle voluntarily, what's retrograde? What's limiting? Sure, you may not consider it ideal, and the show does not promote it as such, but the makers of the show are not suggesting that this is How To Be a Woman. I never understood Sex and the City to be a contemporary stand-in for Gloria Steinem. Anytime a book or movie or TV show is produced that focuses primarily on women, it is evaluated in regard to its success as vehicle for feminism. And Sex and the City definitely contributes to that dialogue - sexual empowerment, freedom for women to make choices, and most importantly--and the point I think Ms. Orenstein misses--freedom to make harmful, bad, non-feminist choices. But it is not feminist screed, and thus won't toe the party line. It is HBO.

Everybody out there who wants to see the version of Sex and the City where Samantha judiciously selects suitors based on their ability to affirm her womanly ideals, where Charlotte sheds her endearing romantic visions, and Miranda is socially and emotionally well-adjusted and at peace with herself, raise your hand.


I must have missed the part where S&TC announced their discovery of the ideal lifestyle for women. They makers of the show are hardly making the argument that one-night stands and Manolo Blahniks are the only paths to womanhood. They simply give their viewers more credit than Orenstein does, and assumes we all know that the last 50 years did happen, and if Samantha wanted, she could be a successful PR exec. Oh wait. She is. Of course some of this behavior is self-destructive, of course there is a pay-off for the countless nights of cosmos and one-night stands. What kind of lifestyle choice doesn't have trade-offs? What kind of crap television show would ever parade a bunch of completely adjusted, confident women with no problems or inner conflicts? We would hate those girls. The impulses of these women, if not their lifestyles, are far more believable for their contradictions.

Then, Orenstein promotes as her ideal the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," where Mary played a single journalist in her 30s.
Sure, there were also jokes about her single status. And she and sidekick Rhoda were once so desperate for dates that they joined a club for divorcées even though neither of them had ever been married. But the jokes came with a light-hearted confidence in Mary's future. Whether or not she married, her theme song promised, she would "make it after all."

Reading that, I thought, "Well, what's the difference?" Except for the lurid sex-talk that obviously wasn't likely back in the MTM days, it sounds rather like a zany S&TC plot! But look closely at the last sentence. For some reason, Orenstein thanks that our fearless foursome in S&TC won't make it after all. Well, aside from the fact that such uncertainty might make for more interesting television, why does Orenstein seem so convinced of this? Read on for the "a-ha" moment:
"Sex and the City" glamorizes this condition — but to what end? Lacking substance and dimension, defined by sex appeal and revolving around men, Carrie and her friends are stuck in a surprisingly old-fashioned, Jane Austenian trap: having failed to leverage youth and beauty into something more substantial, they are now in danger of becoming spinsters. Indeed, they are already there, according to a recent New York Times article that compared them to the sexagenarians of "The Golden Girls."

Before the series comes to an end, it would be gratifying to see Carrie and her friends grow up into something more than restless partyers, man-hunters and shoe-shoppers, and find something more enduring to glamorize: a cause, a family, a career that is more than a backdrop for sex, or even just a story worthy of the girl reporter's legacy. Something that broadens our idea of what makes a woman sexy. Something worthy of the feminism our mothers bequeathed us.

I read that first paragraph about four times to make sure I believed it. These women, you see, might not get married. By preceding that statement with the question, "to what end?" I don't think it unfair to assume that Orenstein believes marriage and family are the trophies of a life well-lived. And she accuses Carrie of remedial feminism!

Despite her last paragraph I don't thinks Orenstein actually wants or expects Carrie to adopt a grand cause, Samantha to settle down, and Miranda to stop having sex with strange men. I think she just feels that that is an appropriate opinion to have. Orenstein does not believe that these women are leading appropriate lives, because they are falling short of Orenstein's conception of womanhood, as defined by Mary Tyler Moore. And still she accuses the show of a limited vision of femininity! Moreover, S&TC has fairly regularly explored the issues Orenstein brings up. Two episodes ago, Carrie confronted her married friend and affirmed that singlehood and designer shoes were her lifestyle choice and not a tragic life gone awry. Mary Tyler Moore's point has been made and largely won. Carrie's point obviously hasn't. I think this article just proved why S&TC exists.


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7:11 AM  

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