HBO’s Sex and the City ran from 1998-2004 and follows the personal lives and careers of four, lifelong friends in New York City. The show chronicles both the successes and failures of the women and deals with aspects such as sisterhood, womanhood, sexual independence, and women in the working world. Although these four women are best friends, they largely differ in personality. The show’s protagonist and narrator Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a writer who is both sensitive and indecisive at times and is feminine in terms of one of her interests, her love of fashion (particularly shoes). Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) is a lawyer, who is stubborn and oftentimes cynical. Charlotte York (Kristen Davis) is an art dealer, who is very naive and sweet as well as a true romantic. Last is Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), a businesswoman who is confident and promiscuous. The popular show is usually considered to fall under the category of postfeminism: a movement that is largely defined by freedom of choice, independence, and personal freedom. Because personal choice is a central concept of postfeminism, a woman who has a career is not considered any different than a woman who stays home as a housewife because a woman’s experience is never rejected or discredited. While Carrie represents a very traditional image of womanhood in many ways, the experiences of each woman are examined in the series, and each of the friends is shown as equal within the group. Sex and the City emphasizes the differences of these four characters and the importance of female friendship and conversation in offering a perspective that accepts both conventional and non-conventional angles on what it means to be a woman among friends in a relationship where no friend’s outlook is considered better than another.
While Carrie’s love of shopping and fashion are traits that comprise a large part of her identity, Sex and the City has received much criticism over the years due to Carrie’s consumerist attitude. In many ways, the character is obsessed with material goods, ranging from the latest Christian Louboutins to Dolce & Gabbana straight off the runway. Critics have labeled Carrie as a narcissist and self-important, but a postfeminist perspective allows for Carrie to be addicted to shopping and fashion without being considered less of a woman for these traditional feminine qualities. The postfeminist movement emerged as a reaction to first and second wave feminism, which postfeminists considered too polarizing (Southard 152). Because postfeminism rejected many of the notions of the first and second feminist movement, in postfeminist perspective no conflict exists between feminism and femininity (Adriaens and Bauwel 178). In “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” Carrie’s $485 Manolos are stolen at a party hosted by her old friend Kyra, who tells Carrie that she must remove her shoes before entering the house. Kyra is unsympathetic toward Carrie, telling her it is ridiculous and immature to spend that much money on shoes. Frustrated at Kyra’s condescending response, Carrie tells Miranda on the phone, “It’s not about the money; I don’t care about the money. I am talking about a woman’s right to shoes! Why did she have to shame me?” Carrie’s reaction reflects the notion of postfeminism that a woman’s power is not diminished by traditional methods of expressing femininity, which in this case is her shoe obsession.
Because Carrie is the narrator of the show, her perspective is emphasized in every episode. Carrie’s narration is central not only because it provides insights about her character but additionally because in each episode she poses a question, which almost always revolves around a discussion she has with her friends in the episode. These questions often relate to sex, in addition to many scholars noting how they connect a sexual topic to a larger societal issue with regard to women (Ross 4077). For example, in “Are We Sluts?” Carrie asks the question “Are we simply romantically challenged, or are we sluts?” In the episode, Carrie’s new boyfriend Aidan does not immediately sleep with her, leading to her to worry if this means that something is wrong with their relationship. Carrie then contemplates whether modern women in Manhattan are over-sexual and have the expectation that healthy relationships must include sex, meaning Manhattan women are “sluts” or whether Aidan not wanting a sexual relationship means that he just wishes to be friends with Carrie. Carrie’s own perception of this issue is shaped and influenced largely by the perspectives of her friends. In this episode, Samantha is the one to have suggested that Aidan could not be interested in her sexually, which Carrie would not have considered otherwise, and this highlights the value the show places on the various viewpoints of the four characters.
Carrie’s narration throughout the show is also important because the question Carrie asks at the end of each episode is the topic she writes about in her “Sex and the City” column for The New York Star. Carrie’s writing provides a deeper understanding of her identity, and her column is pivotal to the character because Carrie organizes her life is largely through her writing, as it serves as a way for her to reflect on her own life experiences and examine and consider other perspectives, which are offered by her friends during their conversations. From the very beginning of the series, it is clear that the creators want Carrie to be understood/represented in relation to her column because the opening credits of the show include a bus with an advertisement for Carrie’s column, which shows a provocative picture of Carrie and caption reading “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex.” Scholar Georgina Isbister notes that Carrie’s writing is important to the show because it documents the character’s transformation and growth, as well as how Carrie looks to her friends and to her writing rather than to men for the answers to her open-ended questions.
While Carrie’s identity is largely defined by material things such as her love of fashion, Miranda understands her identity through her career. Miranda is unwilling to compromise her job because of her gender and is upset when she is looked down upon for being a woman in a male-dominated occupation. In “Attack of the Five-Foot-Ten Woman,” Miranda is offended when her old-fashioned housekeeper, Magda (Lynn Cohen), tells her it is her duty to take care of cooking and chores and discourages her from being a part of the working world. Annoyed, Miranda complains to Carrie, “I don’t need to make pies. I’m practically a partner in a major law firm, if I want a pie I can buy it.” Miranda clearly takes pride in her position as a Harvard-educated lawyer and gains a sense of accomplishment from her achievements. Additionally, Miranda choosing to call Carrie conveys the importance of female friendship and the problems with the patriarchal practices and standards that have stigmatized women in the working world for so long.
Unlike her best friend, Miranda is more androgynous than Carrie, who is presented in a traditional feminine role. Fashion is unimportant to Miranda, she is not very interested in keeping up with her appearance, and she is much more cynical than the happy-go-lucky protagonist. Many postfeminists rejected the strict definitions and limitations of the gender binary, and androgyny defies these constraints both in physical appearance and in culturally constructed gender roles (Fien and Sofie). Physically, Miranda is not shown to dress in a conventionally feminine way and often is shown in styles that are traditionally worn by men, such as a pantsuit or trousers. Additionally, Miranda does not conform to the gender roles have restricted women throughout history. The character’s response to Magda’s patronizing attitudes conveys Miranda’s discontentment with the domestic sphere and her desire to have a role in the professional world, which is a culture controlled by men. These beliefs correspond to the postfeminist notion of independence and personal freedom yet do not condemn conventional ideas on womanhood, which are more feminine and are embodied by Carrie. Although Miranda does not display rigid masculine or feminine characteristics, she is not considered to be less of a woman than her best friend.
The other two central characters, Charlotte and Samantha, have almost nothing in common with each other. Charlotte and Samantha represent ideologies from opposite sides of the spectrum: Charlotte being generally conservative and Samantha radically liberal. While Charlotte is optimistic, innocent, and insecure at times, Samantha is hyper-sexual, self-assured, and unapologetic. The two often argue about relationships, as Charlotte believes in the importance of monogamy and marriage while Samantha is more primarily interested in casual sex. The two come to a breaking point in “Shortcomings” when Samantha has sex with Charlotte’s brother. Furious, Charlotte yells at Samantha and insults her promiscuous behavior “Is your vagina in the New York City guide books? Because it should be; it’s the hottest spot in town: it’s always open!” Charlotte later apologizes for her rare outburst by baking Samantha muffins. This instance demonstrates the importance of personal and sexual freedom, as Charlotte is the one who must apologize to Samantha, suggesting that it is wrong to criticize and judge others for their sexual practices.
In addition to using this postfeminist notion of the significance of sexual freedom, this example also emphasizes the importance of sisterhood: despite the two character’s opposing views, they are able to overcome this dispute in their friendship. This dynamic representation of female friendship is crucial to the show because it facilitates discussion and debate between the women regarding the roles of womanhood, sexuality and consumerism (Ross 4220). In this episode, Charlotte’s act of baking cookies for Samantha conveys her traditional understanding of womanhood while Samantha’s is understood through her sexual freedom. Although Samantha is feminine in physical terms, she is androgynous in concern to her role in the world, which is similar to Miranda. Samantha is a high-powered business women, thus her career also is something that is typically restricted to men. Additionally, Samantha’s personality is also more masculine in terms of her attitudes toward sex and her being both dominant and aggressive (Fien and Sofie). This duality exhibits the postfeminist notion that allows for both feminine and masculine traits to simultaneously work together rather than restricting women to fit into only one of these identities.
Charlotte’s belief system not only largely conflicts with Samantha’s, but she is perhaps the biggest outlier of the group due to her very traditional stances. In her article for The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum notes that she is perhaps the only one of the four that did not receive backlash from men, as the others were considered “gold diggers, man-haters, and sluts.” Being the most innocent of the group, Charlotte’s desire for marriage is expressed early on in the show, and unsurprisingly she is the first of the friends to wed. Not long after Charlotte does get married, she is disappointed with married life, and her romantic vision of marriage becomes tainted. Although Charlotte’s marriage does not last long and results in a divorce, the show does not criticize the idea of traditional gender roles; later on, Charlotte’s wish for a domesticity is fulfilled and, ultimately, the character quits her job to be a mother and full-time homemaker. The show also does not reject the narrative that mothers can work; when Miranda has a child, she continues to be a lawyer and overcomes much skepticism from others. Perhaps this is the show’s postfeminist lens suggesting that both choices face scrutiny, and both should be accepted. Additionally, Charlotte’s old-fashioned perspective derives from a postfeminist notion in which women looked back to traditional standards of womanhood and femininity.
A central element of the postfeminist perspective is including elements of irony, which are also crucial to postmodernism (Steeves 4358). The irony in Sex and the City is often presented in a humorous tone, which allows for the show to use controversial sexual issues (abortion, masturbation, infertility) in a tone more suitable for addressing a large audience. Much of this humor is found in the scenes where the four friends have discussions regarding sex. In “The Monogamists,” Samantha tells her friends, “Tell a man ‘I hate you,’ you have the best sex of your life. Tell him ‘I love you,’ you’ll probably never see him again.” Samantha’s candid response uses humor to explore the idea that men are afraid of commitment. Sex and the City uses these discussions to emphasize the ambiguity in Carrie’s questions, which directly relates to the four women’s diverse perspectives in a way that suggests no woman is wrong in her opinion.
These discussions of the show also facilitate one of the most examined themes about the series: the relationship between sex and consumerism. Many scholars have analyzed the show in terms of the central characters’ viewing men the same way they view material goods. Aside from Carrie’s obsession with shopping, each character discusses men similarly to the way they consider consumable goods: something they gain fulfillment from that is disposable. While much criticism of the show is based around the issue of these four characters being consumers, a postfeminist perspective argues that this approach helps the characters become less dependent on men and helps them achieve individual freedom. To the postfeminist movement, consumption is a way to gain and assert one’s power and dominance. Additionally, because women have not been able to make choices for themselves throughout much of history, purchasing material goods and participating in consumer culture is a way to for women to understand themselves and receive gratification from others and society, thus boosting one’s self esteem (Adriaens and Bauwel).
Sex and the City presents various perspectives on how modern women understand womanhood and the merits that come with each of these understandings rather than discrediting any woman’s experience. The show uses these representations to suggest that womanhood cannot be presented in a singular lens, which is central to postfeminist ideology. It is important to consider the implications of postfeminism that are at the very core of the show, as these are still relevant on television today. Shows like Girls, which follows a similar postfeminist trajectory, have often been compared to Sex and the City and have faced many of the same criticisms. While postfeminism offers an outlet for women to express their sexuality freely and make individual choices without judgement, it is also important to consider that it is one-dimensional to have a show centered on womanhood that consists entirely of a white, affluent cast of characters. It is also necessary to note that postfeminist discourse is extremely problematic in the way that it frowns upon any criticism of topics like sex workers (including occupations like the porn industry and strippers), due to the fact that “it is women’s personal choice.” In many ways, however, these women are not truly in control of themselves, or sexually liberated, as their job depends on the patriarchy and, furthermore, perpetuates a system in which men objectify women.
Delaney Broderick is a senior at Wake Forest University from Portland, Oregon. She is an Art History major and an English minor.
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