With the launch of the Sex and the City Movie DVD here in Australia and both Candace Bushnell and Patricia Field in town for the Melbourne Cup Carnival, Sex and the City has been on my mind lately. I got to thinking about the writing that I did for my thesis two years ago, and the way I was thinking about the show so critically and through a theoretical lens of third wave feminism. I wrote my thesis on the representations of third wave feminism present within the text, and focussed mainly on the attitudes and representations of love, marriage, fashion and the pursuit of beauty. I hadn’t thought about the show in that way since I finished my thesis, after a year of picking it apart I just wanted to enjoy it again. But today, I started flipping through my thesis and I thought perhaps some of you might enjoy seeing the show from a more analytical perspective, the way I saw it for so long, so I thought I would print an excerpt of my thesis here for you. It’s hard to pick just one bit, and you must remember that this excerpt is missing all the context and grounding in theory that were laid out in the previous chapters, but it should give you an idea about some of the bigger issues at work within the series. I hope you enjoy it!
fashion and beauty
The pursuit of beauty and a penchant for fashion have long been considered frivolous and trivial by the feminist agenda: the pursuits of unintelligible women who don’t know better, women abiding in their own submission – both social and sexual (Brydon 1998, 6). In the second wave, as discussed in chapter one, radical feminists burned their bras in protest of what they believed to be a socially constructed and consented form of subjugation and oppression thrust upon the unassuming female population. Yet, despite these radical efforts of the feminist anti-beauty rhetoric, the fashion and beauty industries have only continued to grow. Current feminist thinking has acknowledged this fact, suggesting that perhaps the continued allegiance of women to the fashion and beauty industries highlights an important re-organization of feminist politics. In the emerging third wave of feminism; beauty, fashion, and the feminist politics that accompany these pursuits, have experienced a resurgence: an embracing of all things feminine for women, and by women. Can it still be assumed that wearing stilettos represents a woman’s submission to sexual objectification? The four women of Sex and the City – strong, independent, mature beings that actively pursue sex on their own terms – are converts to the stiletto revival, and do we view them as mindless and unknowing in doing so? This chapter will analyse these questions and other related issues such as consumerism in the feminist world, in order to gain an understanding of if and how fashion, shoes, and the pursuit of beauty are used within Sex and the City in service of a third wave feminist agenda, and further how the show uses fashion and beauty as representative of women reclaiming the right to partake in their own empowerment.
fashion is the fifth character
From the very beginnings of Sex and the City, discussion of the fashions within the series has been prevalent. From Fendi, to Prada, Jimmy Choo to Manolo Blahnik, these names have seeped into the present female – and even male – vernacular. From the humble beginnings of the show, designer labels were employed not simply to signify that the four women of Sex and the City were fashion savvy shoppers with disposable income, but also to paint each character with their own sense of style. Every week, the four women’s high fashions are emblematic of their own personal style and personalities. Miranda’s style is practical, corporate and understated; Charlotte’s is preppy, sweet and classic; Samantha’s is sexy, daring and chic; and finally Carrie’s, being the most diverse and changing of the four women, is everything from wistfully pretty to edgy and hip, from eclectic and personal to romantic and dreamy.
These widely varying fashions play an important role in character definition, functioning classically as stereotypes of characters, especially within the first few seasons (Bruzzi & Church Gibson 2004, 115). As Stella Bruzzi and Pamela Church Gibson confirm, this is quite obviously a conscious decision by the show’s producers, writers and designers, to create stereotyped versions of women and feminism – the corporate woman, the sexy woman, the quirky romantic, and the preppie princess – in order to make these different forms of feminism definable and recognisable at first glance. Thus, Miranda is representative of corporate power ideals of feminism; Carrie with her quirks and whimsy can be seen as an emblem of one of the very first incarnations of feminism within the workplace – the writer; Samantha is representative of feminist sexual liberation; and Charlotte represents a return to old-fashioned values, for as Bruzzi and Church Gibson claim, she is everything Simone de Beauvior despised (Bruzzi & Church Gibson 2004, 120). The individualised fashions of the four female characters can also be viewed as emblematic of female choice within a highly dynamic and diverse fashion society; as Naomi Wolf claims, when a woman partakes in fashion, she partakes in choice; moreover she demands it (Wolf 2003, Internet). Such demand, coupled with the sheer plethora of choices available to women in the pursuit of fashion and beauty, serves to further provide women with an atmosphere conducive to personal freedom, something that can be considered feminist in nature and emblematic of the show’s attempts to negotiate the different forms of feminist politics.
The four female characters can be viewed as partaking in the practice of Girlie feminism outlined in chapter one: a re-claiming of ownership over feminine practices and adornments. Embracing fashion and feminine practices, they do so with open minds and in the pursuit of nothing more than their own empowerment. They partake in fashion not to serve the patriarchal tyranny portrayed by the second wave and as recounted by Scott, but perhaps to be ironic, to be sexy, or to be whimsical. Girlie feminism suggests that women in general be allowed to re-claim their femininity and to do so with an open and educated mind: women should no longer mindlessly comply with outdated misogynistic ideals of fashion, they should choose their fashions for their own empowerment and at the same time, understand that it is their right to do so.
a woman’s right to shoes
There are countless examples of the use of fashion within the series as an expression and symbol of empowerment; many of these examples come from the use of the stiletto shoe as a catalyst for feminism within the series. The image and symbol of the high-heeled shoe is a constant presence within the series on an episodic basis and their utilisation is highly emblematic of third wave feminism. Carrie and the girls don’t wear Manolo Blahnik’s because they feel that they make them more attractive to men, they wear them not only because they are attractive and desirable to themselves, but also because the act of wearing them makes them feel powerful and strong. This is evidenced in many instances throughout the seasons of the show; one such example is visible in season three’s ‘Attack of the 5’10” Woman’ (3/03). In this episode, Carrie feels nervous about running in to Big’s new wife at a ‘women in the arts function’, and so decides a new pair of Manolos will be just the thing to help give her the confidence to face the woman she feels threatened by. Carrie’s feelings of inferiority and rivalry towards Natasha are easily viewed as childish, immature and irrational, yet in her new shoes, Carrie is empowered to face Natasha not only because the five inch heels are literally high enough to put them face to face, but because the act of wearing them in itself makes her feel powerful and strong. Carrie’s insecurities are quashed by the empowerment she draws from her new shoes, and no matter how superficial her empowerment may be, no person should begrudge her, or anyone, for drawing empowerment from any source they deem necessary and possible. In this sense, Carrie can be seen as drawing power from what was once a symbol of female oppression, her shoes, in a manner Baumgardner and Richards liken to “gay men in Chelsea calling each other ‘queer’ or black men and women using the term ‘nigga’” (Baumgardner & Richards 2000, 137). For these authors, Girlie is an attempt to re-cultivate the meaning of such feminine adornments, something that is exemplified in Carrie’s use of shoes.
Yet a further example of the use of shoes within the series comes in season six’s ‘A Woman’s Right to Shoes’ (6/09). In this episode, Carrie’s favourite pair of Manolos go missing from a baby shower at which the host had asked guests to remove their shoes and leave them in the foyer of the apartment. When Keira, the host of the party, denies that it’s her fault the shoes went missing and refuses to pay for Carrie’s “extravagant lifestyle” Carrie surmises that after she has bought this woman a wedding present, an engagement present, three baby presents and paid for a trip out of town to attend her wedding, she has spent over “twenty three hundred dollars celebrating her choices, and she shames me for spending a lousy four hundred and eighty five bucks on myself?” (6/09). In this instance, the symbol of the stiletto is used to represent a lifestyle choice, that of choosing an independent and single lifestyle, of being a financially self-reliant, fashion-conscious woman who won’t settle for anything less than the best in all spheres of life. After dissecting the situation and venting her feelings with the girls, Carrie decides that her life, although “filled with shoes and not children,” is no less relevant and worthy than Keira’s, and therefore, perhaps Keira should help to celebrate her choices for once; she calls Keira and leaves a message on her machine stating “I wanted to let you know that I’m getting married – to myself. Oh, and I’m registered at Manolo Blahnik” (6/09). As the episode closes and Carrie struts the streets of New York in her brand new shoes, her “very first wedding present,” the elegant silver stilettos are symbolic of her independence, empowerment, and self-worth (6/09).
In her article ‘Sex and the City: A Visible Flaneuse for the Postmodern Era?’ (2003), Helen Richards further proposes that Carrie’s footwear is highly indicative of her role as a postmodern flaneuse. An historical figure originally belonging to the male gender, the flaneur was a figure of modernity that wandered the streets of Paris, observing, noting and watching its inhabitants, a sort of early journalistic figure (Richards 2003, 149). Richards notes that Carrie, who spends at least three scenes per episode walking, is the modern, female form of this figure, an insight also alluded to by Barbara Creed (Creed 2003, 52). Richards further notes that the flaneur was the “possessor of the gaze, objectifying the inhabitants of the city, noting their activities and appearance for his own enjoyment” (Richards 2003, 150). Carrie’s role within the series is certainly similar; hers are the eyes through which we see the world of Sex and the City, they are her judgements and descriptions of people, places and events that the audience bears witness to, and she is constantly roaming the city, researching, shopping, thinking. As Richards notes, there have been many critics of the idea of a female flaneur. Janet Wilson and Griselda Pollock for example suggest that the concept is implausible because the sphere of the modern city, and the right to look, was not a female privilege but in fact belonged entirely to men (Richards 2003, 151).
Carrie’s affinity with walking further serves to highlight her shoes of choice, stilettos, which are often shot in close up and constantly referred to, as in ‘Valley of the Twenty-Something Guys’ (1/04). “I decided to walk to clear my head. So I walked forty eight blocks in four hundred dollar shoes.” The stiletto can be viewed as a symbol of empowerment when identified with its highly phallic connotations: the metal-cored spike of a stiletto is both a symbol and a weapon with every step. Furthermore, the act of wearing stilettos can potentially be painful, dangerous and deforming (Brydon 1998, 9). In the 1950’s the stiletto was representative of sexual freedom, defiance and decadence; it was a potent symbol of life outside the domestic sphere (Brydon 1998, 7). Girlie feminism and the reclaiming of feminine practices by women as empowering has ensured that the dim view of stilettos held by radial feminists of the second wave has been redefined, within Sex and the City we are experiencing a throwback to the original meaning of the stiletto. Stilettos are now synonymous with the empowerment of the wearer (Young 2002, Internet), as it appears they once were. As evidenced in the analysis of the above scenes, the women of Sex and the City can be seen as drawing empowerment from their stilettos, performing tasks from business, to sex, masturbation to walking the dog in the high priced, high-heeled masterpieces, without any hint of feminine passivity (Young 2002, Internet). The representation of shoes and stilettos within Sex and the City echoes the notions of Girlie feminism discussed by Baumgardner & Richards – re-claiming the right to wear stilettos and knowing how, because of feminism, to use them to their own advantage (Baumgardner & Richards 2000, 126-166).
In this sense, and bearing in mind Wilson and Pollock’s belief that the flaneuse is an impossibility because the right to see and be seen within the city belonged only to men, Carrie’s shoes can be viewed not only as her equipment for walking the streets and for observing the world of the city of New York, but as a powerful phallic symbol of assertion, with every step, of her right to see, and to be seen within the space of the city. Read the rest of this entry »