Feminism and the Media- Interrogating postfeminst politics through Sex and the City – David Engel

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Introduction

Feminism and commercial television have never been happy bedfellows.  Since feminism was brought to the attention of the general public in the 60s and 70s, there has been something of a wary stand off between it and television. This is not to say that television has not engaged with feminism.  On the contrary, television has, since feminism was brought to the public’s conscience, engaged with a version of feminism (Press and Strathman 2003; 4).  However, feminism, as represented on television, has always been ‘incorporated into popular entertainment in unpredictable, fragmented, and incoherent ways’ (Ouellette 2002; 320). Even as television promoted certain women’s achievements, it was unwilling to engage the broader structural problems behind women’s oppression both at work and at home.  The image of feminism ‘that survived was a kind of “woman in a grey flannel suit” – dressed for success but with nothing to go home to…The mass media first promoted this impoverished version of feminism, then gleefully reported the discontent with that version as “postfeminism”’ (Press and Strathman 1993; 5).

It is this particular mediated version of feminism that I aim to interrogate.  As I argue below, postfeminism differs from feminism in that, while feminism is a holistic argument about the political, economic, cultural, and social structures that subordinate femininity to masculinity, postfeminism takes a partial view of these power structures that serves to undermine many of feminism’s key arguments.  Postfeminism does not reject outrightly the insights into gender oppression uncovered by feminism; rather, it is ‘an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s come to be undermined.  Through an array of machinations, elements of contemporary popular culture are perniciously effective in regard to this undoing of feminism, while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism’ (McRobbie 200; 256).
Ultimately, these ‘machinations’ and ‘negotiations’ that serve to undermine and rewrite feminism find their most vocal support through the media, for at its core, postfeminism is a media phenomenon: first, in that it is a response to a specific, mediated representation of feminism, and secondly, because its specific version of feminist politics has come to be popularised primarily through the media.  Thus, in order to understand the hegemonic power of postfeminism, it is important to analyse it not only as a political discourse, but as a cultural phenomenon as well.
Postfeminist authors such as Naomi Wolf, Catherine Lumby, Katie Roiphe and Rene Denfelds (Kinser 2004; 143, Parkins 199l; 1, Dow 1996; 204) are not homogenous in their views of feminism; some, particularly Wolf, offer valuable insights into feminism’s shortcomings.  Even so, there are a number of common themes that these and other postfeminist cultural texts share.  These themes include: a partial view of past feminist gains, blaming feminism, rather than patriarchy, for the continued inequalities women face, an emphasis on empowerment through individual choice, a consumerist attitude and privileging a commercial version female sexuality.  As a whole, these texts support these broad postfeminist messages and share in the responsibility for naturalising their mediated representations. 

In order to make an analysis of these multiple postfeminist messages manageable, this article will analyse postfeminism through three categories: the representational politics of postfeminism, postfeminism and individual choice, and postfeminism and female sexuality.  I believe these three categories provide the most comprehensive and accurate view of what postfeminism means. 
Further, this analysis will be done through a critique of the popular television show Sex and the City.  I look at SATC for two reasons: firstly, because as a television sitcom, it lends itself to the dissemination of postfeminist politics.  Due to the practice of television production, as well as the cultural ideals it strives to embody, Dow argues (1996; xxi) that on television sitcoms, problems that are social in origin, like sexism, are packaged ‘as solely personal difficulties to be solved by the characters in a half-hour episode.  Television implicitly supports a view of the world that discounts the ways in which cultural norms and values affect people’s lives.’  Furthermore, ‘commercial television’s drive for profits makes it a useful cultural barometer…Thus a study of television’s treatment of feminism is, to some degree, a study of mass-mediated cultural attitudes towards feminism’ (1996; xxi).  With this in mind, critically analysing SATC as a show that claims to tell us something about women can in fact highlight ‘what we like about feminism, what we fear about feminism, and perhaps most interesting, what aspects of feminism we simply refuse to represent in popular narrative’ (Dow 1996; xxii).  As a show almost totally about women, and with women constituting a vast majority of its audience, what SATC can tell us about contemporary views of feminism is invaluable.

Secondly, I choose to look at SATC because, as I argue below, it embodies what postfeminism has come to mean more than any other show of its generation. In watching SATC, one is struck by the ubiquitous contradictions between its progressive, feminist politics and its regressive, conservative gender representations.  It is these contradictions, consistently vying for supremacy from one episode to the next, that make SATC the poster child for contemporary postfeminist politics.  The four main characters -Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha – are as biting in their critiques of society’s gender hypocrisies as they are unwilling to channel their energies into making any overtly political decisions to address these.  Through these characters’ (mis)adventures, the show explores the social, sexual, and political implications of second-wave feminism’s many struggles, and, true to its postfeminist ideals, does so in a largely apolitical way.  As Levy (2005; 174) argues, the show contains a ‘deeply seductive feminist narrative…one that [articulates] many of the corruptions of feminism.’  In these corruptions, SATC is a decidedly postfeminist cultural text.

In fact, the gendered contradictions embodied by these four women make a feminist critique a slippery task.  In many commentaries, the women of SATC are ‘caught in a double bind – they are attacked for being too feminist or not feminist enough, they hate men but are still looking for Mr. Right, they enjoy sex but wonder if they are sluts’ (McCabe and Akass 2004; 9).  This double bind that McCabe and Akass refer to similarly colours my own view of the show.  I approach this analysis both as a fan of SATC and as a critic deeply ambivalent about the show’s postfeminist narrative.  As a fan of the show, I would like to believe that, as Ang writes (1996; 92, italics in original), ‘female fictional characters such as Sue Ellen Ewing or Christine Cagney [or Carrie Bradshaw]…do not function as role models but are symbolic realisations of feminine subject position with which viewers can identify in fantasy.’  On the other hand, I share Dow’s (1996; 18) doubts over ‘the quality or power of that resistance in the face of the repetitive and consistently reinforced hegemonic media messages that [audiences] consume.’  As both a critic and a fan, it is the depth of the hegemonic influence of postfeminist cultural productions like SATC, and how this influence is constru
cted, that I aim to explore.  Thus, the purpose of the following critique is not to claim that SATC is an ultimately progressive or regressive cultural phenomenon.  Rather, the critique aims to explore how, through cultural products like SATC, we are presented with a view of women and feminism that is at once deeply indebted to feminism, even as it undermines the very politics that have made it possible.

The representational politics of postfeminism

In many ways, postfeminism is a result of the recognition that second-wave feminists’ attempts to speak for women as a monolithic constituency ultimately excluded many women. This recognition signalled an important advance in feminists’ understanding of patriarchy and resistance.  In recognising the diversity of what it actually means to be woman, advances were made in recognising the voice of women previously marginalised by the mainstream, largely white, middle-class feminist movement.  From this has come the recognition that opposition to patriarchy must also be contextualised, and that ultimately, there is not one universal definition of feminist action and resistance. 

However, this conclusion was taken further, and for some it came to mean that, because all women approach patriarchy and oppression from their own individual subjectivities, no version of feminism can possibly represent them. Rather than recognising women’s varied experiences with oppression as a need to reassess the intricacies of patriarchal domination, some instead interpreted this as a need to reject the idea of a universal patriarchy altogether. McRobbie witnessed the allure of postfeminism growing:

back in the early 1990s and following Butler, I saw this sense of contestation on the part of young women, and what I would call their “distance from feminism” as one of potential, where a lively dialogue about how feminism might develop would commence…It seems now, over a decade later, that this space of “distance from feminism” and those utterances of forceful non-identity with feminism have consolidated into something closer to repudiation rather than ambivalence…This is the cultural space of post-feminism. (2004; 257)

This theoretical leap, in which the need to re-evaluate patriarchy has been replaced by the need to re-evaluate the relevancy of feminism, has been legitimised by the media.  This rejection is legitimised through two simultaneous representations: the first of the antiquated, out of touch feminist of the 1960s, and the second of an elitist vision of women’s emancipation, as exemplified by SATC (Ouellette 2002; Vavrus 2000). 

In the media, feminism is generally presented as a ‘movement devoid of currency and at the same time responsible for the sad plight of millions of unhappy and unsatisfied women who, thinking they could have it all, have clearly “gone too far” and jeopardised their chances at achieving the much valorised American Dream’ (Walters in Ouellette 2002; 318-319).  As the postfeminist narrative goes,

in the beginning our newly awakened anger and astonishment at the realities of our own oppression caused us to take positions that were extreme.  We went too far; either becoming “like men” in our quest for acceptance or finding ourselves doing double duty at home and at work…But as the popular historians would have it now, we have emerged from the dark, angry nights of early women’s liberation into the bright dawn of a Postfemist era’ (Walters in Dubrofsky 2002; 270).

Through subtle discursive turns in representing women’s lives, postfeminist representations shift the blame of gender inequality from economic, political and social structures to feminism’s rejection of these structures, claiming that even as some of the resulting social changes have helped women, continuing to embrace them threatens to undo all that hard work.  Thus, postfeminism is embraced ‘as a flexible subject position for a new era in which the women’s movement is presumed successful, but feminism is “other” and even threatening to contemporary femininity’ (Oullette 2002; 316). 

The presentation of an entire generation of feminists as somehow outside of the norm is further reinforced in magazine, movie, and television images, where the out-of-touch feminist is juxtaposed with images of women who have ‘made it’ in a ‘man’s world.’  As Vavrus (2000; 414) writes, ‘alongside this feminist blaming, a similar tendency exists: that of pointing out a few high-profile examples of women in powerful positions – or simply public women – as representative of feminism’s successes…a few women have made it in a corporate or professional setting, therefore those who haven’t must be to blame for not succeeding.’  However, a feminist meritocracy this is not; ‘what is constructed as middle ground, between the feminist and prefeminist extremes, is postfeminism: an essentialist ideology which privileges individualism and the interests of elite, white, straight women at the expense of a collective politics of diverse women’s needs’ (Vavrus 415; 2000).  In this, SATC is the poster child for postfeminist media representations.

If one were to paint a picture of what the stereotypical postfeminist woman looks like, talk like, and dress like, the painting would probably bear a very close resemblance to one, if not all four, of the SATC women.  They are white, heterosexual, attractive, successful in their careers, searching for a perfect heterosexual relationship (and all ending up in one), inviting of the male gaze, sexually open, economically well off and ardent consumers.  Due to the privileges their socio-economic status affords them, their lives, problems, and misadventures are shown to be not really all that bad.  These representations are an integral component of the postfeminism that is such a ubiquitous and dominating presence in the media.  Through these images in advertisements, glossy magazines, movies and popular television, the femininity the characters of SATC represent becomes universalised and naturalised.  Carrie summarises the privilege enjoyed by the four women in the episode All or Nothing (3; 10), when she contemplates that, ‘since birth, modern women have been told we can do and be anything we want: be an astronaut, the head of an Internet company, a stay at home mom.  There aren’t any rules anymore and choices are endless.’  For some women, the possibilities are indeed broad; however, even for the most privileged women, there are still very strict gender norms governing their roles in society.  Yet because ‘the feminism offered by [SATC] suggests that white, upper-class, straight women have the luxury to define liberation exclusively’ (Henry 2004; 70), the realities faced by millions of women are given little exposure. 

In overlooking the concerns of millions of women not privileged enough to share their lifestyles, these representations serve a further hegemonic function in dismissing the importance of feminist politics.  With all the privileges women of such status enjoy, it is little wonder that for them, feminism looks, at best, like an obstacle to a good time, and at worst, an unnatural force preventing women from celebrating their femininity.  This is an important component of all postfeminist representations.  By holding up certain women as indicative of how far women have come, the need for feminism is seen to be far less important.  SATC fills this role seamlessly.  Indeed, Henry claims that (2004; 70) ‘the solipsism of the main characters – the hours spent examining their sex lives – is a privilege of their race and class positions.  In other words, they see
m to have very little else to worry about.’  Given that they appear to have very little else to worry about, a feminist political ideology intent on overturning a global force that oppresses all women would appear to be, at the least, slightly overkill.  Because the women of SATC spend the majority of their time talking about and fretting over shopping, sex, and men, one could be forgiven for wondering what patriarchy ever did wrong. 

Ultimately, these representations are key to the allure of postfeminism.  It is much easier to claim that feminism has run its course and is no longer relevant by narrowly focusing on women who, by mainstream standards, have indeed succeeded in a male-dominated society.  That these women are neither representative of wider society, nor that they have, by any measure, freed themselves of the gendered constraints that still police society as a whole is unimportant; it is the appearance of equality that matters. Quoting Marjorie Ferguson, Vavrus (2000; 417) refers to this as the ‘“feminist fallacy”: the idea that the presence of women in media texts – including some women in positions of power – translates into “cultural visibility and institutional empowerment.”’

It is through these carefully selected representations of women’s universal equality that the ‘feminist fallacy’ is naturalised and women no longer being in the margins of society is equated to women no longer being marginalised. In the end, it would appear that postfeminist representations like those on SATC have made the internalisation of hegemonic gender constructs that much easier for a generation of women who are ‘often quite supportive of feminist principles having to do with educational and professional equality but are unwilling to give up the pleasures, expectations, and promised rewards of participating in the beauty culture promoted by [the media]’ (Ouellette 2002; 320).

Postfeminism and individual choice

The representations of feminism in the media have implications far beyond the question of who a feminist actually is.  These representations shape society’s understanding of what feminism is. By negating feminism’s ability to encompass the individual subjectivity of all women through collective resistance, postfeminism succeeds in the ‘personalisation of social and political issues’ (Dubrovsky 2002; 268).  That is, whereas both the first and second-wave feminist movements concentrated on the larger political, social, and economic forces that combined to enforce women’s subordinate status, postfeminism privileges a definition of patriarchy void of any large-scale structural implications. 

Through this discursive turn, when women speak of sexism, the logic of postfeminism is drawn on ‘to interpret discrimination [against women] as idiosyncratic behaviour [by men], and to undermine the viability of collective action to improve the status of women’ (Hall and Rodriguez 2003; 885).  This version of feminism ‘represents a definite turning inward for women, an introspective movement – the answers are to be found within’ (Dubrofsky 2002; 270).  By making feminism entirely about inner struggle and no longer one in which the superstructures of patriarchal oppression must be confronted, the dialectic between the personal and the political is broken; ‘everything is ultimately personal, and the personal is only idiosyncratically, amusingly, superficially, political.  In essence, the personal and the political are dangerously entwined but kept at a distance’ (Dubrofsky 2002; 283).  From this definition, it appears only logical that, if patriarchy is no longer a structural problem, then in practise, resistance to patriarchy no longer needs to address these structures. 

On SATC, the majority of the problems these women face are not so difficult that they generally cannot be solved by individual ingenuity, a friendly pep talk, or a trip to the shoe shop. Key to this is a lack of any acknowledgement of gendered power structures. ‘For postfeminists like Carrie and her friends,’ Gerhard writes (2005; 38), ‘gender differences, such as wanting to look sexy and flirt, are playful, stylistic, and unrelated to the operations of social power and authority.’ This is exemplified when, in Attack of the 5’10” Woman (3; 3), Charlotte is feeling self-conscious about her thighs.  Reassuringly, Carrie tells her, ‘the problem is not your thighs honey, the problem is your head.’  Of course, rather than Charlotte’s head, the problem is in fact society’s unrealistic expectations of women’s physical beauty.  By neglecting this as the root issue, the onus for resolving the problem becomes Charlotte’s ability to alter her own self-image, rather than realising that what is expected of her is in fact oppressive to all women.  Ultimately, postfeminism works to undermine both feminist awareness and feminist action because problems like Charlotte’s self-image, which are structural in nature, become personalised.  Women then turn inward to solve these problems, generally through large doses of consumption, and the hegemonic structures that are the cause of these problems remain. 

By turning the political on its head, postfeminism succeeds in redefining feminist resistance.  Resistance is no longer about collective action with the goal of realigning gender relations.  Rather, it becomes a rejection of some of patriarchy, some of the time.  In postfeminism, women are given the opportunity to cherry pick what feminist ideals they like, and reject those they find too unsettling. Feminist goals that seem outdated, pointless, uncool, or just too difficult, can be rejected and maligned.  This allows women who remain uncomfortable with what they view as feminism’s rejection of the gender norms they have known since birth to pick up and discard feminism at will.

To put a finer point on it, ‘patriarchy is now gone and has been replaced by choice’ (Dow 1996; 95).  In this, postfeminism has managed to write a radical revision of the feminist trope ‘the personal is political.’  That statement, so central to feminist theory,

was meant to describe patriarchy, not feminism.  That is, it encapsulated the idea that what women viewed as personal, individual problems could be traced to the political status of women living in a male-dominated and male-defined society.  Television entertainment, for the most part, has taken this idea in precisely the opposite direction in representing feminism: the political is personal, it tells us, as a set of political ideas and practices is transformed into a set of attitudes and personal lifestyle choices’ (Dow 1996; 209, italics in original).

For the women of SATC, whether it is engaging in a threesome, refusing to give oral sex, buying or not buying that great pair of Gucci shoes, the idea of a woman’s empowerment through choice is in their very DNA.  In nearly every episode, through nearly every storyline, a multiplicity of choice – of men, of clothes, of bars – and its ability to make these women’s lives easier, happier, and more fulfilling is a pervasive theme. However, this is not the right to choose as feminism intends it.  Whereas a woman’s right to choose continues to be feminism’s call to arms in abortion debates around the world, SATC’s call to arms is more accurately summarised in one episode’s title: A woman’s right to Shoes (6; 9).  As this play on words indicates, SATC is a study in the postfeminist assertion that a woman’s ability to choose, and through that choice, to consume, is as important a postfeminist right as any. 

For the women on SATC, the connection between choice, consumption and happiness is paramount.  They consume when they’re happy, they consume to remain happy, and validate their very existence through their knowledge and possession of the latest fashion trends.  In Drama Queen (3; 7), Kerry describes the depth of her existential crisis as ‘one that not even this season’s strappy Dolce and Gabana sandals could lift me out of.’  These women are most at home, most satisfied, most themselves when they are shopping, buying, and accumulating more and more stuff.  As Levy (2005; 172) explains, ‘the truly defining pursuit of their world wasn’t so much sex as it was consumption…what it romanticised the most was accumulation.  There was as much focus on Manolo Blahniks [shoes] and Birkin bags as there was on blow jobs.’  To many fans, this is one of the main attractions of the show.   When one writer (Saner in McCabe and Akass 2004; 10) asks, ‘do we really care if Carrie finally finds love and security?’ she answers her own question: not really, because ‘all we really want to know about is what [she’ll] be wearing in the sixth and final series of [SATC].

Of course, these acts of consumption have very little to do with empowerment; yet they are increasingly seen as perfectly reasonable substitutes for real feminist action.  Rather, they constitute ‘empowerment through style,’ a fundamental component of postfeminism (Roberts in Kinser 2004; 144).  If one looks at any glossy fashion magazine, any mainstream television show or blockbuster movie, it would appear that through making certain choices, consuming certain goods, and looking a certain way, women are empowering themselves already. In representing feminism as being wholly constituted through picking and choosing any particular aspect of feminism one likes, feminist identity becomes ‘defined by appearance, by job, by marital status and by personality, not by political be
lief or political practice’ (Dow 209; 1996).

Ultimately, these representations serve the specific purpose of reinforcing the commercialism upon which television derives its lifeblood.  Commercial media is reliant on capturing the largest audience possible.  This reliance is based on the fact that viewers serve one basic purpose – the generation of advertising revenue so central to the commercial viability of any media company.  This emphasis on commercial viability has special implications for feminism:

women between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine are the prime consumer group that advertisers wish to target because this group makes the majority of consumption decisions.  In essence, this means that television producers and advertisers are not as interested in finding out what appeals to women as in constructing (and reinforcing) an identity for women that is favourable to what advertisers hope to sell’ (Dow 1996; xx).

The importance of women as consumers is a point that television producers understand only too well.  Subsequently, they walk a very fine line, ensuring that they ‘appeal to the largest segment of the public while offending as few as possible,’ especially when dealing with issues as controversial as feminism (Press and Strathman 1993; 6).  Television producers are loath to create any programming that endorses ideas they feel will make their audiences uncomfortable.  These constraints create a forum in which feminism is shown in an inevitably diluted form.  As with any subject matter packaged for mass audience consumption, ‘certain shortcuts emerge that diminish and simplify the original message’ (Horowitz 2005; www.unimich.edu).  For this reason, mediated feminism retains some feminist political beliefs but repackages them to make them more palatable (Press and Strathman 1993; 4).  As a result, many television programs have made male power and female powerlessness seem harmless, cuddly, sexy, safe, and saleable.  In turn, patriarchy is no longer seen as a systemic problem, but one which women, with enough savvy and bared skin, can more than competently cope. 

The media’s explicit and ubiquitous emphasis on consumerism as empowering for women is the clearest examples of the hegemonic nature of postfeminism.  While speaking out of one side of its mouth as to the importance of a women’s ability to choose, the media is very careful to ensure that the choices available to women are limited to those in which a certain aesthetic norm is reinforced.  By wholeheartedly buying into this mediated promotion of women’s emancipation (with their beliefs and, importantly, their wallets), women are directly implicated in reinforcing a dangerous cultural standard of normative beauty.  Ultimately, all of these strategies ‘result in women’s participation in their own oppression, under the clever guise of women’s liberation’ (Montemurro 2004; www.barnard.edu/sfonline).   While it may appear that women have more choices in how to attain that ideal beauty, the fact that ideal beauty is still an end in itself shows how little progress postfeminism brings.  Through this, women like the characters on SATC give truth to Douglas’s claim (in Montemurro 2004; www.barnard.edu/sfonline) that postfeminism has turned women’s liberation into ‘female narcissism unchained, as political concepts and goals like liberation and equality [are] collapsed into distinctly personal, private desires.’  Thus, these representations of feminism on television are not lessons in women overcoming debilitating beauty standards; rather, they serve to endlessly reiterate ‘one particular – and particularly commercial – shorthand for sexiness’ (Levy 2005; 30).

Postfeminism and female sexuality

Of the many goals that drove second-wave feminism, one of the most fundamental was the movement to increase society’s understanding and acceptance of female sexuality.  Female orgasms, sexual positions that women too might enjoy, and a basic understanding of a woman’s ability to actively pursue and enjoy sex, had been, for the most part, territory in public discourse.  This problem was the result of a patriarchal culture that focused exclusively on a woman’s ability to please a man, and thus, the women’s liberation movement set about, in various ways, to advance the idea that not only could women enjoy sex, they deserved it (Levy 2005; 54-55).

This idea is at the very core of SATC.  As the title indicates, sex and female sexuality take a starring role.  It is a topic pervasive in every episode and constitutes a significant part of these four women’s conversations.  In that alone, SATC’s openness and celebratory attitude towards women’s sexuality makes it a decidedly progressive program.  In fact, Henry (2004; 66) calls it, not inaccurately, ‘a forum about women’s sexuality as it has been shaped by the feminist movement of the last 30 years.’  It is unique not only in its open and often graphic discussion of female sexuality; unlike any other popular show in television history, SATC revels in these women’s enjoyment of sex.  In this, their sexual selfishness and pure enjoyment of sex is ‘rewarded and praised, which is highly unusual in either film or television representations of women’s sexuality’ (Henry 2004; 75). 

The topic of sex and sexuality on SATC is dealt with in various humorous ways.  One of the best-known episodes is The Turtle and the Hare (1; 9), in which three of the friends have to perform an intervention on Charlotte, who becomes addicted to her vibrator.  Not only did this episode make ‘The Rabbit’ quite possibly the best known vibrator in history, it also unapologetically celebrated a woman’s ability, even right, to sexually service herself.  SATC further broke traditional sexual representations in its ‘insistence on female orgasm as a fundamental right and essential part of sex’ (Henry 2004; 76).  This point is made emphatically when, in My Motherboard, My Self (4; 8), Samantha responds to Charlotte’s claim that ‘sex can be great without an orgasm,’ by telling her, ‘that’s such a crock of shit.’  This statement is perhaps the clearest indication of the show’s feminist credentials, as it is a clear denunciation of ‘dominant media images of heterosexuality, such as pornographic ones, in which female orgasm in secondary to male pleasure’ (Henry 2004; 76).

However, the concentration on women’s sexual independence on SATC functions to divert attention away from the many ways in which women have not achieved some measure of emancipation.  While sexual liberation is indeed a fundamental component of a more general idea of women’s liberation, it is only one of many components.  As Wilkins (2004; 329) writes, ‘this emphasis on women’s emancipated sexuality reflects the substantive turn of postfeminism…a focus on women’s right to active sexuality rather than on broader issues of gender equality.’   Inevitably, this argument sees women’s ability to pursue and enjoy sex as evidence that women have conquered all gendered sexual norms, and continued feminist action is, once again, redundant.  This argument gets ‘an enormous amount of favourable media attention precisely because it juxtaposes heated attacks on feminists with affirmative claims about contemporary women’s freedom and sexual agency’ (Ouellette 2002; 323). Furthermore, postfeminism’s version of sexual liberation as exhibited on SATC is hardly the sexual liberation second-wave femin
ists were after. In this postfeminist version of sexual liberation, being appropriately beautiful in order to be appropriately inviting of the male gaze is as important, if not more so, than the act of sex itself.  As Levy writes ,

the glossy, overheated thumping sexuality in our culture is less about connection than consumption.  Hotness has become our cultural currency, and a lot of people spend a lot of time and a lot of regular, green currency trying to acquire it.  Hotness is not the same thing as beauty…Hot can mean popular.  Hot can mean talked about.  But when it pertains to women, hot means two things in particular: fuckable and saleable.(2005; 31)

This version of sexuality has become a powerful and ubiquitous presence within the media. It is in the presence of pop culture’s female stars on the covers of FHM, Maxim and other ‘lad’ mags, in Paris Hilton’s meteoric rise to stardom after the release of her homemade pornography video and in the popularity and cultural acceptance of the misogynistic, soft-porn antics of the Girls Gone Wild franchise (Levy 2005; 2).  The list goes on endlessly.  In other words, this version if sexual liberation is, in no particular order: inviting of the male gaze, heterosexual, traditionally feminine, and commercial.  In essence, the question that needs asking is, as Levy says (2005; 81), ‘why is this “new feminism” and not what it looks like: the old objectification?’

This new culture, many women told Levy,

didn’t mark the death of feminism…it was evidence that the feminist project had already been achieved.  We’d earned the right to look at Playboy; we were empowered enough to get Brazilian bikini waxes.  Women had come so far, I learned, we no longer needed to worry about objectification or misogyny. Instead, it was time for us to join the frat party of pop culture, where men had been enjoying themselves all along. (2005; 4-5, italics in original)

Of course, this postfeminist turn ignores the argument that ‘what may be liberating on an individual level may simultaneously be indicative (and reproductive of) institutionalised constraints related to gender, race, class, age, and sexual orientation’ (Barton in Wilkins 2004; 332).

Furthermore, even as the SATC women take uninhibited pleasure in their sexual conquests, the narrative of sex for pleasure’s sake is undermined in several ways.  Firstly, in Samantha, we are given the embodiment of women’s sexual liberation; she is sexually open, aggressive in her conquests, viscerally opposed to monogamy, open to experimentation, and determined to get off, with or without a man.  On the other hand, it is made quite clear that her sexual pursuits are often little more than a cover up for her many insecurities.  When she begins dating Richard, a hotel mogul, only to find out that he is dating many other women as well, she has incredibly unsexy sex in a bathroom with another man at whom she wouldn’t otherwise look sideways (Change of A Dress 4; 15).  In this instance, she isn’t a woman pursuing sex for her pleasure; rather, she is using it as a means to get back at Richard and demonstrate her own desirability to herself.   This, and other episodes like it, are hardly the acts of a woman confident in her own sexuality.  That Samantha does in fact have insecurities and neurosis like any other person makes her an entirely more realistic character.  The problem is, in a show that celebrates women’s sexuality and ability to pursue pleasure unapologetically, Samantha cuts a figure that, no matter how celebrated for her sexual openness, is ultimately a victim of her own inability to actually detach sex from her self-worth, which is determined by her perception of men’s attraction to her.  In this, sex is no longer an end in itself; rather, it is a pleasurable means to an end that is decidedly at odds with feminism’s quest for true sexual liberation. 

Ultimately, such claims of empowerment through sex ignore a key feminist argument made since the sexual revolution: ‘simply increasing women’s right to enjoy sex does not undo the basic heterosexual relationship that confers men with sociocultural power’ (Wilkins 2004; 346).  Far from progressive, this focus on sexuality is representative of the fact that postfeminist claims of resistance and empowerment through active sexuality rely on an ‘overly narrow vision of gender egalitarianism that both obfuscates the broader landscape of gender inequality and blurs the reproduction of an ideological system in which romance trumps sex’ (Wilkins 2004; 329).

The idea of romance trumping sex is reinforced by SATC’s final season, in which all four characters find themselves in monogamous, heterosexual romances.  In giving the show this regressive ‘fairy tale’ ending, the open sexuality of these characters becomes so intimately tied to heterosexual romance that the relationships formed through their sexual encounters paradoxically serve to maintain their ‘sociocultural reliance (for personal meaning, for self-esteem, and even for justification of their sexual behaviours) on the sexual relationships they establish’ (2004; 347).  This ending gives lie to the show’s initial, seemingly progressive message, summarised in its appearance during the first season on the cover of Time magazine above the headline, ‘Who needs a husband?’ (in Levy 2005; 171).  Even as the SATC women began the show exploring and revelling in their sexual freedom, each character ends the show essentially rejecting what had given them a progressive edge at the outset.  Miranda, the workaholic lawyer without a maternal bone in her body, gets married, moves to Brooklyn, and ends up caring not only for her baby, but her husband’s sick mother at well.  Samantha, repulsed by the thought of monogamy and forming emotional attachments, finds herself in a happily monogamous relationship with a caring, sensitive man.  Charlotte, the one traditionalist on the show, is rewarded for her conventionality with a loving husband and an adoptive baby on the way.  And Carrie, ambivalent from the outset about finding love and cynical about the idea of fairy tale endings, is rescued in Paris by her true love and finds herself, in the end, in that fairy tale ending after all.  From these endings, it is made clear that, while sexual emancipation is indeed high on the list of priorities of these four women, it ultimately takes a back seat to their reliance on heterosexual romance for true happiness.  Through this, we can how little representations of postfeminism have contributed to gaining women any measure of freedom from traditional gender constructs.  Jong (in Levy 2005; 195, italics in original) makes this point quite clearly: a focus on ‘sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven’t come.’

Conclusion

Unlike the claims of postfeminist representations in the media, it ultimately needs to be made clear that, whether one decides to wear make up or go without, have sex with 50 partners or abstain, work full-time, stay home full-time, or party full-time, these acts have implications beyond the individual making the decision.   These are all choices rightfully there for the individual to make; no one can or should be able to take that away.  At the same time, we need to recognise that in making these decisions, we are also making political decisions that transcend ourselves, and do in fact speak loudly about how we view gender, feminism, and cultural norms.  No decision based on how we view femininity and masculinity is free of these constraints. 

For this reason, an interrogation of postfeminism and the media
is important.  It is through the discursive function of the media that feminist messages are trivialised just as postfeminist ones are naturalised.  In turn, these representations imply that ‘this is our establishment, these are our role models, our high fashion and low culture, this is athletics and politics, this is television and publishing and pop music and medicine and – good news! – being a part of it makes you a strong, powerful woman’ (Levy 2005; 26).  As a result of these impoverished, partial representations of empowerment and feminist resistance, ‘those new to feminism or heretofore not affiliating with feminism begin to see it as not really all that different from what everyone is already doing anyway, which of course is the genius of postfeminism, resulting in the acceptance of the status quo and a failure to see the need for any change’ (Kinser 2004; 142).

I do not endeavour to judge, or claim to have the right to judge, women’s own relationship with patriarchy and feminism.  Rather, my goal is to highlight the fact that by accepting some feminism some of the time, all patriarchal superstructures remain in place all of the time.  The key to postfeminism is masking this. The result is not a total rejection of feminism; instead, it is a weak feminism that ‘results in minimal movement, the kind that patriarchy can still get a handle on, the kind that, from the standpoint of patriarchy, probably is acceptable anyway, since it placates feminists and is so negligible as to be wholly unthreatening to the status quo’ (Kinser 2004; 144).  Of course, as this has explained, this mediated version of feminist power is not what it appears to be.  Rather, what makes the postfeminist ‘pill easy to swallow is that it has been coated by a pernicious public dialogue that has incorporated, revised, and depoliticised some…the central tenets of feminism’ (Kinser 2004; 149).  The promotion of this version of feminism – through elitist representations of feminism, through promoting the notion of empowerment through individual choice and consumption, and through narrow definitions of sexuality and sexual empowerment – does not empower women but entangles them further in the sticky web of hegemonic gender constructs.  In this, postfeminism is directly implicated in women’s continued secondary status in Western society. 

With this in mind, rather than viewing shows like SATC and other postfeminist media incarnations as indicative of how far women have come, we need to see that, while these representations ostensibly symbolise the many gains of feminism, their true value is in demonstrating how very far left we have to go.  As Erica Jong argues (in Levy 2005; 195), ‘being able to have an orgasm with a man you don’t love, or having [SATC] on the television is not liberation.  If you start to think about women as if we’re all Carrie on [SATC], well, the problem is: you’re not going to elect Carrie to the Senate or to run your company…Let’s see women in decision-making positions – that’s power.’  With this knowledge, we can watch SATC for what it is: an entertaining, humorous, and ultimately fatally ‘flawed guide to empowerment’ (Levy 2005; 176)

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Author Biography:

David Engel is a postgraduate in Cinema Studies in the School of Culture and Communication at Melbourne University. He can be contacted at: davidengel79 @hotmail.com