Empowered by Manolos, Bound by Cosmos Femininity and Gender Roles in Darren Star’s Sex and the City
Entertainment has long been one of the most accessible forms of communication because it appeals to the sense of pleasure than any other avenue in the information process. Today, in most parts of the world, entertainment has conquered a host of media that may be appropriated by both producers and consumers, with each medium translating specifically to the audience it aims to reach. From print to broadcast, from film to the internet, mass communication has provided ways and means for audiences of any age to claim the kind of entertainment they prefer—thereby creating its niche in the prevailing popular culture in any country or community.
Among the forms mentioned, the stellar history of film and the allure of convenient glamour and lifestyle associated with it have catapulted it to the top of the most influential of all media. Considering most people have access to cinema, it is correct to assume that this medium has had its share of voice in achieving social change, advocacy, politics, and empowerment. And, apart from being instrumental in relaying news and other traditional informative content, cinema and its success in entertainment has also become a veritable avenue to communicate these integral issues through visuals, acting, and choice of format.
One of the most celebrated productions in recent time is the iconic Sex and the City film, released in 2008 and based on the cult television show of the same title. By showcasing the formerly undesirable concepts of singlehood among females over thirty, professional success, and the unabashed references to sexuality and independence, its creator Darren Starr had stumbled upon a void clearly anticipated by women in these situations—and launched a culture that debunked most traditionalist ideologies and heralded new mindsets of feminism and empowerment.
II. Power and the Feminine Approach Feminist inquiry was established to “offer theories that center women’s experiences and to articulate the relations between the categories of gender and other social categories, including race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality” (Littlejohn 2008, p. 49), and this claim is evident in the purposive nature of SATC.
Individually, the characters of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte possess their unique strengths and focus: writer Carrie is the intellectual and introspective; Samantha’s focus is on her sexual nature; lawyer Miranda conveys independence; and Charlotte is depicted as the arguably traditional of the group yet is never relegated to being permanently at the mercy of her goal to find a husband. In other words, these women are all portrayed to be whole and complete on their own, and have already made their decisions on their particular brands of femininity.
Once a woman has defined her sense of self, it is easy to understand how power can come logically. Most audiences of SATC find pleasure in the witty musings of Carrie, the stern yet human concerns of Miranda, the extent to which Charlotte would go to get married, and the sexual adventures of Samantha. In the film, though, each has had her own story finally played out, not necessarily in the ways they planned: Miranda is a mother, Samantha is in a committed relationship, and Charlotte is married and has adopted a child. Only Carrie appears to have taken the more expected route of continuing her relationship with Mr. Big, a man who had long been the cause of many of her mishaps. But while each of them has realized their traditional roles as females, their background activities still remain indicative of their career successes. Like in the TV show, the women of the SATC film still engage in their females-only conversations and gatherings, during which they discuss men, relationships, and sexuality. According to Littlejohn (2008, p. 244), “women’s groups often are less interested outcomes and traditional group tasks—less interested in doing and more interested in being”, which then justifies the nature of their bond.
Among friends, the four women can merely be and not be concerned with what should be; among their colleagues, they are more goal-driven and objective. The conversations the SATC females have within their group are, in reality, material that audiences can live by, and are almost always philosophical or pragmatic enough to communicate new thinking. When Miranda discovered that Steve had a sexual affair with another woman, she immediately reported the incident to her girlfriends—who, in turn, expressed approval at Miranda’s decision to leave Steve.
When Carrie announced that she and Mr. Big were getting married, the group actually came up with two opinions—validation from Charlotte, and ambivalence from Samantha. These two examples at once present rational ways to address these common life circumstances, without resorting to the stereotypical reaction of women approving of marriage or staying in one despite significant problems. Apart from that, their nonchalant manner in discussing sexuality signals an unconventional pattern not often shown among women in films and other media, but occurs in women’s discussions in real life.
The vulnerability exhibited by at least two of the four characters while engaging with men is more about being human than succumbing to societal pressure; it has more to do with their personalities than a non-negotiable objective to feel adequate with men in their lives. Again, this goes back to the development of each character in the film, being completely defined and expected for women their age. Of course, it would be harder to prove had they been in their twenties, still searching for themselves in New York, like Carrie’s assistant Louise.
Modern femininity is definitely confirmed in the events, reactions, and portrayals of the SATC girls: strong and individual, yet completely aware of their identities and priorities. Compared to younger women, the four characters are each shown carrying the same sense of self one her own, or with her friends. Therefore, the issue of power in the film is attached to the evolved characters of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte—they know who they are, including their strengths and weaknesses, and are capable of appropriating such when it comes to men, or any other concern. III.
Representing the Thirty-Something Female With the exception of Samantha, who celebrated her fiftieth birthday in the SATC film, the main characters are in their late thirties. In fact, Carrie had probably just turned forty as this was one of the highlights in the film—the suitability of a 40-year-old woman to be photographed in a wedding dress. However, this may be less of an issue compared to the question of the accurate representation of women in this age range. Israel (2002) stated the still-existing stereotype of single women, that they are “social outcasts… odd women who require constant translation” (p. 46). If this is the present concept of the public regarding single women, then the issue is not in the misrepresentation but in society’s unchanged opinion of female expectations. While the show’s creator had indeed chosen to center on the lives of New York women, possibly to highlight the urban culture and wealth of material related to the area, the demographic shown is not far from the truth. It may not be correct to assume that all thirty-something females live the kind of lives seen in SATC, but he combined factors of location, career opportunities, and culture all figure in the equation.
Much of the TV show and the movie itself is focused on the New York life—fashion, music, night life—and the defining characteristics of the location that has made it legendary. Opportunities for career and wealth are often associated with gumption and chutzpah, which are part of the psyche of a typical New Yorker. This is most evident in Miranda’s and Samantha’s stories, whose careers as a lawyer and a public relations expert, respectively, are born out of their being in New York.
Even Carrie and her sex column’s credibility have more to do with being in New York, the bastion of all things forward and modern, than by merely being a smart single woman with enough authority about sex. The aberration, more than being the appropriate representation of single women, is Charlotte; her perceived values and preference for tradition appear to be more suited to a less worldly area than Manhattan. Like in the TV series, consumerism and brands form a significant function in the film; Carrie’s display of wedding dresses identified by designer shows the amount of importance given to labels.
But the New York premise once again provides the perfect excuse, being the center of fashion and home to most luxury brands. Had Carrie been in a small and not-so-cosmopolitan area would have made this appear pretentious and unreal, but the established facts of New York, her career as a magazine columnist, and her affinity for fashion make the association with designer labels quite expected and normal. Without the penchant for brands and the access afforded by being in New York, the SATC women’s representations of the thirty-something female are not far from accurate.
At this age, most women have, or are in the process of establishing their careers, or are obsessing over finding a husband and starting a family—as seen, respectively, in Miranda and Charlotte. Yet they had not neglected the other aspects of themselves that would make them achieve their life goals, such as motherhood, responsibility, and friendship; these are clearly established in the film, but due to the necessity to adhere to a cohesive storyline, these have been placed conveniently as background material.
Still, some traditionalists may dismiss the film as a celebration of consumerism, anti-feminism, and overt sexuality—concepts that contradict each other when taken as a whole—but it is only because SATC managed to introduce a new breed of independent females who recognize both their strengths and limitations. The characters are complete and wholly developed, creating personalities so real and defined that the more conservative viewer may find them at once curious and controversial.
The female audience comprising the age range portrayed by the SATC women will always find the film liberating, for two possible reasons: because they can identify with the trials and tribulations of the four characters; or because they can only hope to reach the level of individuality and liberation available to these New York women. Of course, the common pleasure derived by women in either situation may be found within the more superficial elements of meeting men per se and fashion—it is still entertainment, after all.
But the deeper issues of love, relationship, marriage, friendship, career, life, loss, sadness, joy, and other concepts present in the film are universal constructs that affect women, and men as well. However, if one were to stop at the shallow enjoyment of the aesthetic elements provided by the film—such as designer fashions, swanky homes, and gorgeous men—then the experience would not be maximized, and would most likely box in the film in the category of triviality and shallowness.
Also, manipulation would only be the case if the film depicts a world far from real, with unbelievable characters, and an obvious objective to sell its audience to a life impossible to reach. Carrie and her friends represent every single woman, perhaps not in all aspects, but in the mindset and priorities; the issue of singleness at thirty being the key qualifier in the equation. Naturally, their concerns would not be identical to those of a younger or married woman, who would have different realities altogether.
An example would be the wildly popular TV show Gossip Girl (2007), which is undoubtedly limited to the lives of the affluent youth and uses a questionable method of communicating reality through visual pleasure and aspiration. IV. The Politics of Gender Roles in SATC The topics chosen for discussion in the regular lunch, coffee, and shopping dates of the four characters vary at all times, with gender-related issues taking a significant portion.
The nature of entertainment provides an effective avenue for these concerns, specially with a smartly-written script and a sense of responsibility to communicate the issues properly. In the movie, the women discuss sex in the presence of Charlotte’s daughter Lily, and they use the word “color” to substitute for “sex”—producing a witty exchange that came off as both enjoyable and informative yet socially acceptable. Marriage, in Carrie’s case, was construed on the outset as a matter of convenience, in order to share an apartment with Mr.
Big, but was really a serious issue that had her debating on her reasons for getting married—whether it was out of love or mere practicality. But despite all the carefully-crafted dialogue, the scenes referring to life-changing issues such as Miranda’s separation from Steve and Charlotte’s discovering she is pregnant were treated with utmost subtlety and thought, and would not be out of place in any other traditional text discussing the very same points.
What may be left out to some extent is the politics among the characters themselves; since female competition is a powerful theme in most women’s lives (Barash 2006), it is questionable how the four women have almost no semblance of rivalry or contest, at least in the film. This phenomenon is largely common among groups of women, in particular, and SATC had shown almost nothing about competition even if it could have been appropriated in several points in the story.
The only allusion to it would be Miranda’s declaration that marriage is not the right choice to make, yet without any reference to her envy of Carrie and Mr. Big. V. Conclusion The entertainment culture introduced by the pioneering SATC text redefined the landscape of feminism, empowerment, and the resulting popular culture that has been embraced by audiences the world over. Through the use of female characters who were instruments to convey individuality and power, the celebration of women as symbols of strength is done with much success.
The fact that they discuss issues once considered taboo for media portrayal is already a feat in the world of feminism and empowerment, albeit relatively against the norms of tradition or the approved style of standard feminists. But the goal of entertainment in SATC does not stop with entertainment itself—the reality of the thirty-something single woman is enough reason to make it a pronounced voice in educating society about the capabilities of females beyond the label of marital status.