Naomi Wolf calling the Sex and the City narrative "radical"? Sounds like a spoof, but yesterday in The Guardian, Wolf does just that - even saying Carrie Bradshaw is an symbol of the progression of women in pop culture.
Sex and the City is a major cultural touchstone, which guarantees that impressions of the series will be deeply polarized. For every person who loves the SATC franchise, there's someone who hates everything SATC stands for. Wolf, however, appears to be firmly in the love camp. While it may be puzzling to consider a noted feminist being firmly pro-Bradshaw, looking at her frame of analysis, it only makes sense.
I have written before about how radical it was that the narrative of Sex and the City centered not around a couple — let alone the traditional formula of hero-plus-beautiful-secondary-love-interest. Rather, the core of the tale was always the life-sustaining friendship among four women, as the men in their lives came and went. This break from narrative norms was remarkable not just because Bushnell was insisting that four women — no longer in their first youth – were renewably compelling on their own terms; it was also radical because, in a very un-PC but admirable flouting of feminist norms, Bushnell was brave enough to lay bare the secret – that for many women the search for love is the same urgent, central, archetypal quest story that for men is played out in war narratives and adventure tales. Bushnell was gutsy enough to disclose that even we serious, accomplished, feminist women spend a lot of time, when we are alone with our female friends, telling stories centered on the men with whom we are romantically entangled, exploring the quality of the love and attraction, the romance and the sex. And we are often just that graphic and hopeful and vulnerable and slutty as those four characters.
Wolf is calling out some tropes in pop culture that appear so often, they are considered normal and rarely receive critical analysis. I'm not sure how many episodes of Sex and the City pass the Bechdel test - clearly, conversations about work, money and breast cancer do, but much of the plot is discussing relationships. However, the overall narrative of female bonding cannot be ignored, particularly when so many popular series revolve around a solo girl within a sea of men, or women who are generally appendages/comic relief for the men who carry the series.
There is one line in particular that is critically important: "This break from narrative norms was remarkable not just because Bushnell was insisting that four women – no longer in their first youth – were renewably compelling on their own terms."
In those respects, Sex and the City is revolutionary. Beyond focusing on the lives of women, it focuses on older women, in an industry that tells women that are over the age of thirty that their only role is to be the hot wife or the hot mother. The character who has the most sex also happens to be the oldest character — Samantha is still as fabulous and fly at 50 as she was when she strolled on screen a decade ago. And the fact that four older women carried a television show that focused on their lives is also amazing. Jennifer Kesler, over at the Hathor Legacy, talks about some of the lessons she learned during her time taking film classes at UCLA:
There was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay. I asked why. Well, it would be more accurate to say I politely demanded a thorough, logical explanation that made sense for a change (I'd found the "audience won't watch women!" argument pretty questionable, with its ever-shifting reasons and parameters).
At first I got several tentative murmurings about how it distracted from the flow or point of the story. I went through this with more than one professor, more than one industry professional. Finally, I got one blessedly telling explanation: "The audience doesn't want to listen to a bunch of women talking about whatever it is women talk about."
In this type of environment, any media that challenges the dominant narrative around who is worth watching is worthwhile.
Wolf also continues to make a deeper point - in addition to showing women and their exteriors, Carrie Bradshaw was also given an interior life:
After the shallow or deeper sagas of hot sex or social slights, of hungover breakfasts with the girls or Cosmopolitans and hookups at night, every episode saw the letters unscrolling — often forming quite existential questions — across Carrie's computer screen. Teenage girls watching each episode were taking in a clear message. Not only can I dress up and flirt, seduce and consume, overcome challenges, yield to temptations, take risks, fail, try again – I can think about it all, and what I think will matter.
However, Wolf makes a common assumption that begins to reveal the flaws in her analysis:
It may seem ironic that the first female thinker in pop culture (not in books — books have had them since Doris Lessing) came to us with corkscrew curls and wacky cloth flowers in her hair, teetering on Manolos worn over Japanese-schoolgirl socks. But really, can you name a TV show or film prior to this that centered around a woman reflecting about her life and the world? Carrie, for better or worse, was our first pop-culture philosopher.
I actually can, which speaks to one of Wolf's limitations in argument, and one of the larger criticisms of Sex and the City — often, the analysis around the series speaks for "women" as a collective group, not bothering to realize that there are often other narratives flowing at the same time. For some women, Sex and the City is their cultural touchstone — for others, it's the fabulous foursome in Girlfriends, or before that, Living Single. And many people can relate to all of the series I've named. At the beginning of Sex and the City's heyday, I was still in high school — our Carrie Bradshaw might have been Angela Chase of My So-Called Life, or even the animated character Daria. And I am sure there are some I am forgetting.
Sex and the City is many different things, to many different people. And while it does subvert some paradigms in the pop culture landscape, it does much to uphold others. Sex and the City's issues with diversity are well known and discussed — hell, even the cast of the series started petitioning to see more color on set. But even with that base level of awareness, SATC couldn't help but replicate existing tropes that people of color are generally servants or sex objects. And, while Carrie Bradshaw may have rocked a name plate necklace as an acknowledgment to the types of women who don't have the idealized Manhattan lifestyle, SATC reinforced that well-off, white narratives are the stories worth telling. In some ways, SATC also represents the worst of our consumerist culture, where happiness is counted in Jimmy Choos and Birkin Bags, instead of values and quality of life.
But to only focus on those messages is to ignore why SATC became so popular in the first place — there are universal narratives to this story. Heartbreak is heartbreak, whether it's found in the pained expression of Carrie Bradshaw appraising herself in a mirror after three days of crying, or whether it's Nana Komatsu tearfully turning her back on the boyfriend who betrayed her in the manga series NANA. And friendship is friendship, whether it takes place in an unnamed cafe over breakfast or in the living room of a friend's house.
And that — the humanity rather than the iconography of Carrie Bradshaw — is why so many women are still watching.
Carrie Bradshaw: Icons of the decade [The Guardian]
The Bechdel Test [Wikipedia]
Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test [The Hathor Legacy]
'Sex And The City' Diversifies [CBS News]
Nameplate Necklace [Time]