Is Women's Empowerment All About Buying Shit?

Illustration for article titled Is Women's Empowerment All About Buying Shit?

Kim Cattrall calls Sex and the City the answer to post-feminism, Nancy Meyers is all over the news, and it's starting to look like a the path to female empowerment is paved with Manolos and really nice bedsheets.

Of Sex and the City's supposed enduring relevance, Cattrall tells the WSJ, "Post-feminism has been really confusing. It influenced so many women to leave a lot of their feminine qualities behind and assume the business suit." She says SATC offered something different, which is why "it's captured so many women's imaginations. It's truthful and it's real and it's now; it's not dated, and it keeps evolving. These four women really make up one complete woman." That one woman would, of course, be very very rich, and what with Carrie's shoe obsession and Charlotte's fetish for housewares, she'd need a pretty huge home to hold all her stuff. A home that could be designed by Nancy Meyers.

Daphne Merkin noted Meyers' focus on immaculate interiors in her recent Times Magazine profile (which we wrote about last week), but Nicole LaPorte's Daily Beast essay pays even more attention to Meyers's "decorator porn." LaPorte writes,


[T]he sumptuous details in Meyers' films-the gazillion-thread-count sheets; the Park Regent suites; the glintingly new Porsches (none of which seem solely to be there because of product-placement deals)-are so unrelentingly omnipresent in every, single frame that they actually become distracting. During a screening of It's Complicated, Meyers' latest installment of decorator porn, I became so consumed with the outlandish dimensions of Meryl Streep's (a.k.a. Jane, the film's protagonist) Santa Barbara kitchen and all of its Martha Stewart accoutrements-cake plates with perfectly frosted cakes on them; vases stuffed with plump basil-that I missed whole sequences of dialogue.

But that might be just fine — Meyers's films may be just as much about what the characters sleep on as about what they say. Meyers tells Merkin that her lavish interior decorating "softens the message" of her films, but really it only amplifies that message — that women can have everything they want in bed (a man; good sheets) and out. Merkin thinks the point of Meyers's linen fixation is that "your character is attested to by the quality of your bed linens and where good taste stands not only for itself but for all that it exudes in the way of fast cars, moral turpitude, kinky eroticism and political scandal." But the beauty of Jane's home in It's Complicated may speak less to her character per se than to her independence, even her happiness. Merkin writes that Jane is "a professionally successful divorced mother of three who runs a flourishing Santa Barbara bakery and seems content to be on her own when romance sticks its big foot back in the doorway to her life" — and the beautiful house she paid for with her own money may be the filmic symbol of this contentment.

Cattrall's words (uttered, interestingly enough, at a party hosted by a linen company) point to a similar stuff=happiness equation in SATC. The women of that show did "assume the business suit" metaphorically — they all had high-powered careers. But they chose to exercise their economic independence by purchasing very "feminine" accoutrements, like vertiginous heels. Post-feminism is indeed confusing, and the answer both SATC and the Meyers oeuvre seem to offer is to become the sugar daddy you want to marry, and then give yourself lots of expensive presents.


While being able to afford Manolos and chintz without a man around does have a certain "Independent Woman" appeal, neither Meyers nor Sex and the City totally jettisons the Prince Charming narrative — viewers of the first SATC movie will surely remember the giant closet Big buys Carrie. More significantly, portraying independence through buying power is dated, no matter what Cattrall says, and it's also kind of depressing. LaPorte described Meyers's aesthetic as "aspirational," which is exactly the word that women's magazines use when they depict the ideal life as a collection of stuff outside the price range of their readers. Women's happiness has long been defined by restrictive standards of marriage and child-rearing, and the new standard of expensive-shit-buying is no less limiting, even though the tastemakers who promulgate it are often women themselves.

Of course, what many SATC fans loved about the show was not its glitzy shoes or unrealistic real estate (Carrie had a good job, but not that good), but its depiction of enduring female friendship. And Merkin's depiction of Meyers's movies as pleasant wish-fulfillment for women over 55 implies that nobody actually considers such women desirable — a perception movies like It's Complicated may actually counteract. What women of all ages could use are complex roles that focus on all aspects of their lives — not just what they look like to men. Both Meyers and SATC have taken a step towards this — it's just a shame they had to do it in such expensive shoes.


Nancy Meyers' Decorator Porn [Daily Beast]
Can Anybody Make A Movie For Women? [NYT Magazine]
"Sex and the City 2's" Kim Cattrall On The Franchise's Enduring Appeal [Wall Street Journal Speakeasy Blog]

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My problem with SATC is that it is completely unrealistic and enforces consumerism. I have a friend who is obsessed with the show. She doesn't have a full-time job and makes little money by cleaning houses...yet she buys designer outfits and shoes...currently obsessed with all things Coach and thinks the SATC lifestyle is perfect. Sure, nice stuff is fantastic, but living outside your means is not. SATC only shows women with nice clothes and apartments doing nothing spectacular with their lives other than shopping, going out to lunch—they're like the housewives of OC. So Ms. Cattrell don't tell me SATC is real, true, and not superficial. I don't buy it.