Sex and the City Essay

Case Study

The television programme Sex and The City is based on a book written by Candace Bushnell. The program was produced by HBO. Sex and the City ran from 1998 to 2004 over 6 seasons; 94 episodes. Sex and the City has had two spinoff films, Sex and the City, and Sex and the City 2. The franchise is also due to have a pre-quell series made called The Carrie Diary’s. This essay will focus primarily on the television series. The program focuses on the lives of its four stars, Carrie Bradshaw, the protagonist, played by Sarah Jessica Parker. Samantha Jones played by Kim Cattral. Charlotte York played by Kirstin Davis, and Miranda Hobbes, Played by Cynthia Nixon. Carrie Bradshaw takes the role of narrator of each episode; each episode is based around Carries newspaper article titled “Sex in the City”

Sex and the City has received both critical and public success,

‘for example, Mimi Avins has favorably described Sex and the City as ‘the first post-feminist love story […] the show is adept at exploring the modern ‘romantic landscape’, and how it has been ‘irrevocably altered by women’s independence’
(Holloway, Beck 2005:291).

Sex and the City has won seven Emmys and 8 golden globes, solidifying its place as a highly rated television program.

Sex and the City is played out on the backdrop of a post-feminist New York City. The city was unlike the New York audiences were used to seeing ‘New York was characterised by encounters with racial and class difference, and by the difficult relationship between the personal (the feminine/feminist world of the home and the ‘women’s room’) and the public (the patriarchal/professional world outside). (Thornham 2007:72) New York for the characters of Sex and the City is very much removed from this traditional representation and is instead it has ‘lost the danger of a sadistic or reproving masculine gaze. Instead of intimating the dark dangers that kept respectable women off the streets, New York is shown to be a place of freedom and safety’ (Arthurs cited in Thornham, 2007)

Unlike the television audiences were used to seeing before Sex and the City characters discuses sex openly and explicitly. Television audiences were used to seeing career women, but had never seen characters male or female discuss sex in such graphic detail before. The first episode of Sex and the City sets the tone for the rest of the program. The group are eating a meal in a restaurant when the conversation leads onto sex. Samantha exclaims “you can bang your head against the wall and try and find a relationship, or you can say screw it, and just go out and have sex like a man”. The show began with the objectification of men, a reversal of traditional representations where men would objectify women. However as the stories progressed a focus on relationships became the mainstay of plot line rather than the desire to have “Sex like men”.

Each of the four main characters in Sex and the City are white middle class women. Each has had their various successes in their careers. Carrie has a regular column in fictional newspaper the New York star, and further into the series also writes for vogue. Samantha owns and runs her own PR firm. Charlotte works in art galleries and as an art dealer. While Miranda is a very career focused partner in a law firm. All of these characters begin the show as

‘Accomplished, single, thirty something professionals living the dream in Manhattan, having made it as desirable women, with great apartments, bottomless designer wardrobes (showcasing their designer bodies), and enviable disposables incomes’.
(Jermyn 2009:2)

In this respect the show is far from realistic, many viewers aspire to be the characters in Sex in the City which is quite dangerous ‘They see these people on Sex and the City and they actually believe this stuff exists.’ (Galicaian and Merskin 2007:154)

Despite their lifestyle and carer successes each are searching for what they see as the final part to complete their lives. Carries three friends all fulfil binary viewpoints on aspects of love and Mr Right. Jermyn describes Miranda as ‘cynically minded’ Charlotte as an ‘incurable romantic’ and Samantha as ‘sexually voracious ‘ (Jermyn 2009:1)

These characters appeal to HBO’s audiences ‘HBO is particular popular with the American middle classes, due partly to its emphasis on ‘quality’ television’. (Holloway and Beck 2005:292) and, ‘although the revealing and frank depiction of four attractive women enjoying their sex live unquestionably offered voyeuristic pleasure for HBO’s long-targeted male viewers, Sex and the city Ultimately became a “girls’ show” (Edgerton and Jones 2008:164)

The overriding story of the series is the four main characters’ search for the perfect man with whom to settle down with ‘the romantic quest for Mr Right is crucial to Sex and the City’ (Akass and McCabe 2004:17). Although the programme does show the four main characters as liberated women, financially, career wise and sexually. The show does also fulfil many traditional notions. Namely, women searching for a husband to support her, not necessarily financially but emotionally. Another element that confirms to gender stereotypes is the consumption by the women. The women are often seen shopping for clothes, shoes and handbags. Carrie finds out that she has spent $40,000 on shoes, an amount that would have allowed her to put a down payment on her apartment . This representation really does not challenge gender stereotypes. These ambiguities between the representations in Sex and the City make it a very interesting text to analyse.

Analytical Essay

When applying feminist media theories onto Sex and the City it is important to note the wide range of both feminist media theories and analysis that can be applied to Sex and the City. The programme is one that has divided critics, academics and audiences. The program is very ambiguous; the lead characters are career women who are liberated financially and sexually. However similarly Sex and the City draws much of its narrative style from the traditional melodrama, namely the characters search for the Ideal man. Many have argued that Sex in the City cannot be a feminist text if the characters devote the majority of their time obsessing about men, discussing what men want and trying to find the ideal man. ‘As Miranda, the character most likely to consider herself a feminist, points out in one episode: “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?”’ (Wignall 2008:18).

These were not feminist movies in a direct political sense, and were criticised by some feminist for their endorsement of certain stereotypes traditionally deems sexist. Sex and the City, for example, is essentially a film about finding you man and getting him to buy you things.
(McNair 2010:111)

Another key argument is that Sex and the City is a post-feminist text. This argument is based on the idea that, feminists have won the battle, achieved their goals and now women have been liberated the feminist struggle is now no longer relevant to the lives of women

Feminism has achieved its major goal and become irrelevant to the lives of young women today, with the implicit assumption that its critiques and demands have been accommodated and absorbed far enough to permit ‘return’ to pre-feminist pleasures now transformed in meaning by a feminist consciousness
(Brooker and Jermyn 2003:264)

These are the two binary opinions that polarize the debate around Sex and the City.

It can be confused that a program about women, aimed at program must automatically be a feminist text however the argument is more complex than this. ‘One of the defining generic features of the woman’s picture as a textual system is its construction of narratives motivated by female desire and processes of spectator identification governed by female point-of-view’ (Merck 1992:301). This ‘woman’s picture’ style, of using a narrative motivated by females desire is unlike traditional narratives which tend to fulfil Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze. ’The controlling gaze of cinemas is always male. Spectators are encouraged to identify with the look of the male her and make the heroine a passive object of erotic spectacle’ (Chaudhuri 2006:31). The focus is now on based on a female’s perspective, reversing the traditional gaze of the cinema. However, if the female characters are still fulfilling the same traditional hegemonic ideals of woman hood then the subversion of the gaze has no meaning other than the continuation of traditional values. Disturbingly these values aimed specifically at a female audiences, are masquerading as what females should want and aspire to, when they may still be fulfilling masculine-centric ideals. Thus making the importance of strong female representations more importation.

‘The popularity of television soap opera and film melodrama with women raises the question of how it is that sizeable audiences of women relate to these representations and the institutional practices of which they form part’. (Merk 1992:310). In the case of Sex and the City the characters fulfil many different representations, those of both the traditional and more modern representations of women. For example there are several occasions in Sex and the City where characters succumb to traditional representations of women’s roles in society. Charlotte for example gives up her religious beliefs in order to be with a man, she converts to Judaism after her then partner explains that their relationship can go no further as he has to marry a Jew. There is no discussion of the male partner changing his faith. Charlotte struggles morally with the decision, most notably over losing Christmas, interestingly the Christian holiday that has come to represent consumption and material gains, and decides that she will convert. Similarly the case study it was shown how in one episode Carrie does not have enough money to buy her flat, she is financially in ruins and due to be evicted. Carrie realises how much money she has spent on shoes over the years. “At 400 bucks a pop how many of these do you have? 50? 100?” asks Miranda. After realising the amount is 100 Carrie exclaims well that’s only “four thousand “ Miranda corrects Carries maths again highlighting her lack of financial skills “no its forty thousand” calculating the worth of her collection to be around $40,000. This again highlights a stereotype of women lusting after clothes and shoes while not taking any financial responsibility. However similarly, none of the other women are in such financial hardship due to ill advised spending on shoes or other such consumption of fashion. Perhaps this spending is seen to be more of a character trait of Carrie rather than a representation of all women.

Conversely there are reversals of these traditional gender roles. The relationship between Miranda and Steve, who eventually get married, is a reversal of traditional gender stereotypes. Miranda is a partner in a high-powered law firm while Steve works in, and eventually runs his own bar(with the aid of a silent partner). The difference in their financial situations causes conflict within the relationship to begin with. This conflict juxtaposes the lack of conflict between Mr Big and Carries relationship around financial issues. We see that Carrie struggles financially while Mr Big has a personal chauffeur and high-class apartment. The same issues of money do not affect a relationship where the male is the higher earner. Miranda and Steve’s relationship eventually does work out after carefully navigating several obstacles. This struggle arguably could be seen to mirror the characters own journey to come to terms with a post-feminist world.

Another problem with Sex and the City is the representation of male characters. ‘The men are generally one note “revolving doors”’ (Reimond 2010:58) often men are seen as idealised, strong and muscular. More often than not male characters are represented as very one dimensional as lesser beings and frequently ‘The brunt of the joke, in the end, in post-feminist television comedy, is on men not measuring up to very traditional standards, in which a real guy is not gay, always sports a stiff upper lip and so on. With only a few exemptions, men are paraded in a freak show, […] discarded sexual partner deemed unsuitable’ (Hollows and Moseley 2006:92)

The jobs of the main characters are again problematic; traditionally within the postfeminist genre there has been underlying struggles with women who want to have both a strong home life and a strong career.

In the hybrid, women-centred, work-based drama characteristic of postfeminist television in the 1980s and 1990s, on of the main issues has been the division between the world of work and the private world of the domestic sphere that prevents women “having it all”’
(Newcomb 1994:316).

The characters jobs with the exception again of Miranda allow them to peruse their lifestyles. ‘Carrie’s sex life and those of her friends act as research for her weekly newspaper column, which she writes from home. Samantha works in public relations, a job where her physical attractions and personal charm are intrinsic to her success. Charlotte manages an art gallery in a manner that suggest it is more of a hobby’ (Arthurs 2004:317). Arguably these jobs fulfil a need based more on traditional feminine values than of those that of a career focused one. However similarly it could be argued that these characters have been able to create and fulfil these roles within the work place as a result of the struggles of the feminist movement. These jobs conversely could be ‘a realistic reflection of the opportunities for educated urban women in the contemporary labour market’ (Arthurs 2004:317). When Miranda has a baby she struggles to balance her work life and her home life having to rely on nannies, her maid and her friends to juggle both her responsibilities as a mother and as a partner in her law firm. Similarly Charlotte decides to leave work when she marries her first husband Dr. Trey MacDougal. Charlotte becomes a full time housewife. Even though the marriage turns sour and the couple divorce, Charlotte keeps Trey’s Park Avenue apartment and never returns to work instead volunteers briefly at an art gallery before becoming a house wife to her second husband Harry Goldenblatt

The audiences for Sex and the City are again unusual. The show was originally broadcast on the American cable channel HBO. ‘HBO audiences, [are] profiled as intelligent, educated, liberal middle-class’ (Williamson 1990:377). These kinds of audiences tend to be more media literate, well educated and aware of the constructs of genre and television. It is easy to see how the four characters fulfil need for the narrative structure of the programme ‘each of the ensemble cast provides a different perspective on the week’s question. Their stories are told as viewers to weigh up’ (Brunsdon, Acci and Spigel 2007:47). Audiences are aware that these characters are hyperbolic, part of a program that requires over the top reactions to over the top situations. The characters lifestyles are so glamorous and situations so exaggerated in order to create a forum for debate around the topics they discus. In the case of Sex and the City these debates revolve generally around issues to do with women, with liberation, sexuality and relationships. Interestingly the moral debates that are raised at the beginning of each episode are not concluded with a definite answer. Audiences are not told when approaching said situation what the correct course of action is, instead the variety of viewpoints shown to the audience are ‘loosely tied together by Carrie’s final voice over in provisional conclusion that is often tentative in tone. “Maybe…”’(Arthurs 2004:322). Because there is no forced clear message at the end of each episode it allows the program to be analysed by the audience and each argument in every episode weighed up under the judgement of the own individual viewer. Rather than having a viewpoint pushed throughout the episode. ‘Sex and the City is remarkably, perhaps surprisingly, polysemic – offering the viewer a range of meanings from which to select’ (Butler 2007:8).

Although the character’s various narrative arcs are often used to further plot lines that focus around each episodes specific question, issues of feminism are brought up in debates around the overall narrative story that still arguably confirms to classic non feminist narrative types.

The women are still caught in fairytale narratives. The ‘right’ couple were signaled in the first episode [in which Carrie first meets her on-off lover known only as Mr Big] and in some ways the entire show has just been about them getting together – which, of course, has to be endlessly delayed or you don’t have the driving force behind the story.
(Wignall 2008:18)

Although the characters are liberated, and live in a post-feminist New York. They are still slaves to the confines of the genre. And ultimately Carries ends up with a night in shining amour, who rescues her from Paris. Arguably Carries concept of what love is when she sees Mr Big is based more on a media representation than any emotional attachment. ‘Carrie’s own inability to wake up and realise what a terrible cliché she is dating renders her, at best, pretty dumb and, at worst, passive and weak.’ (Wignall 2008:18). To fall for a character such as Mr Big is interesting he is indeed a cliché of traditional male success stereotypes. He is an alpha male and a success story. Even Mr Big’s name is disturbingly phallic. It is questionable for a feminist program to have a protagonist who is in constantly striving to be with and eventually ends up with such a phallic bearer of meaning. Both of Carries main romantic patners, Mr Big and Aiden fufil traditional stereotypes of Mr Right. ‘Mr Big, a classically phallic ‘seducer’ in the filmic tradition of Rhett butler, and Aidan Shaw, a strong, sensitive ‘rescuer’ like the heroes of modern Mills and Boon romances’ (Akass and McCabe 2004:19). In this case the representation of men is poor in a post feminist world where equality has been reached it seems conflicting that men are be seen as the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning. Similarly if these two characters are what the protagonist values the most as a partner, the representations of women are far outdated.

The women’s relationship toward sex is a complex one, as liberated women living in a post-feminist New York City good sex is seen as a basic human right. ‘Sex in this context becomes like shopping-a marker of identity, a source of pleasure – knowing how to choose the right goods is crucial’ (Athurs 2004:327). It has been argued that this relationship towards sex is a dangerous one. However conversely why should it be dangerous, if sex is being had, safely by two consensual adults there is no problem. The issue arises with the representation of this sex. The women in Sex and the City treat the search for the right man, or the best sex the same way that they treat trying to find the prefect dress, pair of shoes or handbag, believing that having this thing item be it the perfect man or sex or clothes will bring them happiness. ‘The quest becomes one in which they are looking for the phallus that would bring an end to a seemingly endless chain of desire’ (Arthurs 2004:327). An argument arises that showing these women endless looking for suitable partners send as message that the only way a women will find a partner is through sexual encounters. This could be seen as playing into the favour of men. Arguably by displaying this set of values it sends a message that having sex without asking for commitment is fashionable, and styling yourself in away that is attractive to men is the only way to fulfil this. Surely this fulfils a traditional stereotype that Sex and the City itself references, to ‘have sex like a man’. The women are trying to be the object of the male gaze in order to have sex. The post feminist counterpoint to this argument says that empowerment and liberation allows women to act as they see fit and not have to fit into the controlled systems of life previously enforced upon them. ‘Today, young women can link fashion with power rather than powerlessness’ (Walter 1999:99).

When various aspect of media, gender and feminist theory are applied to Sex and the City the conclusions are both various and conflicting. Sex and the City has some very varied representations in one way it displays very liberated characters while conversely they act out their narratives in a very traditional way, with their overall outcomes being ending up in a relationship. The characters search for happiness is defined by relationships with men, which is converse to being independent and self-sufficient. As the audience is never told explicitly at the end of each episode what the correct moral path is in each situation and the program can be enjoyed by a variety of audiences, who have conflicting opinions Sex and the City becomes an open cultural product, available for each audience member to decipher and draw meaning from as they choose. The audience for Sex and the City therefore is crucial to the understating of meaning within the program. The HBO audience is an educated one and therefore it could be said they are able to deconstruct the text in a very active way. This audience is aware of the constructs of the genre; Sex and the City is able to demonstrate different debates. It can be argued that the use characters challenges audience’s pre conceived notions of what women’s roles are in society and how women can behave.

(Word count 3,884)


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Wignall, A. (2008, April 16). Can a feminist really love Sex and the City?. The Guardian, p. 18.

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