Reading the scholarly literature on Sex and the City's beloved, perplexing heroine
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TO THE NAKED EYE, IT MAY APPEAR THAT: The Carrie Diaries, a Sex and the City prequel series premiering tonight on The CW, reprises an immensely popular TV character: sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw.
BUT ACCORDING TO SOME PEOPLE WHO THOUGHT REALLY HARD ABOUT THIS: The CW isn't just bringing back a popular TV character. It's resurrecting one of the most controversial, perplexing, and influential TV characters in recent history.
Sex and the City debuted on HBO in 1998. Narrated by the smart, single Manhattan-dwelling Carrie, the mega-popular series based on Candace Bushnell's books and columns spawned six seasons of TV, two films, and a tizzy of impassioned responses from all sorts of social critics.
Carrie, of course, became a hugely polarizing figure in her own right. According to some scholars, Sarah Jessica Parker's much-scrutinized protagonist is a feminist icon; according to others, she's a post-feminist icon. She's a philosopher in the 19th-century European tradition and the quintessential damsel in distress, a gay-rights poster child in Asia and somehow also a xenophobic bigot.
So here's a handy guide to some of the many societal and literary roles of Carrie Bradshaw. According to dispatches from the world of academia, Carrie Bradshaw is...
This generation's "most visible flaneuse"
In the 19th century, as modern cities began to spring up all over the Western world, the sauntering, aimless on-the-street observer of urban life became a hallmark figure in the literature and art of the day. The particular stock character of the watchful yet unobtrusive metropolitan wanderer came to be known as a flâneur, a term derived from the French word for "to stroll." The flâneur was one of philosopher Georg Simmel's favorite topics, and often popped up in poetic works by Charles Baudelaire, too.
In 2003, the University of Nottingham's Helen Richards proclaimed that Carrie Bradshaw was a "visible flaneuse"—the feminine form of the word—"for the postmodern era." Richards defines the flâneur as an early precursor to the journalist-type character, a "possessor of the gaze, objectifying the inhabitants of the city, noting their activities and appearance for his own enjoyment." She notes that Carrie is, of course, a newspaper columnist herself, and spends at least three scenes per episode simply walking around New York City. And according to Deborah Jermyn, author of Sex and the City, a book about the TV series, Carrie's status as a "visible flaneuse"
is immediately signaled by the opening credits of the program. This montage features snapshots of New York architectural icons ... intercut with images of Carrie looking about her, smiling knowingly...and moving confidently through the streets of Manhattan, before a bus adorned with her own image advertising her newspaper column drives past. As [Helen] Richards notes, with its emphasis on her eyes, the sequence clearly shows Carrie's gaze on, ownership of, and pleasure in the city, while in a similar vein, Akass and McCabe argue that the montage "grants her subjectivity and a unique perceptual access to the metropolis."
The mother of the disposable-income woman's shoe-shopping obsession
One could argue that the but-I-must-have-this-heel phenomenon dates all the way back to Cinderella. But some theorists have noted that in the modern era, Carrie's famous stiletto fixation was instrumental in making shoes and therapeutic shopping global symbols of women's middle-class status and disposable wealth.
In a 2007 City Journal story called "The New Girl Order," Kay S. Hymowitz told the story of a recent trip she'd taken to Poland—where "Carrie Bradshaw is alive and well and living in Warsaw." She found that the convergent trends of delayed marriage, expanded higher education and labor-force participation, urbanization, an increase in disposable income among single women, and a globalizing media had created a new kind of lifestyle for women—one marked by
whole new realms of leisure and consumption, often enjoyed with a group of close girlfriends: trendy cafés and bars serving sweetish coffee concoctions and cocktails; fancy boutiques, malls, and emporiums hawking cosmetics, handbags, shoes, and $100-plus buttock-hugging jeans. [...] The [Single Young Female] lifestyle first appeared in primitive form in the U.S. during the seventies, after young women started moving into higher education, looking for meaningful work, and delaying marriage. Think of ur-SYF Mary Richards, the pre-Jordache career girl played by Mary Tyler Moore, whose dates dropped her off—that same evening, of course—at her apartment door. By the mid-nineties, such propriety was completely passé. Mary had become the vocationally and sexually assertive Carrie Bradshaw.
Imelda Whelehan's Nordic Journal of English Studies article "Remaking Feminism: Or, Why Is Postfeminism So Boring?" makes the side observation that after Sex and the City, other works of film, TV, and literature adopted shoes as a symbol associated with "hedonistic pleasures, specifically pleasing oneself." Reese Witherspoon, author Jennifer Weiner, and, of course, onetime YouTube champion Liam Kyle Sullivan have all helped perpetuate that trope in the years since then.
An icon of modern feminism
In 2009, The Beauty Myth and Vagina author Naomi Wolf declared that in the preceding decade, Carrie had done "as much to shift the culture around certain women's issues as real-life feminist groundbreakers." And though Wolf writes that Carrie and her friends' frank sex talk certainly made progress by way of spotlighting the realities of female sexuality, she argues that it's really Carrie's mind that makes her a feminist icon.
She was a writer who arrived in the big city to test her mettle and realize her voice. Male writers have structured stories around exactly this character from F. Scott Fitzgerald to J.D. Salinger to Philip Roth; but Carrie showed audiences week after week that a lively female consciousness was as interesting as female sexuality or motherhood or martyrdom—the tradition[al] role model options.
Carrie is a writer, and her adventures aren't just love escapades as they would be for a Fanny, or even an Elizabeth Bennet: they are material filtered though one woman's distinctive point of view and crafted into text in her unique voice. 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.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.
A symbol of postfeminism