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
After network television's monopoly on primetime TV dissolved, there began a "decidedly postfeminist proliferation of women's television images," writes Andrea Press in American Academy of Political and Social Science, "Gender and Family in Television's Golden Age and Beyond." Postfeminism, she explains, is characterized by "a clear and constant undercutting of the ideals and visions of liberal feminism, which stressed the need for women to achieve equality with men in the workplace, the home, and the bedroom."
Postfeminist TV, then, focuses on women making choices, Press writes, and especially in the 1980s and 1990s, those choices were usually of the work-vs.-family variety. According to the author, Sex and the City epitomized postfeminism when it dealt with a difficult topic: abortion.
An episode of Sex and the City involved an abortion decision made by Miranda, one of the shows main characters. A surprise pregnancy makes Miranda consider having an abortion, causing her friend Carrie to reflect with extreme sadness and regret on her own abortion when she was younger. We see Carrie unwilling to admit to her current boyfriend that she had the abortion, changing the details so that she seemed to be younger at the time (and thus perhaps less responsible), and narrating the incident with a regretful voice. This episode epitomizes postfeminism, as the choice feminist abortion activists have made possible for these characters is simply assumed and then undermined by the show's multiple critical perspectives toward the act. In the end, Miranda changes her initial decision to abort into a decision to have her baby and become a single mother, and is toasted and supported by all the women. ... Despite this backtracking from one of the most hard-won goals of second-wave feminism—women's reproductive freedom—this is one of the shows that has been most heralded as an icon of the era of feminist television. While its portrayal of women and their sexuality has certainly been progressive in many respects, the postfeminist qualities of Sex and the City (and its overall adherence to traditional values of glamour and consumerism) tend to mitigate the radical impact the show can have on its eager and committed female audience.
A template for gay-lifestyle tolerance in China
In the 2006 Foreign Policy story "China's Cracked Closet," Junling Cui chronicled the slow-but-sure incremental acceptance of homosexuality in China. Cui mentions that among gay and LGBT-supportive Chinese metropolitans, Carrie is a heroine of sorts thanks to her gay best friend Stanford Blatch.
"Young Chinese also have much more of a live-and-let-live attitude toward homosexuality than previous generations," Cui writes. "Gay bars abound in Shanghai and Beijing. Hip urbanites who watch pirated DVDs of Sex and the City think it's cool to have a gay friend, just like Carrie and Charlotte do."
A reinforcer of heterosexual and white hegemony
Others see Carrie as a poor role model—something of a toxic feminist who embodies some progressive ideals but flaunts some other bad or prejudiced behaviors.
In Rebecca Brasfield's Journal of Popular Film and Television piece "Rereading Sex and the City: Exposing the Hegemonic Feminist Narrative," Brasfield points out that, on one notable occasion at least, Carrie is an alienator of ethnic and racial "Others."
In search of an unlikely match for Carrie, Sex and the City presents the story line of Aleksandr Petrovsky, an internationally recognized artist. Carrie dates Petrovsky, whom she frequently calls "the Russian" in the sixth season. Referring to Aleksandr by his ethnic identity essentializes Petrovsky's character as the ethnic Other. In this instance, a non-American identity is positioned as a conflict to be resolved. It is Aleksandr's Russianness, as opposed to Carrie's ethnocentrism, that proves to be the problem. When his character is introduced, we watch Carrie repeatedly interrupt and hang up on Aleksandr because she's "not interested" in some stranger with an accent, who she assumes must have the wrong number. During their relationship (lasting nine episodes), viewers are treated to lessons on crosscultural (mis)communication.
Carrie also, according to Brasfield, is prejudiced against and dismissive of bisexuality.
Carrie dates Sean, a younger man, who she casually learns has dated both men and women. Carrie becomes preoccupied by trying to figure out whom he is more attracted to, men or women. She wants to understand how bisexuality works. Eventually, the focus moves away from the development of their relationship to Carrie's persistent confusion as she tries to comprehend and fit in with Sean's "bisexual lifestyle." Throughout the episode, viewers are treated to a review of the myths of bisexuality. [...]
Episode 34 ("Boy, Girl") ends with a gathering of Sean's bisexual friends. They are introduced to Carrie by detailing their previous romantic partnerships with each other. These bisexuals, you see, have all dated each other. A second myth of bisexuality is that bisexuals are gay people who are still in the closet. Bisexuality is then viewed as a transitional phase that will end in homosexuality or heterosexuality. [...]And a third myth of bisexuality that we see in this Sex and the City episode is that bisexuals are indecisive neurotics who will never be sexually satisfied. Sean and his friends decide to play a game of spin the bottle at the party. Not only does this build on the characterization of bisexuality as a developmental phase, but it also lends itself to this indecisive myth. Just spin a bottle and have a sexual experience with whomever and whatever. Bisexuality is further marginalized by being cast as a game for which Carrie is "too old." Bisexuality is regarded as the problem, rather than Carrie's stereotypical and hegemonic views of it. As a centered subject, she chooses to relegate this sexual orientation to a status lower than that of her own. An integral component to heterosexist hegemony over all other sexual orientations is that normative centered subjects continue to dismiss and marginalize the Others.
A modernized object of the "Indian captivity" narrative
Dana Heller's American Studies article "Sex and the Series: Paris, New York, and Post-National Romance" analyzes the sixth-season episode "An American Girl in Paris (Part Deux)" and declares it a modern manifestation of early American literature's "Indian captivity narrative" (you know—young, virginal white girl gets kidnapped by bloodthirsty Indians, then is saved by other heroic white people and/or the grace of God). Paris stands in for the "evil" Native Americans, Carrie plays the helpless, innocent captive, and Mr. Big is, uh... God.
As an offshoot of national war fantasy, "An American Girl in Paris (Part Deux)" mirrors the popular genre of Indian captivity in ways that declare its affinities with American myth's propensity for the liberation of innocent captives and for the demonization of non-national others. In the classic captivity narrative, according to Richard Slotkin, "a single individual, usually a woman," is taken captive by a Native- American tribe and "stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God." In the case of Sex and the City, the deity takes the form of the ubiquitous "Big." After six years of non-committal wavering, Big arrives in Paris to declare his love for Carrie, a mission that leads to Carrie's disclosure that Alek [the Russian boyfriend for whom Carrie has relocated to Paris], in the course of an argument, accidentally struck her in the face. Big rushes off to defend Carrie's honor, but she stops him. ... Big (whose alias hints of the superhuman) ... has performed his missionary, totalizing function. As in the Puritan model, the captive female body represents "a people threatened from outside." The temporary bondage of the captive to the "other" stages the temptation of the fallen soul that seeks redemption through Christ's love, or in this case redemption through romantic love. ... In this way, Carrie becomes a secular symbol, "representing America's virtuous identity to itself." [...] "I miss New York," Carrie tells Big. "Take me home." These words complete the cycle of victimization and heroism.
AND THUS, WE CAN CONCLUDE THAT: The writers ofThe Carrie Diaries have a daunting task before them: Explaining how a 16-year-old named Carrie Bradshaw became that Carrie Bradshaw—or, perhaps more accurately, became all those different individual Carrie Bradshaws.