Sex and the City, revisited

Posted: July 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Culture, Data, Economics | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments »

I recently came across some poll data about gender. Gender equality, in the abstract, is a widely supported goal, especially in the developed world and among women, but nearly half the respondents “believed men had more right than women to obtain jobs in a down economy.”

Unpack that. Firstly, it suggests that men are supporting families while women are working for kicks. Secondly, it suggests that because women are working for kicks, they will be the ones taking time to worry about raising families. If you’re an employer, the argument goes, a woman who wants to make her kids’ doctors appointments is a less reliable employee. And when you have limited funds, you want the reliable bang for your buck.

The first point is false: the majority of women, like the majority of men, work because they have to. If they are lucky, they will enjoy it, but that’s not why they do it. But women do take the lion’s share of responsibility for the house and the kids. The answer to that should be a reorganization of family life that makes it easier to achieve equality in the workplace. But the truth is that the notion of workplace equality is, on its own, fairly appealing to people, while the notion of shared domestic responsibilities still scares us.

Take this delightful item from the New York Times, professing that equality has made women unattractive and turned men into drones. Note that the author is a woman and an academic, precisely the class of white-collar professional described in the piece. Note too that the critique professes to come from feminism, arguing that by mimicking men, women will become boring, unsexy and therefore unfulfilled as individuals.

To understand this rhetoric, two history lessons are in order. On the one hand, we have the story of Sex-and-the-City-ism, the belief that equality should take the form of individual choice, and that traditional patriarchy was no more repressive than the enforced masculinization of mid-20th century bra-burners. At its best, Sex and the City was about a middle ground, about women trying to find the balance between femininity and power for themselves. It encouraged women to see bits of themselves in all four protagonists and gave them each their own distinctive happy endings. Three of the four marry. One of the four divorces. One of the four marries a divorce. Two of the four have children. All four work, but only two are truly career-driven. And on sex, their views range from the exhibitionist to the near-Victorian.

I have championed the show for its endorsement of diversity in the lives women lead, and held it up as an example of what I consider the feminist philosophy best suited to our age. But I am increasingly dismayed to find that among my peers, Sex and the City did not resonate that way. Instead, many of my twenty-something friends are partisans of one brand of modern woman over another, claiming the rhetoric of individual choice, but actually pushing for one choice above all, and looking down on those who choose otherwise as unwomanly. In this regard, the Bradshaw partisans tower over all.

Carrie Bradshaw is, to me, the most problematic of the women on the show—she works, but part-time and not enough to (realistically) support herself. Indeed, you get the sense she works mostly because she likes it, a great myth (see above) about women’s work. She marries after being strung along in an on-and-off relationship with a man whose name we don’t find out till the series closes. Their relationship is uneasy and mysterious, and it often seems that he knows her no better than she knows him. In the end, their marriage only works because she accepts that he’s incapable of a fulltime commitment. If Carrie has neither a full-time career nor a full-time marriage, what she has is full-time sex appeal. To the Bradshaw fans, then Sex and the City is about sexual mystique as power.

That’s the line taken in the NYT piece. It implies that if a woman allowed herself to behave as a man’s equal in the workplace or at home, she would cease to be attractive, and that this would weaken her. And yet the kind of attractiveness privileged in this analysis is one that leaves Carrie without power or control over anything. Even more than the others, she always appears as a victim of events around her. What begins as argument for sexualized girl power becomes an argument for voluntary passivity.

The second history lesson that applies here is that of the first Equal Right Amendment debate in the 1970s. Among the many forces that led to the repeat failure of the ERA was the concern among women that true equality would deny them the ability to receive special protection at home. What they wanted instead was to advocate for equality in the workplace while maintaining a notion of the weaker sex elsewhere. For example, they wanted women to receive equal pay, and yet to maintain the practice of alimony in a divorce. Yet alimony is based on the assumption that women DON’T receive equal pay and are therefore financially reliant on men.

There’s an obvious logical clash, but it’s one that many women are willing to allow because it preserves the parts of patriarchy that even self-professed feminists seem to like. Men opening doors for women. Men picking up the dinner tab on a date. Men driving cars while women sit as passengers. And, as the NYT piece surely betrays, women of the Bradshaw school—and I count many friends among them–want to feel powerful but are fundamentally attracted to men who have power over them. There’s a very slippery slope between wanting to be taken care of, and losing the right to claim you can take care of yourself.

The Bradshaw-istas usually call themselves post-feminists, meaning that we’ve achieved such universal acknowledgement that women should have equal rights (as the poll shows) that it’s quite all right to choose not to live equally. But that cultural acknowledgement of abstract equality hasn’t produced results. American women still make only 70 cents on the dollar. They are twice as likely as men to fall into poverty, and one-and-a-half times more likely to stay in it. Five times more women are raped or assaulted each year than men. And it is only if you believe these stats don’t matter that the post-feminist argument can make any sense.

6 Comments on “Sex and the City, revisited”

  1. 1 shazia said at 2:00 pm on July 16th, 2010:

    this will need a series of comments, very thought provoking. but its possible in succeeding generations that we can evolve men who can hold doors open with one hand and be cuddling the baby with the other; and women who can wear a skirt and lipstick while wielding the paycheck; and find each other attractive. on the financial power, particularly income and wealth it is a zero sum game and the one holding the larger end of the stick will not let it go; the law is not enough,enforcement is still not possible

  2. 2 Ali said at 2:16 pm on August 28th, 2010:

    The two issues you presented with “Bradshaw-istas” is the income gender gap and higher cases of rapes. If you look at the data, income gap has been narrowing over time and will continue to do so. Second, the cases of rape have declined substantially over the last 10 years and the trend will most likely continue.

    Also, you are completely discounting the emotional/genetic side of things, which I think deserves attention.

  3. 3 Maha Rafi Atal said at 11:00 pm on August 28th, 2010:


    -The equalizing of the gender gap has slowed considerably. Women made leaps and bounds vs. men on this point in the 1990s, and have made much less progress in the decade since. I think that is in part because a certain complacency has settled in among women about this issue.

    -Rape has declined because of specific legislation that devoted new federal funds to rape prosecutions. Combating the remaining problems requires other legislative measures. For those to be passed there needs to be an active interest among women in the issues, and in voting for candidates who will devote careers to these types of laws. So again, the complacency of women about these issues prevents them from being solved.

    -You missed the third issue I cited, which is female poverty. This is a separate issue from income inequality and has to do with wealth distribution and mobility. This is something that I think people know the least about, and so very few women are concerned about this particular form of gender injustice.

    -I agree that there are emotional differences between the sexes, which is why, as I say in the piece, I welcomed the rise of a notion of feminism that made room for the notion of femininity. But I think there is a difference between saying women might be genetically predisposed to be different to men and saying that they are genetically predisposed to be submissive. And I think there ARE quite a few women who think the latter or use the concept of the latter to cover over a personal and emotional preference for submission. I acknowledge that in the piece too [see the paragraph beginning ‘the first point is false.’], but I reject it. So I think those women’s emotional preference is wrong, and that they should be discouraged from feeling that way.

  4. 4 Ali said at 7:55 am on September 22nd, 2010:

    ok, you win. But the fundamental point is the orientation of society towards family and in this the attitude of and about women has played a central role:

  5. 5 Maha Rafi Atal said at 3:52 am on September 23rd, 2010:

    Ali, yes, that is the fundamental point, and it’s true that how people feel about women and the family is the key. I just disagree with you about how much OF how people feel is genetic vs. social.

  6. 6 Why I am not a SlutWalker - Instant Cappuccino said at 5:00 pm on September 29th, 2011:

    […] sexuality, affirmative consent has gotten a big boost from shows like Sex and the City, which, despite its flaws, helped mainstream the idea that women like sex too, and not just the vanilla kind you see written […]

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