“You just said a mouthful there, sister”: Post-feminism and the Contemporary Media

My research is focused on how female-driven/female-oriented cultural narratives circulate in and out of different contemporary media forms and inform and reflect feminist and post-feminist historical discourses. One of the pitfalls (and joys) of doing research on the “now” is that the now happens every second of every day (curse you, present!), and it is difficult for work that is to be published to remain current.

For instance, in my current project Women Who Want a Bicycle: Romance in the Post-Feminist Media (a play on the feminist saying “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”), I devote a lot of time to discussing the television show Sex and the City‘s ability to be simultaneously progressive and traditional.

Yes, the show was remarkable and groundbreaking for its presentation of women who are professionally successful, comfortable pursuing sex outside of a romantic relationship, and as the TIME cover story addresses, don’t really “need” a husband. However, it still manages to reinforce the traditional romance narrative structure, with its female characters “wanting” the fulfillment that comes from heterosexual coupling. For those that followed the series, you know that the finale saw all four of the main characters safely ensconced in romantic relationships.

Now that the Sex and the City movie is set to hit theatres in a couple of weeks, there is a new round of discussion about the show and its representation of post-feminist women. The conversation is still frustratingly simplistic and, dare I say, insulting. Manohla Dargis’s comments in this article on the lack of female characters in summer movies got my blood up. Don’t get me wrong, I love the premise of the article, and I enjoy most of Manohla’s work. (How can we not love one of the few visible female film critics, and the only female critic writing for The New York Times?) But here is what she says about Sex and the City: The Movie:

“The girls of summer are few in number, and real women are close to extinct. The teenage Emma Roberts plays a Malibu brat shipped off to boarding school in “Wild Child,” and little Abigail Breslin has gone blond for “Kit Kittredge,” the first big-screen spinoff from American Girl dolls. Meryl Streep stars in the adaptation of the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia!,” and the cast from “Sex and the City” hits the big screen, though as that HBO show’s fans know, its four bosomy buddies are really gay men in drag.”

Here Dargis seems to be dismissing an entire viewing audience’s pleasurable identification with these four women by suggesting that they aren’t actually women. Her claim echoes another common observation about the show: that it is about women who have sex like men. All of this need to essentialize and reduce who or what these women are is certainly part of the post-feminist media’s difficulty in discussing the complexity of gender in contemporary culture. Why can’t these women just be women who represent a broad range of characteristics that a range of audiences (of different sexes, ethnicities,and sexual orientations) will be able to identify with, laugh at, and at the very least, find entertaining? Why do they have to be like any type of man for us to discuss them?

See the trailer here:

When looking at the trailer, it is clear that the film, like the show, is quite self-conscious of the blurred boundary between need and want, fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and reality. Clearly, as Carrie’s voiceover informs us, she knows what she is supposed to want (the happy ending) but also states that she knows that it doesn’t always work out that way.

I would like to think that Dargis’s claim is alluding to this sort of blurring (or queering) of boundaries, which has a potential for empowerment for all of its viewers. But her problematic dismissal of the film seems to suggest her unwillingness to consider that Sex and the City might not only be an exception to her argument but may actually have something to say about how women get pigeon-holed into certain types of roles. I find it obvious that the film is quite consciously commenting on the culture in which it is situated when Miranda and Carrie are discussing Halloween costumes and Miranda says, “the only two choices for women: witch or sexy kitten.” This kind of self-conscious “wink” to the audience is a common trope of post-feminist media texts, and what makes them both entertaining and far more complex than critics such as Dargis give them credit for.

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