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Constructing the Carrie Girl: The Spectacle of Sex and the City

On May 30, 2008, the carnivalesque spectacle of Tinsel Town hit downtown Ventura,

California, as pink carpets were rolled out for the Ventura premiere of Sex and the City. The

premiere extravaganza, “Ventura Women and the City,” a benefit for the non-profit Women’s

Economic Ventures was touted as “a sexy, glamorous, girl-empowered, martini, wine and

fashion fest” (V.C. Star, “Premiere”). Participants “dressed to the nines” (V.C. Star “Traffic”),

were treated to mock paparazzi and street musicians before they were whisked away by

limousine to private pre-parties where they received “Fab Bags” filled with fabulous swag and

competed in character look-alike contests.

Feminism in the media plays a significant role in perpetuating and maintaining this

“carnival character,” mentality and post-feminist narratives like Sex and the City aimed at the

modern feminist women undermine the radical feminist project by relegating the collective

solidarity of women to private realms of consumerism. What has now come to be known as post-

feminism is merely a sham and a deceptive way to maintain consumer culture as well as

patriarchy through the perpetuation of “false needs” and “consumer culture,” (Marcuse 3). This

paper will demonstrate, using the Home Box Office original television series Sex and the City,

how late capitalism’s portrayal of the post-feminist image in the media plays off women’s fears

of inadequacy and self-doubt to maintain a hegemonic consumerist culture.

Under feudalism, Carnival was a mystical time where one could escape the toils of the

day. Time seemed to stand still for Carnival. One could dress up, escape one’s present

surroundings, and turn hierarchy upside down (Wunderli 9, 27-29). Carnival was an “enchanted

time” where even the peasants could forget that they were at the bottom and mock their lords.

Lauren Langman and Maureen Ryan call this attitude “the carnival character” (Langman and

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Ryan 471-473), and this is exactly what happens to a viewer when one’s television is turned on.

It is Carnival time, where one enters the “enchanted time” of simulated worlds and where the

real world no longer exists. But what happens when you turn your television set off? Unlike the

peasants who knew that Carnival would end at the beginning of Lent, here, in perpetual ‘TV

Land’ it never ends. And just as Carnival “served to sustain feudalism” (Langman and Ryan

471), today it serves to sustain a consumerist society, enslaving it in an iron cage, a constant

prison from which there is little hope of escape. We are at war—a culture war between society,

and the system that oppresses us. Thought manipulation and popular-culture are the vehicles

through which this is carried out by creating a system where we are seemingly free—at least we

are told that we are; but, upon a closer look, we will see that the only thing we are free to do is

choose between brands (Marcuse 5).

As Herbert Marcuse explained, the “free choice among a wide variety of goods and

services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain controls over a life of toil

and fear…” (Marcuse 5). By initiating everyone into a constant state of unfullfillment and

leaving them always on the look out for the next best thing, we are actually being controlled, and

will never, as Marcuse writes, become free. Marcuse warns us of the “indoctrinating power of

the media,” which controls every facet of our lives. The media gives us the messages, whatever

they may be, and we submit. From what to wear and what political ideologies are acceptable, to

making sure we are sending the proper signal to others while ensuring we stay within the

constituted framework (Marcuse 1), the media and shows like Sex and the City manipulates our

thoughts through the constant propagation of images, propaganda, and indoctrination.

The HBO show Sex and The City started in 1998, and was an immediate hit. The show is

centered around the lives of four Manhattan women, in their thirties. All of the girls are single

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and successful, and hold upper middle-class jobs. The protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw runs a

weekly sex column entitled Sex and the City for the Fictional New York Star, which the running

storyline revolves around. Her friend Miranda, a Harvard graduate, is a successful lawyer at a

New York firm, who as the series continues, becomes a full partner. Charlotte, “the

Episcopalian princess,” (Sex and the City, hereafter SATC: season 1 episode 6) is the most

conservative of the women. Charlotte runs a successful art gallery and has one goal—to get

married. Lastly, Samantha owns her own public relations firm, and as we come to find out she is

“a little older” (SATC: Season 3 episode 38) than the other girls (she is in her forties). It should

strike viewers as odd that with these types of fast-paced jobs, we would expect their work lives

to occupy most of their time leaving little time for socializing or shopping. But unlike real life,

this is make-believe, yet we somehow suspend our disbelief, but then again this is “Carnival

time.”

The show was a success because it encompasses everything that women are taught to

want: clothes, glamour, success, and independence. There is something for every woman in any

given character as she can relate to all of the girls in some way. Its success most likely had to do

with the endless combination of characteristics, which constitutes the “perfect woman.” Of

course this is “Carnival,” where even if it does not quite happen this way, we can pretend that it

does. We do not have to question why the girls seem to have endless amounts of time and

money to shop, or that in nearly every episode Carrie buys a new pair of $400 pair shoes. From

our living rooms we too can participate in the illusion, to sit in trendy clubs, drink

“cosmopolitans” with our girlfriends, and escape the toils of the day— remember, we are in

“Carnival time.”

While the show portrays the four women characters as “white middle-class women”

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(Brasfield 132) who are all single and seemingly independent, Angela McRobbie notes the

“emphasis on women who are wages earners,” i.e., they are independent, which in our neo-

liberal, capitalistic society is looked upon as ideal. Sex and the City is geared towards this of

type woman, one that thrives in our modern neo-liberal society—one with “disposable income”

(McRobbie 534). It not only solicits products, it sets the standard for what a woman is supposed

to look and act like. This in turn, shapes new markets for young women, all under the “liberal

guise” (McRobbie 532).

There is a definite message being sent to women through Sex and the City. The show is

seemingly about four “single and fabulous!” women (SATC: season 2 episode 16), yet there are

suspicious undertones throughout every episode. What we need to ask ourselves is, what is the

message that is being sent to young women? We need to keep in mind the agenda of Sex and the

City, which Rebecca Brasfield explains, “Demonstrates a distinct school of feminist theory that

is most often associated with liberal feminist politics and hegemonic feminists agendas”

(Brasfield 3). It is a show about four seemingly independent women, where, if we look closely

are not very secure because “all they can think about it marriage” (Arthurs 87).

As mentioned above, the show is centered around consumption. One of the ways in

which the consumer culture perpetuates itself is by creating what Marcuse describes as “false

needs” (Marcuse 3). It is of little wonder that the actress who plays Carrie Bradshaw on the

show, Sarah Jessica Parker, is now seen as a “fashion icon” just like her character (Brasfield

131). Marcuse explains that the cultivation of false needs serves to “love and hate what others

love and hate” (Marcuse 3), to create a society of homogeneity with an “emphasis on sameness”

and a “constant focus on consumption of products for fear of repudiation of others” (McRobbie

535).

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Sex and the City showcases fashion and expensive brands. Samantha thought nothing to

spend $5,000 on a Hermes Bihrkin bag, only to be shocked by the five-year waiting list (SATC

Season 4 Episode 59). Carrie’s love affair with shoes goes far beyond the reach of the average

working women. One of Carrie’s favorite brands, Monolo Blahnik, which has now become a

household name thanks to the show, had an average price circa 1998 of $500 – more than one

and a half times the wages earned by a weekly wage earner at the minimum wage. However, to

make sure there is something for everybody in the show, Carrie’s fashion runs the gamut from

high-end labels to vintage pieces. As Jane Arthurs explains, this “new bohemian look,” which is,

by no coincidence, “newly respectable in mainstream fashion” uses “thrift store elements” mixed

with “retro and new clothing” as well as adding the occasional “kitsch” pieces— the “avant-

garde” meets the “mass produced” (Arthurs 91). Furthermore, as Arthurs elaborates:

Sex and the City exemplifies these features of the commodity. Its stylistic features

contribute to the cultural hegemony of the incorporated resistance of the bourgeois

bohemians. Its culture of femininity provides an alternative to heterosexual dependance

but its recurring promise of a shameless utopia of fulfilled desire always end in

disappointment for the cycle of consumption to begin next week (Arthurs 319).

The fashion on the show with its incessant propagation of big brand names only perpetuates the

“Carnival character” in allowing everyone think that they can participate in the illusion of wealth

and success, which if we believe the show, goes hand in hand. The “women’s liberation”

movement “suddenly means spending time and money on one’s appearance to show personal

success,” which now is equated to the possession of good looks and nice things, as well as

participating in trends (Hyunmi-Lee 5).

With “accessories and fashion lines” that are “well out of reach of average female fans,”

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(McRobbie 543) there would seem to be a disconnect between those who can afford these

luxuries and those who cannot; however, “Carnival” has taken care of this with late capitalism’s

new multi-tiered markets, each with multiple price points for entry by shoppers at any income

level— while always concentrating on the logo. By focusing on “branding” and brand loyalty,

neo-liberalism has created a slew of “niche markets” and as Naomi Klein states in her book, No

Logo, has also created a “sexy wave of ‘do-me’ feminism” (Klein 111). This “new world of

luxury goods” (McRobbie 543) is reaching out to a broader base by creating new markets, which

retain the designer names while lowering prices. Most people can now afford “Karl Lagerfeld” at

H&M or “Vera Wang” at Kohl’s.

In keeping in line with our “Carnival character,” now we can all be Carrie even if we

work a minimum wage job. As Michael Billig points out, that “with an economy of production

being replaced by an economy of consumption, the Protestant work ethic is gradually being

replaced by a psychology of need gratification and indulgence” (Billig 316). We can now shop

all of our troubles away, thereby reinforcing a women’s measure of self-worth based on

purchasing power and looking good, which “revitalizes the existing patriarchal power”

(McRobbie 544) through the inherent contradictions between feminism and femininity.

Sex and the City has several patriarchal undertones that have undermined traditional

feminist thought. Throughout the whole series a running theme for Charlotte has been to get

married. When she finally did, to a rich white doctor, she quickly quit her job at her gallery at his

bequest to have and raise a baby, thus perpetuating the age-old patriarchal message that a

women’s place is in the home taking care of her child and her husband (SATC: Season 4 Episode

7). Yet, we are invited to believe that Sex and the City is a “feminist” show. The show’s

patriarchal messages are “hidden beneath the celebrations of female freedom” (McRobbie 539).

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Post-feminist Carrie can be seen “touching up makeup, doing girlish twirls in front of the

mirror,” and who, according to McRobbie, is portrayed as “naïve” and in constant “need of

protection” (McRobbie 541). Furthermore, Carrie is always seen as on a “childlike search for

male approval,” which enforces traditional gender norms despite her work as a sex columnist.

The message Sex and the City sends is, this is what today’s woman should look like: secure (sort

of), but still in need of a man, yet fashionable. The media’s purpose according to Marcuse is to

“reduce the opposition…” and further the “promotion of alternative policies within the status

quo” (Marcuse 4). This is exactly how hegemony is maintained. These “false needs,” like those

promoted by Sex and the City, are “superimposed on the individual by particular social interests

in (their) oppression” (Marcuse 7), which results for us in “Carnival” in the need to consume.

Nothing is sacred. Even after 9/11, the show took a stance of ‘shopping for patriotism’ when

Carrie implores her girlfriends to “throw some of that hard earned money downtown” and go

shopping (SATC: Season 5 Episode 67).

The show goes further than just perpetuating patriarchy and traditional gender norms; it

does its part to enforce the class system as well, as we just noted above when Charlotte was able

to leave her job “to try” to have a baby. If we look around, there are few women who can just

leave their job and still manage to survive. Charlotte is a product of her class and as she her

herself has stated, she “chooses her choice” (Hyumni Lee 2). How many women can actually say

that? Furthermore, it was Charlotte who told the other girls in an episode appropriately titled,

“The Caste System,” “you are trying to pretend that we live in a classless society, and we don’t.”

Soon afterwards, she criticizes Miranda’s new bartending boyfriend Steve, when she informs

Miranda that he was “working class” (SATC: Season 2 Episode 10). In fact, Miranda breaks up

with Steve over her guilt of earning more money and being more successful than him, but later

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she marries him after he opens his very own bar and becomes a successful business owner. To

add insult to injury, Miranda is the only one who, next to her “fatally insecure” (McRobbie 535)

counterparts, is portrayed with any kind of rationality. Miranda is the only character portrayed

with masculine traits. She not only wears a short hairstyle, but sometimes she dons a suit and tie

as well. Once, she was even mistaken for a lesbian by a co-worker who tried to set her up on a

blind date with another woman (SATC: Season 1 Episode 3). One more time (for the cheap seats

in the back1), what is the message?

The message solidifies the post feminist woman, one who is feminine, independent

enough to make important decisions—about what to buy. It exists for the sole purpose of selling

products and perpetuating patriarchy. The message it sends is that a woman should be secure in

her choices, but not secure enough to actually be secure on her own. We are all commodified

under the cultural hegemony of consumer culture, and shopping is the glue, which holds it all

together. Even sex has become a commodity, thanks in part to shows like Sex and the City.

In order to maintain the status quo the indoctrination must start early. Markets are ever

expanding to younger and younger audiences. Angela McRobbie explains, that “magazines

(provide) windows of opportunity for consumption” (McRobbie 534). With an emphasis on

“Girlie culture” and what being “girlie” entails, even children in their “tweens” are being shaped

to be consumers all under the pro-feminist guise of “girl power” (Russell and Tyler 620).

According to Russell and Tyler, “girl power” is essential to “maintaining a feminine appearance”

and involves the “commodification, competition and potential reinforcement of all things

‘girlie’” (Russell and Tyler 620). This is all done under a feminist guise, which is seemingly

supposed to be moving away from patriarchy, but as we have already learned, this is “post-

feminism” where its true purpose is to enforce “patriarchal hegemony” (Russell and Tyler 620).
1
Quote from SATC season 5 episodes 8.

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This “Carnivalization” starts early to maintain the reoccurring “emphasis on sameness”

(McRobbie 535). The message that these young girls receive from all this media attention is that

they not only can be improved, but that they should be improving themselves through

consumption.

Star power has ever increasingly become the means in which consumption is “relentlessly

spread to the masses” (Thomas 41). A star’s branding potential is now a brand it itself (Thomas

131). Television along with magazines has “created a mass media spectacle of hyper-reality”

(Langman 108). We try to emulate what we see on television, we want to be as successful as our

favorite characters on our favorite television show. When the ultimate Carnival character, Carrie

Bradshaw was held up at gun point and asked to turn over her bag, in which she corrected the

thief and replied, “It’s a baguette,” implying she would rather be shot than hand over the goods,

it should come as no surprise that this particular episode helped to sell more that 100,000

baguettes (Thomas 193). This is what Herbert Marcuse would call the “rational character of

irrationality” (Marcuse 9).

Traditionally, Carnival was sort of a steam valve to keep dissent from below at bay and

spare the feudal lords the burden having to crack down. Society functioned in accordance to its

strict ordering and hierarchy. Similarly, our “Carnival character” serves the same kind of

function. With “false needs” and an ever pressing desire for more, coupled with a neo-liberal/late

capitalist emphasis on consumption, these diversions have not only become a national past time,

but a way of life. They only serve to keep us in “Carnival” and its “enchanted time” as our minds

are shielded from any alternative views of society. For women, this may be harder to resist;

society sends a clear message through the media in shaping traditional gender norms of how we

should look and act. Patriarchy is subtly enforced through this ruse called “post-feminism.”

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Divine time still exists today, the only difference now is that the pendulum has stopped

swinging and now it lasts forever! Capitalism knows no time; furthermore, it has transformed us

into perpetual serfs through the ever-lasting carnivalization of society through the media.

Mathew Beaumont has described this modern state of being as a “problem of the perception of

the present” (Beaumont 36), that is endemic to the capitalist mode of production” (Beaumont

37), in which false consciousness is created and time is reified into an “impenetrable opacity of

the present,” or as Ernst Bloch called it, the darkness of the lived moment” (Beaumont 36). We

are witnessing the “re-enchantment of the world” (Langman and Ryan 479).

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