Sex and the City: a sign of women's liberation?

By Virginia Brown

“Californian-based Australians joined the throngs of girlfriends packing US movie theatres to see their favourite heroines hit the big screen”, the Murdoch-owned News Corporation outlets reported on June 2. “The US release of the Sex and the City movie two days ago (Saturday Australian time) prompted a stiletto stampede to cinemas, with screenings sold out across Los Angeles over the weekend.”

The June 5 Cairns Post reported: “Women are lining up in droves to grab tickets for the first screenings at Cairns cinemas tonight of Sex and the City: The Movie.” The hype surrounding the release has already meant success in the box office, grossing US$55.7 million in the first week in the US. Women attended the movie’s screenings in record numbers, making it the most popular R-rated (17+) comedy film ever released in the US.

What does the box-office success of the Sex and the City (SATC) movie indicate about advances in women’s liberation from sexist oppression?

The TV series was appreciated by many women as a step forward in discussing women’s sexuality openly, although this was done mainly through four white, heterosexual, middle-class female characters. In some ways the popularity of the SATC phenomenon points to the advances that women have gained in having entertainment with a positive portrayal of confident female sexuality, without recriminatory suggestions that such women are selfish or damaged. There are no overtones that “bad” (sexually active) women have bad things happen to them (just amusing mishaps).

The limits to how far SATC can go are clear, however. Despite its focus on these four characters’ sexual and social lives and search for “love”, the entire TV series and the movie contain no mention of the restrictions and violence imposed on these areas of life by women’s oppression. And it’s also telling that SATC became such a mainstream hit, whereas The L Word TV series — which branches beyond white, heterosexual sex, despite its lesbians being mainly lipsticked — was more of a “cult” hit with far less support from networks and advertisers.

SATC’s message is that women’s oppression does not exist, just “universal” desires to be fought for — love and a (probably monogamous) heterosexual relationship. They all opt for marriage in the end, except for Samantha, the character with the most unashamedly liberated sex life, who’s always portrayed as a bit of an oddity anyway.

SATC has in fact been held up by some — particularly by “third-wave” feminists — as both an example of women’s progress in combatting sexism and as a cultural phenomenon that has the ability to advance women’s life-choices. But how can a blinkeredly positive portrayal of women’s ability to live supposedly liberated lives in the capitalist hub of Manhattan push forward the cause of women’s liberation? You would never guess from the series or movie that in 2007, the US Supreme Court upheld a ban on a type of late-term abortion. Or that worldwide, one out of three women has experienced sexual assault.

The 2005 Personal Safety Survey Australia found that 17% of women had experienced sexual assault since the age of 15, and a further 4.6% had experienced sexual threat. Women in Australia are most at risk of violence in the home from men who they know.

The movie’s avoidance of dwelling on anyone who is not relatively well-off belies the fact that in the developed capitalist countries, average women’s earnings lag well behind men’s. In May 2007, Australian women’s average total earnings were 65% that of men’s. For average full-time adult total earnings the gap was narrower — women received 80.5% of men’s earnings (according to the 2008 Australian Bureau of Statistics Yearbook) — but the former figure is the more significant because it reflects women’s degree of economic independence.

SATC glosses over the fact that most women are wage-workers; that they must sell their labour power to capitalist employers in order to survive. Their relations with their employers are not mutually beneficial, as the surplus value generated by workers’ labour is taken by the employer in the form of profits. SATC dodges the exploitation in this arrangement and the problems that most women experience in their working conditions. In the movie, Carrie’s relationship with her assistant (the movie’s token black character) is romanticised ridiculously, with it portrayed as changing both their lives (Louise is empowered by Carrie’s gift to her of a Louise Vuitton handbag!).

The emphasis in the series and movie on achieving individual goals (while enjoying the advances won by the earlier fighters for women’s liberation) completely overlooks the freedoms and entitlements not yet won, and the focus on fashion distracts from the necessity for a women’s liberation movement that would really make women feel good about themselves.

The movie does not simply market products, but also the idea that women partially achieve empowerment through what is portrayed as a natural female preoccupation with appearance. While empowerment never receives a direct mention, the characters clearly believe that they need to be thin, “beautiful” and stylishly attired in order to be happy. But none of these aesthetic standards sold to us are timeless absolutes.

The capitalist class, through its mass media, sets the standards of what “beauty” is, and the need of the “beauty” industries to maximise their profits has seen them appeal to the conscious or unconscious feminist sensibilities of women by selling dreams of attaining “beauty” as a means to gaining personal self-confidence. Not for nothing does Tyra Banks consistently tell the contestants in the TV show America’s Next Top Model to be “fierce” while posing.

Nor is the SATC movie able to challenge the sexist and racist prejudices that the capitalist class employs to divide the working class and through doing so, to weaken its collective strength to challenge current social arrangements. The movie does have a few moments that directly make one think of these prejudices — for instance, Miranda’s apartment-hunting in a multi-racial neighbourhood where she exclaims: “Look, white man with a baby. Wherever he’s going, that’s where we need to be.” But the real problem in SATC is that the show substitutes the comfort of a strong group of friends for the deeper solidarity of struggling alongside others to combat oppression. A group of friends might ameliorate some of the pains of life, but it won’t eliminate the inequalities of sex, race and class that are institutionalised in capitalist society.

Feminism that stays within the bounds of capitalist ideology and deprioritises collective struggle (such as DIY feminism and its North American cousin, “third-wave” feminism), has little ability (even if its advocates have the desire) to relate to the needs of most women, who are workers, or to challenge the socio-economic system responsible for sexism and racism. Such feminism, which places less emphasis on joining radical political organisations and campaign groups and more on individual activity (particularly shopping), diverts women away from the recognition that it is the commonalities among oppressed groups that provide the basis for collective struggle to end oppression.

If systemic problems don’t exist, then nor do their solutions. The excitement and confidence that working women and other workers achieve from collective struggle that has the potential to fundamentally change their lives can be forgotten in favour of the romanticisation of “beauty” products that will soon be replaced by others that are more fashionable. It’s easy to forget that the commodification of women’s bodies under capitalism is just that, rather than a celebration of womanhood. It’s easy to accept the oppressive division of labour involved in marriage (where women’s unpaid domestic labour relieves the exploiter class of the need to fund social services) as a “natural” and desirable form of human relations. It’s tempting to divert energy to the futile attempt to change systemic discrimination through “reclaiming” derogatory terms that reflect and reinforce oppressive practices. And the emphasis on promoting social change through individual empowerment leads, at worst, to marketing manufactured “identities” as liberation, as we saw with the Spice Girls.

Such non-solutions are indicative of the impact of decades of overall retreat by the working-class movement in the developed capitalist countries in the face of a sustained offensive by the employer class. The accompanying loss of confidence in collective struggle has impacted on numerous aspects of workers’ thinking, including the development of feminism, ensuring that most ideas about working women’s desires, needs, abilities and status stay well within the bounds of the capitalist profit system. They thus pose no solution to ending women’s oppression except to keep fighting to win small changes within an inherently oppressive system.

Over the last 12 months, many of the mainly female textile workers — who make the fabric that becomes part of the fashions marketed to us as making for a happier life — have braved repression and brutality to protest for better wages and conditions. Last year more than 25,000 textile workers, earning US$16 per month for 12-14 hours’ daily work, defied the army, a ban on protests and police violence in emergency-ruled Bangladesh to demand back pay and bonuses, shutting down most of the factories in the capital, Dhaka.

In Pakistan last month, textile factory workers demonstrating for a wage increase were fired upon by company thugs. The workers responded by escalating their protests, forcing the labour minister to visit the factory and promise protection for the workers against further company thuggery. In Swaziland, 16,000 textile workers went on strike in March for better conditions and wages, braving the beatings and tear-gassing they received from authorities for earlier protests.

Now, that’s inspiring.