The almost exclusive focus on sexual relationships and consumption in Sex and the City speaks to the cultural influence in the 1990s of the ‘bourgeois bohemians’. This class fraction has, David Brooks (2000) argues, replaced the yuppies as the new culturally dominant class in the USA (and other developed economies). The key feature of this new class fraction is their ability to reconcile the contradictions between bourgeois and bohemian values and lifestyles. Sexual permissiveness, which in the bohemian movements of the 1960s was articulated with radical anti-capitalist political values, has been rearticulated to conform not only with the materialist priorities of consumer culture, but also with the emancipatory politics of the 1970s and 1980s. One effect has been to free white, middle-class women from the sexual constraints required by bourgeois respectability. This attention to sexual freedom and pleasure in second wave feminism is culturally specific and arises from the dominance of that movement among white, middle-class women. A quite different political agenda around sexuality arises from the historical positioning of black and working-class women as the embodied ‘other’ of the white bourgeoisie (Haraway 1990).
A scene from the first season of Sex and the City (Episode 6, ‘Secret Sex’) encapsulates this brand identity; that is, the emotions, attitudes and lifestyle with which it is associated and the specificity of its address. In an episode that explores the shame that some sexual experiences can provoke, Carrie gathers a group of her friends together for the launch of a new publicity campaign promoting her weekly newspaper column called ‘Sex and the City’. They wait on the sidewalk for a bus to pass by carrying the poster for her brand on its side. They are in a mood of excited anticipation, marred only by the regret that Mr Big, the new man in her life, has failed to show up to share this proud moment. The revealing dress she is wearing in the poster is the dress that she had worn on their first date, when, despite her best judgement, they had sex. As the bus approaches, the excitement turns to dismay, and Carrie hides her face in shame. There is the poster with Carrie’s body stretched in languorous pose along the full length of the bus, under the strapline ‘Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex’. But as we pan across her body, next to her seductively made-up lips, a crudely drawn graffiti image of a large penis is revealed.
This short scene exemplifies the series’ dramatic terrain, namely the exploration of women’s sexuality in a postmodern consumer culture. It is a culture produced by capital’s restless search for new and expanded markets, and characterized by the commodification of the individual’s relation to the body, self and identity, just as we see here in the relation of Carrie to her billboard image. The scene also exemplifies the programme’s tone and style, which mixes the display of celebrity lifestyles for our emulation, as in women’s magazines, with a comic puncturing of these aestheticized images. The idealized image of bourgeois perfection in the image of Carrie on her billboard is momentarily satirized by the obscene graffiti. It is an eruption of the repressed ‘other’ to bourgeois femininity in a deliberate disruption of its codes of
sexual decorum. This, plus Big’s absence, is a reminder of women’s vulnerability to loss of self-esteem when it relies too exclusively on body image and its sexual appeal to men. The presence of Carrie’s friends is important, though, in providing the support and reassurance she needs to regain her composure. Their shared culture of femininity offers an alternative to heterosexual dependence.
As a successful brand Sex and the City influences the continuing transformations in fashion that characterize consumer culture. News stories about fashion regard it as an important influence. Sarah Jessica Parker (who plays Carrie) is a fashion icon in women’s magazines and in newspaper columns; celebrity exposure is rapidly replacing catwalk shows and supermodels as the way to sell high fashion. The British fashion journalist who tracked down and bought Sarah Jessica Parker’s handbag in the shape of a horse’s head and then wrote about it in a British national newspaper provided publicity for the TV show, the makers of the bag and Parker as a celebrity (Lambert 2001). It also contributed to New York’s reputation as a city ‘brand’ in the global system of capitalism as a source of new fashion ideas. A report on the New York fashion shows in the Guardian was headed ‘Fashion in the city: cult show underpins style’ (Porter 2001). It commented on the ‘power of the cult drama’ to create a fashion trend, whether for Manolo Blahnik stiletto heels, corsages or purses in the shape of a horse’s head. The report focused on the House of Field, which acted as stylist for Sex and the City. Theirs is a bohemian look, made newly respectable as mainstream fashion, but retaining in the thrift-store elements reference to the anti-materialist values that characterized the hippie bohemianism of the 1960s. It incorporates the psychedelic patterns of that era and an individual eclecticism achieved by mixing retro and new clothing, the avant-garde and the mass-produced.
The horse’s head handbag works within this kitsch aesthetic, in which objects are redefined as ‘cool’ through a process of irony. It reminds the Daily Telegraph journalist of My Little Pony and her nine-year-old self, and it is cheap to buy in comparison to most designer handbags ($165). The HBO website (www. hbo. com/city/insiders_guide/ news) offers Sex and the City merchandise for sale, but they have no pretensions to be designer goods. They are cheap items, T-shirts, mugs and glasses printed with the Sex and the City logo and New York skyline (doubly ironic now). The trash aesthetic of Sex and the City anticipates the ironic response that, in the 1980s, for example, was developed as a subcultural, camp response to Dynasty, the first prime time television programme to have a resident fashion designer and its own line of fashion merchandising (Feuer 1995). In the decade or so that separates Dynasty from the incorporated irony of Sex and the City’s trash aesthetics, camp irony has moved from the margins to the centre. It exemplifies the way in which a camp and ironic attitude to mass culture, originating in a gay response to their cultural marginalization, has been appropriated by the mainstream media in order to address niche markets in the affluent middle classes. Sex and the City is simply part of a wider cultural trend, the commodified aesthetic of postmodernism in which irony is a central component.
The style also expresses a bohemian attitude to women’s sexuality. But the clothes do not simply replicate the rather demure look for women of the hippie era, when sexual liberation, enabled by the separation between sex and reproduction that the pill made possible, still meant women responding to men’s sexual initiatives. The Sex and the City version of bohemian fashion is post-punk, post-Madonna; it incorporates an assertive sexualized imagery for women that consciously plays with the transgressive sexual connotations of leather, bondage and underwear as outerwear. One garment, ‘open to below the navel before swooping under the crotch, had an immaculate cut, even if the look was purposefully wanton. . . you could easily see Carrie giving the look a try, maybe out at the Hamptons.’ ‘Wantonness’ combined with ‘a perfect cut’ epitomizes the reconciliation of bourgeois with bohemian values in the aesthetics and lifestyle that Sex and the City expresses and promotes.
The specificity of this taste culture is made clear in the series itself through the way the four main characters’ style and codes of sexual behaviour are defined against other social groupings. There are the restrained (and boring) bourgeois women, untainted by bohemian values, in whom sexual expression is kept under strict control. These are exemplified by the women who look increasingly scandalized as Charlotte, the most ‘preppy’ one of the four, at a reunion dinner with her university fraternity friends, reveals the fact of her husband’s impotence and her own frustration. ‘Don’t you ever feel like you want to be fucked really hard?’ she enquires as they recoil in disgust (Episode 46, ‘Frenemies’). Or by Natasha, Big’s wife. His boredom with her is defined by her taste in interior design: ‘Everything’s beige’. Then there are the people who live outside the city, and whose adherence to traditional gender roles is an indicator of their being either low class or simply old-fashioned. On a trip to Staten Island (the ferry marking the boundary) ‘real men’ offer a tantalizing sexual fantasy for Samantha, but when faced with the reality in the cold light of a working day, her liaison with a firemen doesn’t seem such a good idea (Episode 31, ‘Where There’s Smoke. . .’).
In traditional bourgeois cultures unbridled sexual appetites or loose speech are a mark not only of the lower classes but of the unruly woman, who inverts the power relations of gender and has sex like a man (Russo 1995; Arthurs 1999). Samantha’s guilt-free promiscuity is exemplary here, although even she has her limits. She is shocked by a new acquaintance who dives under the restaurant table to ‘give head’ to a man they have just met (Episode 36, ‘Are We Sluts?’). Indecorum is a sign of lack of respectability, which for women has been a sexual as well as class category associated with prostitution. Sex and the City works through the problem of establishing the boundaries of respectability in a postfeminist culture where women share many of the same freedoms as men, but in which the residual effects of the double standard are still being felt. It strives to be sexually frank without being ‘vulgar’.
These women are of a generation old enough to have been influenced by feminism (in their thirties and forties) but too old to participate in a newly fashionable queer culture, despite their appropriation of camp as a style. They are resolutely heterosexual, despite occasional short-lived encounters with gays, lesbians and bisexuals that simply reconfirm it. ‘I’m a trisexual’ says Samantha jokingly, ‘I’ll try anything once’. Indeed, she does, briefly, have one lesbian lover. Carrie’s relationship with a 26-year-old bisexual founders when she can’t handle the thought that he’s been with a man; nor does she feel comfortable with his gender-bending friends. ‘I was too old to play this game’, she tells us in the voice-over (Episode 34, ‘Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl. . .’). These episodes, like the one where Samantha dates an African-American, simply mark where their sexual boundaries are drawn. Thus the women’s particular mix of bourgeois bohemianism is ‘normalized’.
Their transgression of bourgeois sexual decorum marks the foursome as ‘unruly’, a challenge to patriarchal structures of power, but their adherence to the sleek control of the commodified body makes this compatible with capitalism. Unlike Edina or Patsy, the unruly women in Absolutely Fabulous (BBC2 1992-94, BBC1 1995-96, 2000, 2003-), a British comedy that is located in a similar cultural milieu, if the women are made to look ridiculous it is a momentary aberration that causes embarrassment (as in the billboard scene). In contrast, the British comedy persistently satirizes consumer culture and the feminine world of fashion, PR and women’s magazines, through a farcical exaggeration of fashion styles. Its slapstick mode of comedy undermines the bodily control and discipline that underpins glamour, often as a result of drug-taking or excessive drinking (Kirkham and Skeggs 1998; Arthurs 1999). This aspect of the bohemian legacy of the 1960s in contemporary consumer society plays a very minor role in Sex and the City in comparison. The comedy in Sex and the City depends instead on verbal wit and ironic distancing, a more intellectual, and in class terms a more bourgeois, form than slapstick. It also enables the complicit critique that is considered to be characteristic of postmodernism (Lash 1990; Featherstone 1991b; Feuer 1995; Klein 2000).