‘Having it all’ in postfeminist drama
Postfeminism is an ambiguous term in that it can imply both a continuity and a break with the second wave feminism that preceded it. ‘Post’ means ‘after’, and we can therefore simply understand the term as the multiple responses to the political challenges posed by the feminist movement of the 1970s. Generation is one of the key dynamics structuring this debate. For a younger generation born in the 1970s and 1980s, feminism, instead of appearing radical, has become associated with their parents’ generation and can therefore be perceived as an establishment ideology whose codes restrict their freedom of expression. This generational dynamic creates fertile ground for the backlash rhetoric that emerged in the right-wing political context of Reaganite America in the 1980s. The key term around which this backlash was organized was ‘political correctness’, which rapidly became established as a term of abuse. Objections to political correctness focused especially on the feminist critique of fashion, beauty and representational practices that, it was argued, constructed women as disempowered objects of the male gaze and male sexual desire. Younger women began to assert their right to dress to be sexually attractive. When combined with an emerging postmodern aesthetic of parody in popular culture, excessive femininity was performed as an assertive form of feminist fashion (the singer Madonna was a significant influence). The complicit critique this offers to the male gaze has been a matter of furious disagreement among feminist writers but it is a fashion trend that is still going strong.
Another main focus for postfeminist revisionism has been women’s role in the workforce as equals with men. In liberal feminism the rights of women to work outside the home and to be able to compete on equal terms with men have been central. In most developed economies not only do women now make up more than 50 per cent of the workforce, but also they are working in careers previously dominated by men. In postfeminist discourses, however, women question whether it was worth it. The personal cost for professional women of competing in a man’s world is represented as making it more difficult to find a man to marry. The emotional misery this causes is closely linked to the ticking biological clock that makes women in their thirties the particular focus for these concerns (Dow 1996). In fictional versions of this discourse the emotional tone tends towards melodrama, with the emphasis on the impossibility of a woman getting what she wants – she is a figure of pathos. Or the tone is comedic, where the plight of the thirty-something single girl is a sign of her woeful inadequacy as a woman and to be laughed at in rueful recognition (Whelahan 2000). It has been argued that the unhappy career woman is part of the backlash discourse and is a construction designed to deliver women to the advertisers: these are the women who have disposable income and the dissatisfaction that drives consumption (Dow 1996; Whelehan 2000). Alternatively, it can be seen as a response to a misguided liberal feminist strategy of seeking parity with, rather than valuing women’s difference from, men. In these terms, postfeminism is a necessary corrective to a mistaken devaluation of the private domestic world of the feminine where women excel in their ability to nurture and care for others. The realignment between feminism and femininity, in ways that avoid setting up a binary split between feminists and ordinary women, is one of the principal projects of postfeminism (Brunsdon 1997; McRobbie 1997; Hollows 2000).
In the hybrid, women-centred drama characteristic of postfeminist television in the 1980s and 1990s, the division between the public world of work and the private world of the domestic sphere that prevents women ‘having it all’ has become blurred. This is achieved in Sex and the City because the world of work largely disappears from view as a distinct space and set of hierarchical relations, although the women’s autonomy from men is underwritten by their economic independence. Work is collapsed into the private sphere and becomes another form of self-expression, alongside consumption, thereby side-stepping the postfeminist problematic. The sex life of the series’ central character, Carrie, and those of her friends, act as research for her weekly newspaper column, which she writes from home. Samantha works in public relations, a job where her physical attractions and personal charm are intrinsic to her success. Charlotte manages an art gallery in a manner that suggests it is more of a hobby. This does indeed reflect the changing nature of work in which flexible working and ‘knowledge – based’ careers have reduced the rigid separation of the public and private spheres. Only Miranda feels the contradiction between her private life and her career success as a lawyer, where long hours and a competitive ethos conflict with her life as a single mother in later seasons of the show.
The generic expectation is that postfeminist drama will be about single women wanting to get married. Sex and the City was initially marketed as such to feed into those expectations. The video blurb for the first season states ‘Sexy, hip, smart and sassy, Sex and the City charts the lives and loves of four women and their quest to find the one thing that eludes them all – a real, satisfying and lasting relationship. Is such a thing possible in New York?’ But unlike in other postfeminist narratives, in Sex and the City the responsibility for single women’s unhappiness isn’t laid at the door of feminist women choosing a career over a man. Of the four women only Charlotte is unequivocal in her desire to get married, but she is quickly disillusioned when she does. The traditional romance narrative is still there but as a residual sensibility, a slightly old – fashioned version of femininity that doesn’t work in practice. Charlotte’s belief in romance is undercut by her new husband’s impotence on their wedding night and her discovery that he can be aroused only by a porn magazine in the bathroom (Episode 45, ‘Hot Child in the City’).2 She eventually remarries but the wedding day is a comic disaster and her longed-for pregnancy still doesn’t materialize. When Carrie and friends visit a former New Yorker for her baby shower (Episode 10, ‘The Baby Shower’) they aren’t shown envying the woman her home in the country, her husband and her coming baby – instead it accentuates the gulf that separates them from her – and they return to their single lives in New York with a huge sigh of relief. Miranda does finally marry her baby’s father in the final season of the show, and, with great misgivings, buys a house in Brooklyn. In the final episode Carrie is reunited with Big, the love of her life, when he at last realizes he can’t live without her. Nevertheless, these conventional outcomes do not change the fact that the series as a whole was predicated on their being single.
The women’s single state is a necessary precondition for their central preoccupation – sexual relationships and how to achieve sexual satisfaction, not previously considered a suitable topic for television drama. The series publicly repudiates the shame of being single and sexually active in defiance of the bourgeois codes that used to be demanded of ‘respectable’ women. It self-reflexively interrogates media representations of the single woman, although the emotional power of these residual stereotypes is acknowledged. For example, when Carrie appears looking haggard and smoking a cigarette on the front of a magazine under the strap line ‘Single and Fabulous?’ it sparks a discussion among the four women about why the media want to persuade women to get married (Episode 16, ‘They Shoot Single People Don’t They?’). Despite their intellectual critique the rest of the episode explores the emotional vulnerabilities of their situation before concluding that it is better to be alone than faking happiness with a man. There is no shame attached to being alone. It ends with Carrie eating by herself in a restaurant, with no book to read as armour, to assert her belief that she really is ‘Single and Fabulous!’
This exploration of women’s sexuality is enabled by changes in the regulatory regime of television as a consequence of digital convergence. It has moved closer to the freedoms enjoyed by the print media and the Internet as compared to the sensitivity to religious Puritanism historically shown by the television networks. This enables Sex and the City to exploit fully the glossy women’s magazines’ consumerist approach to sexuality, in which women’s sexual pleasure and agency is frankly encouraged as part of a consumer lifestyle and attitude. In this respect, Sex and the City has moved a long way from the kind of family-centred or wholesome peer-group sitcoms that have previously dominated the network schedules, in which embodied desire provided the repressed subtext rather the primary focus of the dialogue and action. Hybridization of the discourse of women’s magazines with the codes of the television sitcom has provided the ‘licensed space’ that comedy allows for an exploration of sexual taboos and decorum (Neale and Krutnick 1990; Arthurs 1999).
This hybridization has also allowed for the consumer attitude to be lightly satirized, a response that is argued to be characteristic of an aestheticized relation to the self. It is this sensibility that allows for the adoption of ironic ways of consuming and a self-reflexive attitude to one’s own identity, appearance and self-presentation. Mike Featherstone characterizes the aestheticized relation to the self as one in which consumers enjoy the swings between the extremes of aesthetic involvement and distan – ciation, a sensibility, he argues, that is characteristic of the new middle classes of postmodern culture (Featherstone 1991b). It is a form of controlled hedonism that oscillates between complicity with the values of consumer culture and critique. This allows the simultaneous satisfaction of the sensual pleasures allowed by material success and the placating of a guilty, liberal conscience. It emerged in the ‘Yuppie TV’ of the work-obsessed 1980s, where both envy and guilt, in LA Law (NBC 1986-94), for example, were deliberately evoked in response to the affluent lifestyles of its protagonists. The guilt was differentiated by gender. For men it was guilt at their material success whereas for women it was guilt at their lost opportunity for marriage and children (Feuer 1995; Mayne 1997).
This instability in perspective can also be seen in Ally McBeal (Fox 1997-2003), another woman-centred postfeminist drama about lawyers. Robin Nelson (2001a) describes its ‘flexi-narrative’ form as combining conventions from comedy, pop video, melodrama and court room dramas, which produces a complexity of tone and point of view that actively precludes a stable viewing position. Ally herself is ‘double coded. . . at once an independent professional woman in charge of her destiny and a vulnerable waif like figure waiting for Mr Right to come along’ (ibid.: 43). Through its blurring of the boundaries between the public world of work and the private world of the emotions it negotiates the tension between feminism and femininity, but without presenting these as mutually exclusive categories (Moseley and Read 2002). The programme constantly returns to feminist issues in its legal cases – sexual harrassment is a recurring issue – but the legal gains made by feminist activism are sometimes upheld and at other times criticized for having ‘gone too far’: the comic mode opens them to ridicule. Similarly, the melodramatic excessiveness of Ally’s vulnerability tips over into its opposite in that her reactions are sufficiently intense to require accommodation. She doesn’t simply fit into a masculinized workplace predicated on rationality; in fact her emotional excess becomes the dominant office code for her male colleagues as well. In the mirror-ridden walls of the unisex toilet, people contemplate their own and other people’s faces as they work through the latest emotional trauma, or overhear a secret conversation from the stalls. It is the space where the collapse in the divisions between male and female, masculine and feminine, is most potently symbolized. It is here that the public and private, the personal and the professional, converge to melodramatic and comic effect. This is quite unlike Cagney and Lacey, in which the women’s toilets formed a refuge, a woman’s space, in the hostile terrain of the masculine workplace (see Chapter 1).
The widespread popular success of Sex and the City and Ally McBeal suggests that contradictory and unstable texts steeped in melodramatic and comedic excess
are usable precisely because they allow people to explore the contradictions and instabilities of their own subjectivity. This is predicated on a poststructuralist theory of subjectivity that emphasizes the ways in which we are formed by multiple discourses whose influence is felt in differing ways depending on the context (Morley 1980; Brooks 1997).