POSTFEMINIST DRAMA IN THE USA
This chapter considers the ways in which postfeminist discourses have been incorporated into ‘quality’ drama in the commercial television industry, with a particular focus on Sex and the City (HBO 1998-2004). For Home Box Office, the makers of the serial, ‘quality’ drama has been used successfully to enhance both its visibility and its reputation in a context where cable television has had to struggle to gain any cultural status at all. In 2001 Sex and the City won the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Comedy Series’ – the first time a cable TV show has ever taken top honours for best series in any category (http://www. hbo. com/city/insiders_guide/news) and since then it has been showered with awards. News items and features relating to Sex and the City appear regularly in the print media and work to maintain its visibility and status as ‘must see TV’. Its success, I will argue, has been achieved by generic innovation to address a niche market. Rather than offering a mixed schedule or hybridized genres for family viewing, as the networks do, HBO’s brand name acts as an umbrella for multiple channels that separate out programmes designed for specific audiences. It has a whole channel addressed to women: HBO Signature, ‘smart, sophisticated entertainment for women’. The creation of a successful brand in a competitive market, as was explained in Chapter 2, depends on the ability to innovate within a pattern of predictable pleasures to create a recognizable identity for a product that appeals to a commercially attractive audience. The novelty of Sex and the City lies in the migration of a woman-centred and explicit sexual discourse into television drama, enabled by the differentiated taste cultures of a multichannel environment.
The success of this long-form drama serial is symptomatic of the forces shaping programmes in the digital, multichannel era of television and its integration with the interlocking circuits of global markets. HBO is owned by America Online/Time Warner, which merged with IPC (International Publishing Corporation), the magazine publisher, in 2001. This economic convergence has produced an international media
conglomerate covering the Internet and print media, as well as television. HBO has to sell itself first to its subscribers in the USA, on the basis of its appeal to a sufficiently affluent group of consumers, before syndicating to other distributors in a global market. In the UK, on Channel 4, it developed a regular fan base among the ‘AB viewers’ that advertisers are keen to attract. Its global ‘cosmopolitan’ appeal also extends beyond English-speaking audiences. In Brazil, for example, it is shown on the Multishow cable channel, owned by the Globo conglomerate. Again this example reveals an audience skewed towards the affluent classes: 94 per cent of viewers are classed as AB (Neves 2003). In the USA, as a show distributed on subscription cable, it is relatively free from government regulations and the restraints imposed by advertisers in comparison to the networks. Arguably this makes it more responsive to the tastes and values of emergent social groups, such as the ‘independent career woman’ made possible by feminism (Lury 1993: 40-51).1
How should this development be understood in the light of debates about the politics of postfeminist culture? The labelling of television drama as postfeminist more often than not signifies ambivalence in its gender politics; it is certainly no guarantee of approval from feminist critics. It is applied to woman-centred dramas that, in the wake of second wave feminism, selectively deploy feminist discourses as a response to cultural changes in the lives of their potential audience, an audience that is addressed as white, heterosexual and relatively youthful and affluent. These dramas emerged out of a hybridization of genres driven by a desire to maximize audiences by creating drama that appealed to both men and women. The feminization of crime genres, such as cop shows (Cagney and Lacey, CBS 1982-88) and legal dramas (LA Law, NBC 1986-94; Ally McBeal, Fox 1997-2003), allowed for an exploitation of the generic pleasures associated with the masculine, public world of work and the feminized, private world of personal relationships (Gamman 1988; D’Acci 1994; Dow 1996; Mayne 1997; Nelson 2000, 2001a; Lotz 2001; Moseley and Read 2002). This allowed an engagement with liberal feminist issues arising from women’s relation to the law and to work. A focus on women as protagonists, whose actions drive the narrative, replaced the marginal and narrow range of roles available previously to women characters in these genres (see Chapter 1).
Although it shares their incorporation of feminist themes and their focus on the liberal, heterosexual, white, metropolitan, career woman, Sex and the City is very different from these networked dramas. These differences arise, I would argue, from the institutional conditions of its production and distribution as niche market, subscription cable television that encourages a polarization between men’s and women’s programming (Compaine and Gomery 2000: 524). Sex and the City draws on the ‘feminine’ address established in women’s glossy magazines with their consumer – oriented advice on beauty and fashion and on sexual relationships. This reverses the trend towards the hybridization of masculine and feminine genres that has characterized primetime drama on network television. This chapter considers the consequences this has for the portrayal of women’s sexuality.
I take up these issues in more detail by drawing comparisons between Sex and the City and previous examples of postfeminist drama on US television; discussing how the programme adapts the content and address of women’s magazines for television and the Internet; showing how its brand identity is established across the interlocking circuits of the media, celebrity and fashion; and identifying the instability in its comedic mode of address as it oscillates between complicity and critique of a consumer lifestyle.