Remediating women’s magazines
The ‘new’ media depend for their success on their ability to ‘remediate’ – that is, ‘adapt to a new medium’ – the forms that are already established in the ‘old’ media. The relationship also works in the opposite direction, with earlier technologies ‘struggling to maintain their legitimacy by remediating newer ones’ (Bolter and Grusin 1999: 61). We can see how this interrelationship works in the way that Sex and the City has been used to enhance the visibility and status of cable television, drawing on successful formats established in network television and the print media, and exploiting on its website the new potential offered by the Internet.
The form of Sex and the City is very influenced by the print media. Adapted from a book written by Candice Bushnell, a New York journalist, it is structured around the fictionalized writing of a weekly newspaper column. It retains the first person mode of direct address, using Carrie’s voice-over to comment on the action in which a question is posed, journalistic research is undertaken and some conclusions are proposed in a personalized, witty and aphoristic style. The questions range from the frivolous to the taboo. They can be serious but not too serious – they don’t deal with rape or sexual harassment as in LA Law or Ally McBeal. Can women have sex like a man? Are men commitment phobes? In New York has monogamy become too much to expect? Is motherhood a cult? Can sex toys enhance your sex life? Does size matter? Each of the ensemble cast provides a different perspective on the question. Their stories are told as alternatives for viewers to weigh up, just as articles in women’s magazines offer a variety of personal anecdotes to their readers to exemplify a particular issue and how different people have responded in practice. These are loosely tied together by Carrie’s final voice-over in a provisional conclusion that is often tentative in tone. ‘Maybe. . .’ The bulletin board on the Sex and the City website (http://www. hbo. com/ city_community) invites viewers’ comments on the episode, asking questions like ‘What do you think of the new men in Carrie’s life? Talk about it with other fans on the Bulletin Board.’ ‘Do you identify with Carrie? Talk about it with fellow fans.’ Thus multiple perspectives are actively encouraged within a tightly structured, repetitive format in which the characters are bound into a relatively unchanging situation in order to guarantee continuation of the pleasures offered by the brand (Lury 1993: 86-7).
Sex and the City’s treatment of sexuality can be understood as an updated version of the ‘Cosmo’ woman who is dedicated to self-improvement and economic independence (Ballaster et al. 1991). This is a figure who can be related back to the rise of the postwar ‘new petit bourgeoisie’ whose ‘liberated’ attitudes to sex, combined with an ethic of ‘improvement’, were discussed in Chapter 3 in relation to pornography. The four main characters’ signature cocktail is called a ‘cosmopolitan’, signalling this sorority. The show’s title echoes that of a book, Sex and the Single Girl, written by Helen Gurley Brown, who went on to be the founding editor of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1965. The function of sexual imagery and talk in Sex and the City is quite different from that in pornographic magazines and cable channels, where sexual arousal is assumed as the purpose for consumption. Instead it dramatizes the kind of consumer and sexual advice offered by women’s magazines. This is a sphere of feminine expertise in which it has been argued that women are empowered to look – not only at consumer goods but also at their own bodies as sexual subjects (Radner 1995). Sexuality is presented in this context as a source of potential pleasure for which women should make themselves ready, whether through internalizing the beauty and fashion advice that will attract the right men, or through following advice on sexual technique. Carrie’s billboard slogan advertising her newspaper column draws attention to this pedagogic function: ‘Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex’ (my emphasis). It is an expertise rooted in everyday life and experience. When called upon to give a lecture to a roomful of women on how to get a date, Carrie fails miserably. But she succeeds brilliantly the following week when she takes the women to a bar where she guides them in how to work the room by reading the sexual signals, giving them the confidence and expertise to act on their desires (Episode 46, ‘Frenemies’).
The series is able to go beyond the catalogue function of magazine fashion spreads, or the list of ten tips on how to improve foreplay. A consumer lifestyle is presented not as a series of commodities to be bought but as an integrated lifestyle to be emulated. The clothes and shoes become expressions of the different moods and personalities of embodied, empathetic characters in an authentic setting. This function is in fact most explicit on the programme’s website, which differs in tone and emphasis from the television series and more closely matches the look and address of a woman’s magazine. It relies on the relationship fans already have with the programme, guiding viewers in how to convert their knowledge about the series into knowledge they can use in their own lives, as discerning consumers of fashion, as creators of ‘a look’ and a lifestyle. This is represented as a set of active choices that are an expression of individual character and mood. We are invited to conceive of emotional states as a trigger for particular types of consumption and clothing choices, such as the photograph of Carrie that is captioned ‘the dress that shows she is finally going to split from Mr Big’ (http://www. hbo. com/city_style). The site anticipates, encourages and attempts to shape fan behaviour that will convert into consumerism (Rivett 2000).
© I TELEVISION AND SEXUALITY