Feminist evaluations of Sex and the City have conflated it with other examples of postfeminist culture in which comedy and satire has replaced any serious, ethical commitment to challenging the power relations of patriarchy, a challenge that they argue is undermined by complicit critique. The postfeminist irony in texts such as Bridget Jones or Ally McBeal allows for a constant emphasis on women’s appearance and sexual desirability as a source of worth, while simultaneously subjecting this attitude to ridicule (Greer 2000; Whelehan 2000). In this view, the ironic oscillations in our relation to the bourgeois women who people the fictional world of Sex and the City are complicit with the aestheticized values of consumer culture and its unequal structuring of the ‘look’. It assumes that women in the audience are invited to share this male gaze to the extent that it is internalized in women’s narcissistic relation to their own bodies. This objectifies women’s bodies and renders them powerless. In a counter-argument, feminine cultures of consumerism and fashion have been considered as a source of pleasure and power that is potentially resistant to male control. Indeed, they can offer women an alternative route to self-esteem and autonomy that overcomes the damaging division that second wave feminism con­structs between feminism and femininity (see Lury 1996; McRobbie 1997; Hollows 2000 for overviews of these debates).

These contradictory evaluations need not be presented as alternatives. Part of the problem for academic feminism is to develop arguments that capture the complex contradictions of postfeminism in popular culture. In her discussion of the emphasis on the spectacle of women’s bodies in women’s magazines, Hilary Radner (1995) draws attention to the way this is counteracted by a textual commentary that variously endorses or asks us to question the extent to which women’s worth resides in their looks. In arguing the limitations to metacritical feminist discourse in capturing women’s reading practices in everyday life, Radner highlights the potential of feminine culture to ‘displace the political onto the minute decisions of a contingent day to day practice in which absolute categories cannot be maintained from moment to moment’ (ibid.: 178). Consumption is thereby redefined as an active process that has unpredict­able ideological consequences. In Lash’s (1990) view, the ubiquity of images in postmodern consumer culture in itself produces contradictory juxtapositions that undermine any secure position from which to interpret the world. This, he argues, has the potential to produce self-reflexive, nomadic identities in which gender, for instance, is open to redefinition (ibid.: 185-98). Sex and the City self-consciously explores the instability of feminine identity in a postfeminist, postmodern consumer culture.

A straightforward celebration of the feminist potential of consumer culture is precluded, however, by its commodity form. This promotes, according to Susan Willis (1991), an alienated and fetished relationship between people, defined by the exchange of commodities. Moreover, the codification of class, ‘race’ and gender differences in the stylistic details of commodities normalizes and perpetuates notions of inequality and subordination (ibid.: 162-3). The professional middle classes, she argues, have been duped by the signs of privilege into confusing the individualized freedom to consume with real political power. ‘The production of resistant meanings will always be assimilated by capitalism for the production of fresh commodities’ (ibid.: 175-9). Sex and the City exemplifies these features of the commodity. Its stylistic features contribute to the cultural hegemony of the incorporated resistance of the bourgeois bohemians. Its culture of femininity provides an alternative to heterosexual dependence, but its recurring promise of a shameless utopia of fulfilled desire always ends in disappointment, for the cycle of consumption to begin again next week.

The advert for Bailey’s Cream, corporate sponsors of Sex and the City, exemplifies how in consumer culture the body as the bearer of sensation replaces the ethical self as an ideal. It presents a sensuous image of swirling, creamy liquid with the slogan ‘Let your senses guide you’. Rachel Bowlby (1993: 23) refers to the ideal modern consumer as ‘a receptacle and bearer of sensations, poser and posed, with no consistent identity, no moral self In this aestheticized culture the question has become does it look good or feel good, rather than is this a good thing to do? Although Sex and the City rejects the traditional patriarchal dichotomy of virgin and whore, insisting in its explorations of the women’s multiple sexual experiences their right to seek sexual satisfaction without shame, this doesn’t mean that there are no limits. Aesthetic boundaries replace moral boundaries so that men who can’t kiss very well, who smell, who are too short or whose semen tastes peculiar are rejected on those grounds.

Despite the radical roots of this bohemian attitude, developed in opposition to the rationalist, puritan ethos of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism (in Romanticism and Surrealism as well as Dandyism), it is now fully integrated into consumer marketing and its appeal to our hedonistic impulses and imaginings.

But an important part of this calculating hedonism is an emotional and cognitive distancing on the part of the individual since it is this distance which introduces the possibility of reflection on consumption and facilitates the adoption of playful and ironic ways of consuming.

(Lury 1996: 76)

For women this relation to an aestheticized, self-reflexive identity in which com­modities are used creatively to re-fashion the self is more problematic than for men. Celia Lury (1996: 118-55) argues that this is because they occupy an unstable position in relation to the aestheticized self, an instability that is enacted in the oscillations in tone that characterize Sex and the City and its exploration of women’s sexuality in a consumer culture.

For the women in Sex and the City, it often appears as though hedonism and narcissism have displaced the masochist position that they occupy in patriarchal structures of desire. The grotesque ‘other’ of sadistic masculinity has been repressed (and displaced into The Sopranos, another HBO drama series). In this economy of desire the city streets have lost the danger of a sadistic or reproving masculine gaze. Instead of intimating the dark dangers that kept ‘respectable’ women off the streets, New York is shown to be a place of freedom and safety – the worst that can happen is that their clothes might be splashed by a passing car (as happens to Carrie in the title sequence). These women move freely around the cafes and boutiques, with a confident sense of possession, enjoying the multiple pleasures of consumption in the company of other women and gay men. In this way their dependence on male lovers for emotional and sensual satisfaction is displaced; they always disappoint or disempower, as Mr Big does in the billboard scene by not showing up. A designer stiletto shoe, Carrie’s trade mark obsession, is different. It is always there to be possessed, offering a fetish substitute for the satisfactions denied by men. The autoeroticism legitimated by the narcissistic structure of the look in consumer culture offers the possibility of doing without men at all. The show’s promotion of vibrators as a route to sexual satisfaction (Episode 9, ‘The Turtle and the Hare’) resulted in a huge increase in sales of the ‘rabbit’ model that was featured (Smith 2002).

The programme’s representation of the women’s dissatisfaction with their male lovers could be seen as encouraging a rejection of men as a source of emotional and sexual satisfaction in favour of a feminine culture of gossip and shopping. It is the tight-knit relationship of the four women that is the only constant in the series. But they don’t live together as in the cosy but adolescent comedy series Friends. The recurring message that for grown-ups living in Manhattan means living alone con­structs the single household as the norm – a trend that has been cited as one of the major stimuli to consumption in modern cities (Lury 1996).

Sex in this context becomes like shopping: a marker of identity, a source of pleasure. Knowing how to choose the right goods is crucial. But men in Sex and the City are the only objects of desire that create consumer dissatisfaction. The women treat men as branded goods: the packaging has to be right but the difficulty is to find one whose use value lives up to the image. The quest becomes one in which they are looking for the phallus that would bring an end to a seemingly endless chain of desire. ‘In a city of infinite options there can be no better feeling than that you only have one’ is the aphorism Carrie offers at the end of one episode (Episode 7, ‘The Monogamists’). Yet there is a recognition that the phallus will never live up to its promise of satisfaction and fulfilment. ‘In a city of great expectations is it time to settle for what you can get?’ wonders Carrie (Episode 9, ‘The Turtle and the Hare’). The women try men out to see if they ‘fit for size’, as Carrie tells a potential husband. This is literally the case when promiscuous Samantha unexpectedly falls in love (Episode 12, ‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’). When she has sex with her new boyfriend after two weeks of uncharacteristic abstention, she is devastated. His dick is only three inches long! In Sex and the City size does matter.

Sex and the City incorporates the ambivalence in feminist evaluations of the aestheticized self, showing it to be a source both of confident autonomy and of disempowerment in its unstable oscillations. For instance, Carrie’s performance is constructed around her role as a successful and famous journalist researching her newspaper column, which bears the same name as the TV show. She is shown as a detached observer of her own and her friends’ sexual desires and experiences. She self-reflexively and playfully deliberates on their consequences, not in terms of some overarching ethical position but from an aesthetic point of view of someone who has to write a witty, readable column that will enhance her professional status. Sexual ethics are converted into a controlled display of witty aphorisms and the comedy of embarrassment. The same is true of the show’s address to its viewers. As an audience we are positioned as detached observers of this sexual play, not as we would be in pornography for physical arousal and the satisfactions of masturbation, nor as lessons in morality, but to be amused.

When the oscillation swings back to close involvement, the mood is one of unsatis­fied yearning, not playfulness. Carrie’s emotional involvement with Big, the main man in her life, produces the feeling that she is out of control: her desire for him can never be fully satisfied. Again this is considered characteristic of a consumer lifestyle in

which consumers ‘experience moderate swings from being in control to being out of control and back again. Their lives are balanced between feelings of completeness and incompleteness’ (Hirschmann 1992, quoted in Lury 1996: 77). Here the consequences of an aestheticized relation to sexual relations are shown to be debilitating – for women. Carrie craves authenticity, and constantly wants to establish whether her relationship with Big is real or not. In one episode, where she is particularly distressed by her powerlessness in relation to Big, Carrie offers a poignant critique of the masquerade as a strategy of female empowerment.

I think I’m in love with him, and I’m terrified in case he thinks I’m not perfect . . . you should see what I’m like round him – it’s like – I wear little outfits. I’m not like me. Sexy Carrie. Casual Carrie. Sometimes I catch myself actually posing – it’s exhausting!

(Episode 11, ‘The Drought’)

Later that evening Big visits her flat for the first time. She is nervous about this as another test of her self-presentation, but is reassured: ‘I like it just the way it is’, he says. On seeing a couple having sex in the flat opposite, offering a distanced but explicit spectacle, Big turns to her and says, ‘Hell – we can do better than that!’ The voice-over from Carrie, ‘And then he kissed me’, places the scene in the realm of a Mills and Boon erotic fiction for women: the unobtainable object of the heroine’s desire succumbs when he recognizes her true worth. Yet it also marks a return to the distancing that characterizes the dominant, comic mode of the series. Carrie’s worries about her unstable and inauthentic identity are resolved through the aestheticized pleasures of erotic spectacle and generic parody. And there is no end to these oscillations: its serial form doesn’t provide the plenitude of narrative closure; instead its repetitions offer the consumer satisfactions of ‘diversity within sameness that is comfortable and comforting to most people’ (Hirschman 1992, quoted in Lury 1996: 77).

Conclusion

The fragmentation of the television market has allowed a sexually explicit and critical feminist discourse into television comedy, albeit within the parameters of a consumer culture and the limitations this imposes. In my view, this is a welcome innovation in women’s representation on television in that it assumes and promotes women’s right to sexual pleasure and validates women’s friendship and culture. At the same time the contradictions of its comedic and serial form expose this culture to interrogation and critique, thereby encouraging intellectual analysis. The analytic approaches used in this chapter are not confined to an academic elite but are available to a broad segment of educated people. An ability to see ourselves in these characters works not simply to confirm our sense of self but to question the costs as well as the benefits of living in a postfeminist consumer culture. It is in the messy contingencies of the everyday that feminism is produced or inhibited in practice, and it is this quality that Sex and the City is able to capture.

This establishes a space in popular culture for interrogation of our own complicity in the processes of commodification – women’s narcissistic relation to the self, the pro­duction of fetishistic and alienated sexual relations – that continue to undermine our self-esteem and contentment. Whether this has the power to translate into political action is a matter of debate, and beyond the scope of this book (see Willis 1991; Klein 2000; Whelehan 2000 for scepticism in this respect). What remain more hidden from view are the global and class inequalities on which the freedom to pleasurable consumption rests, in which women are often the most disadvantaged (Willis 1991; Klein 2000). The majority lack the economic resources to participate in a globalized consumer culture. From this perspective, the programme can be taken as evidence of the consequences of economic liberalism in a society where moral and religious values are in decline, with no alternatives to the hedonistic values of a hegemonic capitalism. In a post 11 September context, however, the connotations of Sex and the City’s logo of the Manhattan skyline have changed, making previous preoccupations seem trivial. The guiltless triumph of consumer values no longer seems so secure.