The Power of Female Sex

The four main characters in Sex and the City represent different kinds of women.

“No, they don’t! They’re all white rich bitches”, I hear you cry.

Well, obviously they’re not particularly diverse in terms of things like race, class or sexuality. This is a limitation of the series raised by many researchers. Interestingly, a number of the young women I interviewed also made similar criticisms about the “white upper class-ness” of these ladies. However, they also praised Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte because they are strong, powerful women who offer a range of attitudes to life, love and sex.

The divergent opinions expressed by the lead characters in Sex and the City, are demonstrated in their response to Carrie’s experience in the episode, “The Power of Female Sex” (Series 1: Episode 5). This episode explores issues of female power and sexuality from a number of different angles.

Revealed in this episode (in case we didn’t know already) is the frightening extent of Carrie’s shoe addiction, when her excessive consumption results in her credit card being destroyed by the sales assistant. Carrie’s acquaintance, Amalita, steps in to help. Amalita is an Italian woman who uses her sexuality to fund an extravagant global lifestyle. Or, as Carrie puts it, Amalita does not work for a living but has “a dizzying sexual power that she exploit[s] to her full advantage”. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Amalita buys the shoes for Carrie as a gift. Carrie is then unexpectedly drawn into a world of sex, money and power when Amalita sets her up on a date with a handsome French fellow called Gilles.*

* Not to be confused with the actor Gilles Marini, who played a different character (Dante, aka The Naked Guy) in Sex and the City: The Movie.

(image source)

Sorry, couldn’t resist. 🙂

Right, where was I? Oh yes, some thesis material (with minor alterations)…

We see Carrie on her date, which involves a romantic walk in the park accompanied by an accordion soundtrack. Carrie is sufficiently swept off her feet with the romance of it all because we are then told that she spends the night with him. Carrie wakes the next morning to discover that not only has Gilles left the hotel, he has left one-thousand dollars on the bedside table with a ‘thank you’ note. Carrie is so confused by this occurrence that she invites her girlfriends to the hotel to help her make sense of it – and to share a room service brunch. Carrie does not know whether to be flattered or insulted that Gilles paid her money for their night together. As Susan Zieger (2004: 105) puts it, Carrie, Miranda and Samantha “debate whether keeping it makes her a whore”.

Each of the friends offers a different opinion, as they characteristically dissect the experience and share their wisdom. Miranda and Samantha disagree about the trading of money for sex:

Miranda: The room service is one thing, but the money – uh-uh.
Samantha: What’re you getting so uptight about? I mean, money is power. Sex is power. Therefore, getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.
Miranda: Don’t listen to the dime store Camille Paglia.

This brief interchange highlights that the women in Sex and the City bring “disparate perspectives” (Lotz 2001) to their frank discussions of sexuality. They do not all react in the same way to this unusual situation, suggesting it is a complex issue that they interpret differently.

[Amanda Lotz wrote a paper outlining a way to identify what she called “postfeminist attributes” within television series. I drew on her work in my thesis to help show how SatC and Desperate Housewives can be considered postfeminist.]

Lotz’s first postfeminist attribute stresses the importance of diversity among women, making clear that women “experience their subjectivity differently and dependent on context” (2001: 115). Sex and the City is a programme not afraid to portray diverse perspectives on the complexities of power and sex. While Samantha sees no problem in Carrie spending the money that the Frenchman leaves after a fun evening together, Miranda argues that Samantha’s attitude is harmful to women. Miranda contends that that kind of logic has been used to exploit women throughout the ages.

Clearly, Sex and the City, with its exploration of the contradictions surrounding women, sex and power, can be considered postfeminist. It shows characters working through the tensions and challenges of this era. The characters in Sex and the City represent women with distinct and varied outlooks. Furthermore, the characters are not only familiar with feminist discourses, as evidenced by Miranda’s reference to Camille Paglia, but they have debates about these issues while discussing their own sex lives. This demonstrates the extent to which feminism is entwined in popular culture, a key feature in my understanding of postfeminism.

Lotz, Amanda D. 2001. “Postfeminist Television Criticism: Rehabilitating Critical Terms and Identifying Postfeminist Attributes”. Feminist Media Studies 1 (1): 105-121.

Seidelman, Susan. 1998. [director] “The Power of Female Sex”, Sex and the City, Series One, Episode 5, HBO.

Zieger, Susan. 2004. “Sex and the Citizen in Sex and the City‘s New York”. In Reading Sex and the City, edited by K. Akass and J. McCabe. London and New York: I. B. Tauris.


6 Responses to “The Power of Female Sex”

  1. Suzysiu Says:

    They are also not particularly diverse in terms of age either. But I don’t see the fact that the SATC women are all white and upper class as a problem. We generally seek friends who are similar to us, and so I see this as realistic. If there was a token asian woman/ african american woman/ lesbian/ (or financially struggling woman), like so many TV shows have, it could be irritating. But I am a fan! 🙂

    • doctorpen Says:

      Yeah, I know what you mean about the problems of inserting a ‘token’ non-white person. Can be just as problematic as having none, really. I think the main problem with them being all white upper class is that they then come to typify what “good femininity” looks like, and it’s pretty narrow. Some critics dismiss the show on these grounds – or at least argue that it can’t be feminist – and similar comments have been made about Buffy. But I agree with you… wouldn’t be very realistic for Carrie to be out having brunch and shopping for expensive shoes with a working class woman from the Bronx, for example.

      It was actually really interesting the way the women in my study recognised these limitations which would typically be seen as a feminist reading of the show. I used some of their comments to help demonstrate the extent to which feminism has influenced our understanding of the world. 🙂

  2. Kristian Says:

    Me again 🙂

    It’s almost time to leave work but I just want to throw down two quick thoughts so I can come back to them later 🙂

    1. When framing SATC as postfeminism through diversity/choice, does the show engage critically with “choice”?
    2. In a previous post pointed towards the intersectionality that postfeminism might offer… does this play out in SATC? (That’s a non-rhetorical question, since I can’t bring myself to watch more than a few episodes)

    Oh… and I had a third but now I forgot. Okay. I’ll come back to these points soon!

  3. ana australiana Says:

    I think I agree with you doctorpen – here’s what I thought of the movie, anyway. (K certainly agrees with Lady K and my boyfriends of the time, as you will see)!

    • doctorpen Says:

      Thanks for the link to your article, and to Berlant’s blog!

      I was so disappointed with the movie. For my thesis I mostly focused on Season One of the tv series and it had a much more progressive tone to it than the film (not in relation to class or race, but with regard to sex and relationships). I’m hoping the second movie is better! And if it isn’t, at least it keeps my research area topical. 🙂

  4. 2010 in review: some blog stats « Pondering Postfeminism Says:

    […] The Power of Female Sex February 20105 comments […]

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