All the Single Ladies: Postmodernism and Consumer Culture in SEX AND THE CITY

by Sally Howe

In “Ex and the City,” Sex and the City’s Season Two finale, the episode’s narrative structure, production of character, cinematography, mise-en-scène, and costume choices position the four main characters as selective consumers, delineating their identities through tasteful consumption—of goods, certainly, but also of people. Through this consumption, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte are liberated, and yet they, as well as the show as a whole, have limited feminist relevance for this very reason. Carrie, the show’s protagonist, is not only a consumer but a commentator, narrating the romantic minutia of her and her friends’ lives from a safe, writerly distance even as she participates in those lives. A close examination of “Ex and the City” brings to light these two central conflicts—that is, the postmodern implications of Carrie as narrator and the relationship of consumerism to female identity—the way they inform each other, and their bearing on criticism of Sex and the City.

Carrie as Narrator

According to Jane Arthurs, “Sex and the City self-consciously explores the instability of feminist identity in a postfeminist, postmodern consumer culture” (Arthurs 320). This is perhaps most evident in the narrative structure and production of character in “Ex and the City.” With Carrie as our anchor, the episode moves through the romantic struggles of the four friends, all of whom are attempting to reconnect with—or, in Samantha’s case, rebounding from—an ex. (Charlotte spends the episode trying to overcome her fear of horseback riding, the result of a teenage fall, but her conflicts with her horse are consistently paralleled with Carrie, Samantha, and Miranda’s conflicts with their men.) Carrie, as always, is the center of this episode. The four women are seen together twice, once at the beginning of the episode and once at the end, each time sharing a meal at a restaurant. Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha are never together, in any combination, without Carrie, but Carrie sees each of her friends separately, just once, over the course of the episode’s action—Miranda at the beginning, when they discuss the end of relationships and Miranda spots Steve, her most recent ex; Charlotte in the middle, as she attempts to ride a horse for the first time since her adolescence; and Samantha close to the end, after she tries to have sex with “Mr. Cocky.” These are seminal moments in Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha’s narrative arcs, respectively the opening, climax, and close of their individual stories in this episode. Carrie is present in each instance, allowing her friends to tell their stories and connecting them, through the group scenes at the episode’s beginning and end, to each other. In addition, the opening sequence shows images only of Carrie, and of New York City, not of the other three women; she is the show’s focus, and the character that ties the women’s four divergent narratives together.

Carrie’s narration also serves to frame the central problem of each episode— in this case, ex-boyfriends. At the very beginning of “Ex and the City,” Carrie says, in voice-over: “Life is all about making choices. Some choices, like who you marry, are big, while others are even bigger. [This is followed by a shot of Carrie choosing between two bouquets of flowers.] Another choice is how to deal with an ex-boyfriend.”

This is the problem that Carrie and her three friends explore in the next twenty-eight minutes, and this is the question that Carrie, still in voice-over, meditates on for the rest of the episode. In its final shot, having just confronted Mr. Big, her then-ex, Carrie walks directly past the camera and, again in voice-over, says:

Then I had a thought. Maybe I didn’t break Big. Maybe the problem was, he couldn’t break me. [Cut to Mr. Big getting into his car.] Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. [Cut to Carrie, flipping her hair and beginning her slow- motion walk out of camera range.] Maybe they need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with.

Thus the central theme of each episode is carried through, from beginning to end, by Carrie’s narration. The mise-en-scène of this ending, with this voiceover narration overlaid on a slow-motion shot of Carrie walking off-camera, tossing her mane of golden curls against an out-of-focus backdrop, reinforces our protagonist’s privileged position in the narrative. The focus on her hair—girlishly styled, but, in its luster and length, also a symbol of fertility and sexual power—suggests that the locus of Carrie’s power lies at the crossroads of her sexuality and style, completely on the surface; this final, lingering shot emphasizes her exceptionality within the appearance-obsessed framework of Sex and the City and the thematic prominence of her story.

However, this narration not only explicates the episode’s theme, but distances Carrie, as well as the viewer, from the content of the show. This distancing is one of the many reasons that Sex and the City resists the traditional “image-of-woman” analytical approach, defined by Jeremy G. Butler as a presumption that “television is a direct reflection of society” (455). The women on Sex and the City are not truly reflective of societal stereotypes of contemporary women, but are instead positioned as aspirational visions of liberated, upscale modern femininity. More importantly, however, with Carrie as both observer of and actor in this drama, the show’s representation of women is filtered through a layer of analysis—meta-analysis, one might even say—even as it reaches the viewer. As an observer, as a writer, Carrie is able to comment on the action of “Ex and the City” in a detached, somewhat impersonal way, indicating a level of televisual self-awareness rarely seen in earlier shows. As Arthurs writes: “Carrie’s performance is constructed around her role as a successful and famous journalist researching her newspaper column that 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. 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 … to be amused” (327).

As we are presented with the values and experiences of these four women, we also—via Carrie—participate in a “complicit critique” (Arthurs 325) of these values and experiences. (Though whether the entire audience is aware of this postmodern critique is open for debate; according to Sarah Hepola, writing for the New York Times, “girls ages 12 to 17 make up only a sliver of [Sex and the City’s] audience — 93,000 out of more than 6.6 million viewers — but those numbers don’t reflect the show’s cultural impact on that age group.” Fifteen-year-olds, one can assume, are not capable of understanding the show as an exercise in postmodern irony; Hepola quotes Kasie Wilson, 17, who says, “I think it’s so fun because everybody can see themselves in at least one of those girls.” Perhaps their raving enthusiasm is indicative of what audiences really enjoy about Sex and the City: the straight-forward drama, the idealized characters, the spectacle of shoes and shopping and sex.) This critique, writes Arthurs, is the aspect of Sex and the City that is most “characteristic of postmodernism” (Arthurs 325).

Carrie’s narration complicates any analysis of Sex and the City. The ironic detachment provided by her centrality to the narrative, her voice-over narrations, and her job as writer of the “Sex and the City” newspaper column can perhaps best be seen in the show’s opening sequence—common to all the episodes, of course, but also a feature of “Ex and the City.” As mentioned above, only Carrie is featured in this introduction. Shots of her smiling, raising an eyebrow, and walking down a street are interspersed with images of New York City bridges, streets, and buildings. At the end, she is splashed with gutter water by a bus with a poster bearing her likeness with the tagline, “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex.” And so the image of Carrie as she truly exists, a moving, breathing person, covered in dirty water, her designer clothes soiled, is contrasted with her idealized, sexualized, professional self—indeed, these two images are shown to be in conflict with each other, with her “real” self losing out to her “ideal” self. (It is notable, though, that Carrie’s “real” self, even after being splashed by the bus, is still immaculately made-up, clad in a tight pink dress, and the object of attention of all the passers-by. One could even read this—the splashing water, the flesh-toned clothes—as a sex scene.) Thus, as in the rest of “Ex and the City,” Carrie’s identity and the identities of her friends are on the one hand idealized and on the other critiqued, complicating not only the “lesson” of the episode but also the characters’ relationship to consumerism as a site for identity formation.

Consumerism and Female Identity

Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte create their identities through selective consumption—of shoes, of clothes, and of men. Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte’s characters are produced, in part, through interaction with Carrie, as noted above, but a significant portion of their identities are also grounded in the show’s focus on consumerism. This occurs in a number of ways: through narrative structure; through costume, of course; and through cinematography. In Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Judith Butler writes: “[G]endered bodies are so many ‘styles of the flesh’. These styles are never fully self-styled, for styles have a history, and those histories condition and limit the possibilities. Consider gender, for instance, as a corporeal style, an “act,” as it were, which is both intentional and performative, where “performative” suggests a dramatic and contingent construction of meaning (177). The women of Sex and the City “perform” their genders through clothing and through their interactions with men and each other. The narrative structure of “Ex and the City” allows for each woman to enact her particular brand of femininity by trying on a man—or, in Charlotte’s case, an activity—and either accepting or rejecting him (or it). Samantha, for instance, tries on “Mr. Cocky,” a new man, but is forced to reject him; Charlotte tries on horseback riding, for the first time since her teens, and finds that it “fits”; and Miranda tries on a casual sexual relationship with her ex-boyfriend, with some success. Writes Arthurs, “Sex in this context becomes like shopping—a marker of identity, a source of pleasure—knowing how to choose the right goods is crucial” (327).

These women are consumers of men; the main value of their heterosexual relationships, their male companions, is the way they accentuate their womanliness. Miranda, the most cynical and most straightforwardly “feminist” of the group, affirms her rationality, her lack of feminine “weakness,” by becoming “friends who have sex” with her ex- boyfriend, Steve. Samantha’s (much) more overtly sexualized version of femininity is reflected in the ease with which she picks up a man on the street, and in the dedication with which she attempts a sexual relationship with him despite significant physical complications. In fact, the women’s consumer-and-consumed relationship with men is very clearly explicated in Samantha’s conversation with Carrie about this relationship.

SAMANTHA: You dated Mr. Big; I’m dating Mr. Too Big.
CARRIE: You know what, you’re unbelievable. You broke up with James because he was too small, this guy’s too big—who are you, Goldicocks?
SAMANTHA: Yeah. I’m looking for one that’s just right.

Samantha is the show’s most sexual and least romantic character, but, nevertheless, her dialogue epitomizes the four women’s relationships with men, whether sexual or romantic: they are seen as signifiers of taste, objects—in this case, penises—rather than fully realized individuals. The characters’ costumes are also parts of their relationships to consumerism and identity. Shopping is not one of the themes of this episode, but the women’s characters are very clearly created through and symbolized by their clothing. Carrie, the writer, observer, and central character, has a “Carrie” script necklace. Her style, part of her “bourgeois bohemianism” (Arthurs 325), is exemplified by tight-fitting, stylish dresses in light colors and shiny materials and her long, wild, curly blonde hair. Miranda, the practical one, is shown in unflattering sweatpants and, in more formal situations, high- necked and loose-fitting dresses in dark colors, usually black. Charlotte wears chic, preppy workout clothes and lacy dresses. And Samantha is shown in tight, low-cut clothes in vibrant colors and patterns—blood-red, leopard print, black lace. Through consumption, they define their gender and sexual identities; as characters on a television show, these costumes clearly symbolize their personalities and distinguish them from one other. But as representations of the modern female consumer, they claim power, the power to self-define, through their clothes and the other accoutrements of their cosmopolitan lifestyles.

While the characters’ plotlines and costume clearly reference consumerism within the context of the narrative, the show’s cinematography evokes consumerism in a subtler way. According to Arthurs, “Sex and the City’s treatment of sexuality can be understood as a re-mediation of the content and address of women’s magazines for television” (322). Carrie and her cadre are always brightly, though not harshly, lit. Their presentation, even the way that shots are framed, is reminiscent of the presentation of images of women in glossy magazines. In addition, the mise-en-scène of many of the scenes in “Ex and the City,” as well as Sex and the City as a whole, is evocative of the composition of shots in women’s magazines. The women are often shown engaged in leisure activities: lounging on their beds, as when Carrie chats on the phone with Mr. Big; eating (small portions, of course) at a fashionable restaurant; and strolling down New York City streets. Even when not explicitly promoting consumerism, Sex and the City is still promoting consumerism.

The feminist potential of “Ex and the City” is complicated, though not nullified, by the heavily consumerist overtones of the episode and show. Through selective consumerism, the women of Sex and the City determine their identities without relying on men—in fact, since men are seen as little more than lifestyle accessories, they can form relationships with men without becoming dependent upon them as signifiers of identity of worth. Some feminists have even argued that consumerism can be “a source of pleasure and power than is potentially resistant to male control” (Arthurs 320). In addition, the culture of “bourgeois bohemianism” (Arthurs 325) embraced by Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte allows them considerably more freedom, sexually and otherwise, than earlier modes of identity-creation—they are liberated, in a sense, through their consumerism. Even Charlotte is given the power to create and recreate her identity, in this episode, through horseback riding: a skill, certainly, but also a signifier of taste and a marker of identity. And yet, an identity constructed through consumerism is limited in a number of ways. Writes Arthurs,

[Sex and the City] 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 … [but] whether this has the power to translate into feminist political action [is unclear] (328-329).

Sex and the City, however, does not itself interrogate consumerism—instead, it lauds it. Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha are defined as consumers, and the scope of their characters is limited by consumerism; as mentioned above, the women of the show, and especially Carrie, have moral centers that are defined by their tastes and class rather than a larger, deeper, and more complex understanding of the world. As the show’s main character, and as its narrator, Carrie reflects on her and her friends’ lives without searching for any greater meaning—after all, “Can we be friends with our exes?” is not a very profound question. And yet her narration, her presence in the series, does involve some critique of consumerism. The scene in which Carrie is splashed by a bus plastered with her own larger-than-life image is certainly indicative of some awareness of the weakness of postmodern consumer culture, a culture “characterized by the commodification of the individual’s relation to the body, self, and identity” (Arthurs 319). Through her narrations, her position as a writer, and her conflicted relationship with her own image, Carrie Bradshaw exists as a commentary on postmodern culture, both distanced from and embedded within the conventions she (lightly) critiques. She may not be a feminist, and Sex and the City may not be a feminist program. (In fact, it almost surely is not.) But it is certainly reflective of the postmodern, perhaps even post-feminist consumer culture of the late 1990s—a culture with a sometimes laudatory, sometimes limited understanding of consumption as a site of female empowerment, a complicated relationship with the “liberated” woman, and, always, an ironic detachment from these women’s more meaningful struggles.

Works Cited

Arthurs, Jane. “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture: Remediating Postfeminist
Drama.” Television: The Critical View. Ed. Horace Newcomb. New York: Oxford
University Press, 2007. 315-31. Print.

Butler, Jeremy G. Television: Critical Methods and Applications. Mahwah, N.J.:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York:
Routledge, 2008. Print.

Hepola, Sarah. “Her Favorite Class: ‘Sex’ Education.” New York Times 22 June 2003,
Arts sect. Print.

King, Michael P. “Ex and the City.” Sex and the City. HBO. New York, New York, 3
Oct. 1999. Television.