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Sex and the City and the true romance of women’s friendship / Wendy Harcourt

Tuesday 21 October 2014, by admin

Feministschool: As a feminist and as a mother of two teenage daughters, I have ambiguous feelings about the television series of Sex and the City the New York based TV series of 4 ‘single’ women (who all eventually are paired off) who enjoy a free and glamorous life in New York. I was first introduced to the series about 10 years ago by a young woman who lives in my neighbourhood in Rome – a mother of the then best friend of my younger daughter. She and I were exchanging language lessons – she needed English and I wanted to improve my Italian. In our chats about family (about what our respective vocabularies could manage) she told me she had married her high school sweet heart, had never been out of Italy and was keen to learn more about the world. I recall that I was about to go to New York for a UN meeting – and I was putting my Italian to the test to explain what I would be doing there at a meeting on women’s rights – when she interrupted me to say, ‘but New York, how wonderful! I must give you something to take there’. Imagining she had some particular issue about her work as a woman scientist, or maybe Italian women’s concerns about sexism (it was the Berlusconi era) that she felt I should report on, I later that week went to her house to pick up the package. To my surprise, she held out with great enthusiasm a small high fashion pocket purse ‘Chanel style’ I think it was Armani together with the CDs of the first series of Sex and the City. ‘You must have this for when you go out in the evenings’ (I glanced somewhat shamefully at my very un New York bag I was carrying) ‘and you must see these CDs’, this was she told me what New York was all about.

I admit to watching the CDs all in one evening – the script is very well done – and being some what intrigued at the fantasy life it represented – all glamour and easy open sex life with four very lovely intelligent women – very rich, and very New York – which I did glimpse around me on my visits to New York. The direct references to sex toys and women’s pleasure was very surprising to me. I admit I started to feel old – those kinds of pleasures were not part of my sexual horizons.

When I came back from New York and I delivered her bag (I did take it but it stayed in my hotel room, no cocktail lounges for me) and gave back the CDs we spoke about the show. Was life so different in Italy? She felt so – there was very little choice for her – though she confessed she, like many other married Italian women – do think that wearing good underwear is important. Our conversations were not detailed but they did point to how Sex and the City gave the chance for women to speak about pleasure and fun outside of marriage, even if it was in fantasy, it was an opening.

The show has been very popular in Italy and continues to be rerun on television. My teenage daughters watch it still and I have been with my daughters to the two films. It is a feature in our lives as it was one way, a necessary one, that we could as mother and daughter speak about sexuality and choice for women, only if, as I point out, there is emotional and physical safety involved.

My ambiguity about the show is not in its depiction of sex and pleasure but about the rich high class life the four women lead. It is full of stereotypes of feminine beauty reliant on high class consumerism that is out of the reach of most of us, sitting in middleclass Rome, and creates unfulfilled longings that are not questioned but dwelt on as a wonderful part of their freedom. How many shoes? Outfits? Nevertheless its focus is (even in the choice of outfits) on women’s agency, and pleasure. As a feminist, I also note that the four protagonists are safely heterosexual, and safely beautiful, and there are two blondes, one raven haired, one red haired. It is very fairy tale and unreal, yet in that story, I do see some diversity introduced with characters of non WASP ethnicity and there is homosexuality (both men and women) which opens up discussions and possibilities also for difference.

Are these four ladies emancipated – well in a sense yes, because they are rich, independent able to search for love? But seems to me they are still trapped in an ideal of femininity which depends on their attractiveness and sexuality to men (potential boyfriends, husbands, children). But on the other hand it is their friendship which is key.
What I can say without hesitation I like about Sex and the City is that it makes women’s friendships exciting. These women need each other – with or without men in their lives – whatever the ups and downs in jobs and health - they stay true to each other. This is an unstated feminism, one based on how important women friendship is for survival and for fun – outside of family obligations or expectations about men. Now that for me is a true romance! I hope my daughters remember and cherish their female friends as an important ingredient to the enjoyment of life.

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