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Representation Of Women In Sex and The City

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An American Girl in Paris

Sex and the City, the extremely popular and award-winning HBO TV show is often referred to as “the ultimate chick flick”. The show successfully combines the generic features of a comedy and a romance to the effect of gluing multitudes, predominantly female, to the screen. The single-girl pathos appeals to the ever growing audience of single women with questions raised and  answers suggested that are in tune with the issues around which the life of a contemporary single woman centers – love, sex, girl-friends, fashion, and eventually marriage. It is mostly accepted and widely-advertised as depicting sexually-liberated and independent women who are in control of their lives. However, some elements within the show come into conflict with this celebrated sexual liberation and the messages SATC sends are rather mixed and not always defying the patriarchal values.

An American Girl in Paris, besides being the Season 6 finale and therefore providing a dramatic conclusion of the entire plot of the show, also paved the way for the no less popular Sex and the City: The Movie. It is the highest rated episode of the whole series and analogous to its popularity is its importance to the message that the show ultimately sends to its numerous audience.

SATC has been hailed as groundbreaking for its representation of independent and successful women who defy traditional conventions concerning female sexuality and power. It traces the lives of four contemporary New York women in their 30s and 40s with Carrie Bradshow as the lead protagonist – a relationship columnist, a sensitive glitterati whose musings on the life of the single girl as she writes her weekly column for the The New York Star function as the narrative framework of the episodes. On her quest for “…the love, real love…ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love…” as she puts it in An American Girl in Paris, Part Deux she is accompanied and supported by her girl-friends whose stereotypical female roles would be of the sexually promiscuous – Samantha Jones, the successful PR executive who uses sex as its own end more concerned with pleasure than intimacy; the sexually naïve – Charlotte York, the art gallery director and eternal optimist searching for the perfect man and the sexually bitter – Miranda Hobbes, the cynical corporate lawyer. Different as they might be, the SATC foursome has in common their financial independence and sexual gratification.

Jewellery, fancy clothes and shoes, and chick restaurants as elements of the mise en scene are instrumental in portraying the protagonists as women who make their own money, do not have to depend on men and hence, do not have to settle. By freeing Carrie, the freelance columnist, from the workplace, the action is able to occur in different settings, while still legitimizing her career. We see her typing on her laptop computer in coffee shops and hotel rooms which points to independence, flexibility and adaptability. This side of the characters provides a sense of escapism for the audience as they are able to escape into a surreal glamorous and presumably emancipated world. The enormity of the impact of girl talk, dating games, and fashion on the female audience can be measured by the fact that SATC itself turned into a fashion label. Besides their luxury urban lifestyle, the protagonists flaunt the luxury of treating men like sex objects with Samantha in the lead. The scene where the four emancipated single girls banter crudely about sex, are not ashamed to swear and treat men as disposable is a recurrent one throughout the show.

SATC, however, appeals to its numerous female audience not only as a venue for escapism, as a better world one would not mind living in, but also through its protagonists with whom the audience can identify. Within the cinematic code system, sound provides for the strongest identification of spectators with the SATC protagonists. Music gives direct access to the emotions of the characters and leads to the particular way the spectator will interpret a scene. Carrie’s arrival in Paris in An American Girl in Paris.

Part Une is accompanied by light instrumental music with French motifs – Bon Voyage Carrie – that sets the fairy tale mood of a dream coming true and great expectations that matches Carrie’s experience. An even more potent device of spectators’ identification with the protagonist is the voice-over narration technique. Each episode focuses on a central question regarding sex which Carrie is exploring for her column. As Cindy Royal puts it “What one experiences when listening to the buildup to the central question is the line of logic and thought that Carrie makes to get to her central question.”  Thus, being able to identify with the protagonist who “isn’t afraid to ask” by following her train of thought as she reasons out questions like “Are we romantically challenged or are we sluts?” or eventually “Is it time to stop questioning?” the spectator gains access to the inner life of the protagonist, which turns out to be not all glamour and glitz.

The problems the SATC foursome confronts are real-life ones and any member of the audience irrespective of her age could draw parallels between them and her own experience. The protagonists’ appeal to mature women is based on the similarity of their age, but young women are anything but left behind (the ones who are left behind are actually “the non-white, non-rich and non-thin bodies”), since when Carrie is in love, she is as vulnerable and wanting to be cared for and pampered as a little girl. Moreover, the close-ups permit us to know intimately the faces of characterс and read their thoughts and feelings. When Carrie opens the window of her hotel suite in Paris to see the Eifel Tower she had only seen in movies and dreams before, in a close up of her expressive face the audience can decipher the innocent joy and overwhelming excitement that sweeps over her. In the next sequence of shots as the camera’s gaze is transformed from looking at her to looking with her, the audience is once again encouraged to identify with the female character. The scenes where Carrie is writing on her laptop with the voice-over analyzing and providing comment on issues of gender, sexuality, and power also provide feminine identification – the moment we see the laptop monitor with the letters as she is typing them we have already assumed her point of view.

However, during these very moments when the protagonist frames her central questions we get a sense of her insecurity and self-consciousness. The image of the independent women rejoicing in their womanhood clashes with the messages the directing and film technique add to the show. Propp’s and Todorov’s narrative theories are applicable to SATC by focusing on the Season 6 finale and with the benefit of hindsight, and ultimately reveal a return to a more traditional view and the underlying messages of power relations, and question the notion that the protagonists are wholly liberated from the confines of patriarchal ideologies. A further analysis of the film as a spectacle focusing on mise en scene and camerawork to which Mulvey’s theory of Visual Pleasure applies reveals retrogression into more archaic, constricted notions of female sexuality.

Even though there is no overt feminist activism in SATC, the show is praised as a manifestation of women’s sexual liberation and independence. If interpreted as empowering women, the show should presumably feature the Proppean character roles of a “heroine” instead of a “hero” realized by the female protagonists fighting against a world full of the ultimate “villains” – boyfriends and men in general. In the light of An American Girl in Paris, however, it turns out Carrie is the “princess” lured by a Russian “false hero” (whose albeit accidental slap across Carrie’s face might even turn him into a “villain”) to a hostile and threatening country only to be saved by the “hero”, or Mr. Big. The “hero” is, of course, aided by the “dispatcher” – a role distributed among Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda who utters the decisive “Go get our girl!” Thus, instead of reaffirming the women’s call for independence, the plot proves to adhere to the conventional.

The Classical Narrative theory of Tzvetan Todorov which suggests a narrative follows the 3-stage pattern of equilibrium, dis-equilibrium and new equilibrium is easily identifiable within the diegesis of the whole show, the separate seasons as well as in the Season 6 finale – An American Girl in Paris. The normal state at the beginning of the show is established by the foursome vowing to stop worrying about finding the perfect male and start having sex like men. The conflicts introduced in the diegesis with the central questions the protagonist poses can be interpreted as instances of disequilibrium. Eventually, Miranda transforms from an independent woman to a loving mother and wife in a house in Brooklyn, Charlotte finds her perfect husband Harry and both look forward to becoming parents to an adopted baby girl from China, former man-eater Samantha recovers from breast cancer and falls in love with her movie star boyfriend Smith, and Carrie’s love, Big, finally seems ready and willing to commit. Within the subplot of the season finale, Carrie’s moving to Paris disrupts the New-York-and-girl-friends-dominated equilibrium only to have it restored in the end with a grand reunion.

Thus, the conflicts are resolved and the narrative strands are tied together. Even though they are liberated and successful women, they still revolve their lives around their loves. Final equilibrium is thus achieved through the protagonists’ acceptance of roles essentially adhering to the patriarchal values with Charlotte’s case being the most prominent. She has always represented the typical rich housewife and stays true to that stereotype till the end upholding the traditional values of a woman’s life – wanting a family, children and being a housewife. Even once emotionally-blocked Miranda’s newly-found equilibrium is in fact her showing concern as she takes Steve’s ailing mother under her wing and deservedly receives the nanny’s approval and the fact that Magda is most probably in her 60s cannot be overlooked. Similarly, the whole ideology of “love getting them through it” comes to the fore in Samantha’s battling breast cancer side by side with her supportive boyfriend – Miss Independent shows signs of commitment too.

In terms of diegesis, SATC clearly tends to turn back to a more traditional interpretation of women’s roles despite the protagonists’ initial claim for the opposite. The voice-over narration that infallibly provided for the audience’s identification with the female protagonist is almost missing in An American Girl in Paris (only two instances – at the beginning of Part Une and at the end of Part Deux) due to the fact that Carrie had left her career behind and headed for a whole new life in Europe. Instead, audiences are attracted by the realism of the season finale, where the characters seem to be represented in a more true-to-life manner.

The dominant props are still jewellery and fashionable clothes in Carrie’s case (the “Carrie” necklace symbolically represents Carrie’s relationship with her girlfriends), while Charlotte and Miranda who have already committed to their respective households are most of the time surrounded by house interior. Her shoes and clothes have always been Carrie’s biggest and most favourite asset and the protagonists’ purchasing power has been definitive of their emancipation and empowerment. The memorable scene in An American Girl in Paris, Part Une where Carrie falls flat on her face in the sacred temple of any fashion-minded girl – Dior – is a kind of a litmus test for the extremity this obsession with commodities has reached since Carrie sees no other face-saving way out of the awkward situation than buying in.

The parallel Carrie draws between outfits and people in the opening scene of An American Girl in Paris, Part Une while she is packing for Paris is a telltale equation between a human and an object, a commodity. Overall, clothing in SATC is a potent factor in forming the presentation of the female body and consequently the notion of femininity in general. If Laura Mulvey’s theory of Visual Pleasure is applied to clothes in SATC, they can be seen as establishing the female body as a display for the visual pleasure of the male gaze. Narcistic or masochistic desire to be watched is masked by the women’s discussions of purchases since the ultimate goal of their fabulous looks is to garner male attention. “I can’t be drunk on the plane. I want to arrive stunning and impossibly fresh looking.” says Carrie at the last supper with her girl friends. Verbally rejecting male supremacy, the protagonists still strive for the intra-diegetic male gaze which by default sexually objectifies and commodifies the female body.

Even though cinema permits the emphasis of the perspective, and hence identification of the spectator to shift from identification with the male character as subject, in which case the spectator indulges in voyeuristic pleasure, to identification with the female as object or image to be looked at, in which case the spectator satisfies her narcissism or masochism, the camera work and editing in SATC more often than not encourage scopophilia, pleasure in looking. When the camera zooms in in a low-angle shot to foreground Carrie squatting to collect the fallen jewels followed by a cut to a male high-angle reaction-shot of Mr. Big looking down on the female protagonist, the camera instigates the means by which and the perspective from which the female character is to be observed – the male protagonist is in control of the gaze. The female right of centre framing is another convention religiously followed in the construction of the film as a spectacle – Carrie and Big in “Carrie, you are the one” scene and Charlotte and Harry in the closing of the episode to mention but a few examples.

The close-ups and extreme close-ups display the commodified bodies of models in fashion shows and magazines no less than the protagonists’ ones. Despite the emphasis on their close-to-ordinary-women side, the season finale occasionally puts the protagonists on display as in the brief moment when we first see Carrie’s elegant lithe foot as it stretches out of the taxi to step on Parisian land or in one of the final scenes in  An American Girl in Paris, Part Duex where the just reunited foursome confidently walks out on the street. Perhaps one of the most memorable scenes in the show is the long shot which has not only the protagonist’s body on display covered by the Versace “Dress of a Thousand Layers”, but her soul contrastingly bare – the great expectations of thousands of secret delights shrouded in lace lay in futile waiting. Alexandr points out she looks like a dessert, which parallels an earlier scene in the episode at the breast cancer event of a piece of cake being broken into pieces and eaten. The objectification of the female protagonist is clearly manifested in her being compared to a desirable consummer product.

While the show claims to represent women and their sexuality in dominant subject positions, the diegesis, mise en scene and camerawork, instead, restore these women to the confines of a patriarchal society by establishing them as figures that participate in or adhere to its established structure.


Mulvey, Laura. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema

Mulvey, Laura. Afterthoughts onVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun

Brunnemer, Kristin. Sex and Subjectivity: Gazing and Glancing in HBO’s Sex and the City

Royal, Cindy. (2003). Narrative Structure in Sex and the City: “I Couldn’t Help But Wonder…”

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