Carrie On Feminism(s): Constructions of Gender, Race and Sexuality in Sex and the City 2

16 May

The popular American television series Sex and the City arguably functioned as a forum about women’s sexuality during its run between 1998 and 2004.Yet, Sex and the City as a medium for feminist analysis reflects almost exclusively the perspectives and values of white upper-class, heterosexual women. I examine the feminist voice(s) in the subsequent film Sex and the City 2: Carrie On and analyse its engagement with issues of gender, race and sexuality. My analysis is informed by Jane Arthurs’ theorization that the codification of class, race and gender differences as commodities normalises and perpetuates notions of inequality and subordination.[i] I also concur with Aniko Imre that without a trajectory of academic or activist feminism, ‘Other’ women for the most part are stuck with diluted and commercialised feminist ideas, which limit female agency to good fashion sense.[ii] Furthermore, the representation of Middle Eastern women is inextricably linked to the evolution of feminism and postcolonial revisionism.[iii]

“Once upon a time” (Carrie On) 

The Sex and the City brand embarked on an explorative journey following the lives of four female friends and their navigation of sex, love and the classic romance fantasy in a ‘postfeminist’ age. Its protagonists, Carrie Bradshaw and her friends Miranda Hobbs, Samantha Jones and Charlotte York, represent a continuum of women’s views and issues, creating pretence of homogeneity of experience, an amalgam that purports to be Everywoman. Carrie On is framed as a fantasy with Carrie’s first words “once upon a time”. The film opens with a panoramic shot of New York’s iconic skyline accompanied by Jay Z and Alicia Keys popular song “Empire State of Mind”.[iv] The film sequence and song lyrics boast “a concrete jungle where dreams are made of… no place in the world can compare”. The viewer is invited to read Manhattan’s skyscrapers as icons of capitalist patriarchy. Lynda Johnston and Robyn Longhurst propose that Manhattan reflects the role of capitalism in producing new spaces of consumption.[v] The film’s protagonists in their mapping and navigation through Manhattan’s streetscape attempt a reclamation of phallocentrism in their assertion of female power: “come on ladies…there’s nothing you can’t do”. However, Jay Z’s lyrics “good girls gone bad, the cities filled with them” are notably omitted from the film’s opening sequence. This supports the Sex and the City brand’s framing, in its television series and Carrie On, of the streets as engendering a certain kind of freedom for the quartet. The New York locale enables the sisterhood to transcend; fulfil their career aspirations and sexual fantasies. They are in the centre. The women’s agency as ambassadors of cosmopolitanism is marked when they cross geo-political and cultural borders on their vacation to Abu Dhabi.

Although cosmopolitanism is “first of all an orientation, a willingness to engage with the Other”,[vi] Carrie and her friends are marked by their inability to ‘engage with the other’ except as neo-colonialists who are ignorant about Muslim cultural and religious practices. Cosmopolitanism emphasises “processing knowledge about diverse cultural experiences with the goal of becoming comfortable with traversing between and within different cultural spaces and contexts”.[vii] However, cosmopolitan spaces are not available all because their very existence is reliant upon the exclusion of some people. This is dramatically realised by the subaltern silenced voices, particularly those of gay and lesbians from different racial and ethnic groups. For instance Samantha’s male servant Abdul is represented as the stereotypical homosexual. He is feminised by Carrie and her cohort, who call him “Paula Abdul”. Their neo-colonialist renaming of him denies his own masculine nomenclature and cultural identity. Indeed, the economically challenged Abdul is now insensitively associated with the wealthy famous female celebrity Paula Abdul. Edward Said notes that in the discourse of Orientalism the ‘Other’ is depicted as inferior and mute.[viii] Certainly, Abdul is one of many Arab voices that are silenced marking their assumed inferiority. In contrast in Sex and the City’s underlying white privileged heterosexual master narrative, the four protagonists’ values and attitudes are constructed as normative.

Carrie and her friend’s subjectivity, as white upper-class American women, enable them to negotiate physical and psychological borders and boundaries but Carrie only becomes briefly aware of her social privilege and the inevitable benefits she receives from the system of racial stratification when she discovers her ‘man servant’ Gerard can only afford to see his wife in India every three months, while she and her husband Mr Big have “the luxury to design [their] own lives”. Gerard’s wife is socially, politically and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structures identified in the film’s diegetic representations of Manhattan and Abu Dhabi. Protected by my own status as a white Australian middle-class university student I recognise that my subjectivity and privilege influences and challenges research paradigms in gender studies. I contest Sex and the City’s branding of the four women’s subjectivity as normative and instead emphasise the significance of the silenced ‘Other’ perspectives in Carrie On.

Expanding on Michel De Certeau’s notion of ‘walking in the city’ Helen Richards proposes that Carrie, a magazine columnist, is a postmodern flaneur. Richards likens a flaneur to De Certeau’s street walker.[ix] The flaneur is a man of the modernist era “who enjoyed wandering anonymously, interested and yet detached, through the city streets. He was the possessor of the gaze, objectifying the inhabitants of the city, noting their activities and appearance for his own enjoyment”.[x] Carrie typically gathers inspiration for her articles from immersing herself in everyday life, walking the streets of New York. Her independence in the American metropolis is juxtaposed with her inability to walk alone on the beach in Abu Dhabi. She must instead be escorted by a male chaperone. Carrie is a voyeur who navigates through various locales making geospatial border crossings. However, she fails to traverse racial, cultural, linguistic or religious boundaries.

The Sex and the City brand is complicit in the conveyance of ‘the look’. It invites women in the audience to share in the male gaze.[xi] John Berger posits that: “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight”.[xii] He notes that there is a discrepancy between the inscribed spectator and the actual spectator. Notwithstanding Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha’s financial independence and freedom to make life and love choices, I concur with L. S. Kim that the pleasure they display in these acts elicit themselves exclusively for the male gaze exemplifying the masochist female viewer.[xiii] This argument supports the notion that women often perpetuate their own oppression and that the female spectators of Sex and the City internalise their narcissistic relationship with their own bodies; objectifying women’s bodies rendering them powerless.[xiv]

I decode Carrie’s characterisation in Carrie On in terms of twentieth-century film theory of the ‘female gaze’, which examines the relationship between the female artist’s look and the viewing positions constructed by her.[xv] Carrie is cast as the ‘artist’ who constructs representations of gender, race and sexuality. Laura Mulvey proposes an interaction between the agent of the look and active positions of power. She argues that cinematic representations appeal to the unconscious scopophilic drives, asserting that female viewers identify with male protagonists on screen because of their active position while female characters remain passive and subordinate.[xvi] Carrie and her friends epitomise postfeminist heroines; financially independent, professional and proactive. Significantly, they also mark cultural and sexual boundaries.

Carrie’s ‘gaze’ counters the male dominated narrative of the Middle East. However, her position is not necessarily a feminist one. This is emblematic of ‘lipstick feminism'; feminism sexed up to seduce men, a mere form of entertainment that does not include the female as viewer or creator.[xvii] Carrie On attempts to highlight, through a liberal feminist lens, the oppression of women in the Middle East compared with their ‘free’ western counterparts. Despite this those relegated to the roles of ‘Other’, such as gay or ethnic people, lack agency to subvert the stereotypes cast upon them by Carrie and her cohort.

Carrie On highlights the differences between Oriental and Occidental women. Reina Lewis proposes that gender, ethnicity and race require the construction of difference and sameness.[xviii] She states that ethnographic discourse has often been used as a way to validate Orientalist images as scientifically authentic and thus endorse the artist’s vision as objective.[xix] Said defines orientalism as a western, Occidental discourse that implies the West’s moral and cultural superiority and authority over the Orient.[xx] It denies the colonised East self-definition or control over its identity and authenticity. Instead of moving through and beyond western ignorance, guilt and silences, western feminist discussions about Muslim women in Carrie On remain fixed in repetitive misappropriated cultural narratives structured around the binaries of white/non-white, coloniser/colonised, victimiser/ victim that silence female Islamic voices.

For instance, Miranda attempts to emphasise and embrace an alternate feminist standpoint when she states that “younger Muslim women are embracing old traditions in new and personal ways”. Nevertheless, Carrie asserts the dominant western feminist perspective that the niqab is an oppressive device used against Muslim women: “It’s like they don’t want them to have a voice”. The friends show no signs of support for their Middle Eastern sisters’ attempted negotiation of physical freedom within the confines of an Islamic state.[xxi] Instead they are merely amused by the burqini, a hybrid swimsuit that covers women’s bodies and allows them to access the hotel’s swimming pool. Carrie and her friends prefer to focus on the semi-naked Australian rugby team in the pool.

Carrie On simultaneously provides points of inclusive and universal identification for female viewers whilst maintaining distance between women from the West ‘where dreams are made of’ and ‘Other’ women. Miranda’s attempt to learn Arabic suggests a quest for inclusivity but her cross-cultural exchange implies a lack of awareness or negation of the inequalities of inherent power relations. She attempts to learn Arabic yet does not accept constructive criticism with regards to her pronunciation. The four women’s domestic environments in Manhattan are contrasted with their experience in Abu Dhabi. Whilst on vacation they witness and comment upon ‘Other’ women’s lives suggesting that they come from ‘the land of the free’ whilst Islamic women are oppressed. Their fairy tale holiday allows them to perform representations of the exotic ‘Other’.

Costume is used as a marker of difference whilst it simultaneously attempts to claim inclusivity. For example, Carrie and Samantha appropriate Middle-Eastern attire, wearing colourful harem pants and turbans, and this political act highlights western consumption of the Oriental. Miranda and Charlotte also engage in a nostalgic revision of imperialist appropriation when they dress as colonial explorers in khaki jodhpurs and panama hats. The film attempts to encapsulate homogeneity of women’s experiences when the four protagonists, lost in the souq market meet a group of Muslim women who: “under hundreds of years of tradition” [were wearing] this year’s spring collection” beneath their niqabs. The consumption of high-end fashion validates class and wealth snobbery, reducing femininity to consumerism: “a strictly consumerist femininity, deprived of feminist activist potential, is currently employed to re-legitimate a strict patriarchal nationalism, which is increasingly entangled in a neoliberal culture of consumerism”.[xxii]

Carrie On exposes the western feminist hypocrisy that Carrie and her friends are free from patriarchal dominance whilst their Muslim sisters remain subjugated. They appear to epitomise postfeminist heroines; financially independent, professional and proactive. Yet Arthurs argues that “Sex and the City self-consciously exposes the instability of female identity in a postfeminist, postmodern consumer culture”.[xxiii] Postfeminism can signify a backlash against feminism. However, it can also mean an end of one political agenda and the foundation of a new one. Nevertheless, Sex and the City highlights film and television as a mode for disseminating consumer culture in a ‘post’ feminist age.[xxiv]

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, published in 1972, remains significant because it provides an important critique of young women’s increasing departure from second wave feminist thought to a more contemporary multivalent analysis. Friedan refers to popular culture’s encouragement of educated women’s performativity as feminine that should take precedence over any self-definition.[xxv] Her critique remains relevant to the ways in which characters in Carrie On, despite their freedom and seeming dissidence towards heteronormative patriarchal hegemony, are continually unhappy and end up performing and subscribing to traditional roles as mother and wife.

Despite Samantha’s homily to sisterhood and female solidarity: “we made a deal ages ago, men, babies, it doesn’t matter. We’re soul mates”, the women want to realise themselves through a meaningful and lasting relationship with men. Their professional successes are undercut by their emotions. Their sexual freedom and adventures lead them to pursue more permanent relationships, often implicitly suggesting that through sex one can subordinate oneself to male desires and catch a partner.[xxvi] This resonates with Simone de Beauvoir’s theory of female transcendence and bad faith. She notes that “a woman is a man’s equal only when she makes her life a perpetual offering”.[xxvii] This is not existential transcendence but rather woman’s attempt to escape her cultural and economic oppressive circumstances by acquiring social identity through the male superior.[xxviii] Beauvoir argues that this form of objecthood is not transcendence but rather an act of self-delusion and an act of bad faith on the part of the woman.[xxix] Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte endorse the concept of women ‘having it all’ since they are not confined to the dissolution of their lives into that of their husbands. Their careers are collapsed into the private sphere and become forms of self-expression emphasising female autonomy. Johnston and Longhurst argue that the four women are able to act ‘like men’ while still maintaining privileges associated with being attractive women.[xxx] In contrast, the hierarchical public sphere and men are underwritten. I concur with Arthurs that this feminist theory might appear like a magical resolution to the continuing contradictions in women’s lives.[xxxi]

When Carrie and her friends sing a karaoke version of Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit “I am Woman Hear Me Roar” in an Abu Dhabi nightclub they epitomise Sex and the City’s ethos of ‘Everywoman’ and the homogeneity of female experience. The role of music in feminism as a social movement can articulate a sense of group belonging, creating a sense of continuity and visibility. Friedan recalls women’s reaction to Reddy’s feminist anthem at a National Organisation of Women conference in 1973:

suddenly women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom, joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing ‘there is nothing I can’t do…No price too great to pay…I am strong…I am invincible…I am woman’. It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration that we felt in those years, women really moving as women.[xxxii]

Carrie On attempts to capture these second wave sentiments in a postfeminist era. However, tokenistic representations of ‘Everywoman’ as either, black, white, Arab or Asian, merely highlights women’s complicity in the commodification of culture.[xxxiii] They highlight how ‘little’ women have ‘really’ gained since Reddy’s song was released. The Sex and the City brand makes redundant the struggles of previous feminist waves making it detrimental to further progress.[xxxiv]

The Sex and the City stable attempts to break the boundary of women openly discussing sex and sexuality. Heterosexuality remains central to notions of femininity. The only difference is that it is now women lusting after men, not the other way around. When Samantha is asked if she has visited the Middle East before, she responds mischievously “no we are all virgins”. Kim Akass and Janet MacCabe state that “Comedies are key cultural forms under hegemonic cultural conditions”, which create space for breaking taboos. They suggest that humour in Sex and the City operates to redefine patriarchal notions of ‘woman’.[xxxv] However, Carrie On does not adequately contest taboos instead it legitimates the status quo of patriarchal hegemony. In Abu Dhabi Samantha’s sexuality is restricted and she is continually reminded of cultural differences and a need to practice modesty and sensitivity. She is arrested for her sexually provocative behaviour. Furthermore, she creates a frenzied and supposedly hilarious display when her handbag bursts and numerous packets of condoms are dispelled before a large crowd of conservative Muslim men. Carrie On insensitively uses comedy to promote western, liberal feminist sexual liberation at the detriment of Islamic culture and alternate feminisms.

Happily Ever After?

Sex and the City romanticises notions of ‘real world’ problems. While Carrie On may have endeavoured to break down socio-cultural stereotypes of gender, race and sexuality in contemporary Islamic society, it nevertheless conforms to western societal norms and misconceptions. The film’s political stance that Muslim women are oppressed and are nothing other than trying to emulate western femininity and fashion also limits understandings of feminism and denies different voices. Imre suggests that film and television provide excellent feminist opportunities,[xxxvi] however, my feminist analysis of Carrie On reveals that Carrie and her friends remain underdeveloped characters, obsessed by modernity’s consumer culture. Carrie On is a neo-colonialist film masquerading as postfeminist female empowerment.


[i] Arthurs, Jane, 2003, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture: Remediating Postfeminist Drama,” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, (2003): 88.

[ii] Imre, Aniko, “Gender and quality television: A transcultural feminist project,” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 9, no. 4 (2009): 402.

[iii] Davies, Kristian, The Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, The Sahara, Persia and India (New York: Laynfaroh, 2005), 247.

[iv] Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind,” The Blueprint 3 (New York: Roc Nation, 2009), song.

[v] Johnston, Lynda, and Robyn Longhurst, 2010. Space, Place and Sex: Geographies of Sexualities (Lanham: Rowman, 2010): 80.

[vi] Ibid., 87.

[vii] Ibid., 87.

[viii] Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1972): 5.

[ix] Richards, Helen, Sex and the City: Visible flaneuse for the postmodern era?” Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies vol. 17, no. 2 (2003): 149.

[x] Ibid., 50.

[xi] Arthurs, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture”, 87.

[xii] Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972): 47.

[xiii] Kim. L.S, “Sex and the Single Girl in Postfeminism,” Television New Media  vol. 2 (2001): 324.

[xiv] Authurs, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture”, 87; Kim, “Sex and the Single Girl in Postfeminism,” 324.

[xv] Lewis, Reina, Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity and Representation (London: Routledge, 1996): 162.

[xvi] Ibid., 163.

[xvii] Hermes, Joke, “Ally McBeal’, ‘Sex and the City’ and the tragic success of feminism,” in Feminism in Popular Culture, eds. Joanne Hollows, and Rachel Moseley, 84 (Oxford: Berg, 2006).

[xviii] Lewis, Gendering Orientalism, 166.

[xix] Ibid., 168.

[xx] Said, Orientalism, 3

[xxi] El Guindi, Fadwa, “Gendered Resistance, feminist Veiling, Islamic Feminism,” Ahfad Journal vol. 2, no. 1 (2005): 58.

[xxii] Imre, “Gender and Quality Television”, 402.

[xxiii] Arthurs, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture”, 88.

[xxiv] Imre, “Gender and Quality Television”, 392.

[xxv] Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972): 60.

[xxvi] Whelehan, Imelda, Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism (London: Women’s, 2000): 139-40.

[xxvii] De Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex (New York: Penguin, 1972): 742.

[xxviii] Morgan, Kathryn Pauly, “Romantic Love, Altruism, and Self Respect: An Analysis of Simone de Beauvoir,” Hypatia vol. 1, no.1 (1986): 127.

[xxix] Ibid., 125.

[xxx] Johnston, and Longhurst, Space, Place and Sex, 79.

[xxxi] Arthurs, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture”, 84-85.

[xxxii] Friedan, Betty, It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement. (New York: Random House, 1976): 257.

[xxxiii] Arthurs, “Sex and the City and Consumer Culture”, 96.

[xxxiv] Imre, “Gender and Quality Television”, 401.

[xxxv] Hermes, “Ally McBeal’, ‘Sex and the City’ and the tragic success of feminism”, 80-81.

[xxxvi] Imre, “Gender and Quality Television”, 403.

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