Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sex and the City and Feminist Hypocrisy

As I mentioned in my last post, I, along with a significant proportion of the male population, have never seen the show Sex and the City. I, therefore, have no opinion, good or ill, of the show and, as such, will not be commenting on it. What I do find interesting is the show's status as a major cultural phenomenon. Not to take anything away from what Dr. Lipstadt said about the show's emphasis on friendship, but most of what I have read about the show has dealt with it from the perspective of female empowerment.

Sex and the City (See also here.) starred four beautiful women, dressed in the latest fashions, who, when it came to men, possessed the upper hand and dealt with them on their own terms. Carrie and her friends went out with men, invited men back to their flats, they slept with them as they wished and sent these men off as it suited their fancy. This was seen by feminists as a form of virtue, something to be praised. Even if the world of Sex and the City had little to do with the reality faced by ordinary women, it offered its female viewers a fantasy they could slip into for an hour.

Far be it from me to deny women such a fantasy. The male version of this fantasy, where immaculately dressed men get to sleep with beautiful women, who throw themselves at them, and leave these women as it suits their fancy, is a major pillar of western literature. This theme unites classical heroes, such as Odysseus and Aeneas, with modern action heroes, such as James Bond.

The problem, though, with this male fantasy is that, as modern feminism has taught us, it is sexist. Modern feminism teaches that such depictions of women as objects that can be used and tossed away at will are demeaning to women. It creates a social ideal in which women have no value outside of their bodies. These depictions of women encourage men, even subconsciously to view women as lesser beings. Worse, women themselves come to internalize such depictions of themselves and come to view themselves as lesser beings, without any intrinsic self-worth, fit only to be helpmates of their men. While I may gripe about this and think that the hunt for negative stereotypes throughout literature, at the heart of feminist deconstruction, is a bit of overkill, I am willing to concede that feminists have a valid point. As such I believe that I, as a classical liberal, committed to defending the intrinsic self-worth of all human beings, must do my part to uproot sexism wherever I see it even to search into my own heart and ask some tough questions about the nature of my own biases, even unconscious ones.

I would not object if women had embraced this show as a satire on male chauvinism, viewing it, in the spirit of Lysistrata, as a reversal of the traditional dynamics of male/female relationships. When I embraced J. S. Mill and the cause of women's equality I did not sign a blank check for anti-male sexism. One feels like the pious individual who followed the advice of his preacher and scaled back on his home improvements only to find his preacher moving into a multi-million dollar home in the suburbs; in other words, betrayed and played for a fool.

If ever men and women in this society are going to achieve a healthy state of affairs in their relationship to each other there is going to need to be an honest discourse about gender. We need to move beyond feminists browbeating men for their sexism and how they must atone for it. If men and women are going to be equal members of society then they have to take equal responsibility for that society and hold themselves to an equal standard. That means that women, as well as men, are going to have to examine their own biases and ask some difficult questions. Feminists are going to need to kneel at the altar of atonement and say: Forgive us Mother for we have sinned.


Tobie said...

I am a tiny bit ashamed of my expertise in the matter, but I think that you are misrepresenting the show.

One of the four main characters (Samantha) was, indeed, famed for 'having sex like a man'- which meant seducing the most attractive, sleeping with them once, and moving on with no further emotional contact. The other three, however, dated in search of a relationship (with varying degrees of desperation). There are even occasions when the others attempt to 'have sex like a man' (and you have permission to be offended by that stereotype), but cannot help but form emotional attachments.

True, there was some casual sex, and some casual dumping, but they were done to the women no more than by them. The show was written from the perspective of the women, so that their caprices may have been more visible, but it seemed like a faithful depiction of a dating world in which neither party expects complete commitment before sex.

In the end, I would also point out, all four of the main characters, including Samantha, formed lasting, loving, and meaningful relationships with men, an ending that James Bond movies seldom include.

Izgad said...

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have no opinion of the issue, for good or ill, having never seen it. As far as I am concerned it could be about a group of Beis Yaacov girls looking for a shidduch and swapping cholent recipes.
My concern here was with women who embraced this show because they saw the women in it as being empowered by their ability to take on men and dump them to suit their fancy. (Whether this is an accurate description of the show or not is a different story.)
I would want those women treated the same way a man would be treated if he said that he found James Bond to be empowering in his ability to go through women. Such women should be tarred and feathered as sexists. Alternatively, if the world was more to my liking, they could be tarred and feathered as tribalists and hypocrites.
By the way, James Bond does get married at the end of His Majesty's Secret Service. The girl is killed in an attack several hours after the wedding.

Tobie said...

Really? I looked at the links and I did not see anything saying that the women were feminist and empowered because of their casual dating habits. There was maybe a bit about how women could be free to date as casually as men, without it necessarily having a stigma or an emotional overtone, but I don't see anybody celebrating any perceived vision of men as interchangable sexual partners. Maybe you bring a quote that you think exemplifies this tribalist attitude?

Izgad said...

I found these two articles as an afterthought. I probably should have made the effort to find more extreme examples.
First piece
“And so it expresses the level of sexual confidence that independent women have now without ever suggesting that they are heartless or slutty or out of control. When so much art and commentary still presents women as victims, of men's desire or of their own self-consciousness about their bodies or of their own need to be loved, there is something so refreshing about a show that gives this sort of self-belief to single women.”
So now it is ok for women to present men as victims, of women’s desire or of their self-consciousness about their bodies or of their need to be loved!

Second piece.
“Women behaving boldly.” What, may I ask, is so bold about how these women behave?
“Both Bushnell and Alcott have been celebrated as figureheads for their particular moment in feminist history. Bushnell helped introduce the (somewhat) shocking notion that women were fans of no-strings-attached nookie, just like men. (This was no secret to third-wave feminists.)”
The notion that women were fans of no-strings attached nookie, just like men, was also no secret to just about every classical, medieval and early modern writer from Catullus to Augustine to Bernardino of Siena to the Marquis de Sade. It has nothing to do with feminism. The only thing that modern feminism has contributed to this is that they turned it into a virtue.
I admit that for the most part the second article was fairly decent. Though, the fact that the author recognizes that it is absurd to compare Sex and the City to Little Women even as she tries to do exactly that strikes me as a tad problematic.
Wendy Shalit in her article on the show has some very choice quotes from various newspapers on the matter. Of course she is coming onto the issue as a defender of traditional morality, which is not my concern in this present post.

Tobie said...

I think that those bit of those articles (and I hardly think that that is what most people celebrate in the show) are celebrating the aspect of the show in which both men and women largely view each other as sexual objects. Not exclusively, but to the same degree as men.

I think that the feminist movement would be hypocritical only if it suggested that men have no right to be interested in strings-free nookie. I don't think that it does. It objects to an exclusive presentation of women as existing solely for that purpose. I don't think that the two are equivalent. The world depicted in Sex and the City and celebrated in the articles is one in which men and women co-exist as independent people and occasionally float in and out of each other's lives for strings-free nookie or longterm commitments. The show did not remove the objectification of women, it merely extended the objectification on egalitarian terms, which is refreshing to women who are sick of only being the objectified.

If, to extend your metaphor, James Bond equally included men and women who respect each other solely as sexual objects, I don't think it would be viewed as sexist. Offensive on other levels, perhaps, but hardly sexist.