by Terri He
With this topic, I face a dull repetition of further developments concerning an all too recognizable, rather mundane and worn-out dimension of discussion about a woman and her love. Let me, unsurprisingly, once again start from a popular HBO series that has established itself almost as an expert on sex, love and relationships with scenarios in the big and real New York City: Sex and the City (SATC).
The cityscapes and skylines of Manhattan Island fall right in with stories about woman and man, but of course, for two people to meet, there always has to be a place, however the attractive visuals of this series are only used as a prop, as a means to convey the feel of a fast-paced time and space, in order to reveal, or spotlight, brisk walks, witty dialogues, and the unorthodox familial structure between the four friends. There is a kind of fluid unity provided by the charming lead characters, each girl representing a different social style and personal quality, each on her individual journey looking for contentment along the way of life, and with one another.
As early as in 1984, Rosalind Coward has made this argument in her collection of essays on popular culture for women: “[Female positions] are neither distant roles imposed on us from outside which it would be easy to kick off, nor are they the essential attributes of femininity. [They are] produced as responses to the pleasures offered to us; our subjectivity and identity are formed in the definitions of desire which encircle us. These are the experiences which make change such a difficult and daunting task, for female desire is constantly lured by discourses which sustain male privilege” (16).
Now in the threshold of the twenty-first century, the modern heterosexual woman in love, nevertheless, is still caught somewhere between a femininity “that is never fully achieved” (Thornham 87) and would hence find the aforementioned statement truthful. I believe this phenomenon still persists, or even prevails, because “the difficulties of theorising the relationship between institutionalised heterosexuality as a system of male domination and individual women’s heterosexual practice and experience are [. . .] part of a wider problem: that we have yet to find satisfactory ways of conceptualising sexuality as fully social” (Richardson 21). The social construction of sexuality is generally viewed as patriarchal, as serving the privilege of men, and as coercing women into compulsory heterosexuality. At the same time, however, it also completes a spiritual link to a human need for some higher idealism in searching for companionship, true appreciation and total trust in love and intimacy.
Of course, in an extreme social constructivist stance, structural analysis may suffice to conclude that eroticism is defined as the product of gendered patterns of domination and submission, an attribute intrinsic to patriarchal societies and written right into the cultural representation. This is how the male sexual power is starkly evident when we watch a telefilm like SATC, the so-called “true” adult comedy, where sex is handled in an up-front, honest and yet exaggerated way; by so doing, the series gains a stretching force in viewers: we begin to be mentally torn between the apparently “deviant” acts that some of the women roles practice and the “normal” expression of sexuality that has been generally formed. This stretching force, nevertheless, confirms the existence of normality in expressions of individual love and desire.
Predictably SATC, as a result, functions under the whole mechanism of patriarchy too, and it is also the one important factor that makes the series sell well. But there is still something more to it that alters the sad finding of its subordination to masculine domination – Carrie and the girls; their vibrant relations with one another, and the aspiration of always trying to capture some traces of this emotional element of love that sometimes seems able to stay out of the social domain, which consequently unsettles the common ground for a convenient theorization to be set up upon. The central figure Carrie Bradshaw, a New York Star columnist, is an open, intelligent, mind-bogglingly sensitive woman, positing essential questions literally in each and every episode. A smart characterization such as Carrie might be the embodiment of Woman’ s uncompromising constitution in her long and exhaustive journey of finding herself and others. The main and significant story line, for example, has been Carrie’s emotional imbalance: her search for a man while she struggles to maintain her independence, “a longing for connection coupled with an innate instinct to stay her own course” (Sohn 19). A very familiar process of the contemporary woman who finds it imperative to strike a balance: on one hand she is an individual, and on the other, she has a culture to belong to as well as identify with.
I would like to share a finding of my own which has its intertextuality with Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” published at the beginning of the twentieth century. Roughly one hundred years later, we have another Carrie, who this time becomes a writer in a TV series, instead of an actress who appears in a book, who also takes great delight in things that glitter, and moves to a big city (Chicago and New York; each representing an era’s urban landscape and cultural symbols) from a small town, from a miserable past to a happy future. And in these two works, men always come and go, but women stay . The interesting intertextual reading may be a coincidence, but it in turn prepares for us a space for discussions on women who are always somewhere in an everlasting journey and search.
Coward, Rosalind. Female Desire: Women’s Sexuality Today. London: Paladin, 1984.
Richardson, Diane. Theorising Heterosexuality. Bristol: Open U P, 1996.
Sohn, Amy. Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell. London: Melcher Media, 2002. Thornham,
Sue. Feminist Theory and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford U P, 2000.