Tuesday, September 09, 2003

sex and the signifier

The slender Girl Power so agreeably shrink-wrapped by the Sex and The City phenom isn’t exactly the latest news. Since Candace Bushnell’s virtuoso dish debuted in 1994, gals in strappy sandals have wrecked a million bachelors and at least as many critics have popped their corks to toast this fashionable froth. Sex scribe Carrie Bradshaw, her genuine mink eyelashes and ravenous friends have fluttered into plain view and show every sign of remaining at least as culturally relevant as the Atkins Diet.
Scheduled to visit my country this month to promote her latest work “Trading Up”, Connecticut-bred Bushnell hit an eager feminine nerve when she began journeying through heartbreak, celebrity and uncomfortable footwear. Her clubby New York Observer column spawned both a book and an award winning television series. Candace and Carrie had the first, and arguably the most definitive, word in a feminism that waggled its hips to a mambo rather than a manifesto.
The Girls’ Own Manhattan described by Bushnell is burlesque, cheesy and broadly condemned by serious critics who own less than ten pairs of kitten heels. It is of course, not difficult to find fault with Sex and its satellites. Carrie, Ally McBeal or Renee Zellwegger’s recent turn as a Helen Gurley Brown type in Down With Love are well-dressed heroines who might do well to wise up just a little. How these uber waifs manage to hold down a job when each of them spends so much time hunting for shoes and unsuitable men is anyone’s guess.
If one uses popular culture as a guide, it seems that the aughties girl like to collect men, money and Manolo Blahniks. The post-modern Miss is shallow, neurotic and buoyed only by her attachments to other shallow and neurotic women. The new sisterhood is one entirely staffed by petty princesses with platinum credit and is really not the kind of female bonding you might imagine the suffragettes originally had in mind.
Surely all that marching, bellowing and brick throwing generated more than a woman’s right to whine.
Despite accusations that Sex and sisters is feminism turned bad, the sassy new man-eater has developed from fiction to fact.
An armada of “self help” books for women has followed in the wake of Ally, Carrie, Bridget et al. Sex and The City’s Executive Producer Cindy Chupack has her “Between Boyfriends” book of comic essays just released in the US. Publishers clamour to sign works with a similarly sassy failed-relationship edge.
Reality TV Programs like The Bachelor, Joe Millionaire and Australia’s own fabulous dorm room disaster Single Girls are all driven by the anguish of gorgeous girls who fail to find and please their Mr. Big. It’s the disasters in love, not the heartening successes, which entice a large, primarily female audience to tune in and, presumably, gloat.
The spectacle of couples breaking up is now used to market everything from noodles to furniture to the yellow pages. The message is clear: getting dumped or staying single sells. Particularly to women.
The Fashion-forward, elegantly unhappy sexpot crawled out of early nineties newsprint and now, it seems, she is everywhere. She can be easily viewed as a stubborn challenge to feminism and as one who inanely measures her self-worth by proposals of marriage and Balenciaga gowns.
Bushnell’s creation has often been called post-feminist. It is also possible to view Sex and co as a retort to other forces entirely. Rather than post-feminist, the momentum and success of the series could be equally viewed as Post-Meaning, or even Post-Prozac.
Carrie Bradshaw is wildly materialistic and boy crazy. That’s not her problem. Her real flaw, and her real appeal, is her melancholy.
Carrie displays problems with intimacy, hostility without reason and the inability to concentrate for a period lasting longer than fashion week. If Vogue Living selected a poster-child for mild clinical depression, it would be Carrie. Bushnell seized upon all the symptoms for which anti-depressants were devised and has transformed them into a heroine for our chronically cranky age.
In the bleak Bradshaw Manhattan as in a great deal of current pop culture, sign-posts are regularly upended. There is no reliable road-map to happiness and a boyfriend has as little chance of surviving a season with his status intact as any other trophy.
Everything is disposable, everything is interchangeable and everything is destined to leave the new Heroine relatively unmoved.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie may very well spend most of her screen time chasing men, alienating men and flouncing about in brief tulle outfits that men might find appealing. The true Carrie aficionado knows, however, that no man can boast an appeal or longevity that beats a pair of new season Jimmy Choos.

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