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Laurie Penny: Sex and the City’s vision of female empowerment rings increasingly hollow

It’s all over for sex-and-shopping feminism.

For my generation, Sex and the City’s vision of female empowerment rings increasingly hollow.

Girl power is over. The release of the second Sex and the City film, in which four rich Americans analyse their marriages on a boringly opulent girls' holiday to Abu Dhabi, sounds the death knell for a pernicious strain of bourgeois sex-and-shopping feminism that should have been buried long ago at the crossroads of women's liberation with a spiked Manolo heel through its shrivelled heart.

Any woman who claims not to enjoy Sex and the City is still considered to be either abnormal or fibbing, at least by a certain strain of highly paid fashion columnist whose lives probably bear an unusual resemblance to that of the show's protagonist, the lifestyle writer Carrie Bradshaw. For the young women of my generation, however, Sex and the City's vision of individual female empowerment rings increasingly hollow, predicated as it is on conspicuous consumption, the possession of a rail-thin Caucasian body type, and the kind of oblivious largesse that employs faceless immigrant women as servants.

What young women want and need today is secure gainful employment, the right to equal work, the right to make decisions about our bodies and sex lives without moral intimidation, and the right to be treated as full human beings even if we are not beautiful, skinny, white and wealthy.

Much ink has been spilt over whether the swinging sexual empowerment epitomised by Sex and the City's insatiable Samantha Jones is a positive erotic model for women, or whether Samantha's orgasmic adventures, squealingly portrayed by Kim Cattrall, are simply obscene. In fact, the real obscenity of Samantha's lifestyle has nothing to do with her bedroom antics.

In the first film, a minor plot-hook hinges on the character's fancy for an antique ring costing $60,000, which is eventually, to her chagrin, bought for her by her boyfriend. The type of feminism that gives serious thought to whether a girl should buy her own diamonds has missed something fundamental about the lives and problems of ordinary women.

Like any glamorous fantasy, Sex and the City-style feminism is only harmless when it does not haemorrhage into reality. Unfortunately, female empowerment under Britain's new centre-right coalition government also seems to be more about the shoes than the substance. Gushing attention has been paid to the extensive footwear collection of the new Home Secretary and Minister for Women, Theresa May, by press outlets all too keen to minimise her appalling record on gay rights and her punishingly pro-life agenda.

With May and her fellow female cabinet member Baroness Warsi dubbed the coalition's "fashion double act", it seems as if all it takes to be pro-woman today is a really killer pair of heels. But May and Warsi are doing nothing to stop the coalition, as one of its first acts in power, from proposing what amounts to a rapists' charter.

Just this week, the new government found time in its recession-busting schedule to table a law that offers anonymity to men accused of rape, who are considered special victims of what the Mail calls "extreme man-hating feminism". No similar anonymity is being extended to those falsely accused of child abuse: women are being singled out as liars by a government that appears to support rape culture.

Meanwhile, in the real New York City, millions of women are living in poverty without adequate housing or health care, and an underground abortion railroad assists other American women denied essential reproductive services. And in Abu Dhabi, the "glamorous, exotic" setting for the faux-feminist narrative of Sex and the City 2, rape victims are jailed, and husbands are allowed to beat their wives with sticks.

A fantasy feminism of shopping, shoes and shagging is not an adequate response to a world that still fears women's power and punishes our bodies. "If pop culture's portrayal of womankind were to be believed, contemporary female achievement would culminate in the ownership of expensive handbags, a vibrator, a job, a flat and a man," comments the feminist academic Nina Power, whose book One-Dimensional Woman advocates a more radical basis for feminist thought than whether one is willing to spend $500 on a pair of Jimmy Choos.

Hadley Freeman of the Guardian confirms that the second film heralds the death of the Sex and the City franchise. Good. It needed to die. It was a pernicious, elitist meme that distracted us from the real problems facing women's liberation in the 21st century.

Fortunately, today's young women, growing up post-recession, are less susceptible than the previous generation to having our heads turned by fashion, fortune and the weary phallic cipher of Mr Big. Reclaiming the F Word, the upcoming book by Cath Redfern and Kristin Aune, charts the emergence of a new breed of feminist: young, political, pragmatic and attuned to issues of class and race, violence and power that are elided by sex-and-shopping feminism.

In a world where rape accusation is still considered a more serious crime than rape, the feminists of the 21st century want more from life than marriage, babies and a really great shoe collection. We want power, fairness and freedom from fear, and we're coming to claim it. Girl power is over: long live the new feminism.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR