New Times,
New Thinking.

27 May 2010updated 16 Feb 2015 4:36pm

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

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

By Laurie Penny

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.

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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.

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