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  • Leila E. Cole

SATC's Embodiment of Patriarchy as a System

Updated: Mar 23

I’ve found myself watching countless “Sex and the City” episodes on Hulu, the past two weeks or so. No where near of age when the show first debuted, I oddly find it somewhat nostalgic to watch. A series centered around the lives of four female best friends in New York City, at varying stages in their careers, the consistent thread that is woven throughout is, just what the title implies, sex. The earlier episodes are a depiction of 20- and 30-somethings navigating the often mystifying and maddening world of dating and relationships. With fairly cemented characteristics established for the four characters and the list of male acquaintances, suitors and incidentals that come across their path, one could quite easily make the case that the degree in which patriarchy is both normalized and challenged from one episode to the next is rather conspicuous. As stated by Allan Johnson in “Patriarchy, the System”, “We’re involved in patriarchy and its consequences because we occupy social positions in it.” A group of women with expectations, desires and hopes revolving around intimacy and companionship, Sex and the City is a prime example of not only elements of feminism, but also patriarchy as a system, and stereotypes.

Carrie being not only the storyline’s narrator but arguably more central to it, is a sex column writer, writing about the woes and wins faced and overcome by women in Manhattan. For all intents and purposes, Carrie is presented in the beginning as living a rather humble lifestyle, in her rent stabilized apartment in New York City’s Upper East Side — despite her expensive taste in fashion, particularly in shoes — a juxtaposition that screams privilege. Furthermore, Carrie frequently accessorizing with a gold name plate necklace, is as ironic as it is another depiction of privilege. Ironic because there wasn’t a person of color in sight, cast wise — and interestingly enough the story is that Carrie found the jewelry at a flee market. With deeper history than that, this storyline is problematic for many. Seen as a symbol of black identity in the 80s and 90s, nameplates became synonymous with the culture. As Peggy McIntosh articulated in “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, this very jewelry is a metaphor for “a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions... There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me.” Although popularized by the hip hop era, a Google search for nameplate jewelry today will result in countless “Carrie” necklaces, along with current mainstream icons, almost all of whom are white. Where’s the mention of its original roots?

The fact that the inclination after first introducing Carrie and her Upper East Side apartment, was for the next sentence to be, ‘as a woman living by herself, barely able to boil an egg, but instead using her oven as storage’, is evidence of the social constructs society has influenced us through, and subsequently the ways in which we now internalize things and compartmentalize their normality or lack thereof. As expressed by Johnson, “The main use of any culture is to provide symbols and ideas out of which people construct their sense of what is real. As such, language mirrors social reality in sometimes startling ways.” Unlike the contemporary usage of the words mentioned in the article, which “describe women as threatening, evil, or heterosexually inexperienced and thus incomplete, in pre-patriarchal times, these words evoked far different images.” The word that stood out most in the context of Johnson's piece was virgin. Defined as “merely a woman who was unattached, unclaimed, and unowned by any man and therefore independent and autonomous.” That differs rather significantly from what it means today. A free agent for some time, in the professional sense, Carrie lived the life of most artists back then, establishing connections in the industry and appearing more well-off than she realistically was. Dating men often emotionally unavailable, immature, unable to meet her needs (or vice versa, for a number of reasons) or otherwise generally unmatched, Carrie ultimately finds herself at a fork in the road. When she finally found herself in a relationship with a great guy (Aiden) who adored her, Mr. Big swooped back in. Reminiscent of the manager analogy Johnson gave in his article, Carrie knowing the implications, entered into an affair with Mr. Big, resulting in his then wife being hurt in more ways than one. Both Carrie and Mr. Big, “participate[d] in a system that produce[d] these cruel results anyway, not because of cruel personalities or malice toward [women], but because a [patriarchal] system makes this a path of least resistance and exacts real costs from those who stray from it. The looming expectation that society hovers over women to find a companion to start a life with, suggests that women aren’t living before said man is found. Or that life becomes all the more valid after.

“Oh Carrie, it doesn’t matter how much you have. If you don’t have a guy who cares about you, it don’t mean ####.” Three days of sleep deprivation had turned Samantha into a whole new woman — Charlotte.” The symbol of sexual liberation among the four friends said the first line of this quote — Samantha Jones. One could say however, that it was a momentary lapse of insanity, because she was terribly sick at the time and felt vulnerable. Nonetheless this highlights the reliance on men and the notion that if a woman doesn’t have one, she’s somehow lacking. These are the sentiments very much echoed by Charlotte York. “I’ve been dating since I was fifteen, I’m exhausted! Where is he?” Desperately seeking love in earlier episodes, a hopeless romantic, and of the friends the one who saw marriage as the goal, Charlotte was often judgmental of them about what she viewed as major societal faux pas. As Johnson’s article theorizes, society has often taught us that sexism is a result of poor socialization that’s led men to be dominant and women submissive. On a number of occasions Charlotte encountered just that — in a brief relationship with an over bullish hedge fund guy, who was constantly getting into fights with other men to assert his power, and in a short-lived romance with another man who would yell expletives when they were in bed together. Sexism reared its head as often as sex itself did on the show.

Miranda, Miranda, Miranda. The fourth of the four friends, who over time makes big moves in corporate America, Miranda quickly becomes cognizant of the fact that her position isn’t attractive to a number of the men she’d consider pursuing. After what seemed like an endless rotation of men at a speed dating event, with no luck, Miranda decides to not mention that she’s a lawyer. She instead tells the next man that she’s a stewardess. When later questioned about it by Carrie, Miranda replied, “I was testing a theory. Men are threatened by powerful jobs. They don’t want a lawyer, they want a stewardess.” Miranda’s perspective is in line with McIntosh, that [men] “can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s [statuses].”

I credit my "Women's Gender Roles'" class for causing me to take a deeper look at a show I was watching rather mindlessly. After starting the course's readings a few weeks ago, the frontal and prefrontal thoughts I was having changed entirely. There is also an element of time, certain scenarios within the show feeling quite politically incorrect and socially unacceptable — as opposed to what they may have been when the show was first released. This begs the question, why did they ever fly in the first place? It appears the show writers have realized that they were very much involved in patriarchy’s oppressive tendencies, and are trying to rectify this via the series’ reboot, “And Just Like That.” Many, including myself, would argue that they’re not succeeding in doing so, but instead are further normalizing categorical thinking and opportunities for division.



Elle Sees NYC
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