September 7, 2003
Where the Girls Aren't
essay in Fridays New York Times on Sex in the City is a textbook
case of why a certain style of feminist critique, or the cultural left
more generally, has so thoroughly lost out in the war for hearts and minds.
You could write a parallel to Danny Goldbergs Dispatches From the Culture
Wars that deals more with intellectuals, academics, writers and thinkers
who identify with the left but who completely lack the ability to perform a
sophisticated reading on popular culture. Youd think that Susan Douglas
great book Where the Girls Are would have in particular sent this species
of feminist cultural criticism back to the drawing board. But heres Orenstein,
walking into the same cul-de-sac with eyes wide shut.
I keep being told
by friends and associates that every single instance of this ham-fisted approach
to the meanings and content of popular culture, every case of people on the
left displaying a near-instinctive loathing for mass culture, every moment where
a prominent liberal or left thinker comes off like a caricature or a scold,
is just isolated or exceptional or unusual. Maybe so, but enough exceptions
amount to a pattern.
manages to demonstrate that while she may have watched Sex in the City,
she doesnt understand it. Its not one of my favorite shows, either,
and I dont watch it very often. I think its a great show, its
just that I dont personally enjoy it that much. Ive got no pressing
political beef with it, for two reasons.
I think it captures, with a goodly amount of authenticity and self-awareness,
a real enough and rather interesting social world, and I think to ask a show
or film or book to portray an idealized world instead of invoking something
recognizable is one of the classically fatal impulses that the cultural left
(and cultural right) display. Orenstein invokes The Mary Tyler Moore Show
as the preferable alternative to Sex and the City, presumably in
part so that she doesnt come off as a high culture snob who thinks that
only the films of Lizzie Borden would make an acceptable substitute for Sex
and the City. What she doesnt seem to get is that The Mary
Tyler Moore Show worked in its time and place because it had the same
invocational authenticity then as Sex and the City does
today. You cant rip that program out of its time and say, Here,
do another one of these, because the moment that show legitimately invoked
is long past. When we watch Mary Richards on her odyssey to independence now,
we watch her historically, as a window into a past sensibility. It's still funny,
and occasionally even still relevant, but it's not set in the world of now,
however much it might be set in the world of NOW.
Both the cultural
left and the cultural right ultimately have a simple-minded conception of the
relationship between practice and representation. In their shared view, to represent
a social world is straightforwardly to summon it into being. To show something
on television is to celebrate it, or in Orensteins typical formulation,
glamorize it, unless it unambiguously sets out to demonize instead.
So if one wants to see changes in world, then harass television executives and
movie producers to make products to match, that follow a kultural komissars
checklist of approved and unapproved symbols and signs. Its a foolish
impulse, both because it usually has the opposite of the intended effect (if
followed, it most often it results in turgid, prissy, self-righteously boring
work that no one watches unless they're compelled to do so) and because it has
buried within in it an authoritarian desire to order and mobilize the work of
representation to narrowly instrumental ends (the compulsion to watch tends
to follow closely on the heels of the audience rejecting the turgidly idealized
Second, I have no real complaint against Sex because it is so keenly aware of and open to most of the issues that Orenstein raises. Sometimes the question of materialism, or the emptiness of the quest for male companionship, or the futility of Samanthas nyphomania, is laid out through irony, and sometimes its laid out pretty forthrightly, but these things are in any event always issues. This isn't Horatio Alger or some crudely propagandistic brief for the characters as a human or social ideal.
The show showcases
the kinds of debates that Orenstein launches so blithely as a complaint against
the program. I dont know how you could see the show and miss its ironic,
self-referential spirit. There may be complaints to be made about the ubiquity
of such a spirit, of the postmodern geist, but they ought to be made knowingly
and appreciatively. Orenstein comes off as nostalgic for Mary Tyler Moore
because it was the last time she actually understood a television program: she
doesnt seem able to grasp the possibility that popular culture could contain
double meanings, that it is possible for a program to show something that is
at once authentic and superficial. Welcome to 2003. Mary Richards, wherever
she is, watches and laughs at "Sex and the City", even if Orenstein
doesn't, laughing both with and at its characters.
Orenstein's article is not just an intellectual sin. When you approach popular culture the way that Carrie Nation approached a cask of booze, you shrink rather than expand the power and coherence of contemporary feminism, reduce it to a prim and prohibitionary force. If Orenstein is concerned with being worthy of the feminism that her mothers bequeathed her, she might want to be concerned with how to keep feminism a meaningful and growing concern relevant to contemporary life rather than perpetually, mordantly looking backwards to past glories.