September 7, 2003

Where the Girls Aren't

Catherine Orenstein’s essay in Friday’s 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 Goldberg’s 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. You’d 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 here’s 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.

Orenstein basically manages to demonstrate that while she may have watched “Sex in the City”, she doesn’t understand it. It’s not one of my favorite shows, either, and I don’t watch it very often. I think it’s a great show, it’s just that I don’t personally enjoy it that much. I’ve got no pressing political beef with it, for two reasons.

First, because 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 can’t 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 Orenstein’s 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 komissar’s checklist of approved and unapproved symbols and signs. It’s 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 work.)

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 Samantha’s nyphomania, is laid out through irony, and sometimes it’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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.