Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw

Carrie Bradshaw: Feminist icon?

In reviews of the decade, the "Sex and the City" star is called both an enemy and a heroine to women


Tracy Clark-Flory
December 23, 2009 4:01AM (UTC)

Take the past 10 years of feminist activism, all of the many failures and triumphs, and spread these moments across the tabletop of your mind. What image stands out? What face first comes to mind? Hillary Clinton? Angela Merkel? Carrie Bradshaw? 

No need to check your eyes, you read it right: Today, the "Sex and the City" protagonist was declared an icon of the decade by noted feminist author Naomi Wolf. And just this past weekend, the make-believe Manhattanite was blamed by Camilla Long of the Times for kicking off a revolution that has made women increasingly unhappy. To recap: As the decade comes to a close, a fictional sex writer is being credited with both improving and ruining things for real, live women.

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Let's take a closer look at these end-of-the-decade claims, shall we? Long's argument is short and simple: "Stuck between the greater promise of true love and the immediate practicality of settling down, Carrie’s choices were somehow our choices." She continues, "For 10 long years, Carrie couldn’t decide, and we couldn’t decide, so we all went shopping." That's all she wrote on that front: Carrie Bradshaw inspired women to shop the pain away; dilemmas about relationships and starting a family were tossed in the trash alongside a mountain of credit card bills.

However, Wolf wrestles with actual issues -- of course. She's a feminist icon in her own right and an enigmatic writer who is sometimes brilliant and sometimes a little cuckoo. In setting up her argument, she writes in the Guardian: "So why am I so sure that Carrie Bradshaw ... is an icon and did as much to shift the culture around certain women's issues as real-life feminist groundbreakers?" It's easy enough in first reading that line to drop the word "certain" and think with a gasp, She's saying that Manolo-collecting fashionista did more for women's issues than actual feminist activists? In truth, though, she's arguing that Bradshaw, and "SATC" in general, shifted the cultural landscape in some very particular and noteworthy ways -- something that has been observed without controversy many times before -- but, sure, she got my attention.

She goes on to herald Candace Bushnell, the author of the New York Observer column that inspired the show -- which makes you wonder why she didn't declare her, the real-life Carrie, an icon of the decade:

Bushnell was brave enough to lay bare the secret -- that for many women the search for love is the same urgent, central, archetypal quest story that for men is played out in war narratives and adventure tales. Bushnell was gutsy enough to disclose that even we serious, accomplished, feminist women spend a lot of time, when we are alone with our female friends, telling stories centered on the men with whom we are romantically entangled, exploring the quality of the love and attraction, the romance and the sex.

It's true, many women are deeply dedicated to ruminating on their romances and charting the emotional vicissitudes of life with their female friends. This is supposed to be the fluff of the "chick lit" aisle, but "SATC" made it seem smart, relevant and less shameful. "She was a writer who arrived in the big city to test her mettle and realise her voice," Wolf argues. "Male writers have structured stories around exactly this character from F Scott Fitzgerald to JD Salinger to Philip Roth; but Carrie showed audiences week after week that a lively female consciousness was as interesting as female sexuality or motherhood or martyrdom -- the tradition(al) role model options." I agree on all these points when they're stated moderately. Carrie Bradshaw isn't the feminist heroine of the decade, but did her character have a tremendous cultural impact? Absolutely.

I initially came to Wolf's argument with an oversize handbag full of caution, because it was just in May that she skewered today's "lifestyle" feminism. She wrote somewhat mockingly of the revolution (of which that fashionable HBO quartet is a large part) that brought about "a breezy vision of hip, smart young women who will take a date to the right-on, woman-friendly sex shop Babeland." Wolf also observed: "That very individualism, which has been great for feminism's rebranding, is also its weakness: It can be fun and frisky, but too often, it's ahistorical and apolitical." The article ended with this kicker: "Feminists are in danger if we don't know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make."

Odd that she would exalt the star of the "SATC" franchise as a female heroine of the decade just half a year after criticizing the very same brand of fluffy feminism for overshadowing politics, no? Wolf wants more balance for today's young feminists, but she seems to be  having a hard time personally striking that balance herself -- and aren't we all! It's tough reconciling contradictions between your political beliefs and personal life, and that's what so much of "Sex and the City" explored -- maybe not from an explicitly feminist perspective but certainly a feminist-influenced one. The show made great stilettoed strides for women, but feminism sure paved the way.

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Tracy Clark-Flory

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