Carried Away … Again

Conference Review of
Sex and the City 10 Years On:
Landmark Television and its Legacy’

by Janet McCabe

Sarah Jessica Parker in InStyle magazine, May 2014There I was sitting in Newark Airport. Flicking through the latest InStyle for the interview with Sarah Jessica Parker. I glanced up and there she was: SJP in all her sartorial glory—on CNN at the launch of her new collection of shoes. What else? Beautiful, simple, sexy and ever so feminine, the ‘exclusive’ new line didn’t disappoint with delicate ankle straps and trademark vertiginous heels.  And here I was in New York with the sun rising over the Manhattan skyline.

Never has such a contemporary female body been so closely associated with a modern cosmopolitan city as Parker’s. She has become a vehicle for reading traces of our contemporary postfeminist experience. It is a femininity made visible through retail aesthetics, consumer pleasures and lifestyle choices. Parker/Carrie Bradshaw propelling herself through midtown Manhattan on those Manolo Blahnik stilettos fashioned a new form of mobile subjectivity—of modern womanhood on the move.  And I couldn’t help but wonder: is this the legacyof Sex and the City?

Deborah Jermyn, Sex and the City (Wayne State University Press, 2009)‘Sex and the City 10 Years On: Landmark Television and its Legacy’, sponsored by the Women’s Media Studies Network at MeCCSA and the Centre for Research in Film and Audiovisual Cultures, was held at the University of Roehampton on Friday 4 April 2014. [1] Organised by Deborah Jermyn, a foremost SATC scholar, the conference aimed to assess why Sex and the City (1998-2004) mattered, then as now.  As the symposium revealed, the HBO series was always more than about shoes, sex and sartorial style; and Jermyn set the agenda as she sought to move the debate beyond this narrative and reclaim instead what made the show so unique.  What emerged from the plenary in which I was involved was the question of representation: and in particular the politics of representing the feminine, the female body and experience, with insights into cultures of motherhood (Kim Akass) and female friendships (Beatriz Oria), while I spoke of sex and sexuality and the continual trouble women have in talking about such matters.

For me, Sex and the City always bore an uncomfortable, almost over-determined, burden of representation. Standing alone in the midst of an HBO schedule dominated by male-oriented series like The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Oz (1997-2003), nothing else compared.  We had in fact to wait another 8 years before another female auteur, Lena Dunham, was given the opportunity to bring her story of women living and loving in NYC to HBO screens with Girls (2012-present).

The Carrie DiariesOne of the themes to emerge strongly from the day, and one that should interest the network, is the question of the female auteur being given a space to create stories for and about women on television.  Various speakers dealt directly with this topic; and looked in particular at how female writers constructed discourses of sex and sexuality, female agency and lifestyle, and how these shows were often used to brand particular networks and cable channels. Julia Scanlon spoke of Harriet Braun, the writer and creator of BBC 3’s Glasgow-based lesbian drama, Lip Service (2010-present), as she addressed questions of queer identities and a post-feminist sexual agency.  Joanne Knowles looked at the BBC’s Secret Diary of Call Girl (2007-present), created by Lucy Prebble, and how this chick narrative starring Billy Piper was used to legitimise the ITV brand for a younger demographic. Moving across the Atlantic, two series owed a more direct debt to Sex and the City. Rona Murray offered a sparkling analysis of Lena Dunham, of her Hannah Horvath character as the anti-Carrie Bradshaw, and of Dunham’s performance of gender functions on and off-screen. Susan Berridge turned the spotlight on Amy B. Harris, co-producer on SATC, and more recently creator of the teen drama, The Carrie Diaries (2013-14), which focuses on the teenage Bradshaw, before the Big Apple and Mr Big. Berridge’s paper insightfully analysed this return to innocence as a way of exploring questions of female sexuality and sexual agency and how these issues remain highly contested for a feminine identity.

Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica ParkerMuch of the SATC legacy is bound with the almost total collapse of Sarah Jessica Parker into Carrie Bradshaw. It was an issue skillfully articulated by Helen Warner, when she focused on fashion and the role played by sartorial discourses in constructing a sense of feminine self and juxtaposition between celebrity and performance. The almost deafening cacophony surrounding SJP—from being touted as the heiress-apparent to Anna Wintour at Vogue to her latest style choices—has the effect of almost drowning out what made SATC different, as well as eliding the importance of other women in constructing this text for and about women. One of the most poignant interventions was from Lingling Miao and her ethnographic study of SATC fans in China on how female viewers were using and consuming the HBO series. [2] Often watching alone, after work and late at night, and wearing headphones and plugged into computer screens, these women were creating intimate environments of passionate engagement away from the everyday.  It’s these other stories of how SATC has travelled beyond Manhattan and been watched and consumed in different cultural and socio-political contexts, how it has changed perceptions and offered new identities and ways of being, which I think are the key legacies of the show that requiremore work.

[1] See here for Hannah Hamad’s review of the conference published by CSTOnline.

[2] Miao used this site during her research.

Janet McCabe is Lecturer in Film and Television at Birkbeck, University of London. She is the managing editor of Critical Studies in Television, and has edited various titles, including Reading Sex and the City (with Kim Akass; 2004).

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