Modern television programs and series certainly differ from the shows that were produced fifteen years ago. The feminist thought has been incorporated in a number of society’s fields, including altered video and TV representation of women. They are no longer shown as housewives only; men have finally started treating women as equals, giving up part of their dominance in favor of females. Television was quick to spot such changes in the perception of women and began producing programs that projected a new and different image of a woman – strong, successful, independent, and beautiful. This paper, by comparing and contrasting Ally McBeal and Sex and the City series, considers the ways in which feminist discourses have been incorporated into modern TV drama, with a particular focus on how women are portrayed and what stereotypes are still used in females’ representation in contemporary television.
For Home Box Office, the makers of Sex and the City (1998-2004), this altered perception of women has been used successfully to enhance both its visibility and its reputation in a context where cable television had to struggle to gain any status at all. In 2001 Sex and the City won the Primetime Emmy Award for “Outstanding Comedy Series” - the first time a cable TV show has ever taken top honors for best series in any category and since then it has been showered with medals. Its success has been achieved by innovation to address a niche market.
It has a whole channel addressed to women: HBO Signature, “smart, sophisticated entertainment for women” (Whelehan 2000). The creation of a successful brand in a competitive market depends on the ability to innovate within a pattern of strong features to create a recognizable identity for a product that appeals to a commercially attractive audience. The novelty of Sex and the City lies in the adaptation of a woman-centered and explicit sexual discourse into television drama, enabled by the differentiated taste cultures of a modern environment.
The success of this drama is largely due to the HBO’s ability to meet the altered demands of viewers for the new type of a show, portraying successful, sexy, and independent women. One year before Sex and the City came to screens, the feminization of TV series was reflected in a legal drama titled Ally McBeal (Fox 1997-2003). Ally McBeal relied on the exploitation of the pleasures associated with the masculine, public world of work and the feminized, private world of personal relationships (Nelson 2000; 2001a). This allowed an engagement with feminist issues arising from women’s relation to the law and to work. A focus on women as protagonists, whose actions drive the narrative, replaced the narrow range of roles available previously to women characters in these genres (Whelehan 2000).
At the same time, shows such as Sex and the City and Ally McBeal illustrated, if not introduced, a new stereotype – that of a single and unhappy woman longing to form relationships with a man; and not being content with her role as a successful but unmarried woman. Robin Nelson (2001a, p. 43) describes Ally McBeal’s “flexi-narrative” form as combining conventions from comedy, pop video, melodrama and court room dramas, which produces a “complexity of tone and point of view that actively precludes a stable viewing position”. Ally herself is “double coded ... at once an independent professional woman in charge of her destiny and a vulnerable wife like figure waiting for Mr. Right to come along” (Nelson, 2001a, p. 43). Through its blurring of the boundaries between work and private life this series decreases the gap between males and females, but it fails to present these as mutually exclusive categories (Moseley and Read 2002). The show constantly returns to feminist issues in its legal cases – sexual harassment is a recurring issue – but the gains made by feminist activism are sometimes criticized for having gone too far: the comic mode opens them to ridicule (Moseley and Read 2002).
Similarly, Ally’s melodramatic nature implies that she needs and seeks male protection in her life. She doesn’t simply fit into a male-centered workplace focused on rationality. In fact, her emotional excess becomes the dominant office code for her male colleagues as well. In the walls of the unisex toilet, people consider their own and other people’s faces as they work through their lives. They sometimes overhear a secret conversation from behind the walls. It is the space where the failure to divide masculine and feminine is powerfully symbolized. It is here that the public and private, the personal and the professional converge almost fully, leaving a woman devastated and unable to find herself in this male-dominated world.
Although it shares Ally McBeal’s incorporation of feminist themes and its focus on the heterosexual, white, metropolitan, career woman, Sex and the City is very different from this drama. Differences arise from the conditions of its production and distribution as niche market that “encourages a division between men’s and women’s programming” (Compaine and Gomery 2000, p. 524). Sex and the City draws on the feminine address established in women’s glossy magazines with their consumer-oriented advice on beauty and fashion and on sexual relationships. This alters the trend towards the unification of masculine and feminine genres that was prevalent in earlier TV dramas of the 1990’s.
In the feminist thought the rights of women to work outside the home and to be able to compete on equal terms with men have been always a central one. In most developed economies not only do women now make up more than 50 per cent of the workforce, but also they are working in careers previously dominated by men (Nelson 2001b). In modern world, however, females are believed to question whether it was worth it, adding to the mentioned above stereotype of a successful, but unhappy single woman.
Such series as Sex and the City form a view that the personal cost for professional women of competing in a man’s world is represented as making it more difficult to find a man to marry. The emotional difficulty this causes is closely linked to the ticking biological clock that makes women in their thirties the particular focus for these concerns (Whelehan 2000). In fictional versions of this discourse the emotional tone tends towards melodrama, with the emphasis on the impossibility of a woman getting what she wants - she is a failing figure. Alternatively, the tone is comedic, where the dilemma of the thirty-something single girl is a sign of her inadequacy as a woman (Whelehan 2000).
It has been argued that the unhappy career woman is part of the plan designed to deliver women to the advertisers: these are the women who have disposable income and the dissatisfaction that drives consumption (Whelehan 2000). Alternatively, it can be seen as a response to a feminist strategy of seeking equality with (rather than valuing women’s difference from) men. In these terms, modern feminist thought is a necessary measure to properly describe the difference between the public and private spheres of women’s lives (Hollows 2000).
In the women-centered drama of modern television, the division between the work and the domestic sphere that prevents women from having it all has become blurred. This is achieved in Sex and the City because the world of work largely disappears from view, although the women’s autonomy from men is underwritten by their economic independence. Work is brought into the private sphere and becomes another form of self-expression, alongside consumption, thereby illustrating another difficulty faced by the modern women.
Sex life of the series’ central character, Carrie, and those of her friends, act as research for her weekly newspaper column, which she writes from home. Samantha works in public relations, a job where her physical attractions and personal charm are intrinsic to her success. Charlotte manages an art gallery in a manner that suggests it is more of a hobby. This does indeed reflect the changing nature of work in which flexible working and knowledge-based careers have reduced the separation of the public and private spheres. Only Miranda feels the contradiction between her private life and her career success as a lawyer, where long hours and a competitive environment conflict with her life as a single mother in later seasons of the show.
The main expectation is that modern TV drama will be about single women wanting to get married. Sex and the City was initially marketed as such to feed into those expectations. The video ad for the first season states “Sexy, hip, smart and sassy, Sex and the City charts the lives and loves of four women and their quest to find the one thing that eludes them all – a real, satisfying and lasting relationship. Is such a thing possible in New York?” (Hollows 2000)
Yet, unlike in earlier series, in Sex and the City the single women’s unhappiness isn’t represented as women choosing a career over a man. Of the four women only Charlotte is clear in her desire to get married, but she is quickly disillusioned when she does. The traditional romance narrative is still there but as a slightly old-fashioned version of femininity that doesn’t work in practice (Nelson 2001b). Charlotte’s belief in romance is undercut by her new husband’s impotence on their wedding night and her discovery that he can be aroused only by a porn magazine in the bathroom (Nelson 2001b). When Carrie and friends visit a former New Yorker for her baby shower they aren’t shown envying the woman her home in the country, her husband and her coming baby - instead it accentuates the gap that separates them from her - and they return to their single lives in New York with a huge sigh of relief. Miranda does finally marry her baby’s father in the final season of the show, and, with great misgivings, buys a house in Brooklyn. In the final episode Carrie is reunited with Big, the love of her life, when he at last realizes he can’t live without her. Nevertheless, these conventional outcomes do not change the fact that the series as a whole was predicated on their being single.
The widespread popular success of Sex and the City and Ally McBeal suggests that television has found yet another way to exploit women, by creating a stereotyped image of a successful, independent, but unhappy female who is preoccupied, if not obsessed, with finding her husband – Mr. Right. Although TV dramas abandoned the old image of women as wives and housekeepers, they still fail to adequately portray them as independent and happy, despite their involvement in personal relationships and having a man by their side. Women have the right to be content with what they are, either married or single.