What Carrie Could Learn From Mary

By Catherine Orenstein

New York Times Op-Ed

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

September 5, 2003


Thanks to HBO's "Sex and the City," now wrapping up its sixth and final season, female sensibility has a new face. Four faces, to be precise: prim Charlotte, no-nonsense Miranda, slutty Samantha and every-girl Carrie, the sex columnist played by Sarah Jessica Parker who is the show's thematic center. Perched on Jimmy Choos and wrapped in Gucci, sipping pink cosmopolitans with an assortment of handsome suitors, the women are witty, glamorous, independent and sexually liberated — in short, who wouldn't want to be them?


Me, for one. The show may deserve a nod for spotlighting women's conversation, for treating sexuality frankly and for rendering the traditionally stigmatized state of being a single woman more acceptable — indeed, chic. But under the guise of being salaciously liberating and radically feminist, the vision of modern femininity in "Sex and the City" is in fact surprisingly retrograde. The heroines spend most of their time on shopping, cocktails and one-night stands. Charlotte dreams of bridesmaids' dresses. Miranda frigidly "dates" her TiVo, while nymphomaniac Samantha — a blond bimbo who combines old-fashioned objectification with postmodern "do me" feminism — plows through the Kama Sutra. And in one episode Carrie discovers that she has only $957 in savings — but $40,000 in designer shoes in her closet.


More dated still, especially for a show that supposedly celebrates the joys of single life and female friendship, is its preoccupation with snagging a man. The characters are a walking compendium of modern female angst — the quest for a relationship, the ticking of the biological clock, the fear of aging out of the marriage market. Not that these aren't sometimes true and even potentially funny themes of single life. But when did haute couture fashion and prκt-ΰ-porter men come to eclipse all the other elements of independent womanhood?


As a single writer living in New York City, I can't help but compare "Sex and the City" to yesteryear's "Mary Tyler Moore Show," whose heroine — like Carrie, a 30-something single journalist — had cool clothes and plenty of suitors, but also story deadlines, a grouchy boss and male friends (not just "gay boyfriends" as on "Sex"). The show, which had its debut in 1970, was infused with the optimism and vigor of second-wave feminism. It opened with Mary leaving a boyfriend for the big city — Minneapolis — and landing a job as a television producer. She tackled substantial issues like freedom of the press and sexism in the workplace. Sure, there were also jokes about her single status. And she and sidekick Rhoda were once so desperate for dates that they joined a club for divorcιes even though neither of them had ever been married. But the jokes came with a light-hearted confidence in Mary's future. Whether or not she married, her theme song promised, she would "make it after all."


Other single heroines of the past seem comparatively forward thinking today as well, including Murphy Brown, the reporter and single mom played by Candace Bergen, and even Helen Gurley Brown, whose 1962 best seller "Sex and the Single Girl" was the titular and thematic foremother to "Sex and the City." While Ms. Gurley Brown's flirt-to-get-what-you-want brand of feminism seems quaint today, she never confused her means with her ends. She didn't sit around sipping cosmopolitans, she became editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine.


It's no coincidence that these icons of single femininity are all journalists. In the early 20th century, journalism was one of the few careers open to women, and the expanding ranks of "girl reporters" inspired stereotype-defying single heroines: Rosalind Russell as an ace reporter in 1940's "His Girl Friday," Katharine Hepburn as a foreign correspondent in 1942's "Woman of the Year," not to mention that famed comic-strip journalist Brenda Starr.


By contrast, the heroines of "Sex and the City" are vapid, materialistic and hysterical. The show makes short shrift of their intellect, they have no causes, no families — with the exception of Miranda, who has a son — and their jobs (what little we see of them) seem to exist to enable office trysts. Like Candace Bushnell's columns in The New York Observer upon which the show was based, their lives are flattened backdrops for their dates, and their dates, like their shoes, are accessories — nice looking, often uncomfortable, and seasonal.


In part this is what makes them popular. They're a caricature of a complicated generation of women — myself included — now coming into our 30's: the daughters of women's lib. Born in the years that the Ivy Leagues went co-ed and abortion became legal, we've been raised on promises of equality, we've been blessed with opportunities and we've delayed marriage and motherhood longer than any other generation. We have the luxury, or so we may think, of taking feminism's gains for granted.


"Sex and the City" glamorizes this condition — but to what end? Lacking substance and dimension, defined by sex appeal and revolving around men, Carrie and her friends are stuck in a surprisingly old-fashioned, Jane Austenian trap: having failed to leverage youth and beauty into something more substantial, they are now in danger of becoming spinsters. Indeed, they are already there, according to a recent New York Times article that compared them to the sexagenarians of "The Golden Girls."


Before the series comes to an end, it would be gratifying to see Carrie and her friends grow up into something more than restless partyers, man-hunters and shoe-shoppers, and find something more enduring to glamorize: a cause, a family, a career that is more than a backdrop for sex, or even just a story worthy of the girl reporter's legacy. Something that broadens our idea of what makes a woman sexy. Something worthy of the feminism our mothers bequeathed us.

Catherine Orenstein is author of "Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale."