Sex and the City has always bugged me for reasons I could never put my finger on. That is, before yesterday. I was sitting at an awesome, feminist lunch with my pal Amanda (who I am SO GLAD is back in Chicago!) and we were discussing books and whatnot, as fellow English majors are apt to do, and I mentioned how much better having one, well-rounded female character in a novel is than having four BFFs who end up being more or less caricatures of themselves having only one real characteristic.
Most novels, movies, and TV shows that have four (or three, or five, or however many – the theory remains) best girlfriends as the main characters are hailed as feminist because the women are empowered, independent, and have each other to lean on rather than some man. However, most entertainment with four strong, lead female characters follows the same pattern. You have basically the same four or five essential characters:
The Carrie: The most well-rounded character in the show, The Carrie is a strong, independent woman. But not too strong or independent. She still is soft enough around the edges to attract the attentions of a plethora of men. She is also usually the glue that holds the group together. The rest of the women may not have even met if it weren’t for her. She is also everyone’s best friend, maid of honor, godmother to their children.
The Charlotte: Otherwise known as The Prude. The Charlotte is idealistic, naive, looking for true love. She is also a control-freak. Everything that surrounds her must be perfect, lest the perfect man sees her imperfections and runs for the hills. She’s exceedingly pretty, but not very smart nor very independent. She’s also around to tell all of her girlfriends exactly what they have done wrong, but cries incessantly when someone tells her she’s done something wrong. That cannot possibly be; she’s perfect.
The Samantha: Otherwise known as The Slut. I don’t use “slut” here as a derogatory term, rather to denote someone who does what she wants, wears what she wants, and dates who she wants. The Samantha is sexually liberated, sassy, smart, and never settles down with one guy. If she does, she questions it or is unhappy in some way and usually ends up upsetting the balance she’s created for herself in her single life.
The Miranda: Otherwise known as The Not-As-Pretty-But-Super-Smart-And-Successful or The Bitter Maid. The Miranda is driven, successful, works way too much to have any sort of fun. She has had her heart broken so many times, she is now bitter regarding men. Her job is to add quippy one-liners about how awful men are to any conversation the women might be having. The other women may try to set her up with dates that are disastrous, or to give her a makeover.
See a pattern here? I bet you can apply these same caricatures to any movie, show, or book that has a group of women as its main characters. From The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to Dirty Girls Social Club to Commencement, the same women show up doing the same old things.
This is why these novels are so popular for a period of time, but also why they eventually crash and burn. (Did anyone see the second Sex and the City movie? Then you know what I’m talking about.) We all see a little bit of ourselves in each of these characters. Everyone wants to be a Carrie – a leading lady in her own life – but I, for example, am sassy and smart (Samantha), driven (Miranda), and a perfectionist (Charlotte). I can identify with every one of those characters! And they’re independent, successful women to boot! Why wouldn’t we feminists love these characters?
But the problem eventually becomes that we expect these women to grow and change, but that hardly ever happens. It can’t! Otherwise, the marketing team would have no idea what to do to continue to shove these shows into our living rooms once a week. Take the second Sex and the City movie, for example. We’ve got Carrie unhappy in her marriage, like any single gal would be according to societal narratives. There’s Charlotte, finally with her own flesh-and-blood child (as if the beautiful girl she adopted wasn’t quite enough). Samantha, who had committed to a man, then eaten her way through the depression that couples commitment, is now taking an unnatural barrage of hormonal supplements to stave off menopause. And let’s not forget Miranda, on the brink of divorce because she can’t seem to let anyone get emotionally close to her, and she can’t seem to leave that job of hers to hang out with her family.
Perhaps I’m confusing the two movies here, but it doesn’t matter. The fact is that we see these women in life situations that are drastically different from when we first met them, but they are still the same women, doing the same things. Carrie is still brooding about relationships, Samantha is still hitting on any man she sees, Miranda is still working herself to death, and Charlotte is still perfect and innocent. There’s no growth, no real depth, no change. And, to top it off, the second movie was the worst example of white privilege and racial ignorance that I had ever seen. Ever.
Women in real life are multi-faceted, and we change and grow with every situation we’re presented with. We find ways to remake ourselves and become something even better with every major step we take in life. We add facets and take them away when we need to. And we are strong, no doubt about it. These women characters are strong, which is why we like them so much. But they are not real; they are not examples of what women are in real life. They barely scrape the surface.
I’ll take a well-rounded single female character any day over women who are just pieces of a whole. Maybe you disagree. I’d love to hear your thoughts!