Gender, Consumption and the Media
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Published: Tue, 07 Aug 2018
Research Question: How do the themes of gender, which are communicated in Sex and the City, relate to consumption?
Consumption is a social practice which subconsciously communicates ideas about gender. In turn, gender intersects with the realm of consumer behaviour as a cognitive, cultural and political construct (Ross, 2010, pp.13-39). In this instance, the media provides an important sphere to observe the social constructions of gender that, through routine, substantiates certain performances of gender (Hirschman & Stern, 1994, pp. 576-81). Within the context of Home Box Office’s television series, Sex and the City (1998-2004, hereafter ‘SATC’), this paper will analyse contemporary depictions of femininity and demonstrate how these interpretations coincide with consumption. It will further discuss how gender fluidity allow the characters of SATC the liberty to transpire and transition between the essentialist attributes of feminine versus masculine, distorting the conventional boundaries and constructions of femininity when they consume homes, engage in consumption related to sex, and struggle with true love and marriage in their search for authenticity. Each character discovers approaches to simultaneously reconstruct and reinforce their gendered identities as they construct contemporary roles with the assistance of consumption. However, it is this consumption that can generate new tensions.
The home is often associated with the gendered notions of the domestic sphere. Within the home, production and consumption are conventionally defined, with men buying the home and women buying for the home. This shapes the home as a site of patriarchal oppression and control (Schroeder & Borgerson, 1998, pp. 105-231). However, Caldwell and Kleppe (2006, pp. 22-40) argue that household members can subvert, conform to, or negotiate ideas about gender. While discourses on home ownership are traditionally related to the marriage of a man and woman, SATC represents home ownership as allowing the female characters freedom to explore the expectations that are associated with conventional gender roles in the home and their personal desire to demarcate new gender roles as single women, without children, consuming living spaces.
For Miranda, gender fluidity is communicated to encompass the power roles of men and women as professionals, lovers and homeowners. In light of this, Miranda experiences tensions when she confronts the vestiges of conventional gender roles when buying her home. Initially, Miranda had visualised that her acquirement of a home would satisfy her identity as an independent yet professionally accomplished single woman. However, the possession of a home for Miranda is shown to become imbued with sexism. This reflects the cultural assumption that a woman without children or a husband would simply not possess sufficient financial funds or knowledge to invest in real estate and would not consider purchasing her home ‘alone’. In effect, the challenge a woman’s achievement in the conventionally masculine, public sphere of work as a corporate lawyer poses leaves Miranda’s character insecure about her performance of femininity. Here, SATC communicates how the subversion of traditional feminine ideals will inevitably involve a negotiation of the gains of feminism. By purchasing a house without a man, Miranda is portrayed to challenge the norm which results in a self-reflective debate regarding her performance of femininity. Miranda’s experiences of tension demonstrate that changes to gender norms come slowly. The consumption related to domesticity and the home is therefore denoted in SATC as simultaneously liberating yet replete with tensions of the gender norms in everyday life.
Another theme of gender that SATC communicates is how gender and consumption discourses are interlinked with the confines of sexuality. Gender is argued to be interlinked with sexuality as an individual’s gender guides their sexuality while at the same time an individual’s sexuality validates their gender (Fracher & Kimmel 1995, p. 367). Schroeder and Zwick (2004, p. 34) argue that consumer behaviour regarding everyday products reflects on the messages of ‘sexuality, lifestyle and identity’. In SATC, themes of sexuality are intently interlinked with gender and consumption discourses although the cultural messages imbued in the consumption choices are neither essentialist nor direct. The women of SATC represent a contemporary adaptation of the single girl. This new standard for contemporary women is less fixed on chasing marriage as a fundamental end, but more focused on career and relationships. While stereotypical media representations of women primarily exhibit traits of femininity as that of passivity and helplessness (Stole 2003, pp. 65-80), the narrative of single girls in SATC mirror the changes in the norms of femininity over time.
For Samantha, her gender status as a single female and being the eldest of the four women, welcomes her attempts to control and preserve her youth through the performance of aesthetic labour (Pettinger, 2004, pp. 165-84). However, this narrative of Samantha struggling and worrying about her changing sexuality because of aging is brought to a halt when she realises the power her gender status provides her over the notions of beauty and youth. Samantha is characterised as empowering when she withstands the influence of the stereotypical images of female sexuality she is enveloped by as an exuberant consumer of fashion and executive-owner of a public relations firm. Through the characterisation of Samantha, the performance of female sexuality is suggested to involve an aesthetic that changes as a woman physically and emotionally matures. The aesthetic of femininity links female sexuality and power as SATC frames the aesthetic and its associated power to be about Samantha’s power to create and use it. In essence, Samantha embodies the tensions that emerge when a female must let go of youth and acknowledge her own power to determine her own beauty with age. In turn, the performance of female sexuality is highlighted to relate to consuming pleasure which may or may not involve sharing that pleasure with a man, either because men cannot provide it, or women prefer to experience the pleasure alone. Nonetheless, views of masculine power and predatory sexuality, the correlation sexual performance has with marriage and dating that will eventually result in marriage remain evident notions in SATC. This stresses gender as a social construct and how consumers will require time before being able to perform a more fluid notion of gender, without the anxiety, despite the idea of gender equality. SATC therefore communicates the tensions experienced by females that relate to these norms during their consumption of goods (for Samantha, the consideration of plastic surgery) which, in turn, affect the females’ performance of their sexuality and creating their desired gender identity.
The final theme of gender communicated in SATC is the tension between an ongoing ambivalence for an authentic gender identity and the stereotyped female longing for true love and marriage. Potter (2010, p. 4) holds that authenticity and the consumption of true love and marriage is about individualism and a movement way from the masses to seek an individual gender status. However, consumption can never lead to an authentic gender identity because of what is consumed is considered to be inauthentic. As gender is a ‘natural and pre-cultural’ social construct (McCracken, 2008, p.186), the pursuit of an authentic gender identity and the performance of gender fluidity that may offer self-transformation and opportunities by being enacted through consumption may require the shelving of the authentic gender along the way. In SATC, the real self and the real love are framed as the female authenticity. By consuming to pursue authenticity, the female characters alter the power structure traditional gender roles have established through femininity’s contemporary self-sufficiency as the women of SATC discern between the fakes and real of love and self-knowledge.
In Season 3, Charlotte escapes from the authenticity of New York City to experience the superficiality of Los Angeles. The change in setting allows Charlotte to reconsider the authenticity of the conservative gender messages she embodied in New York City. In effect, Charlotte is shown to become frustrated by her pursuits of authentic love and marriage as following the conventions of how to get married and pursue her views of true love and marriage to establish an authentic gender identity have been unsuccessful. Through the characterisation of Charlotte, SATC communicates the view of a conservative, gender identity where unmarried women should not have sex with their unmarried partner until after marriage. In effect, work, sexuality and consumption are conveyed as gender roles to be performed for the goal of true love, marriage and a gender identity. However, Charlotte’s later frustrations over her marriage with an impotent husband indicate that her pursuit of true love and marriage through following conventions may have, in itself, been inauthentic. This expresses the contemporary idea that gender identities in relationships are unstable and unscripted. Tensions between the conventional and contemporary norms are conveyed in SATC to be part of new gender performances yet the ending of fixed models or frames of references for true love, marriage and gender identity inherently creates anxiety.
Constructions of gender in the media influence the understandings of gender in reality. These constructions provide points of analysis as they legitimise certain performances of gender and reflect broader discourses in society. The themes of gender in SATC focus on questions of the freedom of femininity and the changing notions of female sexuality in a dynamic social landscape. By examining SATC, insight is provided into the contemporary performativity of femininity in relation to consumption in public and traditionally masculine spheres. With the notions of family and work having changed in society, it has brought simultaneous changes in the understanding of gender roles. SATC provides a new independent woman, who despite subverts their traditional gender role, still struggles with similar issues prevalent in traditional notions of gender. The gender fluidity of post-feminism gives the characters of SATC the freedom to be multifaceted in their performances regarding consuming the home, experiencing sexuality and maintain and projecting an authentic self. However, this fluidity is often fraught with tensions between traditional models of gender and the gendered performances of the characters. The characters in SATC find ways to simultaneously re-establish and reinforce their gendered identities as they create and occupy new roles (with the aid of consumption) in a world of competing discourses of gender which are grounded in prior notions of femininity. Yet this consumption can lead to a sense of anxiety as well from the complex negotiations of gender expectations.
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Sex and the City 1998 – 2004, television series, HBO Original Programming, New York.
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