When Women Flaunt Their Toys
Ever since Sex and the City 2 hit theaters last Thursday, reviewers have been battling over the cleverest way to call four grown women spoiled, shameless and self-absorbed. While critics have found fault with everything from the women's continued interest in men to their gossipy natures, the thickest venom has been reserved for, you guessed it, the shoes. From the series inception, no topic has inspired more vitriol than the women's penchant for conspicuous consumption, and the movies have only made matters worse. The first threatened to turn Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, who dubbed the characters "hormonal hobbits," into a "hard-line Marxist, my head a whirl of closets, delusions, and blunt-clawed cattiness." Reviews of the sequel have been equally harsh. Roger Ebert used the words "flyweight bubbleheads," while the Washington Post went straight for "demented and self-serving."
Now I'm not opposed to critiques of materialism, but it's hard not to suspect more is going on here than a collective sense of disappointment that Carrie is buying shoes instead of saving the world, especially given the almost absurd levels of spite expressed and the fact that we rarely see such wrath aimed at all the stupid ways men spend money. To be sure, there are academic articles analyzing the materialism in rap, and the testosterone-driven excesses of Wall Street have lately taken a beating. But when P. Diddy flaunts his pool boy, we tend to see him as witty, not "trivial" and "shallow." And while we question the integrity of the Lehman Brothers boys, few have likened them to hobbits, imaginary creatures, half-people at best. We save these sorts of words, these sorts of images, for women.
Unfortunately, this discrepancy is not terribly surprising. The image of women spending money, especially on themselves, has long been a controversial subject—one that taps into cultural anxieties about women's progress and its effect on masculinity. As historian Kathy Peiss, author of Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York, has pointed out, when young single women—Carrie's forerunners—first started to enter the workforce in cities like New York and Chicago over a hundred years ago, it wasn't even assumed they should be allowed to spend the money they made. Unlike their brothers, they were expected to give their entire paycheck to their families, saving none for themselves. When women broke this taboo—when they went dancing with a new hat or dress—they were often criticized for breaking traditional gender and class boundaries.
But in many ways that was the point. As Peiss has suggested, "putting on style" was a way to announce women's arrival in the world. When factory girls lunched in Washington Square Park (like some other women we know), their purposefully conspicuous attire told the male onlookers something they had never been told before: women were making their own money and they were no longer giving it all away.
From that point on, a shoe was no longer just a shoe, but often an outspoken symbol of women's advancement—on the economic front and elsewhere. As Betsy Israel, author of Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century, has noted about the flapper, another fashion icon who was frequently dismissed as foolish and materialistic: "while she drove and danced and all the rest, she also went to school in greater numbers than any woman before her." Indeed a rise in female consumer spending is often accompanied by higher education and employment rates among women.
This fact has rattled conservative politicians and critics for over a century now. But, despite their attempts to trivialize images of female consumption, who is allowed to make and spend money is a serious political issue for women. After all, in 1932, to offset male unemployment during the Depression, twenty-six states prohibited married women from working. And until 1974, a woman couldn't reliably get credit unless it was in her husband's name.
The question of entitlement and luxury has been especially problematic, as evidenced in the scathing critiques Oprah recently received when she outfitted her South African school for girls with top-quality sheets and other "extravagances." As she told Newsweek, "It was clear that the attitude was, 'These are poor African girls. Why spend all this on them?'" The image of luxury has also been particularly effective in selling the idea that when greedy, ambitious women win, men lose—just think of Reagan's welfare queen filling up her Caddie with male tax dollars.
Significantly, while the women in Sex and the City make fashion look fun, the politics of women and spending—especially in the series—was never lost on them. In Season Two, when Miranda, a lawyer, offers to buy her bartender boyfriend, Steve, a suit, he balks. He cannot afford it, and having her buy it is a blow to his ego. "When single men have a lot of money, it works to their advantage," Miranda explains. "But when a single woman has money, it's a problem you have to deal with. It's ridiculous. I want to enjoy my successes, not apologize for them."
I'll admit, the two movies have not lived up to the series on this issue, though not because they show women spending money, but because they do not explain as well as the series did what these symbols of opulence mean. This is especially true of the second movie, wherein the girls revel in luxury when they land an all-expenses paid trip to Abu Dhabi. Their outspoken attire definitely contrasts with the dark veils of the Muslim women around them, but it's done in such an over-the-top way it slips into parody and any larger point—about fashion, self-expression and the question of entitlement—is muddled. The beauty of the series was that, while it was good fun, it wasn't afraid to make a point. It did the math, sometimes literally. In the episode "A Woman's Right to Shoes," Carrie gets angry when a married friend with children criticizes her lavish spending. She tells Charlotte that between this friend's engagement party, wedding and baby showers, she had spent $2,300 celebrating her choices—"And she is shaming me for spending a lousy $485 bucks on myself.
Carrie's message here is simple: conservative ideology infuses the question of women and spending, and reviewers would do well to remember this. It is one thing to critique a movie on aesthetic grounds, as I have done, or even on materialistic grounds. Indeed, it is time that women embrace other symbols of advancement. It is, however, another thing altogether to ignore the subtleties of this issue in favor of blatant character assassinations of four women who are overall smart, sexual, and, at least in three of the four cases, solid earners. The eagerness of reviewers to do so is particularly upsetting since the latest recession—increasingly dubbed the he-cession—is stirring up old anxieties about women's advancement. Citing high female education rates, Men's Health recently claimed "women are succeeding in a time when men generally aren't." Last August, Foreign Policy spouted the same message. Fretting about everything from declining marriage rates to the rise of female politicians, the author warned not only that "the era of male dominance is coming to an end" but that the "transition" would be "wrenching, uneven, and possibly very violent."
What gets lost in this backward and semi-, um, psychotic logic is that all this is actually a good thing. Though America has a long way to go in terms of equal pay and family-friendly policies, women now represent half of the US workforce. This means they have more control in and outside the home. Dual earner marriages tend to be more successful than those with just one; while advances in education and employment have led more women to take an interest in their financial security. According to Forbes, "ninety percent of women now deal with financial planners, a jump of 18% since 2000." Interestingly, this has impacted stereotypically male luxury items as well. "Only 13% of [female breadwinners] based electronic decisions on their husband's advice, unlike 30% of other married women." Given this—that we may soon be talking not only about who buys the shoes but who buys the TV—things may indeed get ugly soon.
As for Carrie & Co., they should keep their chin up. After all, they know a little something about sore heels but also sour critics. In the new movie, when Carrie receives a dismal review for her new book, she says of the reviewer, he "turned me into a cartoon and slapped tape over my voice." She's heartbroken at first, but bounces back. Here's hoping this worthy franchise does the same.