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TV at the Feminst Table?

dear.abby's picture

Over the past month or so I have been posting regularly about a new HBO program which provoked a lot of public attention, long before it even aired.  I was interested in the show, and I was even more interested in what people in our course thought about it. But my “call to discourse” fell flat, so I have decided to take up the project myself. Now my primary interest in the show was not actually the topic, but the fact that the creator/director/writer was a female, liberal arts college graduate and only four years older than I am.  Go Girls. I am not sure if it is widely understood how rare this is—look up any of your three favorite television programs, and chances are extremely high, regardless of the topic that the “creator/writer/director” of the pilot episode is male. And if you happen to watch a show conceived by a woman, chances are further likely that she has a male partner/co-creator. Shows about Girls, written by girls, created by girls, and directed by girls simply do not exist. The stories we watch and television every day are stories coming from a definitively male perspective. This is not meant as an inciting, insightful statement. It is nothing but and “is”.

It is possible that Girls can be understood as a feminist text simply by the virtue of the fact that it is uniquely female in its origin, and because of the “revolutionary” nature of Lena Dunham’s position as the shows creator/director/writer/star.  But, I want to move on to discuss the potential of the action of a TV show itself to act as a feminist text and the ways in which previous programs have both embodied and failed to reach this potential. Girls, as it is placed in the same trajectory of the “groundbreaking” feminist texts of Sex and the City could either fall into the space and time slot left behind on HBO or create a new space perhaps a newly feminist one. Lena Dunham has reacted to the significant amount of criticism the series has received by describing her desire to engage with every comment like she could in group discussions at her liberal arts college—conversations I imagine were not to different from our class discussion. However, she laments that interactions with the media and Internet sources do not and cannot occur in this fashion; she says she must restrain her desire to engage in a dialogue because within the combative space of the Internet, this imagined dialogue can never come to fruition. I want to try to create that constructive Internet space within this paper, and examine the placement of SATC as a feminist text and understand what it means to place a show like Girls as SATC for the younger set before it has even premiered. In what ways does Girls have the potential to be uniquely new feminist text, and not simply a revision of old feminist texts?

Another, side question: has Serendip provided a space for the constructive dialogue that Lena Dunham wishes existed? Is Serendip a feminist space? I think the answer to the second question could be established as a “yes” with little necessary debate (there might be a question of whether Serendip might be better labeled a “queer space”), but the first question is more complex because while Serendip might allow for dialogue, it is not necessary to have one. Case in point: my posts about Girls which were born out of desire to engage were not received/responded to in the way I intended. But then again, when my group “set the scene” within the liberal arts classroom of our class, we were met with a similar (lacking) response, i.e. no dialogue. So maybe even within the classroom context Dunham wishes to engage with, she might not be able to have constructive conversation she wants to have.

Murphy Brown is generally considered the first feminist television program with the eponymous character positioned as the first “liberated woman” character. There have been other “feminist” programs since then, but however I want to concentrate on SATC because of the comparisons it has inspired between it and the new Girls. There have been issues with all of these programs in their exclusion and inclusion of certain feminist ideas and the manner that they have addressed issues of race and class. In this sense, Girls is very much like its so-called predecessors; yet I want to move beyond these similarities to find whether there is something genuinely new within Girls beyond the unique femaleness of the show’s production. Each show progressively seems to move beyond some limitation or oversight in the previous female centered, feminist shows. For example, the professional women of SATC effectively moved past the implication of Ally McBeal that the female’s liberated state was somehow abnormal and hence the source of her (Ally McBeal’s) perpetual unhappiness and depression: “the portrayal and concept of independent women who are challenged by their independence (like Murphy Brown) has been replaced by the depiction of independent women who are shown as unhappy because of this independence (like Ally McBeal)” (L.S. Kim).  

In fact, SATC went so far in new direction that it set up the central character’s careers as the sources of their happiness, and imply that if they were not working and instead remained at home as wives, they would be less fulfilled. The exception to this is Charlotte, who elects later in the series to quit work in favor of work as a wife. But, this decision is met with confusion and mild dismissal by the other characters who feel that Charlotte is not doing what she wants, but what her husband wants. Beth Montemuro describes this episode in her article, “Charlotte Chooses Her Choice” (referring to Charlottes mantra throughout the episode “I choose my choice”). Basically, Montemuro brings the shows’ portrayal of Charlotte’s dilemma down to the level of bell hooks’ vision of liberal power feminism, and its problem of exclusion. She describes the show as advocating for a feminism centered on the freedom of the individual woman to do whatever it is she chooses; in doing so it avoids any question of those individual women who are without the freedom to “choose their choice”. SATC portrays women who can elect to have careers, not women who must have jobs. So while the show is throwing out the problem of the “false feminism” within Ally McBeal, it is creating a new issue. (Though this issue is actually a quite old one in terms of feminism generally: liberal feminism has been complicating/limiting the reach of Western feminism since the “first wave” and the push for sexual freedom during the 70s).

So as each feminist television program builds on the stage created by its predecessors, Girls must do something different or beyond SATC and other film narratives of female empowerment in order to be considered (by me) to be a truly feminist text. If Girls is really only “SATC for the younger set”, then it is not bringing something sufficiently new to the “table” that we have been setting all semester. Now, as I have described, the novelty of the uniquely female production might be enough to warrant a least consideration for a seat at the table. But, I want to delineate what exactly I think Girls must redress (that I think was not addressed in SATC) in order for it to move the conversation at the table forward. Now because Girls has only just started I will not go into whether it has addressed my concerns within this web event. Instead, I will post a response here once I have found an answer. For now, I simply want to reveal what precisely I want to see in Girls based upon what I see in the conflict of SATC.

Jane Arthurs situates SATC as part of the second wave of feminist movement, calling it a “postfeminist woman-centered drama” and describing how it “remediates the content and address of women’s magazines for television and the Internet” (Arthurs 316). I understand SAT as presenting female characters that have developed within the sexually liberated world of the Cosmo girl, who has sex as a function of leisure and work rather than as a function of procreation within the home.

The ideal cultivated in Cosmopolitan during the 70s and 80s mandated that the middle class (white) woman could leave the home if she successfully turned the tables on men and either became a man, or exploited her femininity—only then could she exist in the male dominated public sphere. The individualistic power feminism implicit in this that every woman is for herself in the struggle against men, a struggle rooted in the revenge of successfully reducing a man to a “female” object and hence replacing him as the man. While Cosmo relentlessly pushes the power feminism message, it also encourages the reader to feel shame and remorse for objectifying the male. This objectification is situated as necessary for the female cause, for the success of that individual woman. If she loses sight of her goal, and allows her self to the be the weaker object within any relationship, then she forfeits the “game” and fails. Yet through all of this, Cosmopolitan implies that this is not what the reader is supposed to want, if she actually starts to enjoy treating men as objects, the there is something wrong with her: is no longer a “good girl at heart”, but a slut (McMahon).

For the Cosmo girl, the women’s movement is not about collective female identity, but about being the woman who succeeds as the exception. By the time of SATC, this movement of sexual liberation has transitioned to the point that there are enough real life women living their urban, upper class lives as the SATC characters do (i.e. the creator/writer of SATC the book explicitly wrote about her day to day experience with her friends having wild sex in New York City), but their embodied Cosmopolitan lifestyle has yet to reach television, until SATC.


            Sex and the City explicitly addresses (in its first episode), and eventually debunks the Cosmopolitan inclination that one can “win” in terms of sex; that women can triumph when they successfully have sex like men—without emotion. Yet, as Carrie explores this theory of emotionless sex throughout the pilot, initially thinking she has solved all her problems related to relationships. Her new long-term problem, Mr. Big, eventually knocks over this new “sex like men” theory by implying that if Carrie had ever been in love, then she would know the stupidity of attempting to “have sex like a man”. This issue does not in any sense end after the pilot; it is rehashed again and again throughout the series, specifically through the most sexually liberated character, Samantha.

Samantha does not hold herself back according to this moral expectation. If she wants to sleep with someone, she is sleeping with that person. If Charlotte wants someone, she must decide if she should want him, or not, and then proceed from there. There is an added moralizing component to Charlotte’s behavior, a component that Samantha is liberated from. In this way perhaps Samantha is a much less real, less human character as most humans restrain their action as Charlotte does according to some conception of “should”. The net effects of Charlotte’s and Samantha’s behavior are nearly the same, both end up sleeping with men they hardly know with no intention of ever seeing them again—Samantha simply does this more frequently than Charlotte does. And yet as Charlotte has anonymous sex with regret, and with the ultimate intention of finding Mr. Right, she is not labeled a slut the way Samantha is. Even though if we further examine both characters’ actions it might seem that Charlotte is the one with “lower standards”. Samantha sleeps with who she wants when she wants, Charlotte sleeps with who she wants when she wants if and only if she feels she is not really interested in the person, or views him as someone she should not want to be with. She does not sleep with the WASP-y Trey because he fits her vision of Mr. Right—of who she should be with. She immediately jumps into bed with Harry, the sweaty, short, balding, hairy Jew who she could never ever imagine as a potential husband.

If the SATC arrives at the place where characters are not held up or held back by expectations they see for themselves, then these characters will arrive at the place of just being able to do what they. But this simplicity forgets that people and characters often do not know what they want. If we return to the overweight, hairy, sweaty, balding Jew that WASP-y Charlotte sleeps with, without a second thought, because she thinks he is not what she wants, that he does not fit her expectation of what she is should want.. However, it is later revealed that this Harry is exactly what Charlotte wanted—they live happily ever after, the end.  Charlotte is always portrayed as someone who lets expectation cloud her desire, and get in the way of what she wants, but beyond that she is exposed as someone who does not know what she wants in the first place. Samantha, too is exposed by the end of the series. Although she is consistently presented as a character who goes after what or who she wants regardless of outside expectations, ultimately like Charlotte, she is exposed as someone who does not know what she wants—as she finds happiness in an unexpected relationship. 

So to return to the dichotomy of Charlotte and Samantha: each character in many situations performs the same action—by having anonymous sex. Yet Samantha’s intent is purely casual, she is simply “using” partners for sex, rarely pursuing a deeper relationship, while Charlotte’s intent in everything she does is towards marriage, unless she has deemed the other unfit to be her husband, then casual sex was acceptable. But still, Charlotte regularly feels ashamed and remorseful for this behavior. Though both characters have various one night stands throughout the series run, Samantha is situated as the “slutty one”, while Charlotte is positioned as the “most innocent, most conservative” (Montemurro) character, one who conscientiously follows the “rules” of relationships (rules often originating in sources like Cosmopolitan). Because Samantha refuses to feel shame over her behavior, she is placed in a position to be judged by the audience.  She enjoys her life of casual sexual encounters, but she is not supposed to, she should feel badly. This does not make sense to the audience—there must be something wrong with her. She is too satisfied, and must be diminished in size. The implicit conclusion communicated to the viewer is that sex for sex’s sake is bad. Overtime, both characters are directed into long-term relationships by the series—the purgatory of casual sexual encounters is overcome.  


I want to see the novelty of Girls represented in its depiction of the ramifications of the Cosmo ideology—the impact of liberal power feminism on the four central character’s lives. Ally McBeal portrayed the liberated woman as eternally dissatisfied and sad in the liberated state. Sex and the City painted a picture of liberated women who had agency and happiness within this liberated state—though it still created a hierarchy of female behavior. Girls ideally should develop the female character within this post-feminist, power feminist central world where the source of confusion is the very existence of sexual expectation and the various the shoulds of sex.—expectations that have been standardized by sources like Cosmopolitan, and Sex and the City (see web paper 3 where Cosmo today is still defining women’s empowerment as a reversal of power-sex relations the same way it did forty years ago).


Montemurro, Beth. “Charlotte Chooses Her Chocie: Liberal Feminsim on Sex and the City. Feminist Television Studies: The Case of HBO. Fall 2004. Issue 3.1.

Kim, L.S. “Sex and the Single Girl” in Postfeminism: The F World on Television”. Television and New Media. 2001.

more sources to come.


The image is what came up on google when I searched "feminist table" and images...