Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Race, Gender, and Class: A Hegemonic Analysis of Sex & the City


Masquerading as a program supporting feminism in the form of the radical, successful woman, Sex & the City (SATC) in reality reinforces the ideology and hegemony of American patriarchy and the capitalism. In their quest for love, the four main characters delve into issues of race, gender, and class, culminating in an overall salute to the dominating American cultural norms and values of white elitism and a superficial, capitalistic agenda. As Bordo said, “we are surrounded by homogenizing and normalizing images…suffused with the dominance of gendered, racial, class, and other cultural iconography” and SATC is no exception to this rule (1101). The sheer fan-following of this show suggests audiences’ consent to the hegemony and ideology being reinforced through the medium of television in which it is presented.

TV’s Role as a Text

In John Fiske’s, “Television Culture,” he states “[T]elevision broadcasts programs that are replete with potential meanings, and it attempts to control and focus this meaningfulness into a more singular preferred meaning that performs the work of the dominant ideology. [It] attempts to make, meanings that serve the dominant interests in society, and…circulates these meanings amongst the wide variety of social groups that constitute its audiences” (1087). SATC is no exception. The show depicts four privileged white women, between the ages of 30 and 40, searching for the right man to complete their lives. Although each of them is financially secure and self-sufficient, they still desire the opposite sex; a desire serves as the driving force of the narrative. Below this generic exterior, lies an internal network of ideological codes which link the audience with the text. These codes include but are not limited to “individualism, patriarchy, race, class, materialism, capitalism” and manifest through visual and verbal cues (Fiske 1089). By taking part in the viewing and discussion of TV programs, audiences preserve and justify the ideology of the dominant culture, that which is being reproduced and delivered to the masses. Often times see the protagonist or main characters are depicted as heroic figures which the audience identifies with and supports juxtaposed with a villain, usually of a minority such as a lower class or different race. Morality comes into play within the issues of race, gender, and class, in efforts, perhaps unintentional but inarguably discernible, to buttress the patriarchy and capitalism ruling American culture today.

To explain audience interaction with TV as a text, Hall describes the way in which “television is implicated in the provision and the selective construction of social knowledge, of social imagery, through which we perceive the ‘worlds,’ the ‘lived realities’ of others, and imaginarily reconstruct their lives and ours into some intelligible ‘world-of-the-whole’(Barker 315). The viewing audience is conscious of the meanings and representations of the text, and they subjectively choose what they want to believe. However, the audience also mirrors the representations of the actors and their fictional experiences, in the form of plot; they reify the experience into a form of general knowledge to be regarded as common sense, crystallizing the ideology of the culture to which they both belong. These dominating meanings substantiate what Gramsci called, “cultural hegemony” (Barker 319). Although the audience may not accept these meanings as their own, they have no choice in what the text’s ideology is; they can only choose whether or not to watch. It seems since SATC was a bestseller as a book, a hit TV series spanning “six seasons from 1998-2004,” with re-runs showing on several networks such TBS and KTLA, and being followed up by a major motion picture, with its sequel in production, audiences cannot seem to get enough of this text, suggesting their preference for or identification with the meanings it presents.


New York City, the setting of SATC is a glamorous location which seems to be so important, it could be considered a fifth main character. It is associated with the elite, independence and maturity. The city also enables anonymity, in that it allows for people to be who they want without the fear of gossip or close scrutiny one would experience living in the suburbs, the kind of experience seen in Desperate Housewives, or any of the Real Housewives of… shows on cables’ Bravo TV network. Suburbia allows others to see through any performance. The city allows for increased social interaction and bonding because it is a microcosm, more people occupy the small space, as we see in the frequent brunch dates which SATC’s main characters collectively gather to catch up. Furthermore, the affluence of the four women only presents the glamorous elite of the city. When the show does depict poverty, it is only to portray it as something to be avoided at all costs. This is best exemplified when Miranda, the wealthy lawyer of the group, refuses to let Steve, her ex-boyfriend live in an awful, dirty, apartment, the type of which most New York residents can actually afford. The choice of NYC as the setting further exemplifies how SATC is attuned to a capitalistic and consumerist ideology.


Each character in SATC is successful financially: Carrie, is a successful columnist, her character manages to obtain money solely from her career as the writer of the successful newspaper column from which the title of the show comes from and later when she combines them together into a bestselling book, Samantha is a PR executive, Miranda is a lawyer, and Charlotte is an art dealer. With their success comes a lavish lifestyle filled with designer clothing, shoes, upscale apartments, and mostly getting food by dining out. In this way, the show focuses on the lifestyles of an elite bunch, the audience which is mostly the American working class comes to envy and want to be like these fictional characters, and develop as Barker describes, an aspect of Marxism called “false consciousness” where the dominant ideas of society belong to ruling class and working class believes that to be the way society works (62). This appearance of equality between classes serves to hide any perception of exploitation. Gramcsi’s hegemony and ideology also come into play here; the subordinate class which makes up the audience of this text, consents to the values and rules which are presented by it, the values of the dominating class (Barker 66-67). This sustains the social groups in power through day to day experience, for example of watching television. The works of Susan Bordo and Jean Baudrillard can be considered in analyzing how class is represented in SATC.

To Bordo, “an ideology fueled by the fantasies of re-arranging, transforming, and correcting, an ideology of limitless improvement and change” has come about in postmodern culture and been “fed by the currents of consumer capitalism” (1099). Capitalism promises that money can not only satisfy the physical needs of food, shelter, and safety, but it can also buy you approval, beauty, which eventually leads to love and happiness. SATC in its materialism could be considered like Bordo had argued to “efface, not only the inequalities of privilege, money, and time that prohibit most people from indulging in these practices, but the desperation that characterizes the lives of those who do” (1100-1101). The emphasis on fashion and consumerism we see in the show, through the “signified…endorsement of luxury fashion houses, as the four actresses get to wear and effectively, to market the industry's most coveted clothes” makes this program and the medium of “television…the great teacher here, our prime modeler of plastic pluralism” (Baxter 91; Bordo 1104). The media skews messages to fit the ideology that they want to enforce and reflects “woman’s eternally superficial values” (Bordo 1102). As Janet Cramer describes the characters in her article “Dicourses of Sexual Morality in Sex and the City and Queer as Folk,” as superficial and self-centered: “If these were sympathetic, multi-dimensional, or only realistic characters, the four women in Sex and the City would be presented with far more profound dilemmas regarding their choices and the consequences and effects of those choices” (421).

In Baudrillard’s, “The System of Objects” he argues that consumption is so much a part of postmodern culture, that it becomes part of one’s identity, a sort of reference point from which people define each other. He argues “the object/advertising system…does not structure social relations: it demarcates them in a hierarchical repertoire. It is formalized in a universal system of recognition of social statuses” (Baudrillard 415). In this way, the woman becomes nothing more than the commodities she wears and owns. As Brasfield interpets the emphasis on consumption, “this class privilege is supported by a hierarchy that remains intact and a capitalistic system that demands it” (137). Despite enjoying the privileges that come with wealth, the main characters in SATC do not allow themselves to even physically be near those who are not as fortunate. Miranda the lawyer has an on-and-off relationship with a man named Steve who is a bartender. The traditional female and male roles of breadwinner are reversed here, garnering the main problem between them. For example, in an episode where Miranda and Steve plan to go to a fancy dinner party, Miranda visits Steve at his dumpy apartment in a poor neighborhood and sees that he is wearing a cheap suit. She insists on buying him a more expensive suit so that he appears more successful, but Steve will not let her pay. He ends up paying for the suit with cash, a check, and charging some of the price on a credit card. That evening they break up but instead of apologizing or feeling bad for Steve, Miranda gets angry with Steve telling her girlfriends that she “does not want to apologize for her success” (Brasfield 138), when really her problem was that she could not accept Steve’s lower financial status. Later in the series, when Steve conveniently becomes an owner of a bar, do Miranda and Steve finally put their differences aside and get back together. SATC reinforces its capitalistic agenda by its emphasis on its characters material and consumerist way of life while marginalizing characters of lower social status.


When we encounter characters of other races in SATC, they are usually reduced to their stereotypes and eventually phased out. Two characters stand out in particular: a Russian artist named Aleksandr Petrovsky, one of Carrie’s boyfriends, and an African American doctor, Robert Leeds, one of Miranda’s boyfriends. Carrie “essentializes Petrovsky’s character as the ethnic Other” by repeatedly referring to him as “the Russian” (Brasfield 134). Eventually Aleksandr gets phased out of the series, the problem in the relationship being a constant “cross-cultural (mis)communication” (Brasfield 134). In Miranda’s brief relationship with Dr. Robert Leeds, she realizes she is still in love with her ex, leading to their break up. After they have broken up, Robert is denounced the stereotype of having a large penis. In his final scene, two women are waiting for him at his apartment, neither of them white, suggesting that Robert could get any colored woman but it is more difficult for him to get with a white woman (Brasfield 133). In a similar vein, Charlotte having problems conceiving a child ends up adopting “a Mandarin baby as her last resort in raising a family” (Brasfield 134). Despite living in what most likely is the most culturally diverse city in the world, the characters of SATC demonstrate a somewhat surprising sense of ethnocentrism, reflecting the hegemony of white cultural domination. Characters of color are reduced to stereotypes and after efforts at connection, are eventually eliminated from the series.


SATC has been hailed as adding to the feminist cause in the sexual liberation of its female characters. Each character has a unique sexual identity, and three out of the four have sex before marriage. Charlotte, the conservative old-fashioned one waits until she is married to have sex only to find that she cannot sexually arouse her first husband on her own; he secretly looks at hardcore pornographic magazines to ‘get himself off,’ which inevitably leads to their divorce. Nevertheless, SATC as its name implies, places an importance on sex for the woman, not previously explored in cable television, and HBO allowed it to be uncensored. Sex is often the topic being discussed when the girls get together, gauging norms and giving each other advice. For example, Samantha encourages uptight Charlotte to look at her vagina with a handheld mirror so that she can appreciate its beauty. This allowance can be discussed in Foucault’s terms, that we must reject “the hypothesis that modern industrial societies ushered in an age of increased sexual repression” (690). However, despite this feminist argument, each of the four women end up with a man by the end of the series. Gender roles and sexual identities in SATC are much more complex; here they will be discussed in a cultural context through the works of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault.

As Judith Butler argues in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” “gender is a performance” (728). She said that “heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies” (722). As seen with the most openly sexual character, Samantha, many people would consider her to be a ‘man’ because of her preoccupation with sex and her unwillingness to commit to one partner. This assumes that promiscuity is a male trait, that it belongs to the male sex, propagating a common sexual stereotype. Many would call Samantha’s character a “slut,” whereas if she was a male, that may not necessarily be the case. According to Butler, “there is no ‘proper’ gender, a gender proper to one sex rather than another,” and each character represents this in their own way, Samantha’s case being the most obvious (722). For example, Miranda is a lawyer, she is a woman in a male-dominated field, she is the breadwinner of the household, and she eventually becomes a mother. While society has become more accepting of the breaking of gender norms, these norms seem to also be constantly reinforced as when the successful businesswoman must also be a successful caretaker for her children. Instead of the complete reversal of gender roles, society seems to be demanding more and more from women and less and less from men. No one watching this show would suggest that its characters are not women. As Butler said, gender “produces on the skin, through the gesture, the move, the gait (that array of corporeal theatrics understood as gender presentation), the illusion of an inner depth,” the illusion being that gender is a biological phenomenon realized at birth instead of the social construct that it actually is (728). However, gender is assigned, and sometimes misassigned at birth through a naming process which becomes emphasized and further delineated as an individual develops. As Butler says, “one way that gender gets naturalized is through being constructed as an inner psychic or physical necessity” it is driven into us from birth, or even before that girls and boys act certain ways that are deemed socially acceptable (728).

Adding to the idea the idea of society’s role in dictating sexual and gender norms, Foucault would argue that “we are gendered through regulated and regulatory discourse” (Barker 291). In the piece “The History of Sexuality,” Foucault treats sexuality as controlled by:

“pleasure and power. The pleasure that comes of exercising a power that questions, monitors, watches, spies, searches out, palpates, brings to light; and on the other hand, the pleasure that kindles at having to evade this power, flee from it, fool it or travesty it. The power that lets itself be invaded by the pleasure it is pursuing; and opposite it, power asserting itself in the pleasure of showing off, scandalizing, or resisting” (688).

This dual mechanism explains the relationship between sexual deviance and the social institutions, which categorize these groups and give them their names, thereby empowering them, but also striving to subdue them. SATC demonstrates the struggle between power and pleasure by depicting unique sexual identities while simultaneously shutting them out. This can best be exemplified in it’s exploitation of homosexuality. Samantha experiments in a lesbian relationship with a Brazilian woman named Maria, but ultimately ends it because the woman she’s with wants to talk to her about her feelings more than she wants to have sex with her. This portrays the “patriarchal thinking is internalized within these women” in that even Samantha, who is open to sexual experimentation, cannot handle the intimacy of being with a woman (Brasfield 135). Each of the four girls only see men who are highly masculine, Mr. Big, being the best example. When Charlotte dates an effeminate man named Stephen, who in many ways is perfect for her, she ends the relationship because she cannot accept that he is heterosexual. Despite being referred to as a show about women, for women, SATC’s characters do not depend on men, however, their desire for men remains. All of them end up with a man by the end of the show, revealing the hegemony of patriarchy.


In being a program delivered through the medium of television, SATC reflects the values and norms of postmodern American culture. The show, through the actions and representations of its four main characters, while seeming like a feminist text, actually reflects a patriarchal society. Despite being successful women, the characters still desire men, this being what fundamentally drives the narrative. In addition, the depiction of these women as white, upper-class fails to explore the problems associated with being part of a minority or of a lower social status, and ultimately marginalizes these groups, as in Miranda’s treatment of Steve and Samantha’s treatment of Maria. SATC is a product of a capitalistic and patriarchal culture, and with its successful six seasons, with its multimillion dollar box office debut as a film, and the films upcoming sequel, it seems that the social meanings it reinforces will continue to circulate and reinforce themselves, and audiences cannot seem to get enough.


Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008.

Baxter, Judith.Constructions of Active Womanhood and New Femininities: From a Feminist Linguistic Perspective, is Sex and the City a Modernist or a Post-Modernist TV Text?” Women and Language. 32.1(2009): 91-98.

Brasfield, Rebecca. “Rereading Sex & the City: Exposing the Hegemonic Feminist Narrative.” Journal of Popular Film & Television. 34 (2006):130-138.

Cramer, Janet M. "Discourses of Sexual Morality in Sex and the City and Queer as Folk." Journal of Popular Culture. 40 (2007): 409-432.

Rivkin, Julie and Michael Ryan, eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell, 1998.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The System of Objects.” Rivkin and Ryan 408-419.

Bordo, Susan. “‘Material Girl’: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture.” Rivkin and Ryan 1099-1115.

Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Rivkin and Ryan 722-730.

Fiske, John. “Television Culture.” Rivkin and Ryan 1087-1097.

Foucault, Michel. “The History of Sexuality.” Rivkin and Ryan 683-691.

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