Feminist Fandom part 2 of 6

So last week I posted the abstract and introduction to my undergrad dissertation, all in the name of showing off how wonderful it was (to paraphrase Adam Sandler in ‘The Wedding Singer’: “Well, I have the blog, and you don’t, SO YOU WILL LISTEN TO EVERY DAMN WORD I HAVE TO SAY!”). This week, you get part 2:

Feminist Fandom: Exploring the precarious relationship between third-wave feminism and television with reference to Sex and the City and The L Word (Part 2 of 6)

The Pleasure/Danger Divide

Feminists have traditionally had a fraught relationship with popular culture and the mainstream media. Alongside critiques of femininity in general (which, it was argued, socialised women and girls into “passivity, submissiveness and dependence”[1]), feminists produced extensive analyses of popular culture. These analyses have tended towards either one of two paths: firstly, the examination of representation of women and the effect these images had on the spectator; secondly, theories influenced by other academic models such as structuralism and psychoanalytic film theory in which the effectiveness of the former approach was called into question. In both cases, Hollows argues, “feminist cultural studies makes distinctions between the “good” and the “bad” and not only classifies things but the people who have a taste for them”.[2]

Second-wave feminist analyses of the oppressive nature of the media carried over into other elements of cultural studies: femininity itself, fashion and beauty customs and the way in which heterosexual relationships are institutionalised into exploitive gender patterns. While these critiques were necessary in order to build up a conceptualisation of the nature of women’s oppression, they also led to a feeling of constraint and limitation over what arenas of culture feminists are allowed to engage with in their personal lives. If the spectatorship theories of Laura Mulvey and Mary-Ann Doane conclude that the only possible female spectatorship positions are masochism or transvestism, is the only correct feminist response an oppositional reading?

The generational divide between feminist waves is frequently understood by the phrase ‘pleasure/danger divide’.[3] It is frequently posited that second-wavers have tended towards the ‘danger’ side of the debate and third-wavers towards the ‘pleasure’ side. Astrid Henry points out that this dichotomy is largely exaggerated and its oversimplification ignores the nuances of each perspective, yet contends that whether or not it is rooted in fact there is a general feeling that such a generational divide exists:

…this “feminist governor”…is rarely given a name. In other words, attacks are not directed at actual feminists but at…the version of feminism that many third-wave feminists have internalized.[4]

Having discerned the issues framing the debate on feminism and popular culture, it is possible to contextualise the appeal that SatC and TLW can have for viewers. Apart from the specifically feminist pleasures offered by the series, which will be dealt with in greater depth later on, the pleasures inherent to both texts as well as their intrinsic worth as subjects of serious cultural analysis can be understood in the contexts of romance narratives and soap opera. Both have in the past been characterised by cultural critics and feminists alike as trivial and unintelligent, echoing a wider association of the feminine with passivity, consumption and inferiority. Only in recent years has feminist cultural criticism begun to yield a more nuanced analysis of the significance of these cultural forms. Tanya Modleski was one of the foremost critics to make a case for the justification of women’s consumption of components of popular culture such as romance novels. She replaces the approach that such forms produce a ‘false consciousness’ within women viewers with an analysis of how they may help women cope with the challenges of living under patriarchy. For example, “while she is critical of the way in which Harlequin novels invite women to escape into passivity, she also takes seriously the reasons why women might want this form of escape”.[5] In relation to soap opera, another commonly criticized cultural form, Christine Geraghty posits that the genre offers the female spectator the fantasy of “rehearsing the decision-making process without responsibility for its consequences”.[6] Hollows elaborates that this entails “intense emotional expression and the possibilities of transparency, the ability to be open and honest in your feelings”.[7]

Sarah Seltzer considers this to be an accurate account of SatC’s appeal:

SATC allows its characters to feel the omnipresent judgments and conflicts in women’s lives, and feel them deeply, in a way that resonates with truths about modern womanhood.[8]

One of the ways in which SatC does this is through its narrative structure. Every episode is structured around Carrie’s voiceover, in which she poses questions signifying the central themes of the episode.  Cindy Royal points out that this allows both the characters and the audience to “grapple with these questions in a manner that does not usually provide a clear and unambiguous closure at the end of each episode.[9]

The questions posed by Carrie frequently problematise gender, sexuality and relationships. Her questions are given legitimacy by the mise-en-scene; Royal describes how Carrie is typically “filmed looking out a window or walking pensively around her apartment”[10] followed by a point-of-view shot of her computer screen as she types the episode’s central question, allowing a close viewer identification as Carrie works through her inquiry.[11] Moreover, the added confessional voices of Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha as she probes her questions allow for further spaces of tension in these explorations.

Just as SatC allows female viewers to probe the various conflicts and tensions in their lives, TLW takes seriously the frustration of heterosexism and vindicates the queer viewer’s experiences, with the ensemble context ensuring that “no single character, relationship, or issue need be ‘the lesbian one’”.[12] Television can provide a fantasy that offsets the frustration of spectators’ reality. To this end, TLW regularly features storylines that allow queer spectators to live vicariously through its characters. For example, in episode 4.3 (“Lassoed”) both Bette and Angus (a straight ally) deliver spot-on comebacks against homophobes at a party (an all too familiar scenario for queer viewers); in episode 4.7 (“Lesson Number One”) Shane stands up to her brother’s school principal who refuses to tackle homophobic bullying by offering to address the students herself.

SatC and TLW allow their viewers a type of fantasy space wherein their concerns are taken seriously. Ien Ang, drawing on Modleski’s concepts, underlines the importance of the way in which fantasy engages viewers:

In line with psychoanalytic theory, fantasy should not be seen as mere illusion, an unreality, but as a reality in itself, a fundamental aspect of human existence: a necessary and inerasable dimension of psychical reality…the pleasure of fantasy lies in its offering the subject an opportunity to take up positions which she could not assume in real life.[13]

The programmes also present certain potential pleasures for specifically feminist viewers that go beyond the basic levels described above: the gratification of having their concerns directly or indirectly acknowledged and played out in the unexpected setting of prime-time television. Both TLW and SatC raise concerns that are either rarely discussed in the mainstream media at all or seldom discussed through a feminist lens. Between the two programmes, issues probed by the series include traditional gender roles and expectations, motherhood, marriage, female sexuality, cunnilingus, menopause,  masturbation, political activism, transgender issues, breast cancer, sexual violence, and queer sexualities. SatC and TLW differ from their predecessors by having not one single quasi-feminist character but a range thereof, not only offering viewers multiple positions to identify with but avoiding the defensiveness that a lone feminist character is typically burdened with. Both series’ encourage polyphonic interpretations of modern feminism, and it is these multiple and often contradictory viewing positions that give rise to the richness of the text material for feminist fans (although perhaps more important is the normalising effect this may have on a non-feminist audience to whom ‘consciousness-raising’ might otherwise be inaccessible or intimidating).

Furthermore, TLW incorporates many third-wave feminist pop culture references. Prominent feminists such as Eve Ensler guest star in episodes. The soundtrack consistently features not only female and/or queer artists (eg. Tegan & Sara, Goldfrapp, Joni Mitchell), but riot grrrl[14] alumni such as The Gossip, Le Tigre, Sleater Kinney and Peaches. Episode 3.1(“Labia Majora”) includes a light-hearted discussion of different names for female genitalia: most third-wave feminists will recognise this reference to the work of, for example, Inga Muscio.[15] In episode 4.3 (“Lassoed”), in which Tina hosts a party to introduce her straight and queer friends to each other, Alice references Kathleen Hanna (a well-known third-wave feminist musician and writer) and the riot grrrl music scene in a game of ‘Guess the Celebrity’. The straight characters have no clue who she is, whereas the core group are all able to guess immediately (as are, presumably, many of the show’s queer/feminist viewers). This provides feminist viewers with a kind of in-joke, a knowing wink that is imperceptible to non-feminist viewers.

SatC on the other hand, never explicitly references feminism, which has proved problematic to critics such as Beth Montemurro, who writes that although the characters frequently act in a feminist manner, “[w]hen a show avoids using the word feminist…it is difficult to interpret the show as such”.[16] However, this need not negate the feminist potential of the series. The conversations engendered by SatC’s engagement with and illustration of feminist issues offer pleasures to feminist viewers that resemble those identified by theorists in relation to genre:

‘Cognitive’ satisfactions may be derived from problem-solving, testing hypotheses, making inferences…Other pleasures can be derived from sharing our experience…with others within an ‘interpretive community’.[17]

Whether or not the feminist spectator agrees or disagrees with the way in which issues are engaged, the analysis and interpretation of the text – or, as Modleski puts it, “understanding how the joke works even when it works against women”[18] – is likely to be gratifying.

Next week: Part 3 – “Sex and Sexuality: Thinking Outside the Box”

[1] Hollows, Joanne (2000) Feminism, Femininity and Popular Culture. Manchester, Manchester University Press: 20


[2] Hollows (2000: 36)

[3] Johnson, Merri Lisa (ed.) (2007). Third Wave Feminism and Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 23

[4] Henry, Astrid (2004b) ‘Orgasms and Empowerment: Sex and the City and the Third Wave Feminism’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2004) Reading Sex and the City. London, I. B. Tauris: 99

[5] Hollows (2000: 75)

[6] Geraghty, Christine (1991) Women and Soap Opera: A Study of Prime Time Soap Operas, Cambridge, Polity: 42

[7] Hollows (2000: 95)

[8] Seltzer, Sarah (2008). ‘Sex And The City: Eww It’s For Girls!’ (sic). 5th June 2008. RH Reality Check [online]. [Accessed 16th November 2008]. Available from World Wide Web: <http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/blog/2008/06/04/a-victory-our-sex&gt;

[9] Royal, Cindy (2003) ‘Narrative Structure in Sex and the City: “I Couldn’t Help But Wonder…”‘ Available: http://www.cindyroyal.com/royal_sex_paper.pdf. Last accessed 20th December 2008: 10-11

[10] Royal, Cindy (2003: 10)

[11] Examples of the questions raised by the series include “Is there a secret cold war between marrieds and singles?” (“Bay of Married Pigs”, 1.3); “What are the breakup rules?” (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” 2.1); “Is it better to fake it than to be alone?” (“They Shoot Single People, Don’t They?” 2.4).

[12] Sedgwick, Eve (2006) ‘Foreward: The Letter L’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2006) Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. London, I. B. Tauris: xxiv

[13] Ang, Ien (1990) ‘Melodramatic Identifications: Television Fiction and Women’s Fantasy’, in Brown, Mary Ellen, ed. (1990) Television and Women’s Culture: The Politics of the Popular. London, Sage Publications: 92-93

[14] Riot grrrl, a feminist movement within the punk subculture in the early nineties, is widely acknowledged as being a major catalyst in the emergence of third wave feminism. See Belzer, Hillary. (2004). ‘Words + Guitar: The Riot Grrrl Movement and Third-Wave Feminism’. Available: http://cct.georgetown.edu/academics/theses/HillaryBelzer.pdf. Last accessed 8th January 2009.

[15] Muscio, Inga (1998) Cunt : A Declaration of Independence. Seattle, Seal Press; also Ensler, Eve (2001) The Vagina Monologues. London, Virago Press. “In recent years, feminists have sought to defuse the negative imagery conveyed by “pussy” and “cunt”, recasting them with positive meaning” – Chalker, Rebecca (2000) The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips. New York, Seven Stories Press: 71.

[16] Montemurro (2004)

[17] Chandler, Daniel (2000) ‘An Introduction to Genre Theory’. Aberystwyth [online]. Available: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/intgenre/intgenre2.html. Last accessed 9th January 2009.

[18] Modleski, Tania (1988) The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory. New York, Methuen: 27


2 responses

  1. Pingback: Feminist Fandom: part 3 of 6 « head into the heavens

  2. Pingback: Feminist Fandom: part 4 of 6 « head into the heavens

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s