Feminist Fandom: part 4 of 6

The past few weeks I have begun posting my undergrad dissertation in bite-size chunks (here’s part one, part two and part three). This week it’s part four of:

Feminist Fandom: Exploring the precarious relationship between third-wave feminism and television with reference to Sex and the City and The L Word (Part 4 of 6)

Fashion and beauty practises

A frequent criticism levelled at SatC and TLW, often to refute either show’s usefulness as a feminist text, is the fact that almost all the main characters present as gender-conforming and conventionally feminine. Feminism has traditionally taken an oppositional stance to fashion and beauty practices. Janet Radcliffe Richards succinctly enumerates the aspects of these practices which are “obvious causes for feminist concern”.[1] Perhaps the most obvious is the large investment of time and money women are required to dedicate to their appearance “when no comparable demands are made of men”; secondly, the standards are set impossibly high. A third issue is that tastes are too standardised, allowing little room for diversity. Finally, citing the examples of corsets and high-heeled shoes, she explains how the demands of fashion itself are often constricting and not conducive to health or free movement. Hollows delineates how these evaluations have led to a politicisation of feminist dress, which produced anti-fashion strategies of either adopting traditionally masculine attire or attempting to escape the idea of fashion altogether and encourage women to “do their own thing”.[2]

Third-wave feminist attitudes have moved beyond this perspective. Although feminists continue to critique the misogynistic elements of fashion and beauty practices, there is a general agreement that it is possible to negotiate a politically engaged yet enjoyable relationship with fashion.[3]

With this in mind, how do SatC and TLW engage with these contemporary feminist debates about fashion and femininity? It is clear almost all the primary characters are conventionally feminine, slim and attractive, and it has been argued[4] that this failure to present any alternative to the norm risks negating any potential feminist substance. However, a closer look at each programme reveals that, rather than unquestioningly following conventions, each in its own way sincerely engages with discussions of fashion and femininity as they operate in a third wave context.

It is commonly acknowledged that fashion plays an intrinsic role in SatC, with many viewers claiming to watch it primarily for the fashion. SatC impacts on both the fashion world (with many magazines running fashion spreads inspired by the trends popularised by the series[5]) and the viewer at home (the programme’s influence on women’s purchasing habits has been widely documented[6] and “a large section of its audience watch it primarily to see the clothes”[7]). This obviously adds to the fantasy appeal of the series; however, the most relevant aspect of the role of fashion within SatC is the way in which fashion functions as spectacular within the narrative. In an essay titled “‘Fashion is the Fifth Character’”, Bruzzi and Church Gibson elaborate on the “bold and innovative”[8] use of fashion within the narrative. Whereas the common approach of Hollywood film and television is for costume to be subservient to character and action, in SatC it “exist[s] independently of script and narrative”.[9] Wardrobe serves a spectacular purpose and provides critics with multiple “rich and ambivalent”[10] readings; importantly, it can also provide an abundance of material to consider in the light of contemporary dialogues within feminism.

According to Joanne Hollows, cultural studies has recently seen a shift from “earlier orthodoxy…in which production is privileged over consumption”[11] to a greater appreciation of the ways in which consumers are actively engaged in meaning making. This is echoed in discourse on fashion, wherein theorists have posited that the ways in which clothing is worn generates meaning, thereby according authorship to the consumer. This idea is bolstered by the use of fashion in SatC:

Carrie’s…signature way of using fashion as personal expression is to put together jarring styles, lines and fabrics, so de-mystifying it couture. An unattainable Dior dress is made democratically available through being worn with her inexpensive, widely available nameplate necklace (‘Ex and the City’, 2:18).[12]

Carrie’s “violent yoking together of clashing sartorial styles”[13] produces “meanings which may not be anticipated in design and production”.[14] Although fashion designers are important in SatC, Carrie Bradshaw’s idiosyncratic approach to fashion challenges the passivity of the consumer role, and ultimately more agency and authorial control is given to the wearer than the designer.

Moreover, for many women, SatC can be seen as affirmative in its approach to fashion “in that it does not belittle the women for their interest in clothes and make-up”.[15] Hollows points out that the sphere of fashion is often seen as “shallow, trivial and irrational”[16] and thus its association with femininity is often seen as proof that women are similarly unserious. SatC challenges this assumption – in fact Carrie’s relationship with fashion bears much resemblance to TLW’s Bette’s interest in art in terms of her expertise and appreciation of aesthetic beauty. SatC elevates fashion to the status of high art.

Second-wave approaches to fashion were further complicated in lesbian political discourse:

For many lesbian critics, dressing to make a lesbian identity visible is a political act because it is a refusal to ‘pass’ as heterosexual. In the 1970s, lesbian style was highly politicised and, like wider feminist styles of the period, was built on a refusal of a ‘feminine’ identity constructed for men in favour of a more ‘rational’ dress and a more ‘natural’ look.[17]

TLW clearly discards this rejection of ‘feminine’ identity. Many have dismissed its conventionally attractive and gender-confirming characters for three main reasons. Firstly, as with SatC, the show has been accused of promoting consumerism by depicting an enviable lifestyle –a “‘shop window’ for commodities”.[18] Secondly, it is “[d]efficient in definitive butch representations”,[19] leaving some queer women feeling unrepresented. Thirdly, there has been some concern about what Jennifer Vanasco calls the ‘Fiji effect’ – referring to a Harvard study linking the advent of eating disorders in Fiji to television’s introduction to the country in 1995. The lesbian community, Vanasco claims, has largely managed to escape the shallow and harsh beauty culture that plagues both straight women and gay men; she fears that “glamorous lesbians being broadcast into our living rooms” might injure the community’s core values of “loyalty and inclusion” .[20]

However, this should not be an indication that TLW has nothing to contribute to third-wave feminist discourse on fashion and beauty practise; I believe a nuanced account of the complexities of TLW’s exploration of this issue is possible, echoing tendencies within popular queer discourse towards embracing the enjoyment of fashion for those whom it interests.[21]

Firstly, in validating queer female desire, TLW questions traditional feminist spectatorship theory, particularly its insistence on the inexistence of a valid female viewer position, by asserting the validity of a desiring queer female gaze. The femininity of the series’ characters is constructed not for a male gaze but for female spectators (and the queer female gaze within the screen). Secondly, some such as Rebecca Beirne have posited that the series demonstrates “that sexual identity cannot always be read from the body or its ornaments”,[22] thus undermining stereotypes and challenging heteronormativity. On the other hand, incidents such as Shane’s assertion that Lara is too ‘femmey’ to be gay lead Beirne to argue that the series “undertakes a strange practice of simultaneously making feminine lesbians both hyper-visible and rendering them less authentic”.[23]

When attempting to situate TLW in relation to third-wave fashion discourses, the most helpful characters are Jenny, Shane and Moira/Max. Jenny, interestingly, is both the most vocally feminist and the ‘girliest’, suggesting a typically third-wave lack of tension between the two. Her bedroom is baby pink, and her audacious femininity borders on tongue-in-cheek. Stylist Cynthia Summers remarks that “the way she wears [couture] is so incongruous to the way the designer put it out there”,[24] indicating a range of issues comparable to those explored in the above discussion of Carrie Bradshaw’s wardrobe. Furthermore, a comparison of her wardrobe in season one to that of subsequent seasons reveals that her idiosyncratic style develops in tandem with her feminist identity.

Shane, on the other hand, is an interesting exception to the conventional femininity of the other characters, presenting not a standard ‘butch’ identity, but a more elusive queer androgyny that reflects current notions of ‘postmodern sexuality’.[25] Furthermore, her attention-grabbing hairstyle, wardrobe and career as a hair stylist testify to her eager participation in, rather than disengagement from, the issue of personal appearance. Taken together, Jenny and Shane may colour our reading of the other characters’ gender presentations; they’re not necessarily falling in line with the dominant culture, they have simply moved beyond the debate.

However, perhaps the richest territory for third-wave analysis is the storyline of Moira/Max Sweeney, a transsexual (FTM) character introduced in season three. Max is initially introduced to us as Moira, ostensibly a stereotypically butch lesbian but secretly struggling with his gender identity (as such I am going to use female pronouns to refer to him in his pre-transitional stage) who begins a complicated relationship with Jenny while Jenny is at home with her parents recovering from depression. Moira moves with Jenny to Los Angeles from the Mid-West, which is, of course, presented as politically regressive in comparison to California – and not as fashion-forward. Moira initially has difficulties integrating with the rest of the core group, in part due to what they interpret as her outmoded cultural politics.[26] However, although the series implicitly rejects Moira’s archaic gender politics in favour of the more contemporary queer ethos of the core group, the values and sincerity of the primary characters are also called into question by the end of the episode.

The group attend a fancy dinner at an expensive restaurant in honour of Jenny’s return home. Whereas ordinarily the group’s penchant for trendy spots goes unquestioned (as it provides a great deal of viewing pleasure) this particular scene, through its set design and lighting as well as the action on-screen, queries both their bourgeois lifestyle and the viewer’s enjoyment of it. In contrast to The Planet – the group’s customary hangout, whose colour palate and decor is warm, hospitable and connotes simultaneously stylishness and inclusion – this restaurant is coldly lit with charcoal-grey walls and coded as pretentious and unwelcoming.

Although we are periodically reminded of Moira’s problematic world-view,[27] the entire scene is geared towards aligning the viewer with her and portraying the main characters in a negative light. Situationally, the group’s dynamic in this scene is organised along multiple layers of awkwardness,[28] producing a rather uncomfortable viewing experience that stands in stark contrast to the usually enjoyable banter in group scenes. Moreover, rather than concentrate on the group’s conversation, the camera focuses on the newcomer and her discomfort.

Had the scene been set somewhere more inviting and had less screen time been given to Moira’s discomfort, the audience may be less inclined to empathise with her – she would interrupt our viewing pleasure by intruding on the intimacy of the group and disturbing the visual aspect. As it is, however, the ambience is geared towards absence rather than presence, thus nothing is disturbed. Moreover, the episode itself ends with a scene in which Moira tearfully overlooks the L.A. night skyline, further aligning us with Moira’s perspective.

While the series ultimately upholds their contemporary, third-wave approach to fashion,[29] in this sequence the cliquishness of their educated, ‘PoMoSexual’ circle is questioned. This represents an attempt to tap into and engage with criticisms of certain elements of third-wave feminism from within the movement – in particular charges of inaccessibility[30] and individualism,[31] thus illustrating feminism’s capacity for self-awareness.

Next week: Part 5 – “Contested Maps of Meaning

[1] Radcliffe Richards, Janet (1982) The Skeptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry, Harmondsworth, Pelican Books: 223


[2] Hollows (2000: 140-141)

[3] A useful illustration of this attitude is the popular third-wave magazine BUST, which features, alongside articles on feminist current affairs, a fashion spread in each issue. Each spread takes a different retro television series (eg. Twin Peaks (Aug-Sep 2008), Dark Shadows (Oct-Nov 2007)) as the basis for its looks, thus acknowledging the performative aspect of the femininities presented as well as the pleasures involved in playing with these identities. While BUST is not representative of all third-wave feminists, it demonstrates an interrogation of the traditional feminist rejection of fashion.

[4] Vanasco, Jennifer (2006) ‘The Glamour Factor and the Fiji Effect’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2006) Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 183-197; Lo 2004 apparently.

[5] Sohn, Amy (2002) Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell, New York, Pocket books: 148

[6] Jermyn, Deborah (2004) “In Love with Sarah Jessica Parker: Celebrating Female Fandom and Friendship in Sex and the City”, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2004) Reading Sex and the City. London, I. B. Tauris: 202

[7] Bruzzi, Stella and Church Gibson, Pamela (2004) “‘Fashion is the Fifth Character’: Fashion, Costume and Character in Sex and the City”, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2004) Reading Sex and the City. London, I. B. Tauris: 129

[8] Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004: 115)

[9] Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004: 115)

[10] Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004: 129)

[11] Hollows (2000: 113)

[12] Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004: 119)

[13] Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004: 117)

[14] Hollows (2000: 138)

[15] Jermyn (2004: 215)

[16] Hollows (2000: 137)

[17] Hollows (2000: 147)

[18] Hollows (2000: 53)

[19] Moore, Candace & Schilt, Kristen (2006) ‘Is She Man Enough? Female Masculinities on The L Word’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2006) Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 159

[20] Vanasco, Jennifer (2006) ‘The Glamour Factor and the Fiji Effect’, in Akass, Kim and McCabe, Janet (2006) Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. London, I. B. Tauris: 185-186

[21] Third-wave icon Beth Ditto offers a personal critique of second-wave attitudes to fashion: “When I was a teenager I would lock myself in the bathroom for hours, bouffanting my hair like Patty Duke…only to comb it all out and wash it all off before stepping out into the world a butchish bisexual teen. I thought to be feminine was to give into straight culture, or the beauty standard, but in my heart I had a flair for fashion and style.” – Ditto, Beth (2008) ‘What Would Beth Ditto Do?’, The Guardian [online]. Available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/feb/08/familyandrelationships.women. Last accessed 18th January 2009

[22] Beirne, Rebecca. (2006). ‘Fashioning The L Word’. Available: http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/Beirne.pdf. Last accessed 2nd January 2009: 5

[23] Beirne (2006: 30)

[24] Bendix, Trish (2009) ‘Interview with “L Word” Stylist Cynthia Summers’. After Ellen [online]. Available: http://www.afterellen.com/people/2009/1/cynthiasummers?page=0%2C0. Last accessed 15th January 2009: 4

[25] Also referred to as ‘PoMoSexuality’.

[26] As an example, when Jenny introduces Moira to Shane and her partner Carmen in ‘Lobsters’ (3.3), Moira reads the androgynous Shane as butch and insists on chivalrous behaviour: “You ladies stay here, let us butches unload the truck.” Carmen raises a quizzical eyebrow and teases Shane “Big butch. Go unload the truck.”

[27] For example, when learning of Bette and Tina’s baby, she replies “You know, a bunch of women back in my dyke community, they’re doing that too” as though lesbians having babies were a novelty.

[28] In addition to Moira’s failure to integrate, the group ineptly handle the subject of Jenny’s self-harm, Alice reacts acerbically to the attendance of ex-girlfriend Dana’s new lover and Bette and Tina inaudibly quarrel over finances.

[29] And it does. Moira eventually finds acceptance she would have never imagined in her old dyke community in order to transition to male, thus ultimately endorsing the world-view of the core group, a world-view that associates fashion-forwardness with up-to-date gender politics.

[30] Martin, Courtney (2008b) ‘Ten Feminist Questions I’m Still Exploring’. Feministing [online]. Available: http://www.feministing.com/archives/012287.html. Last accessed 25th January 2008

[31] Munford, Rebecca (2007) ‘”Wake Up and Smell the Lipgloss”: Gender, Generation and the (A)politics of Girl Power’, in Gillis, Stacey, Howie, Gillian and Munford, Rebecca (eds.) (2007) Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, 2nd Edition. Houndmills, Palgrave Macmillan: 266-279

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Feminist Fandom: part 5 of 6 « head into the heavens

  2. Pingback: Welcome! | head into the heavens

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

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