The past few weeks I have been posting my undergrad dissertation in bite-size chunks (the story so far – part one, part two, part three, part four). Here’s part five (nearly there! bit shorter this time):
Feminist Fandom: Exploring the precarious relationship between third-wave feminism and television with reference to Sex and the City and The L Word (Part 5 of 6)
Contested ‘Maps of Meaning’
Feminists and cultural critics have always been interested in concepts of ideology. Many have drawn on the theories of Louis Althusser, who argued that institutions such as religion, government and the media operate as ‘Ideological State Apparatuses’, working in the interests of society’s dominant groups. Stuart Hall develops this further to contend that the media as an apparatus has “progressively colonized the cultural and ideological sphere”. Yet Hall also argues that “ideological ‘maps of meaning’ are never simply imposed but always contested , with every sign or representation a potential point of struggle over meaning”. For Gledhill, texts can be “sites of discursive struggle”, caught between the need to attract a wide audience with a familiar moral order and the need to refer to recognisable social discourses. She uses Cagney and Lacey as an illustration of ‘cultural negotiation’ within popular media, arguing that the female buddy pair generates ‘conflicting codes of recognition’ that negotiate and potentially undermine ideology.
With this in mind, how do our texts disrupt ideological assumptions of their generic attributes? As we shall see, both series’ are laden with examples of the destabilisation of the status quo.
SatC bears much generic resemblance to ‘independent/single-woman’ narratives such as Bridget Jones’ Diary or Ally McBeal, yet disrupts certain expectations by focussing not on a single female protagonist but on a group of women, thus allowing us to explore how a group of post-second wave women interact together and negotiate differences. Arguably, TLW subsequently builds on the codes engendered by SatC but disrupts the heteronormativity of this narrative by centring it on queer women. Thus it is arguably important that TLW shares SatC’s bourgeois values because it means that it can play with the cultural codes we have gained from familiarity with the series. These cultural codes will mobilise a certain set of expectations even in those who do not watch SatC due to SatC’s popularity and omnipresence in the media. Therefore, TLW is able to build on this frame of reference to attend to the areas of contemporary feminism not addressed by SatC (primarily queer sexualities and genders, race, class, disability). It could be argued that the series needs already-established cultural codes in order to upend them.
Moreover, TLW upsets commonly-accepted notions about visual pleasure and voyeurism. As previously discussed, the series not only questions our traditional assumptions about sexuality and fashion, but also puts forward the possibility of a queer female gaze:
The L Word displaces Mulvey’s model of “woman as image, man as bearer of the look,” and concurs with suggestions made by queer theory about the queer spectator. Importantly, gay and lesbian scholars suggest the queer spectator is not required to choose between objectification and identification. Instead, a dual experience can be sustained between desiring and inhabiting.
This is exemplified in a significant moment in TLW’s pilot. Jenny, who is questioning her sexuality after realising her attraction to Marina, is working at her cashier job when Marina brings her groceries to be ‘checked out’. As Marina walks away, Jenny’s eyeline is matched to a shot of Marina’s behind, thus disrupting the recognisable scenario of male objectification.
Another example of such a reversal of ‘codes of recognition’ can be found in the pilot episode of both series’. In episode 1.1 (‘Sex and the City’) of SatC, Carrie meets Mr Big for the first time. Following the butterfly-inducing encounter, she revels in her awareness that he is watching her hips swing as she walks away, and she self-consciously struts down the street. This in itself intimates at the instability of her construction, but is accentuated by the fact that she trips on the pavement, thus playing with the concept of the male gaze:
[Carrie] can both perform an idealised femininity…and explode it as a myth; she can play the role of fetishised sexual object, but also play with owning not being the fetish.
These two scenes play with and reverse standard cinematic codes, as well as destabilizing traditional assumptions of feminist film theory, asking “who is doing the looking?”
In another part of TLW’s first episode, Jenny witnesses two women having sex in the pool next door and later re-enacts the scene with her boyfriend Tim. However, the way in which the re-enactment plays out problematizes conventional wisdom concerning male and female arousal patterns:
While common stereotypes suggest men’s strongest erotic sense is visual, whereas women are more aroused by narrative – being told a tale – this scene flips the script. Jenny stresses the way things look, the blonde girl’s beautiful breasts, while Tim gets excited by the story itself…
To return to the subject of fashion, Bruzzi and Church-Gibson make an interesting correlation between Carrie’s attire at the end of episode 1.12 (‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’) and that of another iconic female character:
The obvious fashion reference point is Audrey Hepburn’s return from Paris in Sabrina (1954), when Hepburn, dressed in perfectly co-ordinated Givenchy, waits at the station and is swept off her feet by eternal bachelor William Holden.
This allusion is particularly fascinating in light of the episode’s outcome – Carrie’s eventual refusal to accompany Mr. Big on holiday given his inability to commit. This stands in stark contrast to Hepburn’s character, who (to oversimplify Sabrina’s storyline) continually allows herself to be manipulated by the film’s male characters. Here, Carrie upends this paradigm, throwing a spanner in the works of conventional representations of women.
Next week: Part 6 – Problematic elements and conclusions
 Quoted Purvis, Tony & Thornham, Sue (2005) Television Drama: Theories and Identities. Houndmills, Palgrave MacMillan: 75
 Purvis & Thornham (2005: 114)
 Purvis & Thornham (2005: 114)
 Akass &McCabe (2004a: 8)
 There are numerous generic references, from the tagline, ‘Same Sex, Different City’, to the frequent ensemble scenes in trendy coffee shops.
 Moore (2007: 141-2)
 Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004: 127)
 Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004:
 Moore (2007: 122-125)
 Bruzzi & Church Gibson (2004: 118-119)