Women open up Pandora’s purse on film

2010-06-05 13:44

While critics of the movie Sex and the City 2 have found fault with

everything from the women’s continued interest in men to their gossipy ­natures,

the thickest venom has been reserved for the shoes.

From the series’ inception,

no topic has inspired more vitriol than the women’s penchant for conspicuous

consumption – and the movies have only made matters worse.

The first threatened to turn Anthony Lane of The New Yorker – who

dubbed the characters “hormonal hobbits” – into a “hard-line Marxist, my head a

whirl of closets, delusions and blunt-clawed cattiness”.

Reviews of the sequel have been equally harsh. Roger Ebert used the

words “flyweight bubbleheads”, while the Washington Post went straight for

“demented and self-serving”.

Now I’m not opposed to critiques of materialism, but it’s hard not

to suspect more is going on here than a collective sense of disappointment that

Carrie is buying shoes instead of saving the world, especially given the almost

absurd levels of spite expressed and the fact that we rarely see such wrath

aimed at all the stupid ways men spend money.

When P Diddy flaunts his loot we

tend to see him as witty, not “trivial” and “shallow”.

And while we question the integrity of the Lehman Brothers boys,

few have likened them to hobbits. We save these images for women.

This discrepancy is not surprising. Women spending money,

especially on themselves, has long been a controversial subject – one that taps

into cultural anxieties about women’s progress and its ­effect on

masculinity.

As historian Kathy Peiss – author of Cheap Amusements: Working

Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York – has pointed out, when young

single women first started to enter the workforce in cities like New York and

Chicago over 100 years ago, it wasn’t even ­assumed they should be allowed to

spend the money they made. ­

Unlike their brothers, they were expected to give

their entire earnings to their families. When women broke this taboo – when they

went dancing wearing a new hat or dress – they were often criticised for

breaking traditional gender and class boundaries.

But in many ways that was the point. As Peiss has suggested,

“putting on style” was a way to announce women’s arrival in the world.

When

factory girls lunched in Washington Square Park, their purposefully conspicuous

attire told the male onlookers something they had never been told before: women

were making their own money and they were no longer giving it all away.

From that point on a shoe was no longer just a shoe but often an

outspoken symbol of women’s advancement on the economic front and elsewhere.

As

Betsy Israel – author of Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in

the Twentieth Century – has noted about the “flapper”, another fashion icon

frequently ­dismissed as foolish and materialistic: “While she drove and danced

and all the rest, she also went to school in greater numbers than any woman

before her.”

Indeed, a rise in female consumer spending is often accompanied by

higher education and employment rates among women.

This fact has rattled conservative politicians and critics for over

a century now.

But despite their attempts to trivialise images of female

consumption, who is allowed to make and spend money is a serious political issue

for women.

After all, in 1932, to offset male unemployment during the Great

Depression, 26 states prohibited married women from working.

And until 1974 a

woman could not reliably get credit unless it was in her husband’s name.

The question of entitlement and luxury has been especially

problematic, as evidenced in the scathing critiques Oprah recently received when

she outfitted her South African school for girls with top-quality sheets and

other “extravagances”.

As she told Newsweek: “It was clear that the attitude

was, ‘These are poor ­African girls. Why spend all this on them?’”

The image of luxury has also been particularly effective in selling

the idea that when greedy, ambitious women win, men lose.

Significantly, while the women in Sex and the City make fashion

look fun, the politics of women and spending was never lost on them.

In season

two, when Miranda, a lawyer, offers to buy her bartender boyfriend, Steve, a

suit, he balks.

He cannot afford it and having her buy it is a blow to his

ego.

“When single men have a lot of money it works to their advantage,”

Miranda explains, “but when a single woman has money it’s a problem.

It’s

ridiculous.

I want to enjoy my successes, not apologise for them.”

I’ll admit the two movies have not lived up to the series on this

issue, though not because they show women spending money but because they do not

explain as well as the series did what these symbols of opulence mean.

This is

especially true of the second movie, wherein the girls revel in luxury when they

land an all-expenses paid trip to Abu Dhabi.

Their outspoken attire definitely contrasts with the dark veils of

the Muslim women around them, but it is done in such an over-the-top way it

slips into parody and any larger point about fashion, self-expression and the

question of entitlement is muddled.

The beauty of the series was that while it was good fun, it wasn’t

afraid to make a point.

It did the maths, sometimes literally.
In the episode, A

Woman’s Right to Shoes, Carrie gets angry when a married friend with children

criticises her lavish spending.

She tells Charlotte that between this friend’s

engagement party, wedding and baby showers, she had spent $2?300 celebrating her

choices – “and she is shaming me for spending a lousy 485 bucks on

myself”.

Carrie’s message is simple: Conservative ideology infuses the

question of women and spending – and reviewers would do well to remember this.

It is one thing to critique a movie on aesthetic grounds, as I have done, or

even on materialistic grounds.

It is, however, another thing altogether to

ignore the subtleties of the issue in favour of the blatant character

assassination of four women who are, overall, smart, sexual and, at least in

three of the four cases, solid earners.

The eagerness of reviewers to do so is

particularly upsetting since the latest recession – increasingly dubbed the

he-cession – is stirring up old anxieties about women’s advancement.

Citing high

female education rates, Men’s Health magazine recently said “women are

succeeding in a time when men generally aren’t”.

Last August, Foreign Policy spouted the same message.

Fretting

about everything from declining marriage rates to the rise of female

politicians, the author warned not only that “the era of male dominance is

coming to an end” but that the “transition” would be “wrenching ... and possibly

very violent”.

What gets lost in this backward logic is that all this is actually

a good thing.

Although America has a long way to go in terms of equal pay and

family-friendly policies, women now represent half of the US labour force.

This means they have more control in and outside the home.

Dual-earner marriages tend to be more successful than those with just one, while

advances in education and employment have led more women to take an interest in

their financial security.

According to Forbes, “90% of women now deal with financial

planners; a jump of 18% since 2000”.

Interestingly, this has affected

stereotypically male luxury items as well.

“Only 13% of female breadwinners

based electronic decisions on their husband’s advice, unlike 30% of other

married women.”

Given this – that we may soon be talking not only about who buys

the shoes but who buys the TV – things may indeed get ugly soon.

As for Carrie & Co, they should keep their chins up.

After all,

they know a little something about sore heels and sour critics.

In the new

movie, when Carrie receives a dismal review for her new book, she says of the

reviewer: he “turned me into a cartoon and slapped tape over my voice”.

She is

heartbroken at first, but bounces back.

Here’s hoping this worthy franchise does

the same. – Agence Global

» Ashley Sayeau, formerly Nelson, has written on women and politics

for a variety of anthologies and publications.

 


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