Gender, Ethnicity, Sexual Orientation and Class in Popular Television

Sex and the City‘ has been known for pushing the edge of ‘real’ on television. You might imagine with this greater breath of freedom that they would use that position to promote positive images of women, people of color, gay and lesbians and those of different classes. However, that is just not the case. Women are portrayed as being absolutely consumed with the pursuit of men, love, clothes and shoes. Little do we know of their jobs, and even less time is spent discussing them. The main cast is white American’s, with few ethnic characters appearing in a single episode. Carrie and Charlotte have ‘best’ gay friends who serve as fashion accessories. Stanford is the prominent gay character, and together with Anthony, these men serve up flamboyant gay as if it’s going out of style. Finally, issues of class aren’t approached at all… everyone is well-to-do with an amazing apartment with only one financial concern – how many of the new season’s shoes you will be able to purchase.

We dive into the lives of four single women who are stereotypically driven by love and inextricably entangled with men. The show centers on Carrie who over six seasons spends the majority of her time focused on “Mr. Big”, shoes and to a lesser importance, clothes. Then we have Charlotte, often the damsel in distress, the image of perfection in a ready-made-wife who troubles all her time with getting married so she can have a baby. Samantha is the sex fiend who is never without a man and is sometimes seen as a self-conscious conniving business woman who uses sex to get what she wants. Lastly there is Miranda, who puts her career first and is less male focused, however repeatedly singleness haunts her proving once and for all that all women need a man.

We see a few examples of ethnicity and it is easy to note that the four main characters are all white, as are the recurring supporting characters Mr. Big, Stanford, Steve, Steve and Harry. The occasional ethnic person appears in bit part. When the girls attend the funeral of Javier, famed New York fashion designer, a Puerto Rican woman speaks with a lisp on his behalf. In the same episode, Samantha is turned away at the restaurant by an African American maitre de. The only example of a positive image of ethnicity is late in the series when Miranda dates her neighbor who is an African America doctor.

Taking an analytical look at sexual orientation, one might applaud the integration of prominent gay characters; however it is only gay men, stereotypically ‘flaming’ gay. There is no room on the show for whole gay or lesbian characters that focus on their entire person rather than their sexual orientation. There were a few episodes where Samantha dated a woman, but the stereotypical representation overwhelms this brief positive portrayal of a lesbian. But wait, we have to recall that this character just served to remind Samantha of why she prefers men… because all women want is to ‘talk, talk, talk, all the time’.

With all that said, the appeal of the show is the rawness of the women’s thoughts, the frankness of the bits of Carrie’s articles, the behind the scenes of unmarried women beyond thirty, and the dating scene from a women’s point of view. It is all entertaining but a bit too pat. Women are love starved. Men are driven by sex and only driven by sex. The stereotypes continue and perpetuate. Diversity is treated as a special subject rather than a fact of life. When Samantha dates a black man, she is discriminated against by his successful restaurateur sister. Since the siblings have only each other, the relationship fails. It’s an interesting fact for entertainment, but does ‘Sex and the City’ reflect the real world or the white world?

Viewed episode by episode, there are moments to be praised. Miranda takes a stand for being both and a mother and a partner in her law firm – women can have it all. Samantha proves that women can approach business and sex as a man might and still maintain femininity. Charlotte reminds us that it’s okay to want the marriage and children, and that to find true love you must look beyond your perfect WASP’s and prejudices, you can find the perfect man in a “not so perfect suit”. It comes back to the pattern of symbolic gender representation – as the series closes each character has found their perfect mate and closure is possible because we are assured that they are now complete.

This brings me to ask, What was the resistance to making one of the key characters a woman of color? Could we have enjoyed a multi-dimensional gay friend without comedy? Could the four women maintain their close friendship if one was of middle or lower class? What if one of the women was lesbian, or found contentment and personal fulfillment in a career or philanthropic activities rather than a meaningful committed relationship with a man?

As I watch entertainment TV shows with a more critical eye, my one thought in my mind is, Is this something I’d want my daughter to watch?’ Does the show’s content reinforce the concepts of equal treatment for all and diversity in relationships and life, or does it paint a stereotypical picture, a false expectation of life?

And until I have that daughter, I will examine how the shows that I watch persuade my personal ideology by which I interpret and understand the world. To be aware is to be prepared and to have a choice. I am the master of what I believe, and to be so requires critical analysis of all the images and messages presented by entertainment media.


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