Selling Out and Buying In: The Rise of Fashionista Feminism

Lipstick JungleSex and the City happened the way most pop trends do: slowly at first, and then all at once. One day, Sarah Jessica Parker was just another face on a magazine cover: flat, glossy, and irrelevant, connected in some obscure way to Kim Cattrall (known best – to me, anyway – for her achievements in films such as Baby Geniuses and Mannequin). Then, before you could say “DVD player,” Sex was on every TV in the tri-state area.

The show had a certain soothing quality, like a handful of tranquilizers washed down with champagne: Unmarried women, who (as the show never ceased to remind us) had traditionally been portrayed as sexless and sad, were instead painted as the belles of an endless ball. The four heroines of Sex and the City had lives full of club openings, expensive restaurants, candy-colored liquor in martini glasses, and lovely, impractical shoes (one episode centered entirely around a Manolo’s $485 price tag).

In her voice-overs, Sarah Jessica Parker used words such as “trendy,” “hot,” and “fabulous” several times each hour, using the same hypnotic, patronizing tone that Big Bird habitually employs to announce that today’s letter is “B.” The repetition seemed calculated to convey the fact that the Sex and the City lifestyle was, above all, desirable – we, the viewers, should want to live like the people on the TV screen, just as Sesame Street’s audience should learn the alphabet. It worked: many women saw Sex and the City as a guide to empowerment. Credit card debt, hangovers, and unstable relationships no longer signified failure; they meant that you had made it, that you were a successful (albeit broke, nauseated, and stressed-out) woman. The popularity of the show was so widespread that no-one seemed to notice or mind that the “role models” of Sex had had startlingly adolescent life goals: They wanted it all, but only if “all” meant “the prettiest dress, the cutest boyfriend, and an invitation to party with the cool kids.” As our political climate shifted steadily back to the fourteenth century, women who read and emulated Sex and the City underwent a voluntary regression of their own, all the way back to the junior prom.

Although Sex and the City ended in 2003 – thus making it ancient history, by pop standards – its brand of high femme fantasy lives on in the literary genre known as “chick lit.” Every year, the chick-lit industry publishes several Sex and the City rip-offs, full of sex, shopping, and the wanton abuse of the word “fabulous.” Not surprisingly, Candace Bushnell, the author of the original Sex and the City columns, has made a sizable contribution to the chick-lit boom; she’s published three novels in the last five years. Her latest novel, Lipstick Jungle, is her most ambitious work to date; it’s also a telling look into the ideology behind the phenomenon of fashionista feminism.

Prospective readers will know within the first five pages whether or not Lipstick Jungle is for them – I counted three brand names, seven permutations of the word “star” or “celebrity,” and ten grammatical errors in the opening scene alone. However, those who put the novel down too early risk missing out on its complex, layered badness, which is oddly compelling, in the manner of a spectacular car wreck. The experience of reading Bushnell is far from pleasant, but it is awe-inspiring: it’s truly rare to come across a book that fails on so many levels. For, you see, Lipstick Jungle is not mere pulp – it’s a feminist tract, an important work, which aims to teach us what it means to be empowered.

The plot centers around the plucky yet unfortunately named fashion designer Victory Ford, who suffers from the hardships of being a white, straight woman in an industry that, according to Bushnell, is dominated by “Jewish fags.” Granted, Victory doesn’t suffer much – in fact, she spends much of her time flying between Paris and New York, debating the merits of Dom Perignon versus Cristal – but occasionally journalists ask her why she doesn’t have children, and in the world of Lipstick Jungle, this qualifies as an experience of unspeakable oppression. Yet she remains plucky – unspeakably, unceasingly plucky – and although she starts off as a rich, shallow woman, by the end of the novel, she becomes… well, a rich, shallow woman. She doesn’t grow, and she doesn’t change, but she does triumph over each and every meager obstacle in her path (the low point of her career arrives when the public fails to embrace her new line of long skirts, thus quashing her ambition to be an “artist” – no, I am not making this up). Throughout the book, Bushnell label’s Victory’s quest for cash “feminist,” and labels her male adversaries “sexist.” Thus, according to Candace Bushnell, the meaning and goal of feminism is to make money.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it has become clear that our society is tragically and dangerously divided along lines of class. An ideology of “empowerment” that doesn’t challenge the divide between the haves and the have-nots seems rather misguided and useless – after all, what good is feminism if it only benefits a few moneyed individuals? Yet that is exactly what Bushnell advocates in her book. Bushnell’s underlying argument that fashion can be feminist is also troubling and poorly thought-out. Fashion, after all, is about buying and selling female bodies that have been altered through surgery, diet, and Photoshop to fit male-created standards of beauty, which feminists have long cited as problematic. Rush Limbaugh once said that "feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream”; when you take a close look at them, Bushnell’s ideas bear a closer resemblance to Limbaugh’s sensationalist blather than they do to the groundbreaking work done by feminists of the ’70s and ’90s. She’s all for women having access to the mainstream, as long as they aren’t dowdy, or – worse – poor.

In the end, Candace Bushnell exemplifies the weaknesses of fashionista feminism. Her books are about fitting in, not breaking free; her characters do nothing to empower their gender, and everything to empower themselves. Women who read her work in search of life lessons would do well to look elsewhere; after all, if we spend too much time looking in the mirror, we may never get around to taking over the world. - Sady O.

Sady O.

Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.

In Defense of Sex and the City

I understand your criticisms of sex and the city from the perspective of how it really touches on desperation for men and excessive materialism. These are criticisms that I do share of the show. However, despite these particular criticisms that I do share, I do think that this particular show does also appeal to the feminist in me as well. Honestly, I do think that there is a level of honesty to the way the show does handle issues of sexuality, and life of being single in a way that is not always addressed in the rest of our culture. Carrie is more of a capitalist than I will ever be, Samantha is more promiscious than I will ever be. Yet the things that they talk about to each other are things that women in our culture are not always encouraged to talk about with each other as well. I think the fact that the show is so popular and has come to resonate with me quite a bit may be an indication that women wish that they could talk to each other the way these women do. Maybe even a wish that they could act as free in our materialism driven culture as these women are. Honestly, since when did you talk to even your closest girlfriends about the struggles that these women share with each other??? I think it represents the societal hopes for being able to participate in our market driven culture and to find connection with each other. Where do we really talk about the things that the characters talk about on the show? I think that shows like Sex and the City for some reason are one of the places where we can imagine having honest conversations like these characters do. And honestly, Carrie does not strike me as being shallow: she strikes me as being a feminist in her own sense of the word. I see a lot of myself in Carrie despite my criticisms of the show that the rest of society seems to encourage me to tone down on, especially in the professional field that i have chosen for myself.

Well said!

Great review. It's a terrifying phenomenon. But perhaps more terrifying is the idea that this vapid consumerism, desperate man hunting, and "me, me, me" mentality has always been in the minds and hearts of my peers. There's so much more to life girls than shoe and man shopping! And don't get me wrong I love a good pair of shoes!

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