Ashley Sayeau: "Sex and the City" and Women's Consumption

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[Ashley Sayeau, formerly Nelson, has written on women and politics for a variety of anthologies and publications, including The Nation, Salon and Dissent.]

Ever since Sex and the City 2 hit theaters last Thursday, reviewers have been battling over the cleverest way to call four grown women spoiled, shameless and self-absorbed. While critics have found fault with everything from the women's continued interest in men to their gossipy natures, the thickest venom has been reserved for, you guessed it, 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."...

Unfortunately, this discrepancy is not terribly surprising. The image of 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—Carrie's forerunners—first started to enter the workforce in cities like New York and Chicago over a hundred 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 paycheck to their families, saving none for themselves. When women broke this taboo—when they went dancing with a new hat or dress—they were often criticized 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 (like some other women we know), 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 who was 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 trivialize 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 Depression, twenty-six states prohibited married women from working. And until 1974, a woman couldn't reliably get credit unless it was in her husband's name....

As for Carrie & Co., they should keep their chin up. After all, they know a little something about sore heels but also 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's heartbroken at first, but bounces back. Here's hoping this worthy franchise does the same.

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