A feminist season for both Carrie, Hillary

A flawed character, Sex and the City’s Carrie still has lessons to teach.

New Line Cinema, Craig Blankenhorn

A flawed character, Sex and the City’s Carrie still has lessons to teach.

I read The Feminine Mystique when I was in middle school and Hillary Clinton was first lady.

So it struck me as bizarre when Sex and the City premiered across the country to the thrill of American women, days before Hillary's historic candidacy came to an end. It was a strange contrast of the personal and the public, the frivolous and the substantive.

Sarah Jessica Parker's voiceover declared, "Women come to New York for the two L's: Labels and Love," while Hillary marked the occasion with these well-received words: "Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it has about 18-million cracks in it and the light is shining through like never before."

It could have been a triumphant year for the women's movement. The attention of men and women alike was fixed on female issues. Early this year, the promise seemed great. I covered a women's history event at Eckerd College where Gloria Steinem talked about the excitement of seeing a woman run for president, and the enthusiasm in the crowd was palpable. She pointed out how many people hold feminist positions without even thinking of themselves as feminists. That's real progress, when a movement becomes mainstream. But Hillary Clinton's concession speech and seeing Sex and the City on the big screen left me with the same feeling of overwhelming disappointment.

That's it? That's all we can do?

I am 23, and I belong to the generation of young women who have seen their toughest classes filled with pony-tailed coeds, who never have to visit a male OB-GYN, who enter the workforce unafraid of sexual harassment or discrimination. I may have been called the B word, but I consider it a point of pride.

If Hillary Clinton and Carrie Bradshaw, the main character in the HBO series that spawned the movie, have done nothing else, both show in their unique ways how we are still striving to live up to the promise of the women's movement. But as they have fallen short of the ideal, they've shown that perfection is not necessary for progress. Indeed, their flaws have reignited a discussion of what we want to be.

Hillary Clinton was far from the ideal female candidate; after all, she rose to power through a husband who continually humiliated her. Though she is a formidable intellect and politician in her own right, it didn't sit well with me that her career was dependent on Bill's. Still, she presented a choice, that all-important concept in women's rights.

Her campaign won support among women her age who longed to see someone like them in the Oval Office before they die. But she failed to capture the imagination of younger women, who couldn't vote for her gender alone.

Both she and Sen. Barack Obama represented classes of people that had previously been shut out of the presidency. Only Obama seized on the history of exclusion to craft a campaign that promised a better kind of politics than practiced by the powers that be.

Clinton didn't convince many women my age that she could bring something new to the good ol' boys club of American politics. Instead, she represented the old guard of women who wanted equality with men by imitating them. Pantsuits didn't fly with the Sex and the City set.

That TV series presented a new kind of feminism, one that adopted the emphasis on careers and sexual freedom of the '60s feminists but reclaimed the sexiness it shunned.

The show's four friends know how to be girls. Sometimes to a fault.

In one heartbreaking episode, Carrie Bradshaw realizes she has spent the equivalent of a down payment on her apartment on her shoe collection. I can picture Betty Friedan shaking her head at how little has changed. In The Feminine Mystique, she revealed how advertising manipulated women's insecurity about their femininity to sell unnecessary products. I sincerely doubt she was hoping that designer heels would displace dishwashers.

In the movie, the women appear even more laughably distorted. Carrie, once a nonconformist who flouted the tradition of marriage, poses in half a dozen wedding dresses for a Vogue photo shoot. A young, idealistic personal assistant gives up her New York dream to marry her hometown boyfriend. Like Hillary Clinton, Carrie is wronged over and over again by her man. In the film, Carrie marries him anyway. In real life, Hillary stood by him. Victimhood continues to look nice on women. And millions of them flocked to the polls and to the theaters, identifying with both protagonists.

But progress is organic, and despite being misguided, both the Clinton campaign and the series helped women grow.

Clinton showed that a woman could hold her own in debate, win over millions of voters despite a past full of baggage, and take below-the-belt blows without getting her feelings hurt. It will be less remarkable the next time a woman runs for president, and hopefully she'll encounter less banter about her ambition and outfits.

Sex and the City put honest female characters before the world without shame. These are women who enjoy sex, who consider abortion but also have babies. Above all, they prioritize the women in their lives above the men. They transcend the competition and cattiness that has pervaded female-to-female relationships. They may love their shoes, but they love their girlfriends more.

Since the '60s, feminism has stratified, making it harder for women of different ages and political leanings to find common ground. In a way, we have been hampered by a plethora of choices — we can be extremists, stay-at-home moms, or feminists who don't go by that label.

But the downside is that choices also cause division. Sex and the City overcame those differences by representing women of four stripes and the possibility of perfect friendship among them. I shop at thrift stores and winced at the Sex quartet's fashion obsession, but I liked the show because I forgave our differences.

Hillary Clinton and Carrie Bradshaw are examples of women that are wanting. But we'll never find unity if we're looking for perfection. Maybe that's the lesson of the year. We may have much to overcome in ourselves and in the way we are perceived, but we at least see again how much we have in common as women. There will be no Madame President this year, but we have a lot to talk about over brunch.

Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.

A feminist season for both Carrie, Hillary 06/21/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 26, 2008 5:20pm]

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