Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie presents a young woman
who is single in the city: she is guided by self-interest,
emotionally blank, fond of material things and willing to be a kept
woman. Despite some diverging details, Ashley Nelson finds
similarities between Dreiser’s heroine and her namesake from the hit
TV show “Sex and the City”. Both women are “eager to explore the
opportunities the city affords, they are ultimately skeptical that
the domestic life, the married life, can satisfy their every need”.
The single girl raises a few eyebrows, nowadays as well as in 1900:
while Dreiser was accused of failing to place any moral judgment on
Carrie’s lifestyle, the authors of the series are criticised for
casting the four women as overly sexual.
In its uniquely witty and provocative way, “Sex and the City”
resurrects a historical and social type. The single girl is a loaded
figure in American history, from Dreiser’s Carrie to Capote’s Holy Golightly, from the jazz age flappers to suffragists. She was
missing from the popular culture in the 1980’s, but reemerged in
the last decade of the millennium as the postfeminist
successful-but-tearing-apart woman came into the focus, portrayed
either as frantic and fragile Ally McBeal in the TV show of the same
name, or as frisky thirtysomethings in “Sex and the City”. The so
called “third wave” of the feminist movement, often termed
postfeminism, is hardly a movement anymore with its strong
depoliticisation of the feminist struggle and abandoning the
“sisterhood is powerful” creed for the new politics of singledom -
which has elevated from a humiliating status to the new freedom of
Although equally present in the experimental narrative of Thomas
Pynchon and the “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver, the single girl
is most frequently portrayed by women writers. One of the highly
acclaimed American novelists and short story writers Ann Beattie
(1946) often describes the anxieties of single women – or women
feeling single. With their double standards, observed in the fact
that they struggle against singledom yet recognize its advantages,
Beattie’s female characters anticipate the Carrys and Allys of the
ANN BEATTIE: FEARING THE ROMANTIC QUEST
The course of Ann Beattie’s career is more or less familiar to the
devoted readers. She gained attention in the early 1970s with short
stories in The New Yorker magazine, and became best known as
ironic and witty chronicler of the upper-middle-class generation
that came of age in the 1960s. In her later work, especially that
beginning in the 1990s, she largely concentrates on the same
generation of New Englanders —grown older, more ruminative, but not
Beattie is called a compiler of trivia and a voice of the baby
boomers, since she writes about the post-hippie generation's
inability to cope with changes and risks in everyday life. Ranges of
characters and situations in her short stories become more
intriguing as we observe their repetitiveness. The motives such as
divorce, adultery and abortion recur, together with the
inconspicuous symbolism of objects and rituals such as the poison
ivy in the novel Falling in Place and the story The Second
Question, or tweezing eyebrows to make eyes look bigger in
Falling in Place and Chilly Scenes of Winter. In order to
match her matter-of-factly focus upon banal details of contemporary
popular culture, Ann Beattie has developed a style of short flat
sentences and non-sequiturs. Her story-telling is fragmentary and
economic, regularly lacking a central theme, consistent
characterization and a clear time-scheme. Still, a careful
craftsmanship, profound insight and emotional depth relate her to
the masters of realism such as Jane Austen or Henry James: only that
she uses much less than they do to say much more. Juxtaposition,
montage effects and the prevalence of exposition connect Beattie’s
short stories to silver screen narratives more than her
contemporaries who are keen on detailed descriptions and verbosity.
Beattie's storytelling shares with film narrative not only the
effects such as short cuts, snapshots, or juggling with urban
eccentricities and brand names, but also the strategies. Her subtle
use of musical and visual leitmotifs as cues of her characters’
state of mind is rare in contemporary fiction. The recurring song in
the novel Falling in Place, Blondie's "Heart of Glass",
signals the protagonists' emotional fragility, whereas "As Tears Go
By" sung by the coarse voice of Marianne Faithful which opens the
novel Another You predicts the downfall of the main
character. The importance of visual and musical cues for her
characters may remind us of the “theme song” Ally McBeal needs to
find for herself in order to gain her self-confidence, following the
instructions of her therapist.
Loneliness is hitting hard upon Beattie’s female characters even
when they seem to be basking in bliss. Seemingly strong and
composed, but fragile and vulnerable on the inside, they are trapped
by their own indecisiveness and listlessness. Their quirky
combination of inhibition and detachment have anticipated the single
women featured in the high-rated TV shows such as “Sex and the City”
and “Ally McBeal”. Beattie’s and the TV show characters reject the
notions of sisterhood and collective values, more or less overtly.
This could be taken as a thoroughly postfeminist attitude, were this
hesitation to go with the flow less the matter of anxiety than the
matter of choice.
lives of Beattie's characters revolve around the inexplicable
hesitation to pursue their goals. Unable to change, take risks and
make sacrifices, they choose status quo resulting in lethargy
and emotional stupor. Much like the eccentrics from “Ally McBeal”
and “Sex and the City”, Beattie’s characters are obsessively
attached to their dogs, plants, privileged objects or bizarre
rituals, finding relief in bonding to non-human – that is,
non-demanding - things. The most striking example is Janus,
the story of a bowl becoming a lucky charm for its owner: the real
estate agent Andrea got it from her ex-lover, and she keeps this
exquisite object simply because she did not dare keep the
relationship. After the break-up with her married lover, Rac from
The Second Question starts taking care of a dying friend. She is
on easier terms with death than with truth: when the pearl necklace
of her lover's wife she was wearing broke during a sexual
intercourse, Rac swallowed several pearls so that the necklace would
not be the same length when restrung. She wanted to warn her rival
of the imminent change: however, the message of “breaking bonds” did
not get through. The Second Question and Janus
demonstrate the importance of visual cues: while the bowl is
represented as a Holy Grail of inexplicable power, the pearl
necklace invokes the conflicting images of binding and bonding.
story Where You’ll Find Me is narrated by a nameless early-Bellovian
“dangling woman” whose splendid isolation resembles McBeal’s and
Carrie Bradshaw’s at least in the respect of sad ironic tone and
quirky metaphors she uses to introduce herself:
Friends keep calling my broken arm a broken wing.
It's the left arm, now folded against my chest and kept in place
with a blue scarf sling that is knotted behind my neck, and it
weighs too much ever to have been wing like. The accident happened
when I ran for a bus. I tried to stop it from pulling away by
shaking my shopping bags like maracas in the air, and that's when I
slipped on the ice and went down.
After this telling image has seeped in, the character can use our
knowledge of the episode and her acknowledged fear of balance to
cast an ironic image of herself: "I am a thirty-eight-year-old
woman, out of a job, on tenuous enough footing with her sometime
lover that she can imagine crashing emotionally as easily as she did
on the ice.”
As in the case of Ally McBeal, irony is never far from self-pity.
While her seeming stronger and more energetic brother Howard helps
her to put her coat on, she feels helpless and vulnerable, invoking
the initial metaphor again: she feels "like a bird with a cloth
draped over its cage for the night. This makes me sorry for myself,
and then I do think of my arm as a broken wing, and suddenly
everything seems so sad that I feel my eyes well up with tears."
Encouraged by Howard to confide something in him as teenage girls
do, this wounded bird tells of a romantic San Francisco episode. A
man who kept gazing at her in a restaurant left his card in her
hotel and several identical messages: "Who are you? Please call."
She does not respond, but keeps the card. A couple of months later,
she sends her photograph to the unknown admirer, leaving no return
address. She equals her experience of sudden and inexplicable
emotional intensity to a "bad movie", whereas passionate, impulsive
and incurably romantic Howard asks her not to let the man slip away.
Whether for fear or indifference, she sticks to a non-romantic
explanation: a "magic encounter" might not be more than a failed
attempt to have a one-night stand. Still, on a summer day the
feeling came over her that the man was thinking about her, so her
chance for romance may not be lost. Thus singledom becomes a
privileged position of manipulating the fantasy of others.
Howard’s sister decides to keep the card of the man who is never
going to find her. She prefers the suspension of the romantic
encounter over the suspense of a secret love-affair, and her
reluctance to take emotional risks seems good enough to wrap up the
narrative. However, the story takes an unexpected turn: Howard
confesses having a passionate affair with his friend’s student.
Seemingly more romantic than his sister, he turns out to be less
responsible: the affair is bound to complicate his otherwise hectic
life with the woman whom he met on a blind date and her children.
Thus emerges a pattern of a reckless emotional behaviour disguised
by romantic idealism, which casts a different light upon the life
choices of Howard’s sister. The focus of the narrative has suddenly
moved from the discretion of the single girl to the failings of the
This change of focus is quite common in Beattie’s stories, and the
critics have noticed her narration of double intention: “Beattie’s
female speakers are telling stories with value, self-assertion, and
closure. But they puzzle readers because they tell two stories at
once: the open story of the objective, detailed present is
juxtaposed with a closed story of the subjective past, a story the
speaker tries hard not to tell.”.
Whereas the narrators of The Second Question and Janus
tell the stories of other people or inanimate objects in order to
forget about their own loneliness, the experience of the female
narrator in Where You’ll Find Me serves as a backdrop for the
story of her brother’s emotional disorder. Beattie’s single girls
dread new commitments, but also the possibility of hurting other
people. Passive and cowardly they may be, they act as responsible
and mature persons.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH MCBEAL? THE FAILURE OF THE QUEST
The comedy-drama “Ally McBeal” was a success because it undermined
the stereotype of a female attorney confronting the law and brought
to the audience what has often been labeled as “a postfeminist role
model” and “the icon of 90’s feminism”. Ally is presented as a
modern career woman who can both enjoy the gains of feminism and the
traditions of femininity but, owing to her flawed character, never
actually does. Some views of the title characters were even inclined
to take Ally as a depressing reminder of how much work the women’s
movement still has to do.
So, what is actually the deal with Ally McBeal – is she the image of
feminism becoming sexy and fragile, or an epitome of the feminism
gone irrevocably futile?
The main character, superbly played by Calista Flockhart, is an
intelligent lawyer who excels in the courtroom but her private life
is a shambles. Her unsuccessful search for perfection makes her
insecure and vulnerable, and increasingly neurotic and picky as the
story of her romantic quest goes on. Ally’s belief that her real
life begins when she is married with children made her close to the
thirty something female America, but her faltering both to escape
the traditional gender roles and to reproduce them made the
identification difficult. Her yearning for domestic felicity would
seem utterly non-feminist if she were not constantly undermining her
own efforts to achieve it. In the manner of Beattie’s characters,
Ally’s aspirations constantly clash with her unwillingness to change
and fear of commitment, and she is likewise doomed to loneliness.
However, this female melancholic can also be seen as a warning or
even a threat. In her article A Role Model We Can Live Without,
Kathleen J. Wu asks: “Does the main character have to be such a
rotten role model for women, women lawyers and the little girls who
aspire to be them?”.
Herself an accomplished lawyer, Wu fears that McBeal might become an
endearing symbol of the single professional woman. The huge impact
of the show may result, according to her, in the burgeoning of the
ditzy and fragile job-applicants who complain over their personal
life and throw tantrums. The fear might be exaggerated, but the
knowledge that television offers opposing clichés with nothing in
between rationalizes it to an extent. Kathleen Wu points out that we
are offered either “bubble-heads” such as McBeal, which prattle
about men during their office hours, or “stone-faced” creatures who
live solely for their jobs, like Dana Scully from “The X-files”.
The issue of the stereotypes is further complicated by the fact that
women’s sexuality in the series is presented in an ambiguous and
confusing manner. The women are objectified to a great extent, their
sexuality colliding with their professional accomplishment. For
instance, Ally’s roommate and bosom friend district attorney Renee
is portrayed as a sexually aggressive “spider woman” in contrast to
whom the quirky heroine appears to be a dutiful daughter of
Renee is hypersexual on the verge of lascivious, wearing low cut
suits, exposing her big breasts and flirting aggressively. On the
other hand, Ally is thin and childlike, with nonexistent breasts and
curves, using subtler ways both to attract men and win her cases.
She is prone to such emotional outbursts, impulsive actions and
erratic behaviour that Jennifer Pozner dismisses her as a “shallow”
and “bratty” person with “high-school dating anxieties”.
The physical appearances even affect their relationship: the
ample-breasted Renee is a mother figure to the fragile and insecure
Ally, supporting her in her numerous crises and trying to bring her
back to earth.
Ally’s romantic relationships are accordingly immature. Desperately
trying to overcome the obsession with her now happily married old
flame Billy, she goes through a series of disastrous commitments.
Her attempt to date two men at the same time ends in a didactic plot
device: the beaus turn out to be the father and the son. A seemingly
soothing online affair almost ends in court, since Ally’s Internet
date who sounded so mature turns out to be under age. Ally’s
troublesome flights from the repulsive singledom into the stormy
affairs serve to confirm Beattie’s dramatic insights in a more
comical way: being single brings tranquillity.
The most frequent setting for “Ally McBeal” is the law firm “Cage
and Fish”. However, very little work seems to be done, and the
lawyer position of the title character at times seems to be nothing
but “an outlet for her emotional turmoil and her sexual fantasy.”
The curious absence of competitiveness is unrealistic, but redeemed
by the fact that the employees are a very tightly knit group which
functions as a surrogate family.
Ally’s unhappiness and loneliness is both an outcome of her mental
condition and a self-imposed attitude. She loves being weak and
unhappy, and her singledom thus turns into a perfect excuse for a
masochism of an exceedingly exhibitionistic kind. Regretfully,
Ally’s feminism is more sheer narcissism than a life orientation,
and her singledom more a curse or a character flaw than the matter
of choice. While fragile and immature, Ally is best being on her
own: her staying single in the end of the show proves the point.
“SEX AND THE CITY”: THE ROMANTIC QUEST IN THE AGE OF ROLE REVERSAL
and the City” demonstrates that a simple role reversal is enough for
a “groundbreaking” representation of sex and sexuality. Women are
presented as multidimensional, whereas men are objectified and
rarely referred to by their real names. Still, such a “reversed”
attitude (which relies heavily upon the literary tradition of stock
characters) gives way to the romantic quest for Mr Right yet again.
In her text What’s the Harm in Believing? Joanna di Mattia
suggests that the show repositions hegemonic masculinity and its
As living examples of the depoliticisation of the feminist movement,
Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha stand for the new female
empowerment and the new politics of singledom. They chart a
redefinition of the modern woman who chooses to remain unmarried, at
least in the first four seasons of the show. By the series finale,
all four have wound up in partnerships, and the fact raises
questions about the ideologies running underwater: Ally’s pursuit of
marital bliss turns out to be unsuccessful, whereas the self-reliant
foursome apparently renounce their singledom for the sake of
romantic bonding. The respective endings were greatly determined by
the external factors affecting script writers’ choices: “The Sex and
the City” was intentionally ended at the climax of the show’s
popularity, whereas “Ally McBeal” limped to its finale.
“Sex and the City” is yet another version of the traditional plot
dealing with the single girl and the Prince Charming. The English
and American literary tradition sets a specific trap for the
independent woman: as in the case of Isabel Archer, she is given
the opportunity to choose, and almost bound to take either the
wrong path or the wrong man. The single girl in “Sex and the City”
is offered two competing archetypes of masculinity: a romantic
seducer in the tradition of the cruel Heathcliff or the saucy
Rhett Butler, or a strong and sensitive “rescuer” in the manner of
Edgar Linton or Casper Goodwood from Henry James’s The Portrait
of a Lady. Carrie Bradshaw is a modern Catherine Earnshaw, less
violent and more sardonic, who passionately seeks to unite sexual
excitement with loyalty, and her fantasies are projected upon Big
and Aidan. Big is a Wall Street tycoon of social status and sexual
prowess – both a “big love” and a “big trouble” for Carrie - while
Aidan is strong and solid as the wood from which he makes furniture
and just as reliable and down-to-earth as James’s stubborn suitor.
His rescue mission is to save Carrie from the devastating effects of
romancing an emotionally impenetrable phallic hero.
and the City” is unique in portraying women who discuss and act
toward men the way many men have long treated women. Although sexual
behavior is a theme often discussed, the show is essentially about
the loneliness in searching for intimacy, romance, and viable
relationships. It fully belongs to the feminism’s “third wave” –
that is, to the postfeminist generation that has never lived in a
world without the women’s movement and justly claims feminism as its
birthright. Postfeminism is focused on individualism, since the
collectivity has already managed to fulfill the political goals and
demands. It is aware of marriage’s sordid social and economic
history and there is no pressure to rush into tying the knot, since
singlehood stops being equivalent to spinsterhood, a humiliating and
dismal social and economical status. Marriage can even be repulsive,
as seen in “Change of a Dress” (4:15), the episode in which Carrie
reacts with nausea, panic attack and rash to the engagement ring,
the wedding dress and the idea of marriage in general. The language
and the pageantry of the wedding will be used in the fifth episode
of the fifth season, “Plus One is the Loneliest Number”, where the
release of Carrie’s book is described as the milestone event of her
Many aspects of the girls’ lives are out of the picture: the viewer
learns virtually nothing of their pre-Manhattan existences. A
high-school sweetheart may emerge now and then only for the sake of
confronting the past and the present. The biological families are
rarely mentioned or seen, since they are replaced by “the family of
friends” and made obliterate by the strong focus upon female
solidarity. Whereas in “Ally McBeal” everything happens either in
the office or in the courtroom, the fabulous four of the HBO’s hit
are rarely seen working. The setting of the series is classically
picaresque, since the movement is favoured over fixity and public
space to domesticity. Carrie and her friends seem to live exciting
lives of constant hanging-out as a priceless perk of singledom.
Still, they never take their status for granted. A great number of
episodes address the pros and cons of single life, the institution
of marriage and the romantic commitments in general. Although
embracing their status, they search to settle, some of them winding
up with partners inferior to themselves: marrying the loyal
bartender or converting for the sake of the devoted Jewish husband
is presented as a better solution than Ally McBeal’s moving out of
the city with her daughter. Whereas the lonesome Bostonian remains
partnerless, simply trading her status of a single girl for the
position of single mother, the four New Yorkers live to learn about
the value of commitment.
The two TV shows share a common trait with Beattie’s stories: these
single-girl narratives are not of suspense but of suspension. On
the surface, the female characters tell one story of objective
present, but beneath it, they either struggle to come to terms with
their emotional past (Ally’s lifelong commitment to Billy) or to
project their emotional future (Carrie’s romantic obsession with Mr
Big). Both “Ally McBeal” and “Sex and the City” portray independent
women who fight their addiction to romantic concepts of love. Ally
and Carrie both try to undermine their pursuit for happiness, either
by erasing the Prince Charming’s name – we waited till the final
episode of the show to learn that Mr Big’s first name was John! – or
by succumbing to eccentric masochism.
In his article The Shock of Unrecognition, Anatol Broyard
admitted that after reading Beattie’s stories he felt “like a
psychiatrist at the end of a hard day”: “I would like to run out and
hug the first stodgy person I can find. I am beginning to feel like
an alarmed ecologist of personality.”.
TV shows about single women are also the case studies in the
recognition of true female objectives.
Kim Akass and Janet McCabe (2004), Reading ‘Sex and the City”,
I. B. Tauris, London & New York.
Ann Beattie, Where You’ll Find Me, Macmillan Publishing
Company, New York, 1986.
Anatole Broyard, The Shock of Unrecognition, The New York
Times, 24 August 1976, p. 27.
Susan Jaret McKinstry, The Speaking Silence of Ann Beattie’s
Voice, Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 24, Spring 1987, no 2.
Michael M. Epstein, Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling : Ally
McBeal and Women Attorneys, Television Quarterly, 1999, 28.
Jennifer L. Pozner, ‘And the Category Is’...Simpering Wimps for
$1,000’”Contemporary Women’s Issues Database, vol. 24, Sojourner
Feminist Institute, 1998.
Kathleen J. Wu, A Role Model We Can Live Without (available
at http://www.akllp.com , accessed February 14th 2006 ).
Beattie, Where You’ll Find Me, Macmillan Publishing
Company, New York, 1986, p. 185.