It was the inspiration for The Griffith Hotel in the unfairly axed-too-soon Agent Carter, fictionalised as The Amazon in The Bell Jar not long after the novel’s author Sylvia Plath moved out, and is the focus of Paulina Bren’s new book. The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free is a fascinating account of the glamorous and not-so-glam social history of the female-only hotel, located at 140 East 63rd Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was the place newly liberated women stayed whether seeking refuge or providing them with a room of one’s own as they pursued careers in the arts.
Built in 1927, The Barbizon housed thousands of women until 1981 when the first man was checked in, and is credited with granting autonomy to many – including the likes of Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Edith Bouvier Beale (that’s Little Edie to you if you’ve seen Grey Gardens), Cloris Leachman, Joan Didion, Ali McGraw, Phylicia Rashad, and even ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown back in 1931. Its most famous resident was probably Plath who spent her tenure as one of the guest editors* of Mademoiselle magazine (also fictionalised as ‘Ladies Day’ in The Bell Jar). The publication was headed by the imposing Betsy Talbot Blackwell (BTB) who ruled with a fierce head beneath a pillbox hat and within a perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, granting opportunities for *The Millies each of whom were afforded a tiny boudoir bedecked in chintz and florals, all for a reduced rate per week. Also in residence were girls and women who attended the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School (they lived on the 16th and 17th floors) and those signed up with Ford or Powers Modelling Agencies. Like one big sorority.
Bren, over nine chapters, breathes life back into the lobby and corridors of the hotel which became a condominium in 2005 (Barbizon 63) and houses Ricky Gervais among others. Her vibrant and evocative prose really gives a sense of the period as these women found financial independence, a place in an ever-changing world or even a bar stool over at Malachy’s bar – which allowed them to drink and eat alone at the bar (unheard of at the time) without hassle from men. God bless Malachy McCourt. Themes touch on surviving Prohibition, the Depression, McCarthyism, and briefly on Civil Rights – Barbara Chase was the first Black woman/resident to intern for Mademoiselle in 1956. Most interestingly is how Bren addresses the loneliness, mental health issues, and suicide attempts (and successes) of some of the residents – through first-person accounts and independent research – which only serve to add poignancy and depth.
By the last chapter, this pain takes on a greater meaning. Once the hotel ceased to exist and work began creating the condos, several of the older women fought to keep their homes, citing their (ancient) leases which allowed them to remain living there amidst the gutting and renovations. Work continued and was completed on all floors except the one where these women resided, everything around them was updated but their doors, walls, rooms and décor were preserved like a time capsule. Although, sadly, there is nowhere near as much detail about these old broads who were determined to stay put.
The Barbizon is a compelling read, beautifully researched and highly recommended to anyone interested in the period or any of the individual women covered in the text. It’s a deeply resonant book which ends with pangs of bitter irony. Once a sanctuary promoted as selling freedom to women, the bricks and mortar ended up imprisoning a fair few. Or in the case of Sylvia Path, it gave a purpose – inspiration for her novel masterpiece – a place to belong for a time or place where the unravelling began before the world became too much.
For my 4th birthday, I received – amongst many gifts – a beautiful Ghostbusters™ cake. It was huge, had red-frosting and the logo emblazoned across the front. My cousin, born six years before and ten days later got the same cake (only his icing was blue). Lol [his name not laughter] was responsible for my introduction to Ghostbusters and Star Wars, actually, if truth be told. At no point did he exclude me because I was younger or because I was a girl, and let’s face it, a four-year-old will test any ten-year-old’s patience regardless of gender.
I remember having the crap scared out of me watching the film on TV then suffering sleepless nights, that bloody ghost in the library. Six years later I had a David [brother] to pass the love of ghosts and busting onto; films cartoons, and toys, oh-so-many-toys. Spengler (Harold Ramis), Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) and smart-ass Venkman (Bill Murray) held a special place in my (and his) childish heart. Now, Yates (Melissa McCarthy), Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Tolan (Leslie Jones) will provide joy for a whole new generation. Seriously, why is that so terrible?
The expected happened. I grew up, the little girl repressed somewhat but still knocking around, and rewatching Ghostbusters (1984) as an adult is a whole different experience. Now you can laugh at the adult humour that sailed over your cherubic head, cringe at the effects which at times are pretty awful and the best part? Crawl under a duvet, hungover, and passively let each scene douse you in nostalgia like an ectoplasmic gloop. A sequel arrived in 1989 – largely disliked now – who knew? It was fine. I regularly rewatch.
The reboot was announced. Urgh! Originality is a concept lost on most Hollywood studios. This one was to be directed by Paul Feig. For the record, he seems like a very nice man, always impeccably dressed, and there’s no denying how he has boosted women-led films, but he directed Bridesmaids (deplore), The Heat (lukewarm) and Spy (I adored that one). Was it really a surprise that this Ghostbusters, his vision, would be all-woman? I was intrigued sure, can’t say I was overly fussed either way. The casting of Hemsworth piqued my interest, not least because he would be the male Janine (Annie Potts) – bravo!
Time passed as the darker pockets of the internet cried, screamed and generally threw a strop. Misogyny is never pretty and even that four-year-old girl (now a 35-year-old woman) was verbally abused for daring to say she liked the trailer. These men seemed to have forgotten their own mothers, sisters, grandmothers and aunts as they rendered women ill-equipped to play *fictional* paranormal scientists; their childhoods (long gone) destroyed forever. *Pause for dramatic effect*
The world lost a vital 1/4 of the original line-up in 2014, with the sudden passing of Harold Ramis. A Ghostbusters III without him would have been senseless. While unable to cameo in the new film, one of his sons makes an appearance and that gorgeous gold bust seen from Gilbert’s desk is a beautiful touch and definitely brought a lump to my throat. Okay, progression. Four more humans don the overalls, get slimed and save New York from paranormal activity, not such a far-fetched notion. Oh, and they have lady-parts…So, what’s it all about?
Following a very effective opening whereby Gertrude Aldridge’s ghost (Bess Rous) is terrorising her childhood home, physicist Erin Gilbert (Wiig) – up for tenure at the prestigious Columbia University – is approached by Ed Mulgrave (Ed Begley Jr). Clutching Gilbert’s co-authored book, a hardbacked thesis written by Dr. Gilbert and her ex-colleague/ estranged friend Abby Yates (McCarthy), he begs for her help. Unaware of the book’s existence, Erin visits Abby and her new colleague, engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon) in a lab strewn with gadgets – think Egon’s place, only messier.With the help of human A-Z and New York history buff, Patty Tolan (Jones) and inept-but-we-gave-him-the-job-because-he-was-the-only-applicant receptionist, Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), the Ghostbusters (it’s easier for Kev to pronounce than the actual name, you see) are born; to capture paranormal entities and prove their existence to the world while a city of naysayers including the Mayor (Andy Garcia) attempt to discredit them.
Doesn’t sound so drastically different from the previous incarnation and you would be right in thinking the original has served as a blueprint much like The Force Awakens‘ (2015) similarities to A New Hope (1977). Each acknowledges what has gone before but stands alone in its own, inclusive, right. There are enough nods to the past for the girl with the cake to recollect fondly and yet enough meta commentary and gags for the adult to snigger at and mentally high-five all involved.
It’s not “man-hating” which is how I saw it described this morning. The antagonist, Rowan North (played another SNL alum Neil Casey) is white, male, and a little fragile but so are most Bond villains, and after the scourge of hate heaped upon this film, why wouldn’t the filmmakers and writers respond not least in an entertaining way? And it is, you know, extremely so, and I’m sorry but a blast from a ray gun aimed at a marshmallowy nutsack is amusing. It has been a long time since a big studio offered a blockbuster that is as enjoyable and, more importantly, FUN as this one.
The cameos (there are a fair few and perhaps one or two could have been saved for the inevitable sequel) but they would not have worked so well had those actors been playing the characters they made famous yonks ago. Thankfully, they’re a breath of fresh air and each one more joyful than the last. Hemsworth is perfect as pretty but dumb Kevin, his Norse God alter-ego is a saviour, however, it’s refreshing that four ladies get to rescue him, and I don’t necessarily mean just from peril – they become a family. The women themselves are hilarious, smart, loud, brash, uptight, and gloriously realistic albeit plonked in a disbelief suspended setting. Abby and Erin are the heart of the narrative, it’s their friendship which drives the plot while Jillian and Patty are the funny. I’m unfamiliar with their Saturday Night Live work but Jones is hysterical and McKinnon, a revelation. It’s not perfect, nor was I expecting to be, it’s a Ghostbusters film and I don’t mean that in a derisive way – as long as there are creepy ghosts, gloop, busting of said see-through creeps and humour, I’m easily pleased.
It does exactly what it set out to do, which is bring the Ghostbusters into the 21st century, passing the proton pack to a whole new generation. That’s the beauty of it, there is no either/or, everyone will have a preference, sure but neither undermines the other – there are now eight Ghostbusters to identify with and choose as your favourite – I just had faceache and a warm, fuzzy feeling throughout watching this one. I’m still chuckling days later. If only that four year old girl could have seen it…
Sex and the City (SATC) came to our small screens in 1997, based upon the novel of the same name by ex-New York Observer columnist Candace Bushnell. This television series and its depiction and ‘celebration’ of women not only appealed to a mass female audience but attempted to dispel the so-called – thanks to Betty Friedan -“feminine mystique” by dismissing repressive female stereotypes which had seemingly dogged popular culture in the years before. These were (white) women talking, writing about, and more importantly, having sex (as they maintained from the very first episode) “like men”. At the heart of this series was the feminist ideology that all women have a right to sexual pleasure and live in a place of complete independence where women have ownership of the, albeit narcissistic, ‘gaze’ and men are the sex objects.
Quite simply, without second wave feminism, a show like Sex and the City would fail to exist and creator Bushnell describes the Foucaultian confessional as depicting “female choice, not female rejection […] women viewers get the naughty thrill of seeing their gender portrayed for once as sane, sentient, and decent.” With this sweeping statement there is an implication that all television and/or film texts gone before had negatively depicted women and that by seeing this positive, even verisimilar portrayal, the female population are engaging in illicit activity. Bushnell never considers the representation of women within the text or the fact that the characters have been rewritten by a man. An audience requires more than gender in order to negotiate identification and, unfortunately, for the female viewer there is little to identify with. SATC depicts women as over-consumers and seems to believe its own propaganda; that in order to be liberated and successful, a woman has to be white, heterosexual, rich, thin, and self-obsessed. Is this really what modern womanhood has been reduced to? The representation of women and the evolution of these characters have enforced further limitations and new stereotypes that women are measured against. The motion pictures which were born from the success of the series have taken the ‘sane, sentient and decent women’ with choice and replaced them with four dolls bridging the gap between feminine and sexy, artificial and empowered. It utilises the Beauty Myth and defines a woman’s sexuality against the clothes (and shoes) she wears to create a Serious/Sexual dichotomy in which liberation and promiscuity merge. A woman’s voice has now been replaced with a body, however, because these women choose sexual freedom and choose to “act like men”, we find ourselves in a culture which appears to resurrect stereotypes of female sexuality that feminism endeavoured to banish.
In a term coined by Feona Attwood (2009) Sex and the City ‘mainstreamed’ sex and used it ‘as a source of self-definition and a means of self-expression’. They were, in accordance to Rosalind Gill, sexually confident and autonomous – “knowing, active and desiring subjects” but as the series progressed the women chose their respective Mr. Rights over their independence and sexual freedom and this has, since, been repeated within the narratives of the first and second film. Despite, second wave feminism informing women that Prince Charming is a patriarchal fiction designed to render them passive and in need of rescue. It went on to furthermore state that they did not need him to define their happiness or create the so-called “happily-ever-after”. Sex and the City chose to perpetrate the myth and reinforce, as David Greven argues, “the ideology that heterosexual sex is forever [while homosexual] sex is transitory, fleeting, [and] intangible.” The filmmakers response to this was to take the two male homosexual characters and marry them off. To each other. With Liza Minnelli officiating! So, if the whole purpose of Sex and the City was to make these women sexually independent and to break stereotypes, why then do we see three out the four characters re-enforcing patriarchal ideology by getting hitched?
The last beacon of hope is Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), who, on the surface, appears to be the exception to the ‘Mr Right’ rule, preferring to settle for ‘Mr Right-Now’ (conveniently, she is potentially too old to procreate). Her views on marriage, monogamy and sex transgress the heteronormative ideologies, she truly believes she can do anything a man can do, even experimenting with Viagra. Like most transgressive women before her she is ‘punished’ with the discovery of breast cancer. There has even been a suggestion by some critics that she transgresses the female gender altogether given that she is encoded as a homosexual, Greven writes,
[…] Samantha, most explicitly of all the women, acts, speaks and cavorts like a stereotypical gay man, her femaleness a safeguard against both homophobic retaliation and an explicit admission of a gay agenda, to use this cruelly overused phrase only to suggest that the show about sex in Manhattan has to use female characters as a cover […]
If a woman is sexually confident, even aggressive, successful, ambitious, and appears to not require a man ‘she’ of course must be a ‘he’! Once again, female sexuality is defined by patriarchy. Interestingly, Candace Bushnell, in 2001 agreed with Greven and declared that Samantha is, in fact, a gay man. So, are women getting the ‘naughty thrill’ from seeing their gender portrayed as ‘sane’ or as a gay man?
Sex and the City: The Movie saw Carrie – the woman without the bride gene – agreeing to marry ‘Big’, now known as the less phallically aggressive John. The proposal of marriage is a business transaction to ensure that, should their relationship fail, Carrie will not be left with nothing. Charlotte has the ‘; perfect’ marriage to Harry and in addition to their adopted daughter she finds herself defying medical odds and falling pregnant. Miranda is coping with Steve’s infidelity and Samantha finds she is rapidly falling out of love with Los Angeles and being in a relationship with a man whose name she says more times a day than her own. John, then jilts* Carrie on their wedding day and the girls accompany her on the honeymoon to Mexico; a suite she booked in the names of Mr and Mrs Preston – a thrill which made her forget her ‘true self’.
The Beauty Myth informs is that there is ‘no right way to look’, however, SATC (a programme that Wolf endorses as “funny, clever and thinks women are important) portrays a uniformity in women, they may have different hair-styles but essentially all the attributes they own, situations they find themselves in, men they deem attractive can be applied to just one woman; in fact one could argue that Miranda, Carrie, Charlotte and Samantha are the four (patriarchal and ideologically enforced, of course) facets of one woman; the cynic, the optimist, the Madonna and the whore. This uniformity is ever more prevalent in the racial make-up of the cast.
Carrie hires an assistant to help her ‘come back to life’ (because obviously, losing a man brings serious health risks, one is suddenly are unable to open mail, unpack, etc.) after the ‘devastation’ and ‘humiliation’ of being jilted. Louise (Jennifer Hudson) is a curvaceous black woman from St. Louis who is never legitimised with a surname, and only in her depiction as the single African-American character does the viewer realise the full extent of Sex and the City’s whiteness. She is immediately encoded as the social minority because she is a St. Louis native and subverts the whiteness/virtuousness ideology because Louise is the innocent, naïve in her pursuit of love, even crossing state lines to seek out the love of her life.
Louise starts out, albeit tenuously, with similarities to Donald Bogle’s ‘Mammy’ character; “she is sweet, jolly and good tempered” and serves Carrie, helping her complete the most basic tasks – answering letters and e-mails, replacing a mobile phone and unpacking boxes and boxes of clothes. She does, however, evolve from the stereotype – although one could argue she becomes the “Magical Negress” bringing Carrie back to life and all – and gains some autonomy just in time for her ex-boyfriend to propose marriage. She begins to show more flesh, specifically cleavage, her clothes become tighter and more streamline, slimming her down; the voice is replaced by the body. Although, her screen-time is not sufficient enough to explore the character in depth, it is hinted at that her change in physicality does have the desired effect on men (coincidentally, Hudson herself lost a substantial amount of weight and married and gave birth following her role in SATC). Louise’s curly natural hair is straightened and coloured a lighter brown, and it can be argued that she, essentially, is white(r) when she leaves New York, complete with a diamond engagement ring and Louis Vuitton handbag hanging from her wrist. Using Dyer’s model she becomes colonised; from St. Louis to Manhattan – black to white(r). Dyer writes that, “white women are [after all] constructed as the apotheosis of desirability, all that a man could want, yet nothing that can be had, nor anything that a woman can be [an] everything-and-nothing quality.”
Racial difference is also explored in the sequel, its release date in 2010 to coincide with the football World Cup – another occasion in which there is a divide the sexes; all women HATE football, obviously. Samantha is invited to a Sheik’s private hotel in Abu Dhabi on a PR trip and extends the invitation to her three friends. This trip is used as a distraction from the womens’ respective problems at home. Carrie and ‘Big’ are married (following a vomit-inducing Cinderella-alluding proposal at the end of the last film) and ‘making their own rules’ but according to Carrie, their relationship is getting ‘too Mr-and-Mrs-Married’. Charlotte is felling oppressed by the demands of motherhood and is beginning to obsessively believe that Harry is having an affair with their twenty–something Irish nanny, Erin (the girl doesn’t wear a bra so of course, she must be sleeping with her boss). Miranda, having no inclination to confront her sexist boss, quits her position at the law firm, an action which is completely inexplicable and out-of-character.
Throughout the scenes shot in Morocco (doubling for Abu Dhabi), the Americans, understandably, never fully assimilate into Middle Eastern society; their ignorance seemingly the main problem. Miranda is constantly berating Samantha for leaving her shoulders or legs bare and on display. Even after her arrest she falls foul of a group of Muslim men on their way to prayer. Her bag then bursts during an altercation and condoms are scattered at the men’s feet and then, as this is Samantha, the prophylactics are waved in the crowds’ faces and thus as Lindy West so eloquently writes in her scathing review:
Traditional Middle Eastern sexual mores are upended and sexism is stoned to death in the town square. At sexism’s funeral (which takes place in a mysterious, incense-shrouded chamber of international sisterhood), the women of Abu Dhabi remove their black [burkas] and [niqabs] to reveal – this is not a joke – the same hideous, disposable, criminally expensive shreds of cloth and feathers that hang from Carrie et al’s emaciated goblin shoulders. Muslim women, under those craaaaaaaa-zy robes, they’re just as vapid and obsessed with physical beauty and meaningless marital concerns! Feminism! Fuck yeah!
West is a Seattle-based film critic who despised the movie with every fibre of her being, it would seem. She describes SATC2 as “tak[ing] everything I hold dear as a woman and as a human […] and rapes it to death with a stiletto that costs more than my car.” A horribly violent, almost anti-feminist metaphor but she really hated it…
Georgina Isbister, on the other hand, writes, that the reason that SATC resonates with an audience is that “its narratives are dominated by the challenges faced by protagonists in achieving their ideals and the subsequent anxieties surrounding them […] trying to conform to an expectation that women can have it all. This is not so much an expectation as patriarchy rearing its ugly head again. Women are lead to believe that they can have liberation and everything that men are entitled to as long as they revert back to the patriarchal ideal of ‘wifedom’ and motherhood. SATC not only highlights the anxieties and challenges but exacerbates them.
Sex and the City has shamed women into believing that acquisition is the pathway to freedom. While the post-modern feminist text contains heroines who are much more active than the bygone eras of the 70s and 80s and, as Rosalind suggests,
[they] value autonomy and bodily integrity and the freedom to make individual choices […] [Yet] they seem compelled to use their empowered positions to make decisions that would be regarded by many feminists as problematic located as they are in normative notions of femininity.
Carrie chooses marriage with the man who treated her badly for ten years. She and Miranda changed who they were for men, the latter hell-bent on a career kept her hair short and dressed in power-suits in order to make it in a ‘man’s world’ only to fall pregnant, marry and throw her career away for a family-life. Charlotte also gave up a career and her single independence for a husband and children while Samantha maintained she had sex like a man, believing that behaving as a man provided liberation and empowerment whereas sex as a woman does not. For her trouble, she is described as channelling as ‘homosexual man’. These successful women have, over the last decade, communicated that a career, financial security, looks and ostensibly, intelligence are nothing compared to doing anything to get (and keep) a man, including compromising the essence of who you are in order to secure the man you love.
There is little doubt that SATC made a cultural impact; yet at no point is there an attempt at a realistic portrayal of a modern-day woman. She has been thwarted by product placement and shoe iconography and manipulated into thinking that because she is privileged over the male(s) in the diegesis she has been gifted with choice. The film texts, in particular, are responsible for repackaging the patriarchal ideology of normative femininity in shinier, more expensive wrapping, marketed to the richest, skinniest and whitest women; content to allow Capitalism’s oppression keep them content and submissive.
In an attempt to implore sexual freedom the text(s) reaffirms the male – female divide and this apparently gives the cast and writers’ license to incite sexism, misogyny and female chauvinism. Sex and the City appears to return to a repressed state – it is still men who rule their world. Mr. Big allows Carrie to believe that they are creating their own rules and sharing the relationship power, when, in fact, she always compromises herself and comes around to his way of thinking, in the end, even without realising it. This may be somebody’s reality but please do not attempt to use it as a form of celebrating the twenty-first century woman. She is, one would like to think, less-consumer obsessed and vacuous. Her right is not only to shoes but to a voice, freedom, power and to transgress male notions of femininity. Within the media forum would seem like the ideal vehicle for such a premier, however, given the complexities and humanity of the female gender would anybody be up to the task. Lena Dunham has taken up the mantle with Girls, a series not unlike SATC which deals with four friends and their quest for all the things that the former programme initially set out to do – a survivable place in the world. She has full creative control, stars, writes, produces, directs and while Ms. Dunham has given a voice to the younger woman, one who is not preoccupied with becoming a wife, mother or trying to ‘take over’ from men, these ladies are still white and privileged.
 SATC Season 1: Episode 1 ‘Sex and the City’ Samantha insists the girls try “Hav[ing] sex like men, you know, without feeling.” HBO, 1997-2003.
 Levy, Ariel, Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Rauch Culture (Pocket Books, 2005) pp4-5. Levy suggests that not all women of this generation are imbued with the feminist agenda and “if this bawdy world of boobs and gams we have resurrected reflects how far we’ve come, or how far we have left to go.”
 Attwood, Feona, Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualisation of Western Culture (I B Tauris, 2009).
 Gill, Rosalind, Gender and the Media (Polity Press, 2006) pg103.
 Samantha finally chooses herself over a man at the end of film one.
 Greven, D “The Museum of Unnatural History: Male Freaks and Sex and the City in Akass, Kim. & McCabe, Janet. (eds) Reading Sex and the City (I B Tauris, 2003) p42.
 Declared during an interview in The Independent, 5 February 2001.
 SATC Season 4: Episode 15 ‘Change of a Dress’.
SATC: The Movie. Samantha ends her relationship with Smith by telling him that although she loves him, “I love me more, I’ve been in a relationship with myself for 52 years and that’s the one I need to work on.”
 Ibid. “If I met myself ten years ago, I wouldn’t know me.”