ZOË RICE: Despite being a Manhattan-based woman with a full social calendar, I am not an “ista.” I enjoy clothes, but I am not a fashionista. I like a bargain, but I’m not a frugalista. And I have some style, but I’m no stylista. Somewhere in the past ten years or so, cultural expectations for what my values should be have changed. My values, however, have not.
I have “Sex in the City” moments. We all do. But there’s an instance in that series that made this pacifist NYC woman want to slap Carrie Bradshaw across the face. That moment came when she looked at her shoe closet filled to brimming with 100 pairs of $400 shoes and estimated that there on those shelves was the down payment she didn’t have to buy her apartment. I own not one pair of $400 shoes. But I do have a mortgage.
While out one night, I was even told I look “Sex in the City” by a man trying to get my phone number. I immediately bristled and started explaining why this wouldn’t be true – I know they don’t look it, but my boots were from Target. I love those boots. They’re so comfortable, faux suede in the softest, prettiest brown, and they hug my legs perfectly in my skinny $10 Forever 21 jeans. I love boots and jeans, I freely admit. But I don’t care one whit who makes them as long as they look good and don’t hurt my feet. I have no designer bags, and all my favorite shoes tend to be the least expensive. That way I can wear them into the ground without feeling bad. Oh, and I can buy an apartment. That too. Minimal credit card debt – right there I’m bucking a cultural stereotype. I deny myself what I can’t afford. That women all over the city are swimming in debt so they can have a Louis Vuitton bag makes me shudder. Have you seen those bags? Pardon me, but they’re shit brown. They’re not even pretty.
But hang on. Let’s not think I eschew all things City-Girl. No, no. I refuse to skimp on my hair, I adore Dior make up, my fragrance is $100 Jo Malone. My point isn’t that you can’t spend money and still have values. My point is that I don’t tie those purchases into my sense of personal value. I don’t feel sexier if I have a pair of Christian Louboutins (I do, 2 pairs from years ago, nowhere near $400, and I hardly wear them), I don’t pride myself on achieving something great if I can get into a restaurant that’s always booked or past a velvet rope where there’s usually a wait. That’s fun and all, but it doesn’t make me a better person than someone else. And really, that’s what I rail against. That someone with access to the toughest reservations, the most exclusive brands, the hardest to get invites – that that person is supposed to be somehow better than the rest of us. Hell, I’ve been that person at times in my life, and I was still probably wearing my Target boots. For women, that kind of prestige is largely calculated via labels but also personal grooming – spa and hair treatments, mani pedis, the gym, waxing. I wouldn’t deny these things to my City Sisters – and yes, I “take care of myself” as the accepted euphemism goes. But please, ladies, please do this for personal enjoyment rather than elevated status. And please consider knowing what’s showing at the Whitney Museum, what article might be interesting in the New Yorker or New York Magazine this week, anything of substance other than what restaurant is the new, hottest one. Otherwise the Carrie Bradshaws of the world have won.
EMILY SAIDEL: Zoë addresses many of the cultural stereotypes that haunt women. Women indiscriminately spend money on clothes, shoes, fancy drinks, perfume. They’re highly attentive to status and status symbols like brands or the hip scene. But for me, the pressure of gendered expectations epitomized by Sex and the City can’t hold a candle to the pressure of age expectations.
This weekend I spent some time with colleagues ranging in age from early to late 20s. After a stressful day, we had dinner out. Dinner ended by between 10 and 10:30 and some people returned to the hotel for the night, while others went out to a bar. The next morning one of those who chose sleep over drinks, aged 22, said half-jokingly, half-self-reproachfully, “I’m such a bad 20-something.” It’s a thought with which I strongly empathize. I, too, am a bad 20-something, or at least that’s what movies tell me.
Age representations imply that the 20s should be a wild decade and if it is not “you’re doing it wrong.” Intellectually, just as I understand the absurd gender representations that imply that all men prefer sports to ballet or that women can’t control their fashion spending, I should be able to reject this stereotype. But it is much harder to move past than I might have guessed.
PCU to Van Wilder to the granddaddy of college movies, Animal House, all show college kids learning the value of a good party. Drinking, late nights, and pushing boundaries, are supposed to come with the territory. Post-college movies can follow in this vein (Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) or debate the work/life balance (The Devil Wears Prada). However, there is little representation, likely because it is not terribly photogenic, of the large number of 20-somethings who neither work all the time or go out to clubs every weekend; people who might prefer a quiet dinner with friends over a loud bar that requires screaming or who think of imbibing alcohol as an activity that accompanies dinner rather than an activity that stands on its own. Although these media images are not the only ones representing this decade of life, they are prominent ones. And by being prominent they create a feedback loop as young adults choose to emulate the “normal” represented on the screen, and in so doing create that normal in real life.
I am fully confident that the quieter route is healthier in the long run for both liver and wallet, and that in a vacuum I prefer board games to beer pong without question. Yet, I feel like a “bad 20-something” for choosing it.