December 24, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

If sex equals power, as the old adage goes, then ’99 will go down as a banner year for women in entertainment. From big screens to small, female characters unleashed a tsunami of sexual energy, challenging our basic notions of good girls, power brokers, and sluts.

While men found themselves emasculated by exposure to Swedish furniture behemoths (see Fight Club) and taunted by R&B girl groups (TLC’s ”No Scrubs”), women celebrated their eroticism. According to Debbie Stoller, coeditor of feminist girl ‘zine BUST, ”Women have always been allowed to be sexy, but [until now] they never got to be really sexual.”

Consider HBO’s breakout hit Sex and the City. Four single females (all over 30) live productive lives both in the boardroom and the bedroom. These fabulously hip New Yorkers work their way through men, trying them on, tiring them out, and throwing them aside. ”I just had sex like a man,” declared Sarah Jessica Parker’s character after an afternoon tryst. ”I left feeling powerful, potent, and incredibly alive.”

She wasn’t the only one. From 45-year-old Rene Russo’s steamy sex scenes with Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair to teen-queen Melissa Joan Hart’s unveiling on the cover of Maxim, women reveled in their roles as sexual provocateurs. Along the way, they also found a song to sum it up: Shania Twain’s ”That Don’t Impress Me Much” captured the essence of the erotically empowered woman.

Even prostitutes got a truer-to-life makeover. We’re talking about Illeana Douglas’ hooker-cum-studio exec on Fox’s short-lived but razor-sharp Hollywood spoof, Action. As the real power broker on the show, Douglas proved that not only does sex sell, it intimidates—and can get you a really good job.

Compare these women with ’98’s feminist symbol, England’s Bridget Jones — a whiny, calorie-counting, I-need-a-man, professional neurotic (or her U.S. equivalent, Ally McBeal) — and it would make Gloria Steinem gloat. ”What you’re seeing on TV right now,” says James R. Petersen, Playboy writer/editor and author of the recent The Century of Sex, ”we saw in print 20 years ago. We’re finally catching up with the female sexual liberation of the ’70s.”

Not that these characters are devoid of Bridget-esque pinings for the proverbial life partner—but they’re not waiting around, writing maudlin diary entries or having conversations in their head as a forum for exploration. This year, single girls ceased being a wholly desperate and unsatisfied lot. Says Candace Bushnell, author of the book Sex and the City, ”We [now] have these characters who aren’t predatory females, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. They’re open-minded about sex, they’re interested in having sex, and that’s okay.”

So, what, did Hollywood wake up and discover Our Bodies, Ourselves? Did somebody circulate Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities to top brass? Because even Ally McBeal, though still neurotic, has been ditching her romantic fantasies for car-wash quickies and lesbian lust. But while it’s true women have come a long way in one year, Stoller still finds room for improvement: ”When we see Melissa Joan Hart talking about her vibrator in Seventeen,” she quips, ”that will be a breakthrough.”

In the meantime, welcome to the age of uninnocence. Long may it reign.

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