Let me be up front with the fact that I never actually watched the show when it was on the air. HBO wasn’t in my budget, so I missed its six-year run. It got to be so crazy popular among certain sectors of the straight-woman/gay man world, however, that I started to feel the need to feign interest in it. Even without premium cable, one couldn’t escape the show’s icons: cosmo cocktails, “Mr. Big,” and glossy scenes that are more about showing pretty, pretty dresses than actual plot or character development.
So when some gay friends suggested that we see the film this past weekend, I agreed. Heck, it was better than working on the Never Ending Research Project of Doom. Actually, having a catheter inserted would be better than working on the Never Ending Research Project of Doom.
For those (like me) who only had a vague sense of its composition, Sex and the City centered on four thirty-something (four forty-somethings in the film) white, straight women, each with their own personality quirks, seeking love and romance in New York.
I understand (or at least think that I understand) the appeal of the show/film for its target audiences of straight women/gay men. First and foremost, it is escapist fluff. The show/film is a consumer fantasy where money falls from the sky, fashion is everything, and the most complicated problem in your life is how to have a three-way without the nanny hearing or smudging your makeup. Given the crippling economic depression that is appearing in this nation, I am not surprised that many people want vicarious, carefree adventures involving the wealthy.
Like most HBO productions, it also relied on sexual titillation (heavy on the “tit”), but without the creepy violence of Oz. The show’s title was not a shy reference nor did it depend on mere sexual innuendo. From what I understand, many of the episodes would have made Helen Gurley Brown blush.
Sex and capitalism, despite what Fox executives might think, aren’t enough to make a show a hit (even in the U.S). So, why did so many women viewers become cult followers of Carrie, et al’s fictional love lives?
Unlike most representations of single women on television to that point, these women characters had active sex lives that they enjoyed without apology. Against gender stereotypes, the show said that women could be just as sexually adventurous, daring, and even raunchy as men (The show was often written by gay men – which is something for somebody else to explore).
It also showed a type of sisterly bond among the protagonists that had been one of the lost promises of second-wave feminism. They created their own support networks that were outside the scope of the men in their lives. Every week (day?), they met over drinks to discuss their latest romps or heartbreaks and shared their lives. It’s small wonder, therefore, that the show filled a much desired gap for its viewer ship. Many women were probably tired of characters like Ally McBeal, who seemingly only wanted to have sex and a relationship as means to end her spinsterhood and finally have a baby.
That’s all to the good, I suppose. Still, the Sex-in-the-City franchise is a poor substitute for actual sexual liberation or gender equality. The film more often reenforced the gender and sexual (and racial) status quo than challenged it (and I can only really talk about the film since, despite that exposition, I have never really seen the show (and I am willing to concede that the show might be substantively different than the film (but that would require me watching the six seasons of it, which I don’t want to do after watching the film))). I know, there will be immediate naysayers and scoffers. Heck, one of my film companions complained that “GayProf just didn’t get it.” A true statement.
Why didn’t I “get it?” Well, firstly there were the huge racist presumptions that went into the film. For a more careful reading, see Diary of an Anxious Black Woman (found via HistoriAnn). She succinctly explains the “Mammy 2.0" that appears midway through the film as “Louise,” Carrie’s assistant/wet nurse. That alone made my flesh crawl in the film. I am tired of the mainstream media serving up the same-old racist shit and having to pretend like it isn’t that big of a deal.
Before going to the big screen, the producers of Sex in the City recognized that their show had long been criticized for its lack of racial diversity (despite being set in one of the most diverse cities on the planet). One can imagine that somewhere in a board meeting, a [white] writer proposed the character of Louise as a solution to this quandary. “We need a woman of color to shut them up,” the producer exclaimed, “What do women of color like to do?” “Don’t they like to serve white people?” this writer offered, “At least until they get married and have babies?” “That’s brilliant! Write it up.”
My other major problem with this film is the way that it conformed to narrow views of sexuality, relationships, and marriage. Maybe I am jaded (What am I saying? “Maybe????”), but we don’t need another candy-coated celebration of heterosexual, monogamous marriage.
The heterosexual bit came in the total absence of lesbian characters (despite one of the main actors being a real-life lesbian) and the only cursory inclusion of gay men. If Louise was Mammy 2.0, then white gay men were Mammy 3.0. [white] Gay men existed flatly in this film to happily serve straight women in planning their wedding, giving advice, and offering snappy fashion quips. In an opening scene, they also offered a passing joke/titillation (low on the “tit.”). For a show written by gay men, it’s pretty homophobic.
More than that, though, the film played into some durable, sexist assumptions about heterosexual relationships. At its core, the film argued that, even when they are wrong, straight men are always right.
If we eliminated the fashion shows and extended shots of footwear, the film’s plot centered on three of the main characters facing problems in their relationships. Carrie wants to marry “Mr. Big;” Miranda discovers that her husband had a one-night stand; and Samantha feels unfulfilled in her monogamous
Let’s start with the last. On the surface, Samantha should be the critique of monogamy and traditional conceptions of marriage. Indeed, her character unmasks the tedium that is associated with monogamy (which she compares to chemotherapy). She faces daily temptation from a hot Los-Angeles neighbor, whose shower is apparently located outdoors. Ultimately, Samantha realizes that monogamy is not for her.
Potentially that decision could have been a bold statement in the film. Its execution, however, suggests otherwise. Samantha does not renegotiate her relationship with her current partner to something more open (Sex is sex, love is love -- Relationships don't have to be based on society's expectations of monogamy). That is ruled out even before it's mentioned. In Sex in the City, relationships are apparently all or nothing.
Instead, Samantha packs her bags and heads back to New York. We are never shown that she has a better life single and non-monogamous (or non-single and non-monogamous). We don’t even know if she lost all her frustration-weight! In the end, she is alone with her girlfriends celebrating her fiftieth birthday.
If Samantha’s resolution is, at best, ambiguous, the other dilemmas are much more clear cut. We are led to believe that it is entirely Miranda’s “fault” that her husband cheated on her. After all, she cared much more about her career and her child than satisfying him sexually. Plus, she stopped waxing her vagina! What was Miranda expecting? Even the best man is going to cheat under those circumstances.
The film never offered that the problem is bigger than Miranda or her slutty husband (who was presented as a saint). Maybe the problem is the expectation of monogamy? Maybe the problem is the way that marriage, in our society, presumes that one person belongs to another?
Nope, says Sex in the City, the problem is frigid, career-oriented women. These poor, delusional women think they can do it all: marriage, job, children. They are really nuts and selfish. Sadly, it’s their innocent men who suffer because of them.
After Miranda goes to therapy (not to deal with the obvious betrayal, but instead to figure out why she is so wrong in not forgiving her cheating dog of a husband), she reveals that she is afraid that she will be left by him. Being alone is a fate worse than death in Sex in the City. What is a woman without her man? Nothing -- That's what. Their reunion on the Brooklyn Bridge is the triumph of the heterosexual family.
Finally, Carrie’s storyline is all about conforming to gender expectations. Carrie and “Mr. Big” decide to get married early in the movie (maybe around the third catwalk of dresses). Mr. Big buys Carrie her dream apartment, complete with a walk-in closet bigger than my studio in Boston.
Carrie, though, has at least heard the word “feminism.” She begins to wonder if she would have any legal recourse should Mr. Big dump her and take away that fabulous prewar abode. They both come to the legalistic conclusion that marriage is really about property. So far, so good as far as GayProf is concerned.
Then things kinda go off track. Carrie starts trying on wedding dresses, hires a gay wedding planner (Mammy 3.0), and poses for Vogue magazine. Before you know it, her wedding plans make Princess Di’s look like the christening of a Greyhound bus. All the pomp and circumstance results in Mr. Big standing her up at the altar.
For the next hour and a half, we watch as Carrie puts her life back together (thanks, in part, to Mammy 2.0). When she finally is independent, however, Carrie returns to the house that Mr. Big built and realizes that she was the one who was truly in the wrong. Sure, he jilted her – but he was forced to do so by her greedy self-interest. Had she just recognized what a good provider he was, Mr. Big would never have left her.
While I am definitely on-board with the film’s message that people are spending too much on their wedding(s), I am not at all on-board with the film’s message that marriage is a necessity (unless you want to end up fat and alone like Samantha). I would have been much more satisfied if the film argued that sex and love don’t require a binding contract.
Sex and the City pulled off a neat masquerade. Nice clothes and great hair cloaked a retrograde message that happy relationships necessarily require women’s sublimation.