Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sexism in the City

One of the constant themes of this blog is that GayProf is absolutely no fun as a movie companion. My gravitas will largely overshadow any enjoyment of a film, especially if it involves a post-viewing critique. One shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that I have some tart words for the Sex in the City film.

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 prison relationship.

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.


dean said...

I watched a few episodes on HBO mainly because the ex was entranced by the show at the time, but I never understood the attraction. The funniest thing about it was the Family Guy commentary by the dog, Brian: "So, it's a show about three whores and their mother?"

I'm always amazed by the progressiveness of Doc Marston's ideas on sex an marriage so long ago. One of WW's best comments back then was something along the line of: "Isn't if more fun to make the man obey?" It's such a shame his attempts to get society out of the marriage rut didn't really go anywhere.

Maybe you should check out a few episodes of Big Love? At least is dumps the whole monogomy thing.

olaf said...

I always liked SATC; my friends and I would watch it Friday nights and then go out clubbing afterwards. Still, even then there were more than a few episodes that made my inner humanist go "ick" -- especially as mentioned above, whenever the show talks about monogamy and love and relationships, it is inevitably at its most conservative.

But there's still a lot of be interested in and celebrate in the show (not the film). Primarily is the relationship between the women as friends, caregivers and confidents. There was an honesty and frankness (and complexity!) in how adult friendships were portrayed that I think has yet to be surpassed in any TV show since (esp. with respect to women). Sadly, this was entirely missing in the movie. I can't improve on your analysis of the film, except to say that there's more depth to the series than is often recognized, but the movie was as disappointing in its simplicity, regressive politics, and superficial treatment of the women's relationships as your analysis suggests.

And Dean, can we stop referring to them as sluts, whores, etc.? They had sex, a lot, we get it.

Anonymous said...

I had to stop reading about halfway through. I'm going out on Friday to see the movie and I just know I'll end up thinking about your review the entire time.

Damn you, Gayprof.

Alan said...

This is why I never go to Sci-Fi movies with my friend the astronomer. :)

Anonymous said...

I never quite bought that these were real archetypes of women rather than women written by a gay man.

Roger Green said...

I enjoyed watching the series (on its 2nd run on cable but not HBO) as the fantasy fluff it was. and i always liked the bond among them. Yet I certainly recognized its flaws, notably the lack of people of color. Haven't seen the film, but it is interesting to note that Samantha DID have chemo, Miranda was always neurotic about the work/life thing, and Carrie's relationship with BIG was always complicated. Maybe I'll see the film - I'm so behind now, though, who knows? - but it sounds like a rental to me.

Anonymous said...

thank you. about 5 years ago one of my intro students wrote her final on "sex, the city, and true feminism" or some such thing and turned in a copy of the entire first season to accompany it. I watched a random section in which Samantha is too sick to function and has no one to care for her despite a rolodex full of numbers. No one comes. No one cares. She finally gets befriended by the drag queens outside her window who have been exchanging snark with her all night because she cannot sleep with the noise they are making. It was the most pathetic version of "liberation" I had ever seen and I put the video down, never to go back. It's nice to know that my sense that underneath it all this show really is just about consumerism and age old messages packaged in brand new finery was likely true. (And yes, I gave the student an A. She worked hard and made a solid argument in the other direction and since I couldn't bring myself to keep watching who was I to say you fail b/c I disagree?)

Historiann said...

GayProf--I mostly agree with your review, although I disagree with your take on Samantha's happy ending (which it was.) She left Smith not just because of "the sex," but because of "the city" too. She missed New York, and the girlfriends, because they're part of her authentic self, and while she was living all for Smith in California, she was alienated from those parts of herself. I thought it was a happy breakup (albeit with bad dialogue). If only the writers had had the courage to have Carrie dump Mr. Big once and for all...

GayProf said...

Dean: Wonder Woman isn't just a comic book. It's a philosophy for life.

Olaf: I tend to think that media can do both good and bad things. So, even as SATC upholds some pretty retrograde notions of heterosexuality, it can also advance our views of friendship, women's independence, etc. We, as viewers, take what we want from it and dismiss the bad bits (as we should).

JP: Just imagine if I lived nearby you. You would never see another movie again.

Alan: Yeah, I am totally willing to suspend belief over faster-than-light space travel.

Anon: I am suspicious of anything that claims to be archetypes regardless of the author.

ROG: This is totally a Netflix film.

Anon2: My guess is that SATC passes for what is termed "third wave feminism," which I don't tend to think of as feminism at all.

HisoriAnn: I take your point. We are supposed to see Samantha as happy in the end.

Still, the execution was done badly and left ambiguity (especially in light of the story line mentioned by Anon2 above). Moreover, why couldn't she have a LTR non-monogamous relationship?

Anonymous said...

Uh - wow.

Sometimes entertainment is just entertainment, and not everyone finds it, well, entertaining. Next.

GayProf said...

Anon3: And sometimes people are passive and intellectually lazy using the excuse that things are "merely entertainment."

diablo said...

first thank you. finally. sense. I did however have a brief intellectual moment during the dredge. Faulkner of course - It is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.

second, a lesbian friend warned me that going to see this epic i'd encounter a bunch of white yuppie women decked out in their finest, high heels and all, twittering like hens in a henhouse. she spoke from experiencing it first hand. it was exactly that. **shutter**

but most importantly, i'm back on your blog so soon since my last visit because i came across this -- -- and i thought you'd want to know (assuming you weren't already there on the boat with her).

diablo said...

it appears that link did not work properly, maybe this one will.

Maria said...

yeah, that's pretty much my read of the film. basically, the plot is that the four women need to realize that the reason men fuck up is because they fail. also? ASIAN BABIES will RUIN your LIFE.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I've seen it now so I was able to finish reading your review.

I think you're just mad because there were boobies.

Earl Cootie said...

Only caught part of one episode. Didn't interest me much, I'm afraid. At least, I don't have to worry about missing the movie. (Thanks for your review!)

Somebody wake me when Solo-sex and the Wilderness comes out.

Chad said...

HEY, I consider myself a third-wave feminist. Sir, you have offended my honor *glove-slap*.

I will say I liked the show in its first few seasons, but once it became obvious that they were situating everyone into traditional monogamous roles I lost interest.

Plus "Sex and the City" is just one big blatant rip-off of the "Golden Girls" (seriously: Miranda = Dorothy, Charlotte = Rose, Samantha = Blanche, and Carrie = a composite of Sophia and Dorothy.)

Huntington said...

I very much agree with your assessment of the Samantha storyline, especially since, in the series, she and Smith went through all this more thoughtfully than in the movie, in which Smith was barely a character. They did end up choosing monogamy in the series, but consciously, not because it was expected of them. One always got the idea that that choice could be renegotiated for reasons like the one that came up in the movie. But it was never brought up as an option, and that disappointed me.

Of course, the film was really long already, and a real discussion about monogamy, one that would have to have included Miranda's outrage at Steve, would have made it even longer. I could've done with less City and more Sex, but the writers thought they knew what most of their audience wants: pretty people buying pretty things and being clever about it. While that was always part of the series, the balance was thrown out of whack in the movie.

historiann said...

Chad--what a brilliant observation! Gay men of a certain generation will thrill at your comparison of Golden Girls and SATC. I love it!

Greg said...

Wow...poor Lynda, what a way to ruin a solo sailing excursion. Of course, going solo also means she's alibi-free.

Fortunately, she's also Wonder Woman, so after a dragged out storyline featuring more WW Wanted posters and the briefest of jail stints, we'll find out it was really Dr. Psycho who killed poor Karen and dumped her in the fact, come to think of it, the good Doctor is probably behind "Sex and the City", too.

He always liked his women in traditional, subservient roles.

Laverne said...

Gayprof, darn it. I was to go with a crowd of my girlfriends to see this, and now... well, not only do I basically know what happens, I can't allow myself to enjoy it for the fluff it is.

Although, sometimes, like potato chips, I still enjoy the bad things.

For me? I could never get past the fact that Carrie had money enough to buy $700 shoes. I don't think anyone ever thought these women were real or even archtypes.

I was thinking about the Samantha character the other day; if confidence was all I needed, I would have been having quite a bit more fun the last 10 years.

I'm no fun right now. Grading essays. You of all people know how horrid that is.

Laverne said...

er... "Archetypes" is what I meant.

Frank said...

I watched SATC throughout its run, but as time went on, and especially after it ended and I got to think about it in toto, the more problems I had with it. One of the reasons I don't want to go see the movie (though I'm sure I'll end up seeing it eventually on cable) is because everything I've heard just took the problems the series had and blew them up into two-and-a-half ours on a huge screen.

Besides many of the things you mention (racial politics, "feminism," the treatment of gay characters), one of the big problems I had/have with the show is actually its treatment of men. It's like the producers decided that to be "feminist" meant making a show where the men were treated as the cardboard cut-outs and stereotypes that women have and continue to be treated as in so much male-centered entertainment. The treatment of Smith and Steve in the movie is another reason I don't really want to see the movie; in the series, they were overall good guys that ultimately fit with their female counterparts in a way no other guys during the show did. And maybe it is sexist of me, but I always thought most of Carrie/Big's dysfunction WAS Carrie's fault; she was always pressing for more than she knew Big was willing to give, always poking at him to be what he wasn't, then proceeded to have a meltdown when he turned out to not be able to give her what she already knew he wasn't about to give, and then went back to him anyway to start it all over again.

Oso Raro said...

So what's so wrong about being a slut?

Back Alley Literatus said...


Thanks! I am a big "Golden Girls" fan, so I only had to watch several episodes to notice the parallels. The only iffy part is of course Carrie, but she really does seem to have a toned-down version of Dorothy's cynicism and Sophia's wry observations on the activities of the other characters (and arguably Blanche's unapologetic materialism as well). The irony, of course, is that the "Golden Girls", despite being the older and less "hip" show, was more daring and progressive than SATC was even in its heyday.

Anonymous said...

An interesting observation (as always!) CoG! But I think that I may have to see that big mean, green thing that's coming out instead. Oh, that's weird the way I said that....The Incredible "Gay" Hulk.

But I thought you were done with NERPOD? ;-) How far along art thou?

Anonymous said...

Mammy 3.0 = Hilarious and apt.

I also agree with frank's earlier point- the men in SATC (though I've only seen a few episodes) are treated as cardboard cutouts, objects to be ultimately owned in some way. This dovetails nicely with a reading of the series as the ultimate expression of capitalism: the shoes, the dresses, and finally the men are to be consumed competitively. Sex & The City(and, well, like all modern entertainment) just extends consumerism into the bedroom.

I'm no fun to watch movies with, either.

Michael said...

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