A Defense of Sex and the City

June 12, 2008

In the couple weeks since Sex and the City movie came out, the film has taken something of a beating at the hands of the news media. These articles read much less like film review than cultural critiques, perhaps because the movie was poised to disrupt box office trends, or because the four-year hiatus gave everyone an opportunity to say his or her piece about the series and its legacy. Embarrassed by the fan frenzy (female pleasure is just so frivolous), many of these reviewers have taken out on the movie issues that have long been understood about the show. Goodness knows I have plenty to say about what’s wrong with SATC on the big, or small, screens. I’d like to take this moment, however, to stand up for a film that was, at the very least, a love letter to fans, but also significantly more than that.

Anthony Lane begins his snide review in the New Yorker with a reflection on the excitement and secrecy that surrounded this release. Standing in line at the theatre, Lane shares his predictions about the plot with a woman nearby:

I took a wild guess. “Apparently,” I said to the woman behind me in line, “some of the girls have problems with their men, break up for a while, and then get back together again.” “Oh my God!” she cried. “How do you know?”

Already, Lane begins with the notion that the film’s subject matter is too appallingly trivial to care about. What an incisive and witty take-down of those silly female fans: this movie is about nothing but love and suffering, and it definitely wasn’t worth his time.

Lane reveals a nasty condescension towards the subject matter; indeed, many writers seemed mortified by the masses of women who invested their time, money, and emotions into this movie. Slate assembled four of its women writers to dish on SATC, and their conversation was saddled with the persistent need to condemn and distance themselves from the movie’s frivolity.

Meghan O’Rourke: Carrie, after Big Jilts her, says, “I feel like I took a bullet.” Um, really? You mean like a soldier?…

Erin Bucklann: So many audience members were sobbing throughout my screening and I was struck by hearing more crying in that movie than during any serious war movie or mourning scene I’ve watched in a looong time.

Measuring stories of intimacy, friendship, and heartbreak against war, politics, and tragedy, these critics participate in a didactic and classically sexist framework that assigns value to one experience over another and pits the mythical and heroic against the everyday and interpersonal. Historically, women’s stories have always been relegated to second-class art, and it looks like not much has changed. This is a zero-sum game in which women always lose.

Patriarchy aside, these critiques are also a little dishonest, aren’t they? No matter how much we feel the horrors of disaster and war, we will never be immune to our small personal tragedies–and thank heavens. Men and women weep like children over lost love, and Sex and the City wanted to depict and validate that kind of experience. The fact that this representation embarrassed reviewers suggests a deep discomfort with a film that takes women’s lives seriously.

Sex and the City does a few things incredibly well, in a way that I don’t often see. In keeping with the premise of the show, the movie puts friendship between women front and center. It seems that everyone’s favorite moment is when Charlotte fiercely defends Carrie from Big in the street. It’s comical–Kristin Davis has old-school screwball talent–but also incredibly moving, because of the shaking, brittle body Charlotte protects. One second prior, Carrie was lashing out at Big and giving full expression to her wrath, but, with the sharp turn of sudden, unexpected pain, she collapses in grief in her friends’ arms. Dana Stevens, Slate’s apologist fan, notes that “if you bear even a grudging affection for the show’s utopic vision of female bonding as the greatest love of all, you may get choked up when Carrie appears at Miranda’s door one shitty New Year’s Eve (clad only in pajamas, a sequined cloche, a full-length fur, and what appear to be patent-leather spats) and reassures her friend, ‘You’re not alone.'” Definitely a crying moment. And even Meghan O’Rourke likes the bit when Samantha feeds a silent, despondent Carrie spoonfuls of yogurt. This makes me suspect that the earlier posturing about morals and war is more about shame than anything else. She writes, “That scene seemed to capture something real about female friendship. It gets stronger, in my experience, as you age and become more vulnerable, as you find yourself living with less drama, but, perhaps, more pain.”

Sex and the City is exactly about this kind of stark, everyday pain, the pain of intimate relationships, the pain that you only allow your best friends to see. Carrie and Miranda’s suffering is rough and real, and it goes on for months. It startled me to see a woman experiencing depression after a breakup on screen. It’s such a common occurrence, and yet, one that is quiet, ugly, even disgraceful (I guess we should have more important things to get depressed about). It’s definitely an experience that doesn’t typically turn up in the movies.

SATC allows women to suffer and also to age. While the television show indulged the characters’ fears about growing older, now that a decade has passed, they’re over it. Samantha used to repeat birthdays, refusing for a while to enter her forties. But in this movie, she turns fifty; having survived cancer, uncharacteristically uprooted her life, and then returned to it once more, she has more important things to think about than candles on a cake. Carrie’s not embarrassed to be featured as a bride in her forties; there’s not even a glimmer of the fear that women her age can’t be romantic heroines, a fear that seems to paralyze Hollywood when it comes to female leads. At the end of the movie, we notice that she finally purchases a pair of reading glasses. No fanfare, no small breakdowns–this is simply who she is now.

The biggest complaint about who Carrie is is about her obsession with material goods. The product placements have been catalogued, and you can read my take on class, consumption, and the SJP brand here. In that post, I question Sarah Jessica Parker’s anxious retelling of the Sex and the City story and the New York feature in which she ludicrously insists that Carrie doesn’t care about money and takes pains to express her ambivalence toward commercial projects. I was disappointed, not only in SJP’s strange duplicity regarding her own business decisions, but also in her misrepresenting the SATC legacy. Now, however, I see that the movie serves a similar ideological purpose as the article did, both capitalizing on the show’s iconography, and, in the end, renouncing it.

This is the part the reviewers didn’t seem to grasp–but then, they missed a lot. Anthony Lane calls these women “hormonal hobbits…all obsessed with a ring.” Actually, only Charlotte was ever interested in marriage; Carrie had always felt hugely ambivalent towards the institution; and, if you’ll notice, there’s no actual ring involved in Big’s half-hearted proposal. But thanks for the weird reference. The point, to him and to others, was that these women are gross, shallow, and hardened. The closet was a big offender–and, even worse was the delighted reaction of women in the audience when they saw it. Lane writes that “the tactic here is basically pornographic–arouse the viewer with image upon image what lies just beyond her reach.” Perhaps everyone’s afraid women will run around maxing out their own and their husband’s credit cards after this movie, but they seem to be missing the element of fantasy and pleasurable escapism here. The show has always been an improbable caper through New York City streets in precarious heels; the colors have always been brighter and the fashions nuttier than you’re ever likely to see in real life or even to desire for yourself. It’s like that condescending piece in the New York Times, “Sex and the Rest of the City,” which announced that, against all odds, women of color in the outer boroughs also enjoyed, and even related to, the SATC movie, despite the differences between their lives! I think that city reporter finally hit upon the meaning of fiction.

Two more things to say about the critique of materialism in SATC. One: this sudden panic about consumer goods in film is a sloppy, myopic, and gendered attack. The fast cars and sleek gadgets that crowd the sets of men’s (or “mainstream”) movies don’t receive this kind of condemnation, if indeed these products are even acknowledge. The element of desire is still present in those scenes, though, and so is the corporate influence. But there’s something more offensive about women wanting and buying goods. Women, like magpies, uncontrollably attracted to shiny things and given to excess. As Joseph Addison and Richard Steele wrote in that legendary 18th century journal, The Spectator, women think only of “the drapery of the species…perpetually dazzling one anothers’ imaginations, and filling their heads with nothing but colors,” themselves embodying frivolity. Like I said earlier, not much has changed.

The other thing that confounds me about the attacks on consumer goods in SATC is that everyone’s so determined to condemn the feminine passion for shopping that they miss the fact that movie condemns it too (just as SJP did in New York). At the end of the movie, Carrie holds herself equally accountable for the break-up with Big. She got caught up in the whirlwind of a society wedding, and that’s almost as bad as leaving someone at the altar. With the designer dresses and the magazine spread, she forgot to think about how her partner felt about the whole thing. (Big’s feelings were mostly reluctance and fear about marriage, as well as about his appearance, that he would look like a rich guy who’s gotten married three times to younger women. Right. Because that’s actually who he is.) That schmaltzy Vogue shoot that everyone hated so much was the height of Carrie’s narcissism, the peak from which she has one more spectacular fall. Of course, the movie is trying to have it both ways–tempting the viewers with this indulgent and opulent Vivienne Westwood/New York Public Library/Vogue wedding–and then, after the fact, condemning all that as vanity and candy floss. At the end of the day, a reformed Carrie gets married in city hall in an unlabeled dress. As for what happens to the pre-war penthouse (“I got this”), we don’t ever find out–all I have to say is: don’t sell your apartment this time!”

The truth is, I didn’t trust Big when the series ended, and I don’t trust him now. There was a minute during this movie, when Carrie’s hair was brown and her apartment newly painted, when I actually almost believed they would let her end this thing alone. We’d taken a chance on Big so many times, and I was ready to throw in the towel. How fantastically bold if they do it, I thought, if they leave Carrie alone, to simply do her best to move on.

Wishful thinking. SATC has never been bold enough not to believe in love–and not just love, but the idea that when it’s right, it’s right. and you’ve got to do what you can to make it work. Many of the reviews also criticized the flat, underdeveloped male characters (because the female characters in Superbad and There Will Be Blood were so three-dimensional, if present at all…see Manhola Dargis on the “new, post-female American cinema”). It’s true that these guys weren’t given a lot of air time, and, rather than exploring the back-and-forth in relationships, the movie focused on how women behave in and out of relationships and how they relate to their friends. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. In the end, of course, the movie is subject to the rules of negotiated happy endings—in order to get there, Carrie and Miranda do some thinking and open up to the men who violated their trust.

It’s one thing to argue, as Carrie often does, that it doesn’t have to do with what’s right, wrong, or rational; it simply has to do with love. It’s another to justify that emotional decision with a kind of complicated moral footwork, placing these women’s flaws and errors (acting selfish or distant, avoiding problems, avoiding sex) on a level with the devastating mistakes made by Steve and Big. This is exactly the attitude that frames infidelity as a natural, reasonable male response to a difficulty. There are many ways that we can hurt each other and push each other away, and most of those muddles can be talked through and cleared up. But there is some damage that cannot be resolved and that sometimes can’t even be healed. For instance, cheating on your wife or balking on your wedding day (and don’t give me any crap about the cell phone mishap; the man could have gotten out of the damn car, or at the very least sent Raul). In these cases, all a couple can do is try to forget and start over; that’s something SATC has always believed in.

So even though I don’t like it and I don’t like to admit it, perhaps women respond to the movie because it both acknowledges the suffering in relationships as well as the need to hope for reconciliation and happiness. The emotions were real. Which goes to show that women might turn out at the cinema after all ($70 million and counting), if Hollywood would only give us something worth watching.


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