Last night I saw Sex and the City. I ended up going to a different cinemaplex than we’d originally planned because all three early evening showings at the first theatre were sold out, and we were stuck in the very front row at our second choice. My appreciation for the series is limited; years ago I started watching the show with some friends I’d just met, and as time passed, I grew more and more fond of the friends, and less and less fond of the show. So I’m not sure if I would have bothered to see the movie, had these friends not really wanted us all to watch it together for old times’ sake.
The trademark quirks of the show – the literal glint in each character’s eye, Carrie’s overly enunciated narration, the not-even-groanworthy puns – are all intact, and if they aren’t exaggerated in Sex and the City’s movie incarnation, they certainly seem that way. The characters are all sketched out in the opening credits, with flashbacks to the series, and it’s remarkable how about 40 seconds of montage each tells you all you need to know, if you had never seen the series. Complexity has never been the point of SATC.
Unlike the fans and critics who saw the series as striking a blow for women everywhere by portraying them as liberated, independent, and answering to no man, I always thought the show was in many ways regressive (and I only partially mean that in a bad way.) Certainly the “girls” were sleeping with whomever they choose, dealing with the consequences (STDs, abortions, unwed motherhood) in a cavalier way, and putting themselves before any other relationship in their lives – not only with men, but also with family. The only relatives I remember from the show are Miranda’s mother-in-law, and Charlotte’s first mother-in-law. But then part of the conceit of the show was that friends are the new family.
Certainly, the show defined deviancy down. When Miranda gets chlamydia, she dutifully calls all the lovers she’s potentially exposed (and there are a lot), and it’s presented as not so different from tracking down the owner of the Tupperware that was left at your house after your last potluck party. More embarrassing, to be sure, but primarily a matter of etiquette, free from moral, or even physical health, concerns. And all the main characters at various times either stayed in or ended relationships based on the most crass details of physical relationships, examples of which really can’t be given here in a manner that won’t offend. But what shone through all the seasons of the show, and a good part of the movie, was the misery of the main characters. The friends supported each other through thick and thin, but most of the occasions on which they needed each other’s support stemmed from their attitudes to men.
In the movie, Samantha (the horny one, in the show’s lexicon) ends up leaving her devoted boyfriend of five years, who had helped her get through cancer, because she found herself turning into someone who put somebody else’s needs ahead of her own. (The horror!) “I love you, but I love me more,” she says, before flying back to New York and presumably getting back on the carousel of casual sex. One of the last moments in the show is her 50th birthday party; the reality of life for urban 50-year-olds who’ve never married, have no children, and apparently no relatives who figure prominently in their lives goes unexplored, but it’s safe to say that endless sexual adventures and nights of drinking are harder to pull off gracefully in one’s second half-century. But none of that matters; the important thing is that Samantha is true to herself, one of the highest values of our age.
Miranda (the neurotic one) comes across as the most unflattering stereotype of working mother: harried and perpetually exhausted, sniping at the nanny, ignoring her husband, and ultimately cheated on by him in a single moment of weakness. Her incandescent rage at this carries her through most of the show, and the reconciliation, although driven by her realization that he sacrificed more for their marriage and child than she did, seems tentative at best. The effect of her separation on their son is never even hinted at, although she does complain about the break-up with her friends right in front of the child.
Carrie (the heroine) is the centre of the movie. While some episodes of the show featured her as a writer, friend, and urban anthropologist, here she is involved chiefly in yet another installment of the on-again, off-again relationship with generic tycoon “Big.” Early in the movie they decide, half-heartedly, to get married, whereupon Carrie tiptoes around bridezilla territory. Big, worried in part about getting married for the third time (with cause, given the statistics on third marriages lasting), hesitates for a half hour, is late for the ceremony, and comes to his senses moments after telling Carrie he can’t go through with it. Of course, at the end of the movie, they reconcile and marry, and of course, this is presented as a lesson about why it’s important to get married for the right reasons, but neither character has fundamentally changed in a manner that might give us cause to hope that this time, it might work.
And then there’s Charlotte. Charlotte, the good girl, concerned about appearances, whose first marriage to WASP royalty fell apart due to impotence (his), infertility (hers) and infidelity (also hers), ended up happily married (and Jewish) at the end of the series, her pain at being infertile abating after adoption. Charlotte defines herself around her role as a wife and mother, as well as a friend. She is the closest thing in the show to a 1950s hausfrau (albeit an incredibly wealthy one.) And she is the only character in the movie who is genuinely happy, so much so in fact that she worries that the troubles afflicting her girlfriends mean that she’s due for trouble. The worst thing that happens to her in the movie is Montezuma’s revenge in Mexico, and she’s rewarded for her relative virtue by a miracle pregnancy. Charlotte is moved to anger or tears in the movie only by her sadness at Carrie and Miranda’s travails.
There is no question that the movie is popular. It’s entertaining, in the way that soap operas and TV dramas can be, and it provides the vaguely unattractive fascination one sometimes feels with news of an acquaintance’s marital breakdown. But it fits neither the narrative of post-family liberals, nor the worldview of the more traditionally minded. In Sex and the City’s universe, sex is a proxy for love, consumerism is a sacred duty, the consequences of promiscuity are glossed over, and marriage and family pale in importance to having some girlfriends to drink Cosmos with. But a movie in which the only consistently happy woman, and the one with the best shot at a “happily ever after,” is the devoted wife and mother, doesn’t really advance the message that so many feminists and liberals have been hammering on for years.
Rebecca comments on her own post: Anthony Lane on the movie, and his closing paragraph is brilliant.
It’s true that Samantha finally disposes of one paramour, but only with a view to landing another, and her parting shot is a beauty: “I love you, but I love me more.” I have a terrible feeling that “Sex and the City” expects us not to disapprove of that line, or even to laugh at it, but to exclaim in unison, “You go, girl.” I walked into the theatre hoping for a nice evening and came out as a hard-line Marxist, my head a whirl of closets, delusions, and blunt-clawed cattiness. All the film lacks is a subtitle: “The Lying, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe.”