Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Yes, This Post Is Sort Of About Sex In The City

And no, that doesn't make me gay. I just got married, remember? But having spent enough time around women, I've seen enough of the HBO show turned blockbuster movie to have at least a semi-informed opinion. I haven't seen the movie, but I'm sure I'll see it when it gets back to HBO. I'm just not that interested at this point, and, of course, I'm going to let you know why.

I remember when Sex and the City was first on the air, I caught a few episodes here and there - I also heard about the show through the grapevine, courtesy of various female acquaintances. Initially, I thought the show seemed like a gay man's imagination of the life of single women in New York City. Later on, I learned a bit about the show and discovered it was a gay man's imagination of the life of single women in New York City. It really is kind of funny that the show, for better or for worse, has defined female empowerment was actually written by a man. Sure gay, but still, an M-A-N, man.

I'm not a nutty religious type or a prude who wants to criticize the shows values, nor am I a macho-type who's too manly for a female-centered show. My biggest problem with Sex in the City is that it has become a cultural marker of sorts and as a cultural marker it falls fall short of delivering as promised. For all the talk of female empowerment, the women of Sex in the City, in my view, are conspicuously uninteresting. Yes, these are single women who have sex and yes these are women with their own careers, but beyond the sex and their careers, our heroines seem to fall comfortably into traditional stereotypes.

First, there's Carrie, our heroine of heroines, who narrates the show with all the sophistication of a 14 year old-girl writing in her diary. I didn't realize it when I saw the show when I was in college, but as a 27 year-old married man I can't avoid the obvious- Carrie is hopelessly immature. She's supposed to be a 30-something woman, but she can have the peppiness of a cheerleader and her conversations with men bring to mind teenage girls who are a just a bit too happy that a cute guy is actually talking to them. Oh, and she's also obsessed with shoes and shopping, and, she's a commitment-phobe. No, she's not the most horrible female character ever brought to the screen, but as the leading lady of the show about the modern women, it's a bit disappointing that we've been given a women stuck in a perpetual adolescence.

Next is Samantha, who is the one Sex and the City character who really makes the morally righteous uptight types nervous. Samantha's the one who really sleeps around, the one for whom sex really is just sex. And that's all good and fine, but her character never develops very much emotional depth. If she was a man, her story would be typical- the guy who sleeps around without a care, is discovered, over time, to actually have a heart. What's great about Samantha is her no regrets attitude, but the problem is, her flings with actual emotional attachment show us that ultimately there is something missing in her life. Like all of the sex and the City women, in the end, it seems Samantha also needs a man to settle down with.

Then, there's Charlotte, who really seems to hit on on just what you think the modern woman shouldn't be. Charlotte seems to obsessed with marriage and obsessed with pleasing the man in her life. The one image that stands out in my mind is her attempt to do a ridiculous amount of Jewish cooking for her new Jewish man. Sure it's nice of her to do, but it certainly seems to fit into a traditionalist notion that women exist to literally serve men- not just that, but being subservient is what makes her happy. The individual acts don't make her a bad person (Charlotte is certainly the sweetest of the bunch), but over the course of the series we seem to learn more about Charlotte's men and their interests and backgrounds than we do anything about her. She literally becomes subsumed by the men in her life.

Finally, there's Miranda, the one Sex in the City character for whom I have some sympathy's for. For one, she's a lawyer, and for another thing, she's the only one who ever seems to have a strong personality independent of the men in her life. Samantha is all about sex, while Charlotte and Carrie both tend to lose themselves in the men they're with. Miranda is also the only one to approach a relationship realistically and not as some fantasy princess or sex goddess. Miranda however, is probably the most underutilized character and much of her uniqueness is lost in the fact that show is about men and sex.

And when the women get together, of course, they end up talking mostly about men and sex. And yeah, yeah, I know that's what the show is about, but at the same time, it all just fits far too neatly in any number of stereotypes men have about women. Women shop a lot, women only talk about men, and women have few interests outside of men and shopping. Even though the character's sexual freedom is showcased, ultimately the show seems to be focused on the fact that all the women need men in their lives and that they're really not complete until they find those men. And sure, the search for love is universal, but the show fails because it focuses so much on the external while ignoring the internal. The character sleep around, look for men, but never really take the time to discover themselves. Maybe Carrie does a bit, but as I said earlier, her revelations are what a 14 year-old might make in their diary, not what an adult women should be learning.

To jump to another television series for a moment, there's an episode of the Office in which Jan (at that time still working for corporate) hosts a women's only meeting to discuss women's issues in the workplace and the potential for advancement within the corporation. When Jan wonders why none of the women in the Scranton branch don't take climbing the corporate ladder more seriously, Phyllis responds, "I think most of us have found a good balance between family and work." While Sex and the City isn't about family and work, that little exchange from the Office still highlights my biggest problem with Sex and the City- rather than allowing the women to find themselves, the show remains focussed on the women finding other people. Compare this to the Office, where Jim and Pam's relationship wasn't allowed to flourish until both characters took steps on their own to learn about themselves as individuals.

For my money, the female characters of Sex in the City just don't cut it, not as the characters of the show that's a cultural marker for female empowerment. The strongest female characters on tv? In an odd way, I'd point in the direction of another HBO show, the polygamist drama Big Love, which showcases a wide array of strong female characters in the unusual setting of polygamy. (But that's a blog post for another time.) Strength is about sense of self, the fierceness of one's beliefs and the ability to stand up for those beliefs. It's not about sex, the men in your life, or the job you have.

(PS- Sex and the City isn't a bad show, along the lines of say, any of the CBS sitcoms. But it has the potential to be a great show and almost succeeds in spite of itself, but ultimately, it fails to move beyond it's limitations of men and shoes.)


Blogger McMc said...

Sadly I do have some comments on this. There was a time I where I was curious about all the hype and tuned in, and needless to say I was not impressed. I watched a few more episodes and again, not impressed.

Here's the thing, I don't think show was ever intended to be an "empowering" show for women. However, somewhere down the line, it got that label and instead of taking things responsibly, the writers continued in the same direction. I'm scared to death of a society where all women want to act like these women, and not because I'm scared of women having power or anything stupid like that, but because I don't see that as ideal behavior. And trust me, I'm plenty afraid of a generation of men acting like the ENTOURAGE guys too. I don't know. I have other critiques but I don't think I'll come off as sane. Here are a few other thoughts:

- Checked the credits, and it's not one man writing this show. There are 11 writers listed on IMDB, three of them are men.

- One thing that bothered me about this show is how gay people are portrayed. I don't know, it's always bothered me that gay men are like pets for women. I'm not even kidding. I've heard girls say they want a gay guy friend so bad, like he's a talking cat or something. And when you watch the show, I get that sense because A) they only hang out with their gay friends when they're not with the other B) the gay guy is a "comfort" for the women. Could be wrong, but something tells me gay men don't aspire to be every woman's best friend.

- You mention THE OFFICE, but I'll throw out another character from another New York based show that hits the notes better: Elaine Benes from SEINFELD. I'm not talking about the earlier years, but later on. Actually, her whole character evolution is interesting. She starts off as kind of an activist, doing a lot of charity work and doing stuff for other women. She has female friends, but as she continues to live primarily in a "guy" world, she gets a bit corrupted. She loses her ideals and becomes more focused on career and a bit more focused on men. She has the guy that she always falls back on (Putty) and she does get a bit promiscuous. Sounds similar to a lot of the SEX characters except one caveat: I think Elaine realizes how destructive her behavior is and actually embraces the idea of marriage (her getting jealous of George getting married). You can see her get frsustrated with her life and furthermore, we have no idea if everything works out. With SEX, maybe the show left speculation but the movie had to have killed all of that.

3:18 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Your very right that empowerment wasn't the purpose of the show and I love the Entourage comparison. It's exactly the difference too, that Entourage was never touted as some sort of male ideal, while Sex in the City became that sort of pop cultural milestone for women.

About the writers, Michael Patrick King created the show, and, I believe, served as head writer for the show's entire run. He also wrote the movie.

I also agree with you on the gay characters. The gay men are sort of like pets for the women, every bit as much accessories as the shoes are.

Here's the thing about Seinfeld- philosophically, it works brilliantly because as the series progresses, this group of selfish friends became a more and more tight knit circle, all while becoming more and more selfish. Elaine was just as sexually active as the Sex and the City girls, it just wasn't advertised as much. Seinfeld was very adult about sex- yes the characters were having sex, but none of the characters were really driven by sex or the quest for relationships. Again, compare Sex and the City, where that's almost all that seems to be going on.

To me, the real problem with Sex and the City is that it doesn't refute the notion that every women needs a man. Elaine did just that on Seinfeld- she didn't need a man, she literally did just need her friends.

3:46 PM  
Blogger McMc said...

One other thing I wanted to point out...why is sex the equivalent of empowerment for some women? What's so strong and powerful about women who want no-string sex? That just sounds like the typical horn-dog male fantasy, not the path to respect.

2:29 AM  
Anonymous Jkrik said...

Wow, you two really need to get out more....

6:13 AM  
Blogger Adamgv said...

Women need to be empowered more in general. They need to use their looks for good rather than use them for personal selfish persuits. When you get a moment check out:

9:40 PM  

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