This weekend I finally watched Sex and the City 2. Though I have some book blogging to get around to, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the movie, so I thought I’d puzzle over it a little here before returning to business as usual.
First, I should say that I like the series Sex and the City quite a lot. This was (still is, in a way) a surprise to me. It’s one of those cases, as with reading books by authors I don’t already know, in which serendipity played a part in winning me over: I stumbled on some reruns of Season 6 a couple of years ago and got caught up, partly in Carrie’s romance with Baryshnikov (a long-time crush! remember The Turning Point?)–and the conflict that develops between his emotional and professional needs and hers–but also in Miranda’s domestic struggles (including finding compassion for her increasingly senile mother-in-law), in Samantha’s breast cancer, and in the saga of Charlotte’s adoption efforts. These were all storylines in which much more was at stake than I expected from my casual impression of the show. After that, I rented the earlier seasons and watched them all through–I’ve now seen the whole series a couple of times and I own a couple of seasons on DVD (and some episodes on iTunes) so I can turn to them when I’m in the mood for that particular kind of diversion. Season 4 and Season 6 are my favorites, because I think they take the characters to the most interesting places (figuratively, not literally). If I’d seen Season 1 first, I don’t know that I would have kept watching, as I find it more superficial and deliberately provocative than the later seasons. Sure, there’s something refreshing about its frankness, but as the writers apparently realized, you need more than that to sustain a series, and characters (like people) need to grow up and move on.
A lot gets made (often, in my experience, by people [mostly men] who don’t actually watch SATC) of the show’s emphasis on expensive clothes and shoes. Though I have never bought an expensive pair of shoes (and never any with heels higher than about two inches) and have very little interest in fashion, I actually enjoy watching the characters play dress-up–which is really how it strikes me, like a game of Disney Princess for grown-ups. In many ways, not just this one, the characters live in a fantasy world that has no relation to what I experience as real life, but the same is true of all kinds of shows and movies, and I’m perfectly capable of separating my own values and priorities from theirs: I feel no inadequacy over my lack of Christian Louboutin pumps or a Birkin bag, and if I ever had a great condo in New York (if only!), I’d fill it with books, not couture. That said, there are some aspects of SATC that (though unusually well accessorized) do bear significantly on real issues, such as the challenges of reconciling femininity with power and financial success, of dealing with success imbalances in relationships, or just of maintaining one’s own identity at work (or at play, really) given the pressure women feel to conform or please. Season 2’s “The Caste System” is sharp as well as funny about the pretense that there is no such thing as ‘class’ in contemporary America, while in Season 6, Carrie’s purchase of a Prada shirt for Berger (like Miranda’s earlier attempt to buy Steve a good suit) precipitates a romantic crisis based on his inability to accept something women have been expected or conditioned to accept for centuries, namely economic inferiority.
But by far the most important aspect of the series, its most potent fantasy, is its model of female friendship. More unrealistic even than Carrie’s affording a closet full of Dior and Manolo Blahniks on her freelancer’s income is the whole premise that four women who are such completely different types would be soulmates. Their acceptance of each other’s differences and their often explicit insistence that, though they may question or test them, they will always ultimately support each other’s choices–well, again, that’s a potent fantasy. To be sure, it’s not only women who feel pressure to apologize for who they are and what they want, but I think women experience this pressure more intensely, in more circumstances or situations, than most men. Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha feel it too, and to varying degrees all of them–except Samantha–struggle to persist with the way of being in the world that they think is right for them as individuals. How to do this and not be labelled, or to feel, simply selfish is a central problem of the series. That Samantha is miraculously unapologetic for her own independence, not to mention her sexual appetites, makes her at once the least familiar or likable character and the most radical, and I have sometimes thought it’s a shame that she expresses her defiance of convention so much through sex, which I think distracts from the political potential of her character and makes it easy to confuse her with the negative stereotype of the ‘slut.’ But from another angle, that’s precisely the point of the show: to present four very different women who have sex, like sex, pursue sex, talk about sex–and to refuse the moral judgments and double-standards that insist on dividing women into categories (good/bad, virgin/whore) based on their sexual conduct. SATC also, notoriously, reverses the gaze, turning men into objects for women’s voyeurism, something male actors who have been on the show have remarked as unsettling. Ethically that’s probably no improvement on the endless objectification of women in art, film, and advertising–but I don’t see that ending any time soon, and I think it does make a difference that in SATC this strategy is inevitably self-conscious and tinged with irony, just because it is far less familiar. And it is complemented by the sheer pleasure the women of SATC take in their own bodies, highlighted by the way they dress as well as by their active sex lives. Like any long-running show, SATC has better and worse episodes, but at its best I think it’s both intelligent and funny, and I appreciate the way it showcases strong, vocal women who, miraculously, love each other just the way they are.*
So, about SATC2. Well, actually, first a few words about SATC1. It strikes some really unfortunate squirm-inducing notes (most of them during the ‘honeymoon’ getaway), but overall it does a good job, I think, of trying to imagine the next steps and crises for the four women. Many of the same issues of power, balance, and independence arise; friendships as well as relationships are tested. Some of the tricks that work well in a half-hour episode get too thin stretched to feature length, but there’s some genuine feeling–some real pathos–as well as some comedy. And most important it’s still about women and friendship and acceptance, about taking strength from differences and trying to see the way forward. It’s not a great film–while I think the series has, or will have, classic standing, the film does not do enough as a film to be really significant. Still, on balance I enjoyed it, and I’ve watched it more than once–and will probably, some day, watch it again.
I think SATC2, on the other hand, is a pretty bad film–and I also found it quite depressing. I don’t think it’s bad for the same reasons Roger Ebert (for one) said it was bad (and wow, is his review vitriolic); I agree with Opinioness Megan and the other critics she cites who think that the hate directed at the film reflects a double-standard by which women’s escapism is condemned while men’s is the stuff of putatively heroic legends. I think it’s a bad film because the pacing is awkward (not just slow but kind of staggering, lurching from scene to scene), the acting is forced, the storylines are thin, and the whole thing runs on an edge of desperation, as if the makers were under orders to Be Confrontational! Be Shocking! Be Funny! Have a Touching Moment! Sing Karaoke! For me, everything just kept not working, despite what seemed like painstaking efforts to check off all these elements. The most glaring example is Samantha’s declaration that “we are soulmates,” which ought to epitomize the emphasis on female bonding that makes the series so special, but which instead came across as unnatural (for Samantha–that’s not her vocabulary, surely!) and contrived, a case in which showing would have sufficed, in fact, without anyone needing to tell each other, or us, what we know perfectly well from years of watching the show. I agree with Megan about the Eurocentrism of the film, and I would add that it falls into a sordid kind of Orientalism–but having said that, the idea of connecting the American women’s experiences of frustrated self-expression and autonomy (epitomized, without subtlety, in the silencing hand of Miranda’s boss) to veiling is not an altogether stupid one. (One clumsy moment in the development of this theme is Miranda’s observation on the woman eating french fries one at a time by slipping them discreetly under her veil–something to the effect of “that’s what men really want from us.”) It just would have required much more care and nuance to develop the question of how or whether there are in fact parallels, or to what extent freedom and self-expression should be equated with the kinds of overt display and self-indulgence characteristic of SATC as a series. Along those lines, the scene in which “our” four bond with several Muslim women who reveal fashionable couture outfits beneath their robes not only proposes that there may be common interests across cultural divides (ones that the film to that point has only crudely exploited)–it also suggests that there are many ways to inhabit, negotiate and subvert gendered rules and roles. SATC typically celebrates saying exactly what you think when you think it; imagine what a good film this might have been if instead of promoting that ideal it had taken the opportunity to explore its possible limits and liabilities. All the stupid falling-off-a-camel / getting-arrested-for-indecency stuff could have been overcome, or at least offset, by some intelligent use of the film’s “exotic” setting–but instead, we get mostly cheap fish-out-of-water gimmicks and some nice shots of the desert. And some pretty cool outfits, of course.
So it’s not a good film. It tries, but it fails (or so I thought) to keep up the girls’-night-out energy of the series, and even the gaiety seemed forced. Still, I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched it, that there was something brave about it, because though it stumbles, it is stumbling around in the difficult territory of telling stories about women after the usual happily-ever-after moments of marriage and motherhood. And I think this is why I ultimately found it, not offensive, but depressing. Each of the women faces a fairly realistic mid-life problem, and the writers are not wrong to try to imagine their way out of these scenarios. Carrie seemed particularly whiney to me in this film, but the challenge she and Big face of how to design a marriage that isn’t so full of compromises that neither of them is happy–well, that’s a real challenge, and their solution (taking “days off”) is interesting because it breaks away from the current oppressive myth that two people can and should be completely happy with each other 24/7. It struck me as appropriate that Carrie’s old apartment provides the means, not only for them to get a breather from togetherness, but also for Charlotte to get a little me-time away from her children. Throughout the series and on into the first movie, Carrie has never quite given up that apartment–it represents autonomy, her room of her own. Ebert is far too literal when he condemns Charlotte for the episode in which Lily puts red handprints on her vintage Valentino: of course it’s stupid to wear designer clothes while decorating cupcakes, but the real point in that scene is that being a parent is exhausting and, occasionally, demoralizing, not least because it keeps you from being the person you used to be–which is what that skirt represents to her. It’s impossible to anticipate, before you have children, the range of things you will give up for them and because of them. Of course, there are many much greater things you gain, but sometimes surely all parents have wondered where that other person, the one they used to be, has gone–along with that other life they used to lead! And I wouldn’t be surprised if most parents cling to some symbolic reminders, too, things they fret over and protect from the innocently destructive hands of their beloved offspring. (I certainly have some, though they aren’t items of clothing; I would be devastated, however irrationally, if they were destroyed.) I actually thought the big red handprints on Charlotte’s (unrealistically tight!) butt in her (absurdly chosen!) white skirt were apt and pretty funny symbols, in this context.
SATC2, then, deliberately debunks some popular myths of romantic bliss and maternal fulfilment. What’s sad is that it doesn’t really seem to know what to replace them with: what stories should it tell of its four protagonists? To have done a good job, maybe it would have needed to break out of its genre and embrace the complexities of mature women’s lives. It should have gone to work, not on vacation, with Miranda, for example. It should have followed through on the new model of marriage Carrie and Big propose, rather than reducing it to a fade-out at the end. It should have had Samantha prove her power, not reduced her to waving handfuls of condoms in the face of aghast Muslim men–or to a woman too lacking in self-awareness to agree that the dress she’s chosen is, in fact, “too young” for her. In SATC1, she decides–contrary to all romantic comedy rules–that she’d rather be alone than with her hot Hollywood-star boyfriend: “the most important relationship I have is with myself.” The Samantha of SATC2 shows no such self-respect.
Unlike Megan, then, I found this movie a lot less fun and escapist than the first one. It seemed permeated with Samantha’s fear of growing old, and it focuses on women who dream of escaping but who go home again without having learned or accomplished anything. I feel as if the movie let them down as well as me. Is it really so hard to carry forward the irrepressible feistiness that characterizes the series? I’m not sorry I saw it, but I don’t expect I’ll watch it again. On the other hand, it might be time to go back through Season 4…
*Remember the toast in Bridget Jones’s Diary,to Bridget just as she is? More evidence that acceptance is the real fantasy!