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21 May 2008 00:00
I have never really understood why so many people felt personally affronted by Sex and the City. The 1990s TV hit that charted sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw’s navigation of life, love and the latest shoe styles in New York never claimed to be a documentary about contemporary women’s lives.
Inevitably though, the fictional portrayal of four unfathomably glamorous, sexually experimental and effortlessly successful Manhattan females rendered the series hugely influential, mainly because it was unlike anything else.
But just because women are seldom seen on the small screen being hopeful, hilarious and horny all at once is not a good reason to levy the weight of feminist expectation against a single franchise. Sex and the City movie this month prods those discomforts yet again.
At the risk of collapsing one Bradshaw metaphor into another, I always found the series charming, funny, good-looking and intelligent, rather like the perfect first date. I enjoyed following Carrie and her achingly archetypical friends. I’m almost afraid to admit it lest it show me up as shallow, but the show did make me ask pertinent questions about my own life and those of my friends—and not solely because we were swithering over Manolo Blahnik designs.
Sex and the City was always two parts fantasy shaken with one part delicately skewered reality. So—no—hot, smart women do not only talk about men and shoes, Manhattan isn’t always sunny and newspaper columns aren’t generally written, unresearched, in slinky vest tops.
But this fantastical element was tolerated in exchange for the unprecedented honesty about other areas of women’s experience that Sex and the City hauled into the mainstream. Most prominently, the series discussed the micro and macro of sexual relationships as they had never been before: when is it all right to fake an orgasm? Ought there to be cleanup etiquette for men giving head? How does maternal ambivalence affect a woman who is already pregnant?
Those gasp-out-loud episodes were embraced by women not only because they’d been there privately, but thanks to the context in which they were discussed. The enduring appeal of Sex and the City has nothing to do with guys or footwear. It’s about the uncomfortably accurate presentation of women’s relationships with each other. However the critics receive the new film, they ought to bear in mind that, for all the brunch chatter, this show has never been a story about men. Sex and the City was always about us girls; about how women’s friendships can be complicated and bitchy, but also meaningful, supportive and lasting.
I’m a firm believer that all our subsequent interactions are dictated by original familial connections, so it has always fascinated me that Freud didn’t bother to create an Oedipus-style template for women’s relationships. It’s an absence that Shere Hite notes in her latest report on women loving women.
Aside from Desperate Housewives and the brilliant British-born Pulling, it’s hard to think of popular art that takes women’s friendships seriously.
Perhaps that’s because we don’t take them seriously ourselves. On the one hand we lionise relationships with other women—it’s a given to crow about the super-fantasticness of one’s friendships. Yet, day to day, we give those connections far less traction than they deserve. Women analyse their interactions with men to the nth degree, while their profound connections with others of their gender go unexamined.
I’m sure it’s partly to do with the way women’s relationships are set up publicly. From an early age, girls are taught that they are in sexual competition with their peers. Nobody wants to be the loser in the race to couple up and nobody wants to be deemed a lesbian. Later, women wind up being their own worst enemies, buying into a culture that sets them against one another: the singles versus the marrieds, the stay at homes versus the working mothers. We are told that we can only understand those who mimic our lifestyle choices. It’s interesting that when Hite surveyed she found that, of all barriers to friendship, relationship status was the greatest.
Sex and the City was seminal because it showed women’s friendships according to a panoply of responses: anger, doubt, judgement, envy and love. And it proposed basic needs as fulfilled by other women. It’s not anti-men to acknowledge how females can sustain each other. But it is pro-women to suggest that we cease angsting at each other, especially about shoes.—Â
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