Sexual Freedom In A Shopping Bag: “Sex And The City”


Sex and the city posterThis piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. And yes, the movie came out two months ago; but I have to wait two months before reprinting the stuff I write on the Blowfish Blog, so suck it up.

The problem isn’t that it's sexually conventional.

The problem is that it's sexually conventional… while giving itself airs about being sexually modern and cutting- edge, and pretending to offer innovative, category- breaking, woman-positive insight into sex and relationships.

That's only one of the problems, actually. This is a movie loaded with problems. In fact, I would argue that the "Sex and the City" movie is essentially a series of cinematic problems loosely strung together with some pictures of pretty clothes. But this is my Blog and not the New York Times or Film Threat, so the problems with the sexual politics are the ones I'm going to talk about.

I should tell you right now: I am not a fan of the show. At all. I've seen roughly a dozen episodes, and every one made me want to throw the remote through the TV screen. So I did not come to this movie with the proper, unbiased film- critic attitude. I came thoroughly prepared to despise it and everything it stood for.

But I've come to movies before with that attitude, and have found myself pleasantly surprised.

Not this time.

And so we come to the problem at hand. The attitudes about sex in the "Sex and the City" movie are deeply conventional, as facile and unimaginative as anything else in the movie … and yet it presents itself, in this smug, self-congratulatory way, as an example of brave, ground- breaking, "I am woman watch me fuck" sex- positivity for the modern age. It offers glib platitudes as if they were profound insights, and its approach to sex is as consumerist and status- oriented as its approach to… well, everything.

Lots of spoilers, btw. Consider yourself warned.

Shoes
Let's start with just one small example. There's a bit in the movie where Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is interviewing potential assistants, and she goes through an amusing parade of blatantly terrible candidates before she hits on the perfect Jennifer Hudson. She meets the brainless ditz who doesn't want to do any hard work. She meets the scary, obsessive, borderline- stalker fan. And then she meets the ridiculously over-qualified gentleman in the impeccable suit, with the outstanding credentials and the beautiful manners and the business degree from Harvard or wherever, the guy who you're wondering why the hell he's applying for a job as Carrie's personal assistant instead of at a brokerage or something… until he gives her a simpatico smile, and the camera pans down, and you see that he's wearing pink spike heels.

It's not clear whether he's a drag queen, a transvestite, a fetishist, or just a guy who likes to wear women's shoes. That question is never answered, or even asked. Carrie's reaction — and the reaction of the movie itself, the reaction it's trying to create and assuming it will get from its audience — is reflexive, unthinking rejection. Of course he's not qualified. He's wearing heels. Next.

Now. To be fair. Even if you're the most progressive, sex-positive person on the planet, you might find something a little inappropriate about a guy — not a transsexual, but clearly a male- identified man in a man's suit — wearing pink high heels to a job interview. You might see it as inserting a note of sexuality into a situation where it's not really called for. But on the other hand… well, if you were interviewing for a position as Carrie Bradshaw's assistant, wouldn't you wear the best pair of heels in your closet? And if you were a writer who was famous for being a shoe-obsessed fashion victim, would you really reject a job applicant out of hand simply because he — and not she — shared your passion, and showed it? It may have been a miscalculation… but it's hardly cause for the automatic ridicule, revulsion, and rejection that the movie presents it as. If you're really a cutting- edge woman with modern sexual attitudes, a guy in spike heels should not be that big a deal.

But let's take a larger example. A clearer example. An example that's not ambiguous, and one that's actually central to the plot and character development (such as they are) of the movie.

Samantha
Let's take Samantha.

Samantha (Kim Cattrall), for those of you who've never seen the show, is the shameless slut, the woman who "acts like a man," the one with the sexual appetites and attitudes of a Casanova. As the movie begins, she's been settled down for years with a man she loves, and loves to fuck. But she's starting to feel restless — for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is that she still has a roving eye for pretty men. She feels that her relationship is forcing her to suppress an essential part of who she is — the part that likes to pick up cute guys for casual sex. And so she ends her relationship: sadly, regretfully, but clearly believing that it's necessary.

Now. Did anyone else see this movie? And at this point in the story, did anyone else want to stand up and scream, "For the love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, will you PLEASE try non-monogamy?"

Opening up
I'm not saying non-monogamy is for everybody. I'm not saying it's the perfect answer to all problems in all relationships. I'm not even saying it would have solved this couple's problems. But if a central problem in a relationship is that one of you really likes to fuck around and feels stifled when you can't — if one of you truly loves the other and wants to stay with them, and at the same time genuinely feels that you can't be true to yourself if you don't have the freedom to be a big slut — then non-monogamy should at least be on the table. It might not work, your partner might not consider it, it might not be what you ultimately want… but at the very least, the concept should cross your mind.

But it never crosses Samantha's mind. Samantha — the proud slut, the sexual adventurer, the one of the four friends who supposedly has the most sexual knowledge and experience — seems to have never even considered this option.

And none of her friends suggests it to her.

I'm going to indulge in a little cultural stereotyping here, so please forgive me. One of the big themes of the TV show (and a lesser theme of the movie) is that these four women are… well, let's not say "fag hags." Let's say "modern cosmopolitan women with lots of gay male friends." Therefore, the fact of non-monogamy cannot have escaped their notice. Non-monogamy isn't universal in urban American gay male culture, but it's certainly very, very common. And anyone who's familiar with that culture knows it. Yet none of these women — not Samantha, and not any of her friends — considers Samantha's dilemma and thinks, "Gee, she acts like a gay man anyway — why shouldn't she try having a relationship like one?"

I could go on.

Sushi
I could talk about the idea that combining sex with food — what Dan Savage calls "faux naughty, boring breeder kink" and Susie Bright calls (I'm paraphrasing here) "a vain attempt to get your lover to go down on you" — is wild and kinky and adventurous. Not that there's anything wrong with combining sex with food, and not that sex is a competition… but if that's your idea of cutting-edge modern sexual adventure, you need to go someplace where they're doing flesh-hook suspensions and anal fisting.

I could talk about the displacement of sexual affection and emotion into consumer goods and status symbols: the way all four main characters use an elaborate system of hieroglyphics where objects — jewelry, clothing, beautiful apartments — stand in for emotions and relationships…. with the attention focused almost entirely on the objects, at the expense of the actual emotions. And I could talk about how this is presented as normal, reasonable behavior. Comical, yes: but comical in an "isn't it funny how we all do this, what a silly universal human foible" way. (Yes, we all invest certain objects with symbolic meaning…. but the "Sex and the City" women transform this tendency into a vapid consumerism so extreme as to be grotesque. A far cry from the cutting- edge rethinking of sexual culture they supposedly aspire to.)

And very importantly, I could talk about the idea that when you deny your partner sex for months — and are snarky and dismissive when they want one of those rare times to be more than just routine — you nevertheless don't bear any responsibility when they cheat on you, and have the complete right to present yourself as the sole injured party. The movie seems to think it's being super- modern for acknowledging that one-time cheating shouldn't be met with inflexible unforgiveness… but it never considers the possibility that, when you deny your partner sex for months — with no sympathy, and no good reason. and no end in sight — then maybe, just maybe, you don't have the right to expect them to stay celibate forever.

I could go on. But I think you get my drift. The sexual consumerism, the default assumptions about sex and gender and relationships, the mocking revulsion at anything that resembles actual sexual transgression… it all adds up to a conventional, reflexive, not very imaginative view of sexuality.

Subvert the dominant paradigm
Which is fine. Not every sex comedy has to subvert the dominant paradigm. But not every sex comedy pretends to. Not every sex comedy offers a preachy little homily at the end about breaking down categories, after it's spent two hours reinforcing almost every sexual category in the book. Not every sex comedy smugly pats itself on the back for being more feminist and sexually progressive than "Leave It to Beaver."

What gets me mad isn't the retrograde attitude. What gets me mad is the retrograde attitude being packaged as sexual revolution in a Gucci shopping bag. The fact that this glib, shallow, vapid piffle is being presented as the new erotic feminism — the fact that this is what's being offered to women as a ground- breaking vision of sexual possibility — that's what made me want to throw my popcorn through the screen.

P.S. For an even more vicious — and, if I'm to be honest, much funnier — review of the "Sex and the City" movie, visit my friend Nosmo King's blog, Faster than the Speed of Satire. And then tell him to get off his ass and blog more often.

Comments

  1. says

    The Sex and the City girls always reminded me of what Florence King referred to in Memoirs of a Failed Southern Lady as ‘malkins': women who worry about their femininity, who are more concerned about what they’re perceived to have done than what they actually did, who throw themselves with desperate enthusiasm into being whatever fashion currently dictates is ‘feminine’ (future housewives in King, sexually active shoppers in Sex and the City), but who spend their lives running to keep up with what somebody else says a woman should be and never stop to ask what they want as human beings. I always thought King was exaggerating, until I thought about Sex and the City and remembered that anxious undertow of scandal the characters all seem driven by, their fear of men seeing them in less-than-perfect mode and horror of judgement. They want approval from whoever it is that defines what a woman nowadays should be.
    Real sexual liberation cuts completely counter to that: if they stopped worrying about whatever sexual act is currently fabulous and which acts are totally the provice outcasts, they’d relax a bit. And then they wouldn’t be such pliable consumers. A woman who shows her gender with her shoes rather than her spine spends a heck of a lot more.
    The show always had affectations of sexual freedom, but that’s what they were, affectations, like pre-ripped jeans were a poverty-chic affectation. The good news is that genuine sexual freedom campaigners have made enough progress that conventional people like the City girls feel that they at least have to make some kind of show of it. They don’t understand it, but at least it shows a livelier background culture than the Feminine Mystique.

  2. MAK says

    Yes!!! I was ready to scream non-monogamy too at Samantha.
    I hated the movie. I actually liked the show, at least I found it entertaining mind candy. I think, as Alison Bechdel wrote on her blog, it was relaxing to watch for some reason to me. Because it was such a fantasy maybe?
    Anyway, I also sympathized with Steve (Miranda’s husband who cheated.) I’ve been with a long term partner who could not be sexual for extended periods and I understand Steve’s frustration and the feelings of rejection and hurt, whether intended or not. These feelings are huge and real. Too often there is an attitude that the partner who is missing the sex is shallowly complaining about not getting some fun, as if sex is just not that important. Oddly, sex immediately becomes an important thing if that partner decides to seek it elsewhere. (My partner takes my feelings seriously in this matter- it is why we are together today). Miranda’s “I’ve been wronged” histrionics were just ridiculous.

  3. says

    Nice post.
    Years ago, when I very first saw Sex and the City, it was with my then girlfriend and her friends, and they thought it was brilliant. I didn’t. I actually felt that it was pathetic, and offensive to women with its depiction of vapid, insecure, confused, shallow women. Everyone back then said “no, you just don’t get it”. Well, 10 years later, I still don’t get it, and it looks like an increasing number of people now don’t get it either.

  4. says

    Greta-
    If everyone thought as clearly and deeply as you about things, maybe the world would not suck so much. (not very high-minded, I know, but to the point.)
    Even the seemingly most trivial banalities hide landmines of tragic stereotype reinforcement. In fact, because these forms of media are the equivalent of cultural popcorn, they often get away with much more than others. And because they are popcorn, they do more damage to our humanity from the mass intake by society in general. They have a a much greater potential to damage society precicely because of their insidius, perceived low calorie, nature
    Keep blogging Greta, I love to read your posts!
    -Q

  5. says

    Three words: spot-fucking-on! This movie was crap, and I can’t help feeling it was packaged for the specific purpose of obscuring and stifling real sexual issues, while pretending to be cutting-edge. Sort of like those “crisis pregnancy centers” that turn out to be anti-abortion pressure-groups. Call me paranoid, but after eight years of Karl Rove Postmodernism, I really don’t think I’m being that crazy. At the very least, there are a lot of businesses with a strong vested interest in reinforcing attitudes and hangups that lead to more spending — businesses that could have had a serious effect on the content and marketing of this movie.
    There is, however, a real sound business reason for pretending to be cutting-edge and actually being just the opposite. The pretense of cutting-edginess is a necessary standard advertizing tool of using the hint of sex, and sexual adventure, to get people to buy tickets. (I’ve seen too much of that in the movies themselves: hot, but often totally irrelevant, sex scenes slipped in by directors who are terrified of not getting enough 18-25 males to see their movies.)
    But if the movie actually tried to deliver on that promise, even a little, the whole country would have freaked out and attacked the movie like cornered animals; and the movie would have had no more mainstream audience than “Shortbus” or “9 Songs.” Any of the things you rightly hinted at here — non-monagamy, admitting that men have feelings, and good reasons to cheat once in awhile, not pretending that casual sex is pure evil, or (gasp!) taking relationship cues from gay men — would have triggered deep and longstanding fears in most of the movie’s female audience; and very few people would have felt at all comfortable standing up and defending the point against all the raw, emotional, sexophobic attacks.
    And where do these women get enough money to pay rent or mortgages in Manhattan, take cabs everywhere, and STILL go on indiscriminate shopping sprees? Cocaine? Gun-running? Law? Medicine? Running call-girl agencies? NONE of those professions would leave them enough spare time to worry about their sex lives, let alone worry and shop.
    Oh, and how the Hell did Whatshisname manage to create, out of nowhere, a walk-in closet with more floor space than most apartments, without having to eliminate, say, a bedroom or kitchen or neighboring flat? Did Carrie’s sexual-materialistic force-of-nature energy manage to distort the fabric of space-time and create a new sub-dimension in the middle of Manhattan? Or is this just an indicator that the whole movie is nothing but a lame wish-fulfillment fantasy, for people who aren’t even imaginitive enough to wish for something interesting?
    Then there’s the apparently inevitable device of a down-to-earth black woman from flyover-country setting the clueless rich white shopaholic slut straight in all matters (without having any unconventional sexual thoughts of her own, Heaven forefend). What’s the message here? Rich white city-slickers are clueless hedonists who have to be saved from themselves by down-home country folk?
    PS: I’m with you and Susie on the pubic-hair thing. There is such a thing as too much pubic hair, but I at least want to see enough between my partner’s legs to prove she’s an adult, not a preteen or a porcelain doll.

  6. says

    While I don’t disagree with you on any particular point about the movie (and I did like the TV show), I do want to point out that people like you and I and your other readers are hardly middle of the bell curve.
    While sex with food seems banal to those of us who have personally witnessed or experienced flesh hooks and fisting, it’s still quite shocking to a large portion of our society.
    I spend most of my time yelling at the characters, even on the show (and I thought the movie took several steps backwards even from that), but the show *does* question the dominant paradigms surrounding marriage and women in society.
    Several episodes in the show do end with the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with being “single” and question why marriage *should* be the goal – not every woman is right for the white picket fence and that’s OK. It discusses power struggles and life choices, and each of the four characters chooses a different path without being made out to have chosen the “wrong” path.
    Now, the movie, as I said, takes several steps backwards, and I don’t disagree with anything in particular here about the movie.
    I’m just sayin’ that people this far to the left of the bell curve really can’t say a whole lot about what’s ground-breaking non-conventional because we passed that point miles ago. For the average woman, many of these concepts *are* still shocking … unfortunately.

  7. says

    Several episodes in the show do end with the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with being “single” and question why marriage *should* be the goal – not every woman is right for the white picket fence and that’s OK.
    The fact that this is about as revolutionary as the show gets, I think, is probably one reason why it reminded me of an autobiography set in the 1950s!

  8. says

    exactly how is marriage equated with “the white picket fence”?
    Doesn’t that seem to reinforce the same cliche’d stereotypes that Greta is dismissive of?
    Joreth, I think you give this movie too much credit based on some of your own outdated views.
    This movie targeted the 16-23 female group, and subjected them to a barrage of messages based on implied premises. The acceptance of which would set modern progressive thought about sex and gender back about 50 years!
    -a woman “realizing” it’s okay to be single is hardly progressive anymore, and the fact that the movie tries to make it seem so to it’s young and impressionable audience actually retards positive feminist thought in the average young girl who accepts the movie’s implicit premises.
    -Sex with food should not be shocking to an average audience. So again, by implying that it is, this movie is actively retarding progressive sexual concepts in its young audience as well.
    -The blatant materialism would be bad enough, but to have the specific reinforcement of what should be outmoded gender stereotypes was reprehensible. The whole closet-clothing-dream-come-true is an insidius pandering that uses a natural desire for wealth and individual expression to trap the subject in a limited and controlled gender role. Essentially, it says “Don’t worry your pretty little head about the world’s problem, deary. I know people are starving, and war is being waged, and your country is striving to take away your reproductive freedom, but here’s some pretty little shoes and dresses to distract you from the rape of your civil liberties. You don’t want those anyway, they won’t match your new handbag, honey.”
    However, I cannot write this movie off as mere tripe, It is much more dangerous than that. I know it has mass acceptance, and I know its messages are being internalized by millions of women in my country, as evidenced by the fact that I cannot go out to a bar anymore without seeing some acolyte of the show ordering cosmos.
    The movie and it’s message make me sick.

  9. absent sway says

    I’m with Joreth on this one. The criticism of Sex and the City in this blog post and the comments are warranted and well put but please keep in mind that this is still a country full of promise rings and abstinence-based sex ed. I think that as far as limiting female sexual progress and possibilities goes, we have forces at work far more influential than this show and movie, which make it look sexually advanced in comparison.

  10. says

    questioneverything: First of all, I didn’t say I gave the movie any credit at all. I said I agreed with the complaints against the movie, that it took several steps backwards from the tv show which wasn’t all that great to begin with but had some worthwhile points.
    I’m just saying that what is considered “not groundbreaking” to people who are on the very far edge of groundbreaking is a HUGE difference to what is considered groundbreaking to people who aren’t even aware they have options.
    And, unfortunately, a vast number of people in our society are still living with the idea that the ’50s are still the ideal to reach for, so if the show reminds you of ’50s groundbreaking, that’s why.

  11. says

    Joreth, I guess my problem with the movie isn’t to much that its messages about sex aren’t as groundbreaking and sexually progressive as I’d like them to be. My problem is that many of its messages about sex are actively harmful and fucked-up.
    The sneering contempt for sexual variation, the idea that casual grooming means you’ve given up on sex, the persistent and grotesque equation of love and sexuality with consumer goods, etc. etc. etc. — it’s not just that it pretends to be super cutting- edge when in fact it’s only mildly so. It’s that it pretends to be super cutting- edge when in fact it’s actually retrograde, in some very destructive ways.

  12. says

    Well, see, here’s the thing.
    People–and by this I don’t mean “all people,” of course, but certainly many people–like to believe that they are trendy and cutting-edge about their sexuality, but don’t much like actually BEING trendy and cutting-edge about their sexuality. Actually being on the leading edge of changes in the human sexual experience is scary. It means examining preconceptions, it means challenging accepted social norms.
    It is for these people–folks who want to think of themselves as being on the cutting edge of sexuality but who don’t actually want to be on the cutting edge–that this movie was made.
    And you know what? There are more of those folks than there are folks who’re actually on the cutting edge for real. Almost by definition, the people on the leading edge of any kind of social change, including alternative and non-mainstream sexuality, will be the minority.
    If you aim a movie at folks in the sexual minority, you’re not likely to make as much money as you are if you aim it at people who like to imagine themselves to be exciting and cutting edge without, y’know, actually doing the work it takes to be there. There’s a very simple economic calculus at work here, a calculus that virtually assures that the movie would be exactly what it is.
    Samantha running around having casual sex with men? That gets a twitter from the women who fantasize that they, too, might like to do something like that, if only they had the courage. Samantha being in an intentionally non-monogamous relationship? That forces the audience to grapple with their own assumptions about sex, family, fidelity, love, relationship, security, jealousy, and self-image…which in turn impacts the profitability of the movie.
    In the end, you can make more money by telling people how trendy and cutting-edge they are than you can by actually challenging them. Catering to conventional sexual norms with a wink and a nod while pretending to be sexually cutting-edge is merely a best-fit approach to maximizing the movie’s financial return, nothing more.

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