Sex, Sadness & the City
By Wendy Shalit
If you've heard the hype for HBO's hit comedy series Sex and the City, you might have assumed that the show celebrates the wonders of sexual liberation for Manhattan single women. Mimi Avins of the Los Angeles Times gushes that "the smart women of ‘Sex and the City’ aren't afraid of their femininity or their appetites," and Mike Duffy writes in the Detroit Free Press that the show proves that "smart girls just want to have fun, too." Newsweek reports that " ‘Sex and the City’ shows us single women who are anything but desperate. They're looking for men, sure, but it's just shopping, not survival. . . . They're well-dressed, well paid and sexually gratified. . . . As our favorite TV foursome prowls through New York hunting down new men and discarding the old ones like last year's Prada bags, they reinforce this fact: women who make their own money don't have to depend on a man, and they don't have to settle. . . . The women of ‘Sex and the City’ sleep with whomever they want, max out their credit cards and never have to worry about play-dates or carpools. And they know their married friends aren't having any fun at all."
Is this why the show's second season, which ends this month, garnered more viewers than ever-plus Emmy nominations for outstanding comedy series? Is this why offices everywhere in America are abuzz with opinions on every episode?
According to the ads for the show, yes. From atop her martini-glass perch on subways everywhere, Sarah Jessica Parker, the lovely leading lady of Sex and the City, stares lustily at New Yorkers, as she shows them her naked back—though on the paperback cover of Sex and the City, a collection of the New York Observer columns by Candace Bushnell that sparked the HBO series, Parker is entirely naked, with only a computer as a fig leaf. In all ads she sports the same unsentimental, self-satisfied expression. An observer could only assume that Parker's character Carrie must be awfully pleased with her state of undress and with her enthusiastic participation in New York's sexual scene.
And yet, she isn't. Despite the hype, Sex and the City is not about girls who just want to have fun, flaunting their sexual appetites. While promoters offer the show as one more brave step in the sexual liberation of women, leading to ever greater fulfillment, in fact it is a lament for all the things of inestimable value that the sexual revolution has wrecked, in this city and beyond. If Candace Bushnell were a practicing Catholic, she couldn't have produced a more effective proselytizing tool for continence and modesty.
The TV show follows the life of New York sex-columnist Carrie, as she tries to find Mr. Right. Until he shows up, Carrie dates Mr. Big (Chris Noth), a fickle 42-year-old who sleeps with her regularly but won't let her leave any of her clothes in his apartment. Her single, mid-thirties friends, PR executive Samantha (Kim Cattrall), art dealer Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and corporate lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), are all equally unsuccessful in searching for a lifelong mate.
This season's opening episode finds Carrie dating the newest Yankee ballplayer. She recently broke up with Mr. Big for not being able to "commit" to her, and she is hoping to make him jealous. All she accomplishes, though, is to burst into a flood of tears when the new Yankee tries to kiss her. "I'm sorry; this is really embarrassing," Carrie stammers. "I just cried in your mouth. I'm not ready!" Then she commiserates with her friends: "I saw Big, and I completely fell apart!" Everyone is sympathetic.
When she is among her girlfriends, Carrie sarcastically dismisses the possibility of love ("Yeah, love, whooo!"), but when left alone she broods over her miserable romantic history: "Ten years play in New York, countless dates, five real relationships, one serious, all ending in breakups. If I were a ballplayer, I'd be batting, uh . . . whatever really bad is." Catching a fly ball, she concludes bitterly, seems more likely than catching a relationship that endures.
After dating a bunch of men who turn out to be "freaks," including "the man with no soul" and "the man with two faces," Carrie begins to wonder whether all men are freaks. "Apparently," she observes, "the men in the dating world had devolved since the last time I visited." She finally summons up the courage to ask a man directly, but conversationally, "So, when did you guys all become freaks?"
"Us?" he replies, confused. It's the women who are "bizarre."
Though we are meant to conclude that the sexual free-for-all is bringing out the worst in both men and women, Carrie still hopes for more. She wistfully muses that Manhattan was once, "for millions of our forefathers, the gateway to hope, opportunity, and happiness beyond their wildest dreams. Today that hope is still alive: it's called the first date. On Saturday night every restaurant in lower Manhattan resembles its own little Ellis Island: hordes of single women crowded into a hot, cramped space, and hoping to make it to their final destination, matrimony."
In the next episode, Carrie reunites with Big, and he magnanimously allows her to leave a toothbrush at his apartment. Actually, it's not a whole toothbrush—merely a second toothbrush attachment head for his electric toothbrush, but to Carrie this concession signals victory. Big must be getting ready to marry her very soon.
As the season develops, Carrie experiences some setbacks: a friend asks her to write a poem about love for her wedding, but, since Carrie only knows about sex, she has a tough time summoning enough poetic inspiration. At last she produces something she is proud of, only to see Big walk out of the ballroom and take a cell phone call during her recitation. As if that weren't bad enough, he even refuses to sign a card for the wedding present Carrie has bought (that would require too much commitment on his part). Hurt, but endlessly accommodating, Carrie goes home with him anyway.
Encouraged by Big's awarding her that toothbrush head, Carrie strategically tries to leave some of her personal belongings at his apartment. She has little success—he returns all the items the next day—and by the season's end, Big moves to Paris, without bothering to tell her of his plans until just before he leaves. Carrie offers to follow him, but when he explains that he is no more likely to marry her in Paris than in New York, she furiously resolves never to see him again. Not long after, she starts sleeping with other men again.
She pauses only occasionally to wonder whether she is being true to herself, if she is faking more than just her hair color and bra size: "And then I had a frightening thought. Maybe I was the one who was faking it . . . all these years faking to myself that I was happy being single."
Carrie is the most monogamous of the four women. It's hard to say which of her friends takes the prize for promiscuity, all of them having for the most part given up on the idea of having one boyfriend. Charlotte, the brunette art dealer, sleeps with men she doesn't particularly like, just to get things done around the house. As for the men she does care for, she gives them presents they usually reject: "Whoa, too fast," one exclaims to Charlotte: "Next you move in, and then you hate my music!"
Perhaps this is why, in the second episode of the season, Charlotte gets a puppy as a man replacement: "Charlotte came home to the new male in her life," Carrie's voice-over explains. "Fed up with lonely mornings, cuddle-free nights, and the lack of uncondition-al love she so longed for, Charlotte decided to take matters in her own hands. She combed the city for the perfect specimen of breeding, style, and trendiness . . . Henry, the perfect dog."
While Carrie is reciting her wedding poem, Charlotte is "hooking up" with a man she just met at the wedding. When he behaves boorishly after sleeping with her, Charlotte is astonished: "Did the last four and a half hours mean nothing to you?" she screams at him across the floor.
Consistently, Sex and the City derides women who impulsively jump into bed and then complain about men's bad character. The women in the show, it is clear, have given up the opportunity to get to know these men better. When they don't like what they end up with, you'd think they'd become more discriminating. But they never do.
Pushing 40, blonde PR executive Samantha is the most cynical of the four girlfriends. She instructs the other women that "we're all alone, even when we're with men. My advice to you is to embrace that fact, slap on some armor, and go through life like I do, enjoying men!" Yet later on, even sophisticated Samantha gets duped by a club owner, who misleads her about their future together. William promises Sam he'll invite her to East Hampton for the summer, only to stand her up at their second date. Samantha waits for him "without a book, or a project, or any of her dining-alone armor." William, we are told bitterly, was "one of those men who faked a future to get what he wanted in the present." She bursts into tears and flees the restaurant. "I can't believe I fell for some guy's line," she cries to her buddies. "But sometimes you need to hear a ‘we.’ "
Still, this epiphany doesn't stop Samantha from sleeping with yet another man she just met. But she stops in mid-embrace and declares, "Wait, I've slept with you before!" "Sure," her partner agrees, "15 years ago." "Well, why didn't you say anything?"
Oh, no, Samantha thinks to herself-now she's slept with all the men in Manhattan. Her solution is to hatch a big revenge plan. [See "How We Mate," Summer 1999.] Her plan, aimed not only at one particular ex but at men in general, is to seduce a man who dumped her, have him fall in love with her again, and then she will dump him before they sleep together.
Unfortunately, Samantha is so distracted by her own feelings for him that she ends up going to bed with him anyway. Her plan completely falls apart when, before she can dump her ex, he dumps her for the second time. In this game, emotions put one at a competitive disadvantage. As the narrator of Sex and the City explains, "Samantha hadn't evolved past having feelings."
Miranda is the most feminist of the four, a redheaded corporate lawyer who often flounces off, disgusted with her girlfriends for talking about guys all the time. "How does it happen that four such women have nothing to talk about, other than boyfriends?" She goes for a walk, only to overhear women crying: "And I really thought he liked me, so why didn't he call me?" All the women around her seem to be falling apart. But when Miranda sees her ex-boyfriend on the street, she, too, loses all composure and hides from him. "After two years, . . . I had forgotten how hard it is."
Miranda sleeps around just as much as the rest of the girls, but her most inspired act this season is buying her own apartment. She is reluctant to check the single-woman box on the mortgage documents, though, and she is troubled by the fact that the previous owner, a single woman, had died in the apartment. Her body was not found for a week, and a horrible rumor has it that her cat ate half her face.
Miranda frets all the more when she learns that she has a "lazy" ovary and might never have a baby, but when she does come across men who are genuinely nice-maybe nice enough to be a husband and father-it turns out that she has become too cynical to love them. After Miranda has a one-night stand with a bartender, she is puzzled to hear him say afterward, "That was really special."
"Sure," she replies.
"Can I get your phone number?" he inexplicably continues.
"Why?" she asks.
"So I can ask you for a date," he explains.
Miranda's voice is thick with sarcasm as she tells him, "You don't have to make believe you're going to call."
He finally leaves and encourages her to "stop by at the bar sometime."
"Yeah, great sex. Whatever." She waves him away.
A few days later, the bartender shows up at her apartment and tells her, "I like you."
Still suspicious, Miranda replies, "Translation: ‘I think you're an easy lay and I'd like to have sex again.’ "
He protests that he doesn't mean that at all and wants to take her to dinner.
Miranda explains her philosophy: "I can't have dinner with you; I don't even know you!"
"But you slept with me!"
"That's a different thing."
"Can you maybe think for a second that the other night was special?"
"No. Maybe I slept with too many bartenders."
So during half of the Sex and the City episodes, the women complain about insensitive men; for the other half, they coach themselves to imitate such men. The result is that by the time the sensitive men appear on the scene, the women have become insensitive, too, and incapable of appreciating them.
This portrayal couldn't be more timely. Susan Faludi, the popular feminist who penned Backlash in 1991, has just released Stiffed, a book about the "betrayal of American men." In this almost conservative and almost honest critique of the culture, Faludi decries our current mores, which encourage men to "score" with many women instead of providing for one. Our notions of manhood were much healthier, she argues, before World War II.
As for why our masculine ideal has changed for the worse, Faludi offers no compelling explanation. The missing piece of her otherwise accurate assessment is precisely what she is not permitted to say, or her feminist sisters would burn her in effigy: in an era of free sexual favors, women no longer demand that men commit to them, and our no-fault-divorce society doesn't back them up when they do.
One of the reasons the critics have misunderstood Sex and the City is that it features frank sexual banter and women who swear just as much, and are just as crude as, the men. On the surface, this seems like a nod to equality, but not when you appreciate what these girls are all swearing at. To be sure, the girls bitterly deconstruct their ex- and current boyfriends' sexual techniques and bodies, but only after their hearts have been broken. Miranda, for instance, refers to her ex-boyfriend as "that asshole I dated a couple of years ago," but then Carrie's voice-over explains, "Miranda used to call Eric the love of her life, until he left her for another woman."
The constant hostility the men and women feel for one another is palpable. The women say, "I can't believe the prick hasn't called." The men announce that they're "just getting over the bitch who broke my heart." Women who aren't pretty are of no use whatever to these men and receive scarcely human treatment. "Do you ever shut the f—k up?" one male character asks such a woman, with typical brutality. For all the frantic coupling, no one seems to be having any fun.
Welcome to the Age of Un-Innocence, as Candace Bushnell put it in her original Sex and the City column. "The glittering lights of Manhattan that served as backdrops for Edith Wharton's bodice-heaving trysts are still glowing—but the stage is empty. No one has breakfast at Tiffany's, and no one has affairs to remember—instead, we have breakfast at 7 am and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. How did we get into this mess?"
What went wrong, plainly, is that women confused sexual sameness with equality and imagined that competing with men in debauchery was part of their social emancipation. The early feminists never wanted to give up their moral power, and that's why they argued strongly against promiscuity.
In her column, Candace Bushnell presents Samantha as a "New York inspiration," a model of the kind of woman who could survive in such a ferocious sexual landscape. And what does life offer Samantha? "If you're a successful single woman in this city," Bushnell writes, "you have two choices: You can beat your head against the wall trying to find a relationship, or you can say ‘screw it’ and just go out and have sex like a man." Samantha opts to have sex "like a man," and Bushnell's other women emulate her. But the results aren't much better than beating your head against the wall. "I think I'm turning into a man," says Carrie, describing how, after a recent sexual tryst, she didn't feel anything.
"Well, why the hell should you feel anything?" someone else asks. "Men don't. I don't feel anything after I have sex. Oh sure, I'd like to, but what's the point?"
"We all sat back smugly, sipping tea, like we were members of some special club," Bushnell writes of her unfeeling foursome. "We were hard and proud of it, and it hadn't been easy to get to this point—this place of complete independence where we had the luxury of treating men like sex objects. It had taken hard work, loneliness, and the realization that, since there might never be anyone there for you, you had to take care of yourself."
The publicists and pundits may not get it, but Candace Bushnell and producer Darren Star of the Sex and the City TV show understand in their heart of hearts the failure of sexual liberation. That's why all the story lines keep returning to the unhappiness of the players involved. The characters of Sex and the City accurately represent what the sexual revolution expects of women, and what the woman who looks for liberation through the bedroom can expect. The writers know that their four protagonists, for all their cool urbanity, experience feelings of loss and sadness and loneliness that are real and typical for women in the age of liberation.
For every incident in Sex and the City that may seem like a caricature, you can find a real-life woman in America with an even more extreme story. Take Grace Quek, flatteringly profiled in Allure magazine recently, because she had had sex with 251 men in a single day and had immortalized her feat in an X-rated "documentary," World's Biggest Gang Bang, shown at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. "Actually," writes Allure, Quek's film "satirizes masculinity while expressing the enormity of her own desire. To challenge our gender assumptions, Quek put her body (and psyche) on the line."
Allure also reports that Quek had survived a gang rape years before, "which raises a troubling question: Is her adult-film work a way of punishing herself for that victimization, or of reclaiming her body?" Troubling indeed: for this woman, who takes our culture's standard of liberated womanhood to such lengths, suggests that what our culture expects of all women—to remain indifferent to what is to them most naturally sacred—is really a pathology.
And what our culture considers a pathology is really quite normal. Writing of Sex and the City and Ally McBeal, Stacey D'Erasmo recently wondered in the New York Times Magazine: "Why do the sexy, savvy new heroines want nothing so much as rings on their fingers?" Taking for granted that it is weird to want to get married, D'Erasmo answers the question: "The new single-girl pathos seems more like a plea to be unliberated, and fast. These characters really do just want to get married; they just don't want to look quite so naive about it. . . . The new single girl, tottering on her Manolo Blahniks from misadventure to misadventure, embodies in her very slender form the argument that not only is feminism over. It also failed: look how unhappy the ‘liberated’ woman is! Men don't want to marry her!" And why do women continue to pursue this life of "misadventure"? According to D'Erasmo, "Perhaps, it's because they know . . . that marriage doesn't solve all your problems. It never did."
Sure, the new way of doing things is a mess, goes this line of reasoning, but the old way didn't solve all our problems either. Well, no kidding. But that's like saying that because asprin doesn't always cure a headache, you are better off banging your head against the wall.
In the second episode of Sex and the City's second season, one woman says sweetly, "I'm a single, 38-year-old woman, still hoping to get married. I don't want to know the truth." But the next generation, for whom it's not too late, does—and perhaps that's why they enjoy watching Sex and the City.