It’s a set up just begging to go wrong, and it does. Big gets cold feet and the wedding doesn’t take place. The girls – Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha accompany Carrie on her pre-booked honeymoon to Mexico to comfort her. And in a mini-adventure involving sunsets, pubic hair and a very public bathroom malfunction, Carrie begins to make a slow recovery.
As was the case with Sex and the City on TV, Carrie’s troubles are reflected in the sub-plots of her friends. Samantha’s discontented about her life with actor boyfriend Smith. His long hours and her isolation in Los Angeles constantly tempt her to stray, but she manages to remain faithful by turning to food. Charlotte – who is something of a waste of space in the movie – falls pregnant. And Miranda separates from on-off partner Steve after he admits to a one nighter with another woman. As the film grinds itself toward the inevitable Hollywood ending, a new character is introduced when Carrie takes on Louise as her personal assistant. She helps Carrie reorganise her life while Carrie in turn sees her as a representative of the new generation of New York women. Cue many a moment when she gives Louise the benefit of her accumulated wisdom.
By the end everything has come good again … until the inevitable sequel that is. It is a formulaic piece, the jokes are rather flat, the sex is neither titillating or risque and the last four years haven’t been kind to the format. But when it is all said and done, you have a movie that the fans will adore.
Sex and the City has been critiqued as a celebration of post-feminism. That is the notion feminism is no longer relevant to women’s lives because structural gender inequalities have largely withered away. The same choices and privileges long enjoyed by men are now available to women. Whether one pursues a traditional feminine trajectory (Charlotte) or seeks meaning and happiness independently of heterosexual monogamy (Samantha), it is simply a matter of choice, and it is a choice open to all women. This is the essence of Sex and the City. The characters are free to pursue their projects of self though an endless merry go round of fashion shows, restaurants, bars, shops and exclusive parties. What makes their post-feminist orgy of consumption possible is their freedom from (economic) necessity. Because all four occupy privileged class locations it makes it possible for them to erase any presentation of that position.
This is nothing new. The culture of the ruling class has long eschewed references to the crude business of how one makes money. Take Jane Austen, for example. Most of her characters effortlessly make their ways through life on the back of inherited fortunes, allowing them to devote themselves to finding a husband, match-making and attending balls. The same is true of here. Carrie is a writer and we often see her tapping a few lines into her laptop without any real degree of effort. Samantha owned a PR firm and became Smith’s manager as his acting career took off. Charlotte appears to do nothing and secures her living from her wealthy lawyer husband. In fact the only one who ever moans about work is Miranda, who is also a lawyer, but a lawyer whose work is completely invisible and never intrudes into the Sex and the City universe. Theirs is a life where identity is defined by consumption.
This erasing of class through the ostentatious display of class privilege has historically set the tone for formations of femininity. Through their privileged access to economic and cultural capital the experience of bourgeois women defines what it is to be feminine for all women of all classes. Their experience is the norm and therefore unsurprising their lifestyles are marketed as the aspirational ideal. Carrie’s singling out of labels and love is significant because they are the foundation of this world. It is the dialectical interplay of the two on which her femininity hangs – femininity is performed through the consumption of trendy labels and services. The better one is able to strategically deploy this style, the more desirable one is to (bourgeois) men, the more one’s femininity is affirmed and the greater the chance of landing a wealthy partner. In turn the rich boyfriend/husband provides an effortless income enabling a richer cultivation of femininity. That at least is the aspiration.
For working class women who aspire to this dominant mode of femininity, a number of strategies are available. The only working class character in the movie is Louise. She is black, hails from St Louis, has recently graduated with a degree in computer science and hasn’t got two pennies to rub together (it is interesting that as the only black character of any note to have ever appeared in Sex and the City, Louise is cast in a servile and subordinate position). But she is a woman who buys into the lifestyle Carrie leads. They may be a different class, the relationship between them is a power relation in which Carrie holds all the cards, but their shared femininity successfully obscures the true character of the relationship for both women. Like Carrie, Louise came to New York in search of those two Ls. Louise has had her heart broken by a man she still loves as well, so there is shared pain. Despite having no money Louise manages to keep up feminine appearances by renting the latest handbags, much to Carrie’s approval. And as Carrie’s PA, Louise is able to feminise her computer science knowledge by building her a professional website and creating a secret folder of emails from a penitent Big in the hope Carrie will stumble across them and give the relationship yet another chance. So by pleasing this bourgeois woman, Louise paradoxically confirms her working class location by acting in such a way that suppresses it, and it is a behaviour Carrie is all too keen to encourage.
Discussing the film on Newsnight Review, Paul Morley suggested Sex and the City is the last swan song for a gilded age that is now passing from the scene. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Cable and digital channels are packed with “reality” shows chronicling privileged lives that make Carrie and the girls look like Calvinists. Despite the increasing social distance between those featured in such programmes and their audiences, there will be a greater demand for shows and films that offer an escape from the grinding class-bounded realities of most women, and this will particularly be the case as the credit crunch and economic slow down start to bite.
So it looks as though Sex and the City will be with us for a bit longer, and could be returning to the big screen fairly soon.