Wednesday 4 June 2008

Sex and the City

When a film has “every woman in her twenties coming to New York is looking for two Ls: Labels and Love” as the opening line, you know you’re in for a pretty vacuous two hours 20 minutes. And so it is with Sex and the City’s big screen adaptation.So the plot, such as it exists, is all about those two little Ls. Fans and casual viewers of the show know it looked like Carrie Bradshaw had finally found her happy ever after at the end of the series’ six-year run. Her on-off relationship with Big was definitely on the last time we saw them. And this is how the film opens. A blissfully happy Carrie and Big are out apartment hunting and settle on a place you’d never get a shared ownership deal on. Being an attentive and knowing boyfriend, Big gifts Carrie a closet the size of my street. But beneath the happiness is a slight ripple of unease. The serpent in Carrie’s romantic idyll is Big’s aversion to marriage. So what does she do when he tentatively suggests they tie the knot? Carrie arranges a gaudy Hello-style marriage with ostentatious Vogue photo shoots, an absurd Vivienne Westwood dress and a society guest list including all of Park Avenue. It’s a wonder she didn’t ask the Pope to officiate.

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.


Louisefeminista said...

Ahhh, you have spoiled it for me comrade! I will probably have to see the film of my lonesome now (nobody I know wants to see it..tut!). Anyway, I read somewhere that one of them was going to keel over in their Manolos (or Louboutins)...?

Peter Bradshaw described it as "Like something glutinous from the pudding menu, Sex and the City isn't exactly wholesome, but it won't do you much harm this once".

Though had to up his testosterone levels and the importance of masculinity after watching the film.
It is one gloopy artificial pink looking gigantic piece of bubble gum for the eye that eschews class or a feminist analysis for an empty individualistic existence of sex, shopping and anything sartorial.

But hey, like all good social phenomena is deserves to be investigated so am booking me ticket now......

Louisefeminista said...

Btw I meant to say after all that I like your review.

Charlie Marks said...

I hate handbags. Why have several? Most of them are too small to carry a phone, let alone a purse and a packet of fags, a lighter, etc. As for shoes - damn painful.

What I am trying to say is, this was a good critique of S&TC. But I think Morley is right - we're not going to be seeing a sequel any time soon. I don't know any women who will admit to liking the show, which is either telling or true.

Phil said...

Louise, can't you tempt a certain Madam Miaow along? When's all said and done, it isn't that bad. Just a bit on the vacuous side! I knew what I was getting into, having seen most of the series (sister CBC was an avid viewer), so I went in with my Marxian-Bourdieusian specs on. Did anyone notice?

Charlie, I'm with you on handbags. That's why I carry round a rather stylish man bag full of agitational paraphernalia and items that allow for a conspicuous display of cultural capital. I don't go anywhere without it!

As for a Sex and the City sequel, the box office takings suggest plenty of women are happily heading down to their nearest multiplex - guilty secret or not. We'll see. And if a sequel does surface, I'll be going along to see what ammunition it provides for another rant against postfeminist and neoliberal consumer practices.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Commodity fetishism needs a new, fresh look by Marxists. Not just for analysis purposes, but because people are sick of being told that their existence is defined by what products they like. We can use agitational points against advertisements, cynical marketing, consumerism while trying still making clear that "nothing is too good for the working class."

Phil said...

Couldn't agree more, CWI'er. Commodity/consumption critique has been the province of the seminar room for too long, And yet there's a wealth of material that has been produced by Marxists over the years. It's down to us to get it out there and embed it in public consciousness.

Unknown said...

You have said everything that needs to be said about this dreadful work. Applause. Although every second I even think about this shiny tosh is a theft I can never recover at least this put it in its proper context.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to talk to you about some of this. We had a recent topic in branch about commodity fetishism and it was one of those rare discussions that nobody wanted to stop. Even the construction worker comrades who have to wake up at 5 in the morning! Besides Marx and Novack, what can be looked at that is easier to understand? (I never graduated college and have a hard time with reading Gramsci, Lukacs, Debord, Negri, etc.) Can you forward some information on your seminar to bostonsocialist (nospam) ?

Anonymous said...

oh, and anonymous above is the same person as cwi'er usa.

Phil said...

Believe me CWI'er, not many people who have graduated college can't read them either. Understanding, of course, is something else.

These might be of use though. We had a discussion at branch about Gramsci - you can read that here. AVPS readers seem to think it's a fair introduction. And there's this short piece on Adorno and the culture industry.

Aside from this I haven't got any material I can send, but there's a couple of book recommendations I can make. Alex Callinicos's 'Is There a Future for Marxism?' and John Rees's 'The Algebra of Revolution' have excellent chapters on commodity fetishism (bits and bobs of the latter are on Google Scholar). They might be in your public library or at least the local college collection. If you've got some student comrades still around get them to photocopy the relevant bits.

jsr said...

Appreciate your insightful assessment of this post-feminist moment. What troubles me as you rightly pointed out is the seizing of the megaphone by the privileged classes and races and then they set the agenda as well as what is the authentic experience. i for one do not want carrie or miranda or sam or charlotte to speak for me and my femininity.
i recently blogged on this:

i am new to blogging

thanks for listening
respectfully yours

The Scarlet Pervygirl said...

Sweet baby James, phil, how exactly is it "not that bad"?

From a literary perspective, this movie is a fairy tale (very much like those insipid princesses Disney is so keen on flogging past any illusion of sanity): it stars not characters, but the status and wealth they gain, re-gain, or secure for themselves through virtuous action.

And here virtue is traditionally defined: the female characters are rewarded for their lack of practical or physical ambition, their ornamentality, and their adherence (and enforcement of others' adherence) to power inequalities in class, race, and sex and gender.

Everything has import, even if a particular meaning is not intended on the part of the creators; and the less serious something is, the less people criticize it. I'm not saying *Sex and the City* is the devil out to take women's souls and convert them to vapid shells while reminding men and society at large that women are objects to be taken rather than subjects to be taken seriously, but . . .

Okay, yes, I am.

Phil said...

Ouch! Well, I guess I wrote "it's not that bad" still reeling from the Indiana Jones experience. Sex and the City is more insidious, more reactionary and conservative than Indy ... but it's also more entertaining!

jsr said...

Hi Sorry it has taken me a while to reply back. I am not sure what you are asking me. bUt I do enjoy your blog! I have added yo on as well.