I wrote, a few weeks ago, about one difference between the sexes in this age of androgyny and gender equality: the attitude to hairdressers. Now, I think I’ve found another one: Sex and the City. We’ve always divided popular culture into gender-based categories. Superman, Batman and Terminator are boys’ movies. Weepy films and such TV soap operas as The Bold and the Beautiful appeal mainly to women.
What’s the plot? The women in Sex and the City just want shoes and a husband.
What makes Sex and the City interesting is that when the TV series was at its peak, women used its success to argue that the studios had been underestimating them. Here was a show, they said, that featured strong, successful women kicking ass, having sex, drinking Cosmopolitans and making their own money.
Sex and the City became a metaphor for the emancipation of urban, Western women. They didn’t spend their days reading Danielle Steel and bawling. They went head to head with men — and won.
That, at least, is what I was told. I was never a fan of the TV show and took women at their word when they raved about Sex and the City.
Then, the Sex and the City movie was released. In its opening weekend in the US, it defied predictions by doing even better than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull had, the previous weekend.
Intrigued by the unexpected success, I went off to see the film when it released in India a week later.
And? Well, let’s just say that I’m very bewildered.
If you’re a Sex and the City fan, you’ll know the show’s premise. But if you aren’t, here goes: A woman called Carrie Bradshaw is a freelance columnist in the sense that Tintin is a reporter. She never actually files anything in the movie, but earns enough to keep buying designer clothes. The Captain Haddock figure is a strange man called Mr Big, whose defining characteristic is that he is A Man Of Few Words. Carrie has three friends. One is a large, elderly nymphomaniac. Another is a pretty girl who does nothing, but spends a lot of her husband’s money. The third is a lawyer (we know this because she mentions working on a brief; otherwise her career might as well be non-existent), who is unattractive and, predictably, not interested in sex. There’s also a black personal assistant from St Louis added, one suspects, to appeal to the upwardly-mobile African-American working class demographic.
There’s no real plot. Almost every sequence in the film is an opportunity for product placement. If a character enters a room with a Chanel bag, you just know that she will put the bag down so that it is in the foreground of the shot. A wedding is an excuse for squeezing in as many designer labels as possible. Carrie tries outfits by various designers before she gets a note from Vivienne Westwood telling her that she should wear one of her gowns. (If this placement, clearly secured at great expense, doesn’t finally launch the Westwood label in the US, then nothing will.)
All dialogues are written in a way that allows the possibility of inserting a brand name or two. A pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes serves as what Alfred Hitchcock used to call the MacGuffin, at least in the movie’s second half. People in New York, Carrie tells us, live for “labels and love”.
Watching Sex and the City, I was struck by how much the movie turned shallowness into an art form. Nothing seemed real; nothing rang true. When the scriptwriter had a problem, he fell back on some tired cliché: a vacation in a pretty spot, a character pooping in her pants, a pet dog that leads its owner to something interesting, etc.
I searched in vain for evidence that these were ballsy 21st century women. But on almost every level, the movie was a throwback to the 1950s. Marriage was the recurring theme. The happiest character is also happily married, does nothing, and enjoys her husband’s wealth. The unhappiest character is the alleged lawyer who turns anti-marriage when hers breaks up. Her happy ending is when she is reunited with her cheating husband, having remained resolutely chaste during her time alone.
Carrie, the Tintin-like columnist, pushes the strange Mr Big into marrying her, is devastated when he stands her up at the church, feels better after vacationing at a luxury resort and then, at the movie’s end, is reunited with Mr Big over that pair of Blahniks. Finally, they do get married in an ending straight out of some 1950s movie. Even the African-American assistant abandons New York and designer labels for St Louis when her old boyfriend agrees to marry her.
All that’s missing are Doris Day and Rock Hudson.
Is this really what women want?
In her final narration, Carrie tells us that the only label that matters is love. That sentiment, worthy of a Hallmark card, is actually misplaced. The message of Sex and the City is: The only thing that matters is marriage.
The funny thing about Sex and the City is that if a reactionary man had written it to poke fun at women, the theme could have remained the same: Get married, girls! It’s the whole purpose of your existence! If a man cheats on you or stands you up at the altar, forget about it and take him back! Never mind your career, concentrate on shopping! Buy lots of designer labels: You girlies love that sort of thing, don’t you? And, spend your guy’s money: Let him buy you those clothes, that Fifth Avenue penthouse and anything else you want!
Sex and the City is supposed to be a movie that celebrates the independence of today’s woman. So you tell me: What does it say about women that they have bought this tosh and flocked to the cinemas?
Yet another difference between the sexes; one more thing I do not understand.
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