Posted: September 2, 2010
"Later that night I got to thinking about safe sex. We talk about it as something physical. But what about the emotions? Is sex ever safe?" So writes Carrie Bradshaw, trendy newspaper columnist in Sex and the City. Played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Carrie is one of four single women in their thirties, living in affluent Manhattan, whose erotic lives are chronicled in the HBO television series (1998-2004) and two subsequent feature films (2008 and 2010).
Each episode in the TV series begins with a question, some more portentous than others. To the one about safe sex, the answer will depend on a conception of the good—or rather, goods—associated with sex. For most human beings, these are three: 1) pleasure, i.e., individual gratification; 2) commitment, that is, love and fidelity between partners; and 3) generativity, offspring, and concern for the next generation. Every society expects these purposes to conflict—because after all, Eros is a wayward god—and so tries to harmonize them.
Like the rest of the human race, Americans are inclined to pursue pleasure in youth, learn commitment in adulthood, and in maturity, accept the burdens and joys of generativity. When Americans find these transitions difficult, it's usually because we place such a high premium on individual freedom. But even when our lives don't play out as straightforwardly as 1 plus 2 equals 3, most of us still consider this equation the norm.
This fact is easily lost on the 95% of humanity who are not American. Indeed, foreigners tend to assume that American sexual norms are off the chart in one way or another. To Europeans, we are prudes; to many non-Westerners, we are rampant hedonists. When visiting the United States for the first time, foreigners often express surprise that Americans are so polite, religious, and (especially) family-oriented. Asked to explain their surprise, they frequently cite contrary impressions received from our exported entertainment.
On a recent trip around the world I interviewed 133 informed individuals about the impact of American popular culture on their societies, and no topic arose more frequently than Sex and the City. For example, in Dubai I was told by an Arab media executive that watching the series has a "status aspect to it. It means you are educated, tolerant, liberal." Yet, he added, "Arab viewers have a mixed bag of reactions to Sex and the City. In Saudi Arabia, a lot of people watch it but don't like to talk about it."
In China, Sex and the City is officially banned, but pirated copies are widely available, and a professor of communications informed me that many Chinese consider the show "educational." And therapeutic—a Chinese media executive told me that "a great many Chinese people have problems with sex and there is very little psychiatry, so some turn to Sex and the City for help."
Should we be pleased or dismayed by these comments? What sort of message does Sex and the City convey about American life? Is it positive or negative, accurate or inaccurate?
Sex and Sisterhood
At first glance, Sex and the City seems simply to fuel the stereotype of Americans as hedonists who value sexual pleasure above all other goods. The key figure here is Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the oldest of the four friends and the best at beating the predatory male at his own game. Mistress of the ogle, the come-on, the butt pinch, and the one-night stand, Samantha's shamelessness is amusing at first but grows wearisome over time. By the 2010 film, her golden-haired cougar act seems sad and unfunny.
Yet Samantha's outrageous vulgarity is not the whole picture. The first thing a liberated European would notice is the presence of bras and other undergarments in many of the bedroom scenes, reflecting a vestigial concern for decency in either the actresses' contracts or HBO's upper management.
More important, Samantha's antics serve as a foil to her three friends, who like most human beings, hope to combine pleasure with commitment. Torn between the elusive Mr. Big (Chris Noth) and the intrusive Aidan (John Corbett), Carrie fears monogamy but also yearns for it. Jealous of her independence, lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) frets about growing old alone. And prim art dealer Charlotte (Kristin Davis) will do almost anything to realize her dream of a proper upper-middle-class marriage.
It's worth noting that the HBO series bears scant resemblance to its source, the New York Observer column written by Candace Bushnell and focusing on the directionless lives of spoiled Manhattanites too jaded to pursue any good, sexual or otherwise. Perhaps judging that a TV show about such people would not be a hit, the creators of the HBO series made their characters saner and more likable than Bushnell's. Yet Carrie and her friends are not quite sane and likable enough to form lasting relationships with members of the opposite sex. Why is that?
For reply, let us recap American cultural history since the 1960s. First came the sexual revolution, fueled by contraception and the counterculture. Next came radical feminism, pronouncing all heterosexual relationships, including marriage, oppressive to women. Then came the conservative backlash, calling for a return to traditional morality. In the early 1980s, conservatives opposed to pornography joined forces with anti-porn feminists, but the alliance didn't last; and ten years later a new wave of "pro-sex" feminists was defending porn and prostitution, on the ground that "sex work" can be empowering as long as women are in charge.
Hence the underlying logic of Sex and the City: people should be free to have all the sex they want, but for women, heterosexual relationships are fraught with danger. And the greatest of these dangers is traditional morality, condemned out of hand as anti-sex and anti-female. Therefore, the woman who values her freedom is advised to pursue pleasure with men and commitment with female friends. To its credit, the HBO series plays out this logic in ways that are smart, witty, and at times quite affecting.
Of special note is the four-way friendship between Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte. Female friendship is hardly a staple of American popular culture, most of which is oriented toward the tastes and proclivities of adolescent males. Nor is it present in Bushnell's columns, which reflect a milieu bereft of the virtues required for sustained human connection. Yet ask regular fans what they value most about Sex and the City, and they will likely mention the loyalty, constancy, and honesty of this foursome.
But these virtues are seldom, if ever, extended to any larger sphere. One of the curious things about this TV series full of New York eye candy is its studied avoidance of the momentous event that occurred midway through its six-year production run. Watch carefully during season four, and you will see subtle references to 9/11, such as the editing of a Twin Towers shot from the opening credits, an uptick in heartfelt tributes to Manhattan, and a tender closeup of a snow-globe enclosing a little plastic replica of the pre-attack skyline.
The decision to avoid 9/11 was certainly in keeping with the show's blithe indifference to everything outside the characters' sex lives. It was also a shrewd market calculation, because as mentioned above, Sex and the City remains a viable property throughout the globe. For example, in the first two months since its release in May, the film Sex and the City 2 grossed over $280 million, $186 million of it overseas. It is not uncommon these days for a Hollywood film to earn more overseas than at home. But these figures should remind Americans how powerfully our cultural exports shape foreign opinion about what kind of human beings we are.
Mindful of this, the critics squirmed with embarrassment at Sex and the City 2, which begins with an extravagant gay wedding (in New York) and continues with an even more extravagant junket to Abu Dhabi for Carrie and her friends, now in their forties. Along with the film's over-the-top consumerism, the critics focused—or rather, tried to focus—on the mind-boggling spectacle of Samantha flamboyantly pursuing her next orgasm in the United Arab Emirates, a country where women (and men) dress and behave with extreme modesty.
The UAE is not Saudi Arabia. Emirati women drive their own cars and typically dress in a flowing black abaya and loose hijab, not the face-covering niqab shown in the film. They also attend university, pursue business and professional careers, and (in the privacy of their homes) enjoy all the consumer goods Americans enjoy. If the filmmakers understood this, they didn't let their understanding interfere with their depiction of Abu Dhabi as an exotic pipe dream of a place that (in Samantha's words) "is so cutting edge in many ways, but so backward about sex."
The assumption here is that Americans are not backward about sex. But what does that mean? One annoying sentiment expressed throughout Sex and the City is admiration for Samantha's ability to "put her sexuality out there." Since the series ended in 2004, American audiences have shifted their attention away from well produced TV series and toward online porn and tacky reality shows such as Jersey Shore (MTV) and The Real Housewives of Orange County (Bravo). Some of the most telling scenes in Sex and the City are those in which Samantha is shocked by the crude antics of no-class hotties in their teens and twenties. But what are they doing, if not putting their sexuality out there?
Friends without Families
There's no denying that Sex and the City fascinates millions of people around the world. But it also repels them, because despite its many charms, it reduces American sexual mores to a truncated caricature. In particular, it makes Americans appear alien, even grotesque, in our apparent refusal to acknowledge what for most people is the most important sexual good: not pleasure or even commitment, but generativity.
Sex and the City is strangely hostile to procreation. Of the four main characters, only Charlotte expresses a desire for children; the other three detest baby showers and shudder at the thought of what motherhood would do to their figures and sex lives. When Miranda gets pregnant by her ex-boyfriend Steve, her decision to have the child is hedged about with defenses against his attempts to play a husbandly role. By the end of the series she has become a loving mother, and she and Steve marry. But to judge by the two subsequent films, their happiness is far from assured.
This hostility to generativity is underscored by the truly stunning absence of parents, siblings, or other relatives from these characters' lives. Most glaringly, Carrie seems to have sprung from the pavement of East 73rd Street, like Athena from the head of Zeus. There's one brief mention, in season five, of her father having abandoned the family when she was small. But otherwise, none of these characters has a father worth mentioning, much less bringing onscreen. At one point we glimpse Aidan's father and mother through the window of a diner, but the scene is cut before they can utter a word.
As for mothers, the few who have speaking parts are domineering harridans, like Charlotte's mother-in-law, a Park Avenue matron who effectively castrates her son. Of the four, Charlotte is by far the most devoted to family, as is her second husband, Harry. Yet we never catch more than a glimpse of the parents who presumably helped to instill that devotion. And while Carrie drops that lone hint about resenting her father's abandonment, she commits her own long-term abandonment by never once mentioning her mother.
It is, of course, true that single Manhattanites often come from other places and have little daily contact with their families. But Sex and the City turns normal distance into estrangement, even at funerals and weddings. Early in the series, Miranda says, "My family lives in Philadelphia and I don't like them." When her mother dies, Miranda's grief seems mainly directed at her family for rejecting her as "a single woman in my thirties." The pastor mischaracterizes her as a sister-in-law, and the only person willing to escort her from the church is her friend Carrie.
Perhaps this strikes a chord in societies where women are supposed to be married by a certain age. But the idea of a well-to-do Philadelphia family shunning a daughter because she has become a successful lawyer instead of a wife is absurd. Every time Sex and the City sounds this note of exclusion, even shame, at being single, it rings false. Why, then, is the note sounded so often? Why is being single held up as the main reason why these otherwise appealing characters have so little to do with their families?
The explanation emerges when we consider that single women and straight men are not the only focus of Sex and the City. Both of the show's masterminds, Darren Star and Michael Patrick King, are gay. And although the gay liberation movement of the last 40 years has followed a different trajectory from feminism, many gay men have ended up living by the same logic: sex is good, traditional morality bad, and the only people you can trust are your friends. Thus, Carrie's homosexual pal Stanford (Willie Garson) longs for a steady boyfriend but in the meantime cruises the bars while relying on Carrie for emotional support.
Stanford eventually finds happiness with the sardonic Anthony (Mario Cantone), and at their wedding (the extravagant one in the 2010 film), Anthony's elderly parents are shown affectionately toasting the grooms. What's remarkable about this scene is not that it occurs at a gay wedding but that nothing like it occurs at any of the straight ones. There are four heterosexual weddings in Sex and the City: two for Charlotte and one each for Miranda and Carrie (the 2008 film ends with her finally tying the knot with Big). But in none of these are the parents of the happy couple given an appropriate role.
This is what I mean by caricature.
By the same token, the awkwardness suffered by Miranda at her mother's funeral would ring truer if, instead of being single, she were a lesbian. Indeed, the estrangement from family felt by all of these characters is best explained as a transposition, onto straight characters, of a gay sensibility that takes familial estrangement as a given until proven otherwise. It is not my intention to belittle the pain of homosexuals who feel excluded from the rituals of the dominant society. But their pain is not the same as that of unmarried women, and the price of equating them, at home but especially abroad, is high.