Blind Man with a Pistol

Sex in the City

As Shameless points out, there is something sexist about the kind of criticism coming out about the new (and ubiquitous) Sex and the City movie.

Why isn’t anybody calling out movie producers for their assumption that all it takes to get male movie-goers to the box office is car chases, explosions and breasts? If thousands of men flock to see the latest action flick, why isn’t that film’s very success suddenly a mark against it and proof that all men are shallow and vapid?

It’s a good question. So-called “chick lit,” for example, frequently makes the rounds on talk radio in a highly pitched discussion over whether or not it is worthwhile, whether or not it is “good for women,” and whether or not it should be read at all. Action movies, on the other hand, are taken as given, for what they are, and never have to endure bouts of soul searching or self-justification.

The problem arises because action flicks and macho video games never have a progressive politic incorrectly ascribed to them. It is characteristic of a society so terrified of feminism that any display of female empowerment, however stereotypical and however much it serves the interest of patriarchy, immediately earns the label. As a result, those who wish to buttress the term against erosion are compelled to join an almost frivolous debate: is Samantha’s “gut” feminist or not? In fact, it is in patriarchy’s best interest to enact this mischaracterization, to call what is expressly not feminism, feminism, because it subsumes dissenting voices in an act of self-affirmation. Meanwhile, the kind of feminism that gave women the vote, that pressed for equal wages and employment, that protected a woman jurisdiction over her own body, is relegated to the sidelines.

Consider the trajectory of the original series. Four strong , independent women decide to repudiate the stereotypes that society imposes upon them and live the lives that they want. So far, so good. There is a lot to be said for the subversive potential of public sex. If you believe that sex and gender politics are informed by sexual acts, then relegating sex to the bedroom, to the private sphere, is an ideological maneuver to keep us from discussing such implications. In their essay “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue precisely this point.

The [heterosexual] sex act shielded by the zone of privacy is the affectional nimbus that heterosexual culture protects and from which it abstracts its model of ethics, but this utopia of social belonging is also supported and extended by acts less commonly recognized as part of sexual culture: paying taxes, being disgusted, philandering, bequeathing, celebrating a holiday, investing for the future, teaching, disposing of a corpse, carrying wallet photos, buying economy size, being nepotistic, running for president, divorcing, or owning anything “His” and “Hers.”

By refusing to keep sexual acts in the (imaginary) private sphere, sex in the city becomes a political act. Consider how gay and lesbian sex in public places is such an affrontry to our sensibilities. If we rescue the shame, intimacy and pleasure from the bedroom, we can introduce these impulses where they could really shake things up.

Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.

By the end of the series, however, all four protagonists pair off into heteronormative couples, some with children, most with typical soap opera lives. Any political potential has dissipated, any subversiveness vanished. It is perhaps what viewers always wanted, but the city registers a sense of disappointment that pervades the final season. When Samantha convinces her “steamy love interest” Smith Jared to pose for a billboard advertisement for Absolut Vodka, his nakedness is only tempered by a strategically placed Absolut bottle. Essentially, the commodified image of the vodka has replaced the sexual organ that had such primacy at the beginning of the show. We no longer have sex in the city (or even simply its promise) we have its trademarked image, a Times Square billboard of public sex utterly drained of political (and libidinal) potential.

Pulp fictions like Sex and the City are thus doubly anti-feminist. They advertise feminist dissent while selling its cosmetic image (and the companion martini); and such a bait-and-switch trick invites further attacks by weighing feminist fantasies on a harsher scale than masculinist ones, on the off-chance that such fantasies might actually empower women. As a result, in the popular imagination, Sex and the City becomes synonymous with feminismwith the cynically useful side-effect that once the show’s feminism disappears, so does ours.

2 Comments so far
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Fantastic piece of analysis and writing, BMWAP, better than any column I’ve seen. Send it to the Guardian.

Comment by skdadl

Hi! Loved your post. Here’s my take on the film. Can we cross-pollinate our blogs?

Comment by supervalentthought

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