Shopping, sex and the city

Review of Sex and the City, directed by Michael Patrick King
Coming to DVD

SEX AND the City (SATC), the film based on the television series of the same name, has been a knock-out box-office success. In the US alone, the opening weekend takings were $US55.7 million ($58.4 million), nearly twice the predictions of the Warner Bros distributor, and the best debut ever for an R-rated comedy.

The television series had opened up a whole new trend—women talking about sex and their own sexuality on television represented a new public depiction of thirty-something women.

The TV series began in the 1990s, in the era of “post-feminism”—a celebration of the idea that problems women face in the world of work and elsewhere are not caused by sexism, but rather by teething problems associated with equality. US feminist spokeswomen, like Naomi Wolf, championed women’s bodies as weapons in themselves in a new era when women were no longer oppressed by society or by men.

The television series created a world where sexism was ignored, non-existent, or self-inflicted. The fantasy world of four well-off friends did away with all the demands placed on most women’s lives—no housework, grocery shopping, laundry or work problems. These women were free to indulge in “feminist” conversations, shop for shoes and worry about the men in their lives.

The movie is different. The television series had said sexual assertiveness in women is OK, although by the last episodes commitment to one man had become more important. In the film, all the women are in established heterosexual relationships, and their lives are concerned solely with those relationships.

Carrie and Big decide to get married; Charlotte is happily married with an adopted child and becomes pregnant; Miranda has married the father of her child, breaking up temporarily in the film only to reunite after she forgives him for cheating; even Samantha, known for her sexual appetite, is in a steady de facto relationship. Homosexuality is absent from the script. The characters’ lives revolve around marriage, children and the satisfaction of men. If it weren’t for a few funny scenes around Samantha’s sex-life, SATC would be looking worse than most Hollywood “chick flicks”.

According to Rosemary Neill, (“Less sex, more city”,The Australian, May 31): “The show’s creators were criticised for the inherent conservatism of all this tidy coupling, but there were commercial and dramatic imperatives here: the series rated best when its characters were in relationships and viewers had something to invest in emotionally.”

Viewers may be emotionally investing—but they also know that the film is unrealistic and certainly a stark contrast to most women’s lives. Even when Big decides to jilt Carrie on the wedding day—something women are supposed to “emotionally relate to” she has a whole range of resources to fall back on to help her get over her emotional disaster. She doesn’t have to deal with work, and finding somewhere to live and avoiding correspondence from Big is made so much easier by hiring a working-class black assistant, with whom she, unrealistically, has much in common.

Post-feminism is critical of women, suggesting women have only themselves to blame if they are unhappy—while leaving society’s ongoing expectation that women should find happiness as wives and mothers untouched. SATC reinforces that message.

Post-feminism coincided with the spread of neo-liberalism and an actual increase in inequality—between North and South, rich and poor, men and women. With neo-liberalism the commodification of everything, including sex and love, leaves human beings alienated and feeling powerless. While the SATC characters have limited power as wealthy consumers, the majority of women have no such power.

While the television series did depict the greater personal and sexual possibilities that exist for some women, the film shows the serious limitations of post-feminist ideology and just how far women are from sexual equality. The actor who plays Charlotte, Kristen Davis, had a better role in real life when she helped build solidarity with the writers who went on strike for better pay and conditions last year.

Judy McVey


Solidarity meetings

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