Friday, January 27, 2006

Guilty Pleasure

In China, my sister managed to acquire a full set of pirated Sex and the City DVDs, all six seasons. I asked her why she didn't get them for me, as well, and she replied that she didn't know I liked the show so much. "I do," I replied. "It's my favorite guilty pleasure."

"Why guilty?" Hallie asked.

Talia has long spoken of her great contempt for the show, and from her comes the opposite question: "Why pleasure?"

Years after the revolutionary popularity of its first season, long after the sexual exploits of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte and the new ideas of what a single, female Manhattan thirtysomething thinks about romance and carnal impulses have become embedded in the American and globalized ethos, here are my thoughts on Sex and the City.

Some might regard the show as a cultural touchstone of third-wave feminism. It is natural for these four characters to have jobs that earn them respect, to have fields of knowledge and expertise. They move through the upper echelons of high-powered Manhattan society with enviable ease. Each woman has a different place in these social spheres (from Miranda, a partner in a high-powered law firm earning enough to purchase a spacious apartment in an Upper West Side co-op building, to Samantha, a publicist on every conceivable financial and artistic A-list) and a resulting different take on her sexuality and vulnerabilities as a single woman. The diversity of these characters' views is such that within a year of the first episode, women all over the country were able to see themselves as "the Carrie" or "the Charlotte" of their social group. A woman's individual attitude towards sex and sexuality became acceptable; the show challenged--and successfully purged--long-held assumptions about women and pleasure that the second wave had not managed to flush out of the mainstream, and its characters are independent, capable, decisionmaking, three-dimensional beings.

Its characters are also white, priveleged, painfully elitist Manhattan liberals. While the four central ladies ostensibly come from different backgrounds and even earn divergent incomes, all of their lives seem to center around spending money, ludicrous and excessive amounts thereof. From the audience's perspective, the characters do little but spend money and have sex. We see moments of Miranda at work, but Samantha's work always seems to involve having sex, and until Charlotte chooses to leave her gallery for her husband (to the show's credit, a decision that shocks and offends all her friends), it's used only as a backdrop for the other three to meet sex partners. (Carrie's work, writing about sex, is of course the conceit of the show and therefore another matter entirely.) They embody the stereotype of decadent Manhattan so prevalent on television today, most notably in Will & Grace (which comparison Talia made--unfair in terms of quality, in my view, but perfectly fair in terms of the world and lifestyle they portray and endorse), showing a somewhat stupidly glamorized version of urban life. Of course, any television show creates an imagined city, but on SATC it is particularly glaring: some episodes seem to have been financially underwritten entirely by Manolo Blahnik. Viewing it, one often feels as if one is supposed to memorize (or already have an encyclopedic knowledge of) trendy Manhattan nightspots, to know how to take on such a lifestyle. The four women's liberated sexuality seems at some level part of their ludicrous, decadent lifestyle, rather than any kind of political--never mind feminist--statement.

To be fair, it's only now, at certain shorelines of the third wave, that class has even come into focus in feminist conversation. It's about time, certainly, but generally a television show does not break ground conceptually, but rather stands as evidence that ground has been broken, allowing what emerged from that break to enter the mainstream. But still, the lack of acknowledgement of the ludicrous class privelege marketed on the show does bother me. I recall in particular two episodes, "Attack of the 5'10" Woman," wherein Miranda contends with a new, Ukranian, moralistic cleaning woman, and "Ring a Ding Ding," in which an ostensibly close-to-penniless Carrie might have to move out of her rent-controlled, luxurious studio apartment as the result of a financially complicated breakup. In the first, Miranda's new cleaning lady, Magda, believes that Miranda should be more of a traditional female, and takes steps to make her into one--replacing Miranda's coffee with herbal tea, buying her a rolling pin so that she can make pies, which every woman should do, and claiming that if she uses a vibrator she will never get a man. Eventually she replaces the vibrator in Miranda's bedside table with a statue of the Virgin Mary, and Miranda threatens to fire her if she cannot handle the things that make Miranda a modern, independent career woman. The next night a dish of condoms appears on Miranda's bedside table, and somehow we're expected to find it moving. In the second, Carrie's ex-fiance, who purchased her apartment and the apartment next door before he became an ex, gives her thirty days to buy her place or be evicted. Having less than eight thousand dollars in her sole bank account, and no source of income besides the column, Carrie is turned down for a loan, and has to consider briefly the $40,000 she spends annually on shoes and her endless taxi rides before Samantha and, after much drama, Charlotte agree to lend her money for her down payment. Both of these episodes offer manipulative, almost-absurd balm for the decadent soul. Hallie says, in some ways appropriately, that the show's not about class, and given that it handles it as best it can. However, the writers do bring in these subplots, resolve them awkwardly, and then close episodes as if these issues don't linger. This is noteworthy because SATC, uniquely among television's lighter fare, permits itself to leave questions unanswered, allows doubts to linger from one episode to the next. Its kneejerk answers therefore stand out. Ultimately, I think something that focuses so much on its class privelege should not be allowed to evade the issue by "not being about class." In marketing "The Twelve White Steps," damali ayo claims that "the first step is admitting that you have a race," and I think it's about time that the same sentiment came into discussions about class. No class is neutral, any more than any race is neutral, and honestly I think that acknowledgement is the only thing that will keep isolationist identity politics (by which I mean, identity politics and nothing but) from holding progressive discussion in thrall. SATC somehow manages to make its characters' decadence neutral, and therefrom springs my guilt at enjoying it--their sexual/romantic decadence as well as their financial, I should add. The fact of the matter is that most single women neither have such a constant dating or social life, nor the money to spend thereupon.

But it would be nice if we could have that kind of life, that incesssant access, and therein lies part of the pleasure. Sex and the City, like many higher-end television shows and movies, takes a realistic emotional universe and places it in a relatively unrealistic, or at least inaccessible, practical one. Certainly there are people who live like the characters on SATC, I've spent too much of my life living in New York to deny it, but for the most part it remains a distant wish, a lifestyle we follow as we follow Hollywood glitter trails. Some read Us Weekly. others watch Sex and the City. Part of it is that simple.

However, part of it is not, and I don't want to be so dismissive of something with substantive artistic merit. Sex and the City is also an extremely well-written show (the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth season standing as a glaring exception) that approaches human relationships, and the passage of time, with unusual care and candor. Its characters are whole, distinctive, and by no means limited to their class privelege. And artistically, I think it would be a greater failure if its characters were nothing but their class and their sexuality, like the characters on Will and Grace, than it is to have a blind spot about class privelege and social context. While the show closed far too neatly and heteronormatively, which I discussed last year, its characters went through some very honest and very skillfully limned journeys, each one ending the show in a different emotional place than when they began, which is far more than one can say of almost any sitcom. I care about the characters on Sex and the City; I criticize their clothes, I disagree with many of their choices (Carrie's in particular--they stand out more because she's intended to be the Everywoman) and feel the show is wrong to endorse them, but the show also makes me react deeply within its world, rather than simply making me react deeply as a cultural critic. It's written, acted, and thought out better than most contemporary television, film, or theater. Not approving of the world in which the show takes place, and the way in which the show honors it, must be separated from not approving of the show.

And yes, I acknowledge that many disapprove of the show for reasons other than those I've just examined. Many find its attitude about sex callous rather than casual. I disagree; I think the show knows very well the difference between casual and non-casual sex and takes pains to clarify it. It also honors the choice to have, and the investment in having, casual sex. Some characters have trouble with it, others don't. But the show takes place in a world where the choice and the examination of the choice are honored. If that troubles you in the first place, it's clearly not the show for you. It also raises, and leaves unanswered, the question of whether a certain level of casual sex makes finding (or discerning) love more challenging. It's a question we have yet to answer as a society--probably there's more than one answer anyhow--and kudos to a show marketed on its embrace of casual sex for putting it on the table. Sex and the City is in fact tremendously sophisticated in its regard for its characters' emotional life, and even in its social contextualization of sex. Someday, the show will be prepared to acknowledge that it is indeed about class, but it could be that even in eight years discussions of class have moved substantially forward--that it *wasn't* about class when it aired at the same level that it is now. I'm not certain about that one, but it's worth mulling. On that front, I will leave with the same thing I ultimately concluded about Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: that the fact that it doesn't do everything doesn't mean it has done nothing. Sex and the City is not retrograde; where it threatens to be, its characters are specific enough to save it. It moved some social examinations forward and ignored, or failed to acknowledge, others. For a television show to move anything but money forward is a tremendous accomplishment.

I feel guilty about loving Sex and the City the same way I feel guilty about the class privelege inherent to my upbringing. But love the show (and my upbringing) I do. Its decadence doesn't obscure the honest, detailed emotional lives of its characters, its nuanced portrayals of relationships both romantic and non-romantic, and those portrayals make its occasional errors, failures of logic, obnoxious moments, excusable, if not entirely forgivable. Its omissions are no worse than those of society at large, and its actual examinations of some truly important issues (though not all the issues it brings up) should be acknowledged and honored. Also, simply, it's fun to watch.


At 12:01 PM, Blogger Connor said...

Wow, Gemma. This strikes me as a very trenchant analysis. I say this because in part I am largely unfamiliar with SATC, I can abstract your argument and apply it to other programs I enjoy... the O.C. comes most notably to mind, but others would be Desperate Housewives, Monk, and so on. Of course, some of those programs focus on a different perspective... they might take different stands and different things for granted, but the contrast of ommission and awareness, I think, is striking in any art that attempts to grapple with social issues. You've brought this out in a way that I think often only becomes clear over more time.

Just an aside, and I think you almost say as much. When you speak of "neutrality" it's a term of convenience, not literality. That is, just because something is accepted as a "default" does not mean that it fails to inform or reinforce opinions on a given subject.

I disagree with Hallie in saying the any program is not about class just as I wouldn't say that any program wasn't about race or sex. Shows ostensibly about none of the three (the original Star Trek, for example) are eventually about all three. By not acknowledging deep-seated class issues, or even characters' patterns of conspicuous consumption, SATC *is* making a crystal clear statement about class. It doesn't have to be About Class to be about class.

That said, I see your counterpoints, and might even extend them a bit to say that problems aren't generally solved (in my experience, at least) by trying to do everything at once, but my picking out a target at a time, and trying to rectify its problems.


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