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For Science: My Month of ‘Sex’

By  · Published on June 7th, 2010

I’m not quite sure why I decided to watch Sex and the City in its entirety. It could have been my curiosity about the show, or my desire to put Sex and the City 2 in some fair context in an Internet blogging landscape overwhelmingly composed of male writers and male readers, or maybe I was seeking out some sort of endurance test…or maybe all these are lame excuses to shamelessly justify watching a show that one would so easily encounter ridicule for watching (my girlfriend, conveniently, owns the entire series, making this experiment all the easier). Either way, the majority of the month of May was devoted to all Sex and the City, all the time – to the delight, dismay, and annoyance of anybody who’s been following me on twitter in the past month.

I had a few questions going into the series that I wanted answered, but these served more as curiosities rather than a way to explicitly frame the experience of watching this show – a show that I had only seen two or three episodes of before, but had dismissed entirely along with my male brethren as stupid and vapid. If I was going to learn anything from the show – whether or not it has appeal for straight men, what it says about women and feminism in modern society, or simply my attempt at understanding why the show plays such a dominant cultural role amongst its demographic – I had to go into it earnestly, letting go of any previous dismissiveness and snarkiness that previously characterized my response to the show. And what I found surprised me…

Season 1 – April 22–25

The pilot episode was, quite honestly, terrifying. From the outset Carrie categorizes the men she encounters into three easily identifiable, simplistic typologies: 1) the asshole who is great in bed, 2) the sensitive and smart but unexciting guy, and 3) the mysterious, very wealthy man of one’s dreams (Mr. Big). The assumption I have that the show relates in any way to how women actually view men in sex, dating, and relationships immediately makes me reluctant to delve any further, lest I infer that every woman I meet is quickly making an assessment in order to place me in one of these three categories.

It’s also interesting watching a show from 1998. One wouldn’t think it would seem so dated, but it is firmly entrenched in a cultural dialogue specific to the late days of that decade, as the characters make jokes regarding Y2K and the Clinton presidency, possess antiquated versions of modern technology (giant cell phones, portable CD players), and live in a society where nerd is (gasp!) antithetical to cool. Furthermore, the ideal man that these women seek out are the people who, ten years later, would become mostly responsible for our nations’ financial collapse, Carrie’s narration at one point brags about dating a man who works for Bear Sterns.

Also, issues of feminism are set out right from the outset. I always knew the show explored a great number of feminist issues, but I didn’t expect it to be so open about such subjects from the outset. But from the very first episode, the series divides its three supporting characters into archetypes of modern feminism and the inherent struggles within: Charlotte as the idealist of a previous era, searching for the “one,” man of her dreams to start a family with, who struggles with the idea of family and marriage being essential for happiness and is questioned by her friends as to whether or not wanting to be a wife and mother is her choice or that of society; Samantha as one who rejects all norms and expectations of male/female interaction in dating, never pursuing relationships beyond no-strings-attached sex to avoid the trappings women incur when falling for men – she’s completely independent emotionally, physically, and sexually, and it’s interesting that she refers to her own sexuality in masculine terms (she often says she has sex without emotion “like a man” and references to her “hard-on” whenever she gets turned on); Miranda, who eventually becomes my favorite character, seeks success as a single woman and speaks openly about the problems of the label “single woman” in the male dominated professional world of New York City – she’s also completely intolerant of bullshit, and frequently (with an endearing and often hilarious level of snark) calls her friends out on their contradictory act of being insecurely, obsessively preoccupied with men while calling themselves independent feminists. Carrie, however…

Season 2 – May 1–3

…Is much harder to figure out. Her romances serve as the show’s stakes-heavy plot thread, particularly her on-again, off-again romance with Mr. Big (Chris Noth), whom she has broken up with and with whom she eventually rekindles her relationship in this season. Mr. Big, as suggested by his non-name name, is more of a stand-in for an ideal than being an ideal man in and of himself.

From the first episode on, Mr. Big gives an aura of mystery, and from then on Carrie, and the audience, are permitted to project onto him what they are looking for in the ideal man – meanwhile, Mr. Big proves time and again to be emotionally vacant at best and manipulative at worst. I can’t say Carrie is much better, for while her three friends explore a variety of interesting and real problems, Carrie has a habit of creating or escalating problems from little details, often forcing her friends with their own lives to stop whatever it is that they are doing to assess Carrie’s problems.

This season at one point acknowledges how outright crazy Carrie can be (episode 3, “Freak Show”), but this doesn’t in any way lessen the fact that this series has quite the unheroic protagonist at its center. It’s almost laughable that, out of the four characters at the show’s center, Carrie is the one giving the rest of New York City sex advice. The only excuse I can come up with regarding how dysfunctional Carrie and Big are is that the series wants to explore all types of problems in relationships, thus gives its central couple all the problems one could have in a relationship.

From the outset it’s obvious that Carrie and Big are meant for each other, not because this is a television couple we can root for, but because they both possess an incredible degree of emotional instability that puts any presumptions or stereotypes regarding the relationship of rational emotional reaction and gender to rest. They are truly meant to be together in the sense that their shared insecurities, lack of maturity, and hangups complement each other well.

Season 3 – May 8–12

While I enjoyed seasons 1 & 2, I started to get worried about my desire to jump ship as the show seemed to get in a narrow pattern of exploring skin-deep relationship quirk through Carrie and Big’s tumultuous relationships and her friends’ one-night stands. But then the show decided to actually give the supposedly supporting characters (who are, if I haven’t emphasized it enough, frequently far more interesting than Carrie) developing, complex relationships (Miranda’s boyfriend Steve, Charlotte’s husband Trey (Kyle MacLachlan)) and gave Carrie another relationship with the character of Aiden (John Corbett). This is where Sex and the City revived itself for me, becoming a threaded narrative of relationships explored with the nuance that a television series can deliver. By this time, the show has exhausted issues of single womanhood in the metropolitan landscape of casual dating, and the issues therein become far more interesting and complicated as these characters try to reconcile issues of feminist independence with not being single.

This season also goes to some dark places, as Carrie gets into the habit of cheating on Aiden with the now-married Mr. Big – this plotline certainly didn’t do anything to alter my already low opinion of Carrie, but it was a bold direction that I commend the show for going in, especially in that it could have totally alienated its core audience because of the awful decisions its main character was making. This season came out around the time HBO was becoming known as the network for quality television, and the engrossing narrative and rich character development of this season makes Sex and the City fit right in with the famous early 00s dramas running concurrently on the network.

Season 4 – May 15–19

The momentum picked up by the show’s third season continues right on into season four, and by this point Sex and the City has built a pattern of manifesting interesting plot threads I’ve found myself deeply involved in while also using the single-episode medium to devote each episode to one issue serving as that episode’s theme. It’s a perfect synergy of the episodic nature of the first two seasons’ episode-as-issue sitcom format and the narrative threadlining HBO is known for, the type of which keeps viewers interested in what the subsequent episode will bring.

Carrie might not be the most interesting of the show’s central quartet, but her Big/Aiden drama serves rightfully as the series’ central, stratifying crux that allows one to be involved in the show (Carrie tries to get serious with Aiden without letting the ghost of her relationship and affair with Big die). That being said, the Miranda/Steve and Charlotte/Trey plotlines stand on their own much more than complement the supposedly “central” Carrie plots. Miranda and Charlotte no longer feel like supporting characters; rather the show comes across as a mosaic narrative of four people and all the people involved with those four. When a character breaks up with their significant other, the effect is really felt on the viewer, as they have spent a great deal of time over a great many episodes with the truly supporting male characters. For a half-hour show, Sex and the City balances all plotlines adeptly without feeling rushed.

Season 5 – May 20–21

There really isn’t much to say about this short, 8-episode season, which is rather appropriate as this season itself doesn’t have much to say at all. It becomes evident how central relationships are to a show that started off essentially being about womanhood as the only character who has a multi-episode developing relationship is, surprisingly enough, Samantha, and it turns out to be hardly as interesting as one would expect.

Other characters retain their own personal definitions of feminist independence in their relationships or marriages, but with Samantha it really feels that engaging in a relationship is a cop-out, as she so obviously encounters the type of heartbreak she set out her whole life to avoid. The other three characters experience differing degrees of singlehood, which in turn explore issues that reveal themselves to be disappointingly uninteresting compared to the more complex relationship issues discussed in seasons past. This is also the first season where the fashion, specifically Carrie’s wardrobe, became something other than oscillating between unnoticeable and utterly ridiculous (to me). The classy, thirtysomething New Yorker look embraced in this season is something I can get behind.

Season 6 – May 22

With my press screening of Sex and the City 2 scheduled for May 24, I had to watch the rest of the series rather quickly, so I watched season 6 (both parts, twenty episodes) all in one very long day. It was exhausting, yes, but it would have been more so if I hadn’t by this point developed such an affinity for these characters and their lives (despite the hiccup of season 5). There are flaws, frustrations, and redundancies of course, but one encounters such things when watching any series in a short span of time. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed by this point, it’s the tangible sleekness the series has developed, employing intricate art direction, calculated photography, and music cues particularly apropos to the Manhattan socialite vibe the series has tried to encapsulate by this point. This show has drastically matured in six years.

One interesting episode of season six is “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little” (ep. 4), in which the concept of “He’s just not that into you” is introduced to Miranda by Carrie’s short-term boyfriend Berger (Ron Livingston). I find it hard to forgive the makers of Sex and the City for inspiring a phrase that became an awful book and an even worse movie, both of which gave specific, simplistic structures of meaning to all forms of male behavior in total spite of the particular, individual male acting at hand, but what’s ironic is that this episode contradicts the idea of “he’s just not that into you” by the end as Miranda completely misreads the signals sent by a date, thus showing that one episode of Sex and the City is far more complex in its view of human relationships than an entire book and film inspired by this overused phrase that should never have entered the lexicon.

That being said, Sex and the City has a great series of final episodes, putting each of its characters in a place that makes sense to conclude the series with while not making the conclusion come across like an all-too-neat and convenient rush towards closure and completion. It really does have one of the more satisfying final episodes in recent memory (calm down, Lost apologists).

Sex and the City: The Movie – May 23, & Sex and the City 2 – May 24

The Sex and the City movies are pretty much everything that detractors who have criticized but never watched the show think the show is. The first film suffocates from self-seriousness, and the sequel is a problematic exploration of the problems of the very, very privileged.

Objects substitute for emotional progress between characters, and neither film has anything interesting to say about feminism or relationships. A movie is simply not the forum in which an intricate, nuanced exploration of the types of issues the show was known for can take place (shown by the big bunch of nothing each film accomplishes in their respective 2.5 hour running times), so it resorts to simple answers to complex questions.

It all comes across like cardboard. As far as I’m concerned, the story of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha ended in 2004 with the satisfying final episode of the series.

Final Thoughts

Leading up to my marathon viewing of Sex and the City, my impression of the show was characterized by negative responses from two communities, both of which had, for the most part, not seen the entire series. Amongst my male friends, Sex and the City was dismissed as vapid and silly, an infuriating, unfunny narrative of women preoccupied with men. In regard to my academic friends, Sex and the City was seen as, amongst other proposed problems, regressive in its ideas about feminism, ultimately selling out the celebration of the independent single women to an affirmation of marriage. My response to the first complaint is evidenced above, that Sex and the City really is quality television, with intertwining and developing narratives, well fleshed-out characters, solid writing, and is technically well-made. It took some time for me to become really invested in the series, but I still recognize it as good television, and once I got hooked I was genuinely hooked. Sex and the City wouldn’t be something I’d recommend to everyone, but just because it wasn’t made for your demographic doesn’t mean one should fault it initially in terms of quality.

In regards to the second major qualm of the series, that it isn’t progressively feminist, I would initially agree that it isn’t progressively feminist in the sense that it expressively, explicitly advanced feminist ideas through the medium of television (this isn’t, for instance, Catherine Breillat or Jane Campion’s Sex and the City), but it does actively engage in dominant, mainstream feminist ideas in a way that no television show had before it. It was a totally unique work to see on screen, and this I think is a major reason why it had such an influential role within cultural discourse. Yes, it seemed that the show was preoccupied with women talking about men, but in the end it wasn’t a show about love or relationships between men and women, but between women. The show is about achieving happiness through female friendship, not romance, which made it stand out starkly from shows and films geared toward women at the time.

The last point I would like to make is in regard’s to the show’s preoccupation with material culture, for it’s often been dismissed as materialist in a way that always assumes materialism to be a negative, but it is in this aspect that I think the show is at its most aggressively feminist. Sex and the City presents a feminism that doesn’t seek to remove itself from patriarchal society, but compete with it. At the center of Sex and the City are women who look to compete with men at their own game, and achieve success as single, self-sustaining individuals (especially Miranda), so the acquisition and preoccupation with stuff throughout the show works as a signifier of individual success, of the acquisition of status. A pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes or a Birkin bag for these women operate the same way as a Rolex or high-end briefcase would for a man: as both a mode of individual self-expression and a public signifier of success achieved on one’s own terms. It is in this regard – awareness of fashion and materials, climbing up the competitive ladder towards success – that Sex and the City’s New York setting is absolutely pertinent. It is the city, after all, that makes the sex what it is.

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