Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Let's not get Carrie-d away...

With this Friday's release of the second Sex and the City film, there has been a bit of a media backlash against Carrie and co as people begin to tire of the glamorous foursome's adventures. The fabulous Stylist magazine (that I love a little more with every issue)has a four-page feature on why men don't get SATC - it's vapid, banal and wildly unfeminist, apparently - and The Guardian's Hadley Freeman this week slates the first film while casually dropping spoilers and judgements on the second (which, it must be noted, she has not seen yet.)

I find it all very amusing that people get so hot under the collar about a little 90s HBO entertainment; I cringe a bit when people declare that SATC changed the world, and I bristle when they dismiss it as misogynist tripe, but mainly because (until Hadley) no one has really made a distinction between the series and the film. They are very different creatures, but in my experience fans of the show tend to adore the first film, and those who always hated the concept were equally unimpressed by SATC on the big screen. I enjoyed both in different ways, but I have to agree with Freeman that the the original TV series was sharp, witty and gritty yet chic. It went from fairly realistic (Carrie's frizzy bob, Sam's hoochy lycra) to uber-glam (bigger budgets, better labels, chicer styling), but all the while maintained its key weapons - snappy dialogue and pacy storylines.

It was groundbreaking, if not revolutionary, because it tackled abortion, cheating, and STDs with aplomb, never once giving them a palettable Hollywood gloss. There was dark humour, discomfort, and real sadness as well as bad puns and outrageous outfits. One of the reasons I've always found it compelling is the acting; as well as most American dramas and sitcoms having predictable dialogue, fairytale storylines and sanitised humour, they are also generally acted in the most attractive way possible (if that makes sense.) I will stick my neck out and say that I think Sarah Jessica Parker is an extraordinary actress; when Carrie cries, most women will too. Her ability to sacrifice lightness and glamour for a crushing narrative moment is rare. I appreciate that she is not conventionally attractive - while not worthy of being constantly portrayed as the direct opposite to viagra in the male mind (or as 'looking like a foot' in Family Guy) - I think she has a glow and an animation on screen (specifically as Carrie) that women are drawn to. The girl's got charisma.

As well as Samantha's HIV test and the erectile dysfunction ruining Charlotte's perfect marriage, the SATC writers domesticated modern things rarely seen on the US small screen - women smoking, the gay club scene, non-maternal ladies having babies and a plethora of weird sexual preferences. Yet I have never felt it to be gratuitously shocking; the show basically took the freakshow that is the world of dating and relationships and laid it bare. Men like those writing in Stylist choose to focus on the cocktail chats about sex lives and the amount of shoes Carrie owns (a relatively small part of the narrative, if you've ever sat through one continuous episode) but there was a whole other level to the TV show. These women were work and friendship first, and romance was generally something that they fit around those two things - an approach I and many others admired. In suburban Surrey, looking for an ambitious single girl is a bit of a needle/haystack scenario - domestic bliss has swung right back into vogue and everyone seems to be settling down. Take the 30 minute trip into London and you'll find plenty of perfectly pretty, lovely, witty single girls juggling dating with the many other things they want. Toby Young's assertion in the Stylist article that women inspired by the SATC girls shouldn't expect a boyfriend or a marriage as they have merely been duped into a no-strings, promiscuous lifestyle seems way off base to me. Most women still want the lovely traditional things our parents and grandparents had, we just want to live a bit first. The choice to wait and shop around in order to find the best relationship for you is an exciting prospect for those who didn't find Mr Right in week one of our dating life, and the more you date the more you realise that life does go on after a relationship ends. You see the flaws, you learn from the mistakes and you carry on better equipped to make a new one work.

Carrie's writing also inspired me because she looked out for something that was in the air that week, being mulled over at brunch, in the celeb world or in her own life, and tackled it as a cultural trend. I never minded the puns, the neurotic girlfriend behaviour or the sometimes terrible style choices because that's who she was - imperfect, especially when it came to men, and that was much more engaging than any of the glossy women of Friends or Desperate Housewives. Equally, Miranda was the first female lawyer I had seen in fiction, and very realistically the writers made her great at her job but consequently a little frazzled, intimidating to men and struggling to juggle family bereavements and motherhood with work. Samantha's character is a bit of high camp which I can't believe SATC's critics take so seriously - I have never met a woman like her, and the best way I've heard her described is as 'a gay man in a woman's body.' There isn't as much of a market out there for famously promiscuous women as the show would have you think, but it's a bit of fun and allows for most of the funny sex stories and frank conversations that are its hallmark - and she is as much about her career as her sex life (especially poignant in the episode where they discuss women crying at work.) I do think talking openly about sex is the way to go for better relationships and less teen pregnancies, so she was a good role model in that sense at least. And Charlotte is the perfect example of the dangers of the Prince Charming dream that no real relationship can live up to. But her optimism and Miranda's cynicism made the show an interesting debate about what women want, expect and actually get in life.

I think that the follow-up films have taken on a life of their own. I won't say that the SATC creators have created a monster, as I think they've stayed true to much of the original charm, but they have definitely sacrificed the integrity of a cult series in favour of more cash. Like most fans, I loved the way SATC broke off ever so coolly after just six seasons (when they could have done ten), leaving the girls in various stages of happy-ever-after, but with plenty of compromise as well as romance. I didn't need to know how it went with Carrie and Big, but then along came the film franchise to ram that down my throat. As a separate story I enjoyed film 1; I cried, chuckled and enjoyed the ride... and I also felt a bit let down by the things the characters settled for: an insecure fiancee, a giant penthouse, a cheating husband. But you could argue that this is a dose of realism - women do have to forgive things and compromise more the older they get, so it was fairly reflective of reality.

Film 2 looks more like a 'romp' - uh oh - so I fear it may damage the memory of a great show even further. The forty and fiftysomething women are looking freakishly youthful, even Big's had one too many eye lifts, and the whole hysterical 'getting away with the girls' thing just seems tragically unrealistic - I would have liked to see them getting more middle aged, buying a Slanket, catching up over tea and talking about the menopause. Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte were real women in so many ways (periods, laser eye surgery, grey pubic hairs and all) in the TV show, but the whole movie franchise has descended into glitzy madness. I will probably still see the sequel, but I will also feel a little sad to see a concept that was so original becoming just another cash cow.

The straight-talking girls back in series 2...

...and unrecognisable behind the labels and airbrushing.

*Since writing the above, two interesting pieces have come out about the backlash....

1) Laurie Penny for the New Statesman on the death of 'sex-and-shopping feminism'

2) Lindy West for The Stranger on her utter, extreme boredom with the whole concept (warning: contains unsavoury language and imagery - also may cause pant-wetting)

Both interesting - the first because it analyses why SATC2 is so irrelevant to most women at this point (although who would go and see a film about 'the lives and problems of ordinary women', I have no idea.) The second hits on the bizarre choice of Abu Dhabi as a getaway location, and the fact that so much of SATC's material is fantasy because it is 'essentially a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls.' So both point out that the film is escapist fantasy, but also suggest that we shouldn't want to see or enjoy this. I don't mind a bit of fiction in my fiction films, but I do see their (especially West's) scathing point about very privileged women moaning about the minutiae of their expensive lives being fairly unrelatable to me and my friends, here and now. Betcha it still makes a ton at the box office though...

** Andrew O'Hagan of the Evening Standard read my mind and tackled the 'escapism' question... touché.


  1. Miss Write - I'm so glad you've finally put into words just how the first film made me feel. I absolutely adore the series, and although I did enjoy the film (particularly the opening night hysteria, outfits and cosmos), I almost think of it as a totally separate entity. For me 'American Girl in Paris Part Deux' will forever stand as the most perfect SATC ending there could be.

  2. I'm a huge fan of the show, but absolutely hated the first film and am not even going to bother to see the second. The show was everything you describe. The film was a puerile rom com with fart gags and product placement. It could have been set anywhere - the 'City' was totally absent. I actually felt embarrassed to be a woman in the cinema, with all the giggling girlies who thought it was brilliant.

  3. I saw an advert for this the other day and it looked awful, a few really unfunny jokes. Completely agree about the airbrushed poster, what the hell were they thinking? Almost seems like the makers of the films havent watched the series. I agree a lot of the charm of it is in the women not looking or acting perfect.

    One slight disagreement though, when comparing it to more glossy ideals of women you mentioned Friends? I would say friends has the same charm of being open on the womens imperfections. In the later series they do get a bit more glamorous and stick thin but theyre still neurotic, insecure and made to look silly a lot of the time. I'll give you desperate housewives but I think Friends works on the same charm of unairbrushed women as the SATC series.

    Still kind of want to see the film out of curiousity but not expecting much....

  4. I loved the show and absolutley hated the first film. I just don't think it had the wit or spark of the series, I went to see the second film last night with low expectations and really enjoyed it! I think it has tried to returned to its roots and this nonsense I have heard about its disrespect to the middle east are silly, it's only Samantha that does that and that is part of who she is! She offends people everywhere, even in NY!

  5. Bah! I loved the early series but it was never meant to be a film. Check out Kermode's hilarious review here-