Monday, May 31, 2010

"I will never be the woman with perfect hair, who can wear white and not spill on it." In defence of Sex and the City

Last night Nic and I went to see Sex and The City 2. I'd read lots of negative reviews of the movie. In fact, I think the best review I read was pretty lukewarm and so my expectations were lower than normal.

I found most of the reviews I did read of the movie, and of the series in general (although I suppose you could now call it a franchise) to be pretty objectionable. I'm tired of that Family Guy quote about Sarah-Jessica Parker's looks being recycled, and I'm tired of hearing the women in the series being described as whores. One especially hateful review went so far as to criticise the looks of Cynthia Nixon's partner, a person who has precisely nothing to do with the movie or the show. It's lazy journalism and it's hateful towards women as well.

I love Sex and The City. I'm a feminist, I'm an intelligent woman, and I love Sex and The City. An ex bought me the box set of the complete series as a gift on Valentine's Day a number of years ago, and I'm surprised I haven't burned holes through some of the discs, they have been watched so often. It isn't chewing gum for the eyes, nor is it a form of Stockholm Syndrome. I have the capacity to watch the show over and over again because it is well-written, funny and has something intelligent to say about women, their lives, relationships and working.

One of the reviews that I read was by Tanya Gold for the Independent. You can read it here, although I rather wish I hadn't. Like many of the reviews I've read which slate the show and the movies, this one appears to be badly researched and full of inaccuracies - speaking to me of someone who is criticising a show they haven't watched, based on assumptions they've made about its content. Tanya Gold tells me I'm stupid to think that Sex and the City has any feminist agenda, and I disagree with her.

I do have criticisms of the show. It has weaknesses, certainly. Some of the dialogue is trite in the extreme, and some of the puns are headdesk cringeworthy. It can be difficult to sympathise with each of the women at various points over the run of the show, but then I think that's the case with any long-running series.

However, the strengths of the show are many and real. In an article in The Guardian, Hadley Freeman writes that, while some of the puns are tired, a lot of the dialogue had genuine emotional truth. The four women are intelligent and successful, and they have problems and make mistakes. They have disagreements and misunderstandings, they have different outlooks and different needs and these are negotiated in the show. The show is a fantasy, and a fun one, but it does have some real and meaningful things to say, if your ears are open to hearing them.

Some criticism has focused on the show's lack of realism - how can a freelance writer afford to have so many designer shoes, who in their right mind would keep going back to Big etc. This bothers me for two reasons. One is that, well - I think these people are seeing realism as a virtue rather than as an artistic mode and the other one is that the show doesn't purport to absolute realism. Why would it? Furthermore, criticising Sex and the City for being about wealthy white American women is like criticising Edith Wharton for writing The Age of Innocence about wealthy white American women. Or like criticising Zora Neale Hurston for writing about black women - it's just stupid. Focusing on one group of people is not the same as denying the existence of another group of people. This is not a thesis on twentieth century living, it's a television programme.

And it's a bloody good television show, in my opinion. It's thoughtful and honest about the relationships between people. Carrie's relationship with Big dominates her emotional landscape for the majority of the show. She treats Aidan very badly when she cheats on him with Big, and ultimately comes to the painful realisation that sometimes perfect isn't what's right. I think I'm alone in my friends in not being irritated that she ends up with Big, but I think the emotional truth that Hadley Freeman talks about is there at the end when Big realises that he has to make changes to his attitude to make a life with Carrie. Charlotte realises that while you can put on a brave face to other people about what's going on in your relationship, you can't lie to yourself, and she ends her seemingly perfect marriage to Trey. There's real emotional truth there, and a good deal of humour too.

What keeps bringing me back to the show, and I suspect that I'm not alone in this, is the friendship shared between the four women. In the episode Shortcomings Carrie's voice-over tells us:

The most important thing in life is your family. There are days you love them, and others you don’t. But, in the end, they’re the people you always come home to. Sometimes it’s the family you’re born into and sometimes it’s the one you make for yourself.

As the voiceover plays we see Carrie finding her friends in a cafe and greeting them warmly before sitting down to spend time with them - it's clear that the relationship shared by the four women is a defining and important one; they're the family Carrie talks about. But this isn't portrayed in a fluffy, sugary way. They are different, they disagree and they get on one another's nerves. They can be downright rude - at one point Charlotte shouts at Samantha "Is your vagina in the New York City guidebook? Because it should be! It's the hottest spot in town, it's always open!" In fact, I'll admit here that it's sometimes a mystery to me why the other women would even be friends with Charlotte because she is frequently awful. In a society where it seems to be perfectly fine to say "Women are bitchy" as a statement of fact, it's refreshing to see this kind of honesty in friendship. It would be easy to get the drama from the women subtly undermining one another, or by bitching about each other in secret. I'm not saying these things don't happen in friendships - of course they do, but the friendships we see on the screen are positive ones, and I think it is to the show's credit that it resists the temptation to follow the 'women are bitches' stereotype.

In her article Hadley Freeman laments the way in which the movies seem to have lost many of the show's admirable qualities. I can't disagree with her in relation to the first movie. I enjoyed it, but it was pretty dismal. It had none of the joy of the series, and little of the warmth and humour. I think Sex and the City 2 has gained some ground, however, and I was surprised by just how much I found to like about it. Of course I have criticisms - entirely too much of the film was spent in Abu Dhabi, the 'aye begorrah' Irish nanny was the kind of racist stereotype about Ireland that should have disappeared years ago, and the movie was just TOO BLOODY LONG. I was uncomfortable also with some of the Samantha taking all kinds of hormones to stay young shenanigans.

However, the movie had lots of intelligent things to say. Carrie is concerned that married life is knocking the sparkle out of her relationship with Big and together they try to negotiate a way to write the relationship rules for themselves. I wished this had been given more screentime, to be honest, because it was thoughtful and sensitive. How do you negotiate living together every day, and wanting different things, and making time for yourselves and one another? How does marriage change a relationship? The movie asks intelligent questions about this, and I found it thought-provoking. It did much the same about motherhood, and the scene in which Charlotte breaks down in the pantry of her house was genuinely moving. Some of the set pieces - such as the girls doing karaoke in Abu Dhabi - were a bit cheesy, but there was joy there. It was good to have the women together, supporting one another and having fun together.

So, the movie had some faults. Parts of it were just weird (and the 45 minutes at the end in the Souk were just interminable) but on the whole, I liked it. I'll watch it again, I'd like to think more about the questions it asks about making long-term relationships work.