A 145-minute “Fuck you” in a fancy frock – to the series.
As a straight male viewer who came to the TV series late, my introduction to the four characters in Sex and the City was well into each of their arcs. The show’s binge-watchability owes so much to its “Which character are you?” archetypes because of some of the places it went with each character.
There was Samantha’s (Kim Cattrall) age-defiant sex-positivity colliding with her battle with cancer; Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) career ambitions being neither undermined nor contradicted by her also being (reluctantly, initially) a heteronormative mother and wife; Brooke’s (Kristin Davis) Disney-Princess-meets-reality and still finding her happiness (and occasional, surprising, telling titillation) in that; and Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker)… look, I never really understood what Carrie was ultimately about, if she was ever anything other than a proxy for viewers who felt anywhere between curious and frustrated about the sex (or lack of it) in their lives (or, less charitably: someone with whom viewers who are unable to get over “the one” can identify). It’s clear now that so many of the problems with the show’s legacy spring from its centering of Carrie and its endorsement of her toxicity. And, I’ve been assured, many viewers in its day aspired as much to the cultural freedom to pursue similar exploits (sexual and otherwise), as to the financial status which afforded (or, really, subsidised) such “freedom”: high-powered career gals traipsing between expensive boozy lunches and celebrity cocktail parties around the business capital of the world in Manolo Blahniks.
The strongest episodes benefited from having to split their pithy 22-minute running time evenly between the four main characters: tight scenes, brisk pacing, thematic cohesion; setup-punchline, setup-punchline, lesson. If the premise of an episode was about, say, empathy, each character would arrive at it in their way, and would have to accept (or, more interestingly, learn they could decide to accept) eachother’s different ways of arriving at it. I think there’s a real positivity in that – and if a show is to have a significant cultural impact, that’s a good characteristic for it to possess.
Watching the show in clumps of several episodes at a time, I was able to absorb each episode’s idea as just that – an idea, as opposed to a story. But the over-arcing idea, throughout the series as a whole, seemed to be that the real cultural impact of the series would be to render itself irrelevant.
The day one might watch an episode and think, “Really? What’s so outrageous?”, might be the day by which mainstream* (*white, heterosexual, repressed, patriarchal) Western society’s ideas about women had overtaken the ideas of the time in which the show was made, and to which it was (arguably) an important response.
While ultimately hetero-normative, white and privileged, there was at least one sliver of promise in the show’s materialistic fantasy: that some hetero-norms might be challenged; that mainstream discourse might be altered; that the vocabulary of water cooler conversations might grow to include terms referring to sex positions and female ageing, and ultimately de-stigmatize and maybe even normalise a whole bunch of maliciously and harmfully maligned concepts and, well, people. And as such, it was important that the ultimate message of Sex and the City was that sexually repressed norms be upended, even if only at the vanilla end of the spectrum, perhaps as a gateway to some more substantively progressive ideas.
And here, years later, the gang reunites for Sex and the City: The Movie, which proffers a final happy ending for each of the characters you’ve presumably spent years following and loving. Well, forget that. This movie couldn’t have less to do with the show, or be more excruciatingly offensive and pointless, than if it were titled Human Centipede.
Unlike the show’s best episodes, the movie is not tight: its flabby 145-minuntes (or its 151-minute “extended cut” – oh goody!) is rife with pointless scenes which contain no resolution, which have no thematic purpose, and in which nothing happens (unless you count those Manolo Blahniks as a character with an arc). But most offensive of all: any good work the series might have accomplished is so effectively undone by the movie that it seems like a “Fuck you” in a fancy frock.
After six seasons, a range of exploits, a few surprising developments and some headline-making moments, Sex and the City: The Movie‘s closing argument is that at long last, each character finally locates her ultimate happiness in… a man.
What’s sex-positive, cancer-surviving Samantha’s ultimate happiness? To settle down with a wealthy man. What’s Brooke’s ultimate happiness? For the man she already “settled” for to have even less personality or agency than he was given in the series. What’s Miranda’s ultimate happiness? Well… she’d already found it, in what was for a time the most interesting of all character arcs in the series, so there’s really no progression left for her here. And Carrie’s? What have her years of investigation, exploration, consideration and experience led her to conclude will fulfill her as a person? Why, it’s to marry that “the one” guy she never got over in the first place.
That, after years of the series’ purported progressivism, the movie seems to posit that the holy grail of its sexually crusading heroine, this modern young woman in this sex-positive, career-driven world, is a white wedding to a rich middle-aged man, is so eyeball-tearingly regressive, treacherous, and toxic, that the only way to remedy it must be to make a sequel. Surely they’ll fix all this in that.
Even the show’s creator, Darren Star, said, “I think the show ultimately betrayed what it was about, which was that women don’t ultimately find happiness in marriage.”‘The Betrayal of Sex and the City’s Ending, Explained’ – The Take
While they also point out the disappointing contradiction of the show’s conclusion – that each character’s happy ending is found not in their friendship, but their ending up with a man…
… they also demonstrate that the leadup to this conclusion is a litany of terribly white, homophobic, transphobic, and even misogynistic messaging throughout the run of the show – not least of which was the particularly damaging takeaway that “Love should be dramatic”: “Carrie and Big’s relationship thrives on drama… [that] is presented as what makes their relationship unique, special, and worth fighting for.” Yeesh:
While acknowledging the “yeesh” of it all (and refusing to acknowledge this movie, or its even worse sequel), Broey Deschanel aims for an Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick-inspired “reparative reading” of the original series, through the lens of the show as a response to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History?: