Shoes, Men and Stereotypes


THE FACT that a female-driven movie topped the box office charts this weekend–at a time when female leads are fast disappearing from Hollywood–should be cause for celebration. Until you see the movie.

 

Sex and the City, written and directed by Michael Patrick King, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon.

The Sex and the City television series was frequently described as a groundbreaking show about the importance of friendships between women and applauded for its frank discussions and depictions of female sexuality. But this was always a figment of the post-feminist imagination.

 

Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte are virtually unrecognizable as real women inhabiting the world that the rest of us live in. Their friendship revolved around endless discussions of the search for "Mr. Right" and the perfect pair of designer shoes–all over a lunch and cocktail schedule that would seem to preclude a real job.

 

But at least on the small screen, in digestible half-hour episodes, the show could be entertaining and even occasionally dealt with real issues. For example, the season that dealt with Samantha’s struggle with breast cancer had many touching and genuine moments. But the movie ratchets up the obnoxious and insult quotient, without any of the redeeming qualities the TV show sometimes displayed.

 

From the film’s opening moments, it makes clear that it intends to fully indulge in its narcissism and materialism. As a montage of beautifully dressed–and impossibly thin–young women appears across the screen, Carrie’s voiceover tells us that every year, thousands of 20-something women come to Manhattan in search of the "2 L’s–labels and love."

 


The characters of Sex and the City are unrecognizable as real women inhabiting the world the rest of us live in.

With our lives pithily summed up, the movie goes on to serve up two hours (yes, two) of female stereotypes. What do women today want? Apparently, we want $500 Manolo Blahnik shoes, penthouse apartments, designer wedding dresses and the perfect man. Samantha stakes her claim to independence on her ability to bid $60,000 on a ring to celebrate herself.

 

The central "conflict" of the film revolves around Carrie’s plans to marry Big. What starts off as a grown-up, mutual decision becomes what some Hollywood writer imagines to be the ultimate female wish-fulfillment fantasy. We spend about half an hour watching Carrie try on a succession of designer wedding dresses and plan a "Page 6," 200-person society gala to celebrate her crowning achievement. Apparently, this is the pinnacle of every successful, 40-something woman’s dreams.

 

Of course, this being a feature-length film, something must destroy this pretty picture, and the next two hours wander through Carrie and Big’s break-up and inevitable reconciliation–all with "her girls" at her side. Because they needed something to fill the intervening hour, we are treated to some of the other women’s minor problems–none of them interesting. More discussion of fashion fills in the gaps. Did I mention that the pacing of the movie is tedious?

 

One jarring addition to the film worth mentioning is the character of Louise from St. Louis as the personal assistant in charge of cleaning up Carrie’s life. As the only central Black (and working-class) character, Louise–or rather the film’s treatment of her–is a disappointment. Louise is intelligent and charming, obsessed with fashion and would seem to be girlfriend material. Instead, she occupies the subservient and grateful position in a patronizing and unequal relationship that we are meant to appreciate.

 

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FOR ALL the disappointment, Sex and the City is the top-grossing film in America. It is being hailed as a phenomenon. As such, it is generating discussion about what it represents, what women want and what it means for the future of women in film. This is where things go from annoying and obnoxious to depressing and infuriating.

 

There are those who hail this as the new face of female sexual liberation. The idea that these rich women’s shallow lives represent liberation is an insult to the millions of women still struggling for a measure of genuine equality.

 

While it is certainly a good thing that women can talk openly about sexual desire on the big screen (though there is precious little of that in this movie), it seems fairly meaningless when abortion rights are being eroded and women continue to be treated as sex objects.

 

And it is degrading to the real quality and importance of women’s friendships to portray them as revolving around sex and fashion–as if women have no other concerns or goals. Then there are the countless commentaries about this as the ultimate "chick flick." We are being told that this is what women want, and that perhaps this will prompt more female-driven movies.

 

It would be nice if the box office success of Sex and the City spawned a wave of movies that were actually about real women’s lives and concerns. But I’m not holding my breath. Hollywood is both a reflection and propagator of a culture that demeans women. Even when a movie like Sex and the City manages to break out, it’s because it reinforces this culture–not because it challenges it.

 

Enduring female friendships, single women in their 30s and 40s making a life for themselves in the city, and real relationships and sexual exploration would all be a welcome addition to popular culture. An honest portrayal of these issues today would indeed be groundbreaking; instead, Sex and the City treads in the same old ruts and trades on stereotypes.

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