Sex and the City is a shallow, sexist enterprise. But it does one thing well: it shows men what it feels like to be a woman. And the result is not prettyby Laurie Penny / May 28, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Six series and two films later, the feminist arguments (both for and against) Sex and the City have been done to death. Shoes, handbags and marriage are not what every girl wants. But why do men hate Sex and the City so much? Is it because it’s a screechy, shallow, dated franchise based on thuggish sexual binaries in which men have no role whatever, apart from as scapegoats or faceless playthings? Well, partly. Though that isn’t the whole story.
In the second Sex and the City film, released this week, it’s clear that the protagonists still view men as asinine, brutal, essentially alien beasts who can be led around by their genitals. “The only place you can control a man is in bed,” says Samantha Jones in the television series. “If we perpetually gave men blow jobs we could run the world.” Hardly a rousing manifesto for gender equality.
Sex and the City sets itself up in cheeky opposition to male power without for a second questioning the premise of patriarchy. It conjures a dynamic in which men are at once the enemy and the object of desire, where any interaction women have with the opposite sex is rigidly policed by an all-female gang of friends. The franchise gives the impression that only women who are rich, attractive, white, western and powerful can win in the gender war—and only by imitating the worst aspects of shallow patriarchal objectification.
Poor Mr Big. It can’t be easy being a phallic cipher. His sole purpose since the inception of the series has been to provide Carrie with an acceptable sexual foil, his husky voice and dark-eyed intimation of limitless personal wealth apparently explaining why Carrie returns again and again to a man who treats her like dirt, a man she eventually, for no discernible reason, marries. Big is a patriarchal husk with zero emotional depth, an empty symbol of everything that women are meant to find hateful and desirable about powerful men. Imagine introducing him to your friends. It’d be like having a girlfriend called Tits.
Then there’s Aidan. Boring, squidgy-eyed Aidan with his tight white T-shirts, who reappears in the latest film to tempt Carrie away from Big. He is framed as the polar opposite to Big—despite also being rich, white, male, handsome, American and seemingly unable to hold a conversation that isn’t about Carrie or money. All of the male romantic interests in the franchise have a hard, plasticised Ken-doll beauty that is almost offensively unreal, apart from the cheerily balding child-man who Charlotte eventually persuades to whisk her up the aisle. Who can remember his name? Probably not even Charlotte.
The only males who are acceptable as genuine friends are gay men—presented as mincing, quasi-pantomimic sidekicks with little authentic sexuality of their own. The second film revolves in part around the wedding of Stanford and Anthony, two characters whose mutual hatred was made much of in the series, but who the films have seen fit to pair off after the most spurious of drunken kisses for no other reason than the fact that both are gay. (Male bisexuals, of course, do not exist.) Gay men may not be the enemy in the same way that straight men are, but nor are they afforded real personhood: they are merely satellites to the female experience, doomed to advise Carrie and co on their wedding outfits forever.
So no wonder men hate Sex and the City. And yet, for all of its incontestable misandry, for all the twee dialogue, weary product placement and blatant fetishisation of upper-class consumerism, the urge to defend it springs unbidden whenever I hear a man who hasn’t seen the show attacking its premise. One male columnist writing for Stylist last week dismissed the franchise as “a load of crones cackling about penises.” Such ugly misogyny is seen as a fair retort to a series that treats men so flippantly. Yet women have to put up with being portrayed as two-dimensional, impossibly beautiful sex objects in almost every other television programme you care to name. For all its faults, watching Sex and the City can feel a little like redressing the balance.
The Bechdel test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel who coined the concept in her long-running comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For,” has passed into popular culture as a way of determining sexism in film and television. The premise is simple: in order to pass the test, a film must have two or more named female characters in it; these characters must talk to each other, and they must talk to each other about something other than a man. Thousands of films fail to fulfil this basic criteria—from the Home Alone trilogy to Lethal Weapon to Lord of The Rings. Interestingly, Sex and The City is one of the only shows that fails the test in reverse: in that men are a trivial part of the action and are rarely seen interacting with one another except to discuss the show’s female protagonists.
This wilful elision of men, their concerns and their needs, must be a large part of why male viewers find Sex and the City so uncomfortable. But it is also precisely the same elision that women experience watching countless films. If men don’t like Sex and the City, they can always change the channel and find something else. Women don’t have that option. If they did, all they’d have to watch would be Casualty and the Alien saga.
So, any man grumbling about being taken to see the latest Sex and the City film should view the experience as an opportunity. Yes, it’s insulting to both men and women, an exercise in kitsch heterosexual squabbling. But its misandry is no different to the misogyny seen daily on television, in the media, and in politics. Men who rail against the show should remember that this is what it feels like to consume media as a woman—every day.