Pop Talk: Sex and the City (a cautionary tale)

Pop Talk: Sex and the City 2 (a cautionary tale of cocktails and tulle)
*Spoiler alert*

Possibly the most-analysed and collectively panned film of the year, I went into a screening of Sex and the City with an open mind. My biggest fear coming out of the cinema? That the loose ends imply a third film might be on the cards.

Okay, to say I had no preconceptions would be a lie: I genuinely wanted to be able to say, "It's a bit of frivolous fun – so quit with the feminist contextualising and Take A Chill Pill". But I can't. Because the film has attempted to make statements about the modern female condition that are as outdated and cliched as the 1980s ensembles in the opening scenes.

I cringed from start to finish (spoiler alert!). But it wasn't just Liza Minnelli performing "Single Ladies", Samantha's relentless crass innuendo, Charlotte's hot nanny with nipples on top or the sartorial, sexual and cultural atrocities committed in Abu Dhabi that induced my wincing. It was the embarrassing and sad realisation that Carrie had once been an aspirational role model of mine. And the scary thought that young women (or, indeed, older ones!) still might find value in modelling themselves on the show's precepts.

'Tis true, I was once a Sex and the City advocate and a card-carrying Carrie girl. I was studying at university when the show first aired on Australian TV and tuned into Channel Nine at 9.30pm every Monday night to watch it (though the episode screenings were about two years behind the rest of the world!). I didn't subscribe to the girls' fragrantly promiscuous lifestyles, nor their frequent use of the f-word, but I did covet their wardrobes and their kinship and their careers.

I know I'm not the only aspiring writer to have looked at Carrie Bradshaw as a fictional heroine, despite knowing full well that a designer wardrobe on a freelance writer's budget is about as achievable as Sarah Jessica Parker's impossibly slim physique (her influence in the body-image department is a whole other post) and that scoring a by-line in Vogue is equally as challenging (aspiring freelance writers might do well to emulate Aussie journo Rachel Hills, who has had an actual Vogue by-line, or former Vogue fashion features director Clare Press).

While I may have identified more with the earnest college student who accosted Carrie in the Hamptons and offered to do her "wash" in exchange for time with her column-writing mentor, the show's permissive consumerism influenced my shopping habits, its styling my clothing choices and its snappy dialogue my writer's voice. I might have even affected a few Carrie-esque mannerisms (the eyebrow raise, anyone?). Cringe.

S&TC was like a glossy magazine brought to life – all fashion, men, sex, relationships and catchy coverlines in the form of one-liners. Coupled with my devotion to the glossies, it gave me permission to shop with abandon. Carrie may have joked, "I like my money right where I can see it... hanging in my closet", but I don't recall her ever really struggling to get by on her last 20 bucks. She always looked amazing. Even when stumbling about drunk... with a cigarette hanging from her mouth.

When I watch the TV series on DVD now, I can't quite believe that I bought in. Yes, the scripts were well written. Yes, they addressed women's issues that were previously taboo on commercial TV. And, yes, the girls taught us about the importance of a close circle of girlfriends. But the values of sexual permissiveness, rampant consumerism, appearance-based narcissism and cocktail-swilling – and the lack of a grounding sense of family or faith – render it an anachronism, at least in my mind.

In the film sequel, we find Carrie discontent to play out her married life to Big on the couch, grasping to hold onto her former glamorous single life, throwing a tantrum over a scathing review in her beloved New Yorker, contemplating the purchase of a new piece of furniture for the corner, writing on relationships for Vogue, playing kissies with Aiden and averting the idea of having children. She still knows how to crack a witty one-liner, but, like Samantha in menopause denial, she's suffering a severe case of arrested development.

Some of the issues (albeit cliched) resonate – the small comforts of married life (which she sees as banality); viewing yourself through the prism of career success (for her, glowing book reviews); and maintaining female friendships – but Carrie's overwhelming sense of entitlement, further enhanced by Big and Aiden's appraisals ("you're different from other girls") and her reaction to Big's anniversary gift ("jewellery would have been nice") just makes her seem immature, like a 40-year-old trapped in the body and mind of a 20-year-old.

Perhaps one day Carrie will leave her girlhood behind and grow up (and what is the definition of a grown-up, anyway?). Or maybe she is representative of a sort of Peter Pan syndrome affecting women who refuse to let go of fashion, jobs, dreams, youthful skin and bodies – anything they have worked for and have given them a sense of self – and settle for a different kind of contentment.

Until then, Sex and the City 2 serves as more cautionary tale than fairytale, about a little girl lost in big girl's shoes, between the streets of New York and markets of Abu Dhabi, still wearing a tulle tutu.

See also:
Hating On Sex and the City is Soooo 2006 by Rachel Hills
The Death of Sex and the City by Hadley Freeman

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Chelsea Hunter said...

Oh Erica, I hear ya!


I saw the film last night and, like you , was stunned at both Carrie and Samantha’s storylines. Carrie was a study in self-deception – she tried to convince Miranda and Charlotte that she was OK with Big taking two days away when clearly she was not OK with it, and then she tried to convince them that agreeing to have dinner Aiden was purely innocent and not a reaction to how she was feeling about her marriage. This struck me as odd because I’ve always viewed the character of Carrie as possessing a degree of self-awareness. She would have to, in order to write the columns she did, and to write them with the insights that she did. This is why many women fell in love with her, right? She was able to articulate things we knew deep down but didn’t know how to talk about. But in this film she’s a woman who doesn’t want to admit to how she’s feeling or why she’s reacting the way she is. I didn’t feel like she was the Carrie we came to know and love in the series.

Samantha’s storyline was even worse. Her refusal to respect the sexual and cultural boundaries of the UAE after being told repeatedly by her friends to cover up and quieten down doesn’t say, “bold, independent, irrepressible woman”. It says, “insensitive, obnoxious American tourist”, one who deserves to be locked up then kicked out of the country! Seriously Samantha? You can’t keep your knickers on for a few days? The Arab women we see towards the end of the film had more class and grace than Samantha. She looked nothing short of ridiculous and I sincerely hope that Michael Patrick King wasn’t trying to make a political statement about US superiority because if so, he failed.

I felt so betrayed by the film, I have to say. I never really looked up to any of these women to begin with, but I sure enjoyed watching the show. Loved it. Unfortunately, there’s just no way I can say that about this film. I’ll admit there were some sweet scenes and it sure looked pretty but ultimately I found myself cringing so often I couldn’t really enjoy it.

Palette said...

I am a true sex & the city fan and left the cinema last night disapointed! The conversation between the girls seemed forced and un-natural, all the wonderful clothing I was looking forward to was shown in the trailer & I couldn't work out if the movies wanted to be a (bad) comedy, drama, feel good film etc... The only thing I really enjoyed was how Carrie's new appartment had been decorated. Thats it.

lulki x

Ali J said...

I saw the film last night and whilst I laughed in moments, I walked away a bit embarrassed.

I thought Carrie was really childish. I also couldn't work out why they'd had her "cheat" once again in a relationship. Why can't anyone just stay with one person? Why do they have to keep insinuating that vows mean nothing? Even with the gay wedding and the comments around that. The wedding was almost like an afterthought. Lets just slot it in even though the characters hated eachother in the series, they get married??

Samanthas storyline was awful. Here is a woman going through a tough time in her life with menopause. Instead of being realistic they make it a complete mockery and blatantly offend another culture. Instead of respecting it they disrespect it all because they don't understand it. If most of those movie scenes happened in real life, those 'Americans' would most likely find themselves thrown straight in jail. I know sex sells, but to have Samantha unable to refer to sex or think of it for more then a few hours is ridiculous.

I loved Aidan, but couldn't understand why they brought him back?

I want to know what the female characters of movies are really reflecting nowadays. I cannot associate myself to any of those characters in this movie. Where are the strong independent women? The ones who have strong family values, are honest, respectful, understanding and a joy to be around? Why are we always trying to act older/younger then we are instead of just being ourself? Where are the real women, and why is it so hard to have them in a movie?

Don't even get me started on their atrocious fashions.

I thought this movie was supposed to reflect the present? The fact that we are in a recession, that we are all struggling in our day to day lives? Yet the only women playing mothers can afford to hire full time help? And Carrie/Big can afford 2 apartments in NYC? And Samantha & her friends get shouted an all expenses paid trip overseas?

Who plays me?

Anonymous said...

I too anticipated the first Sex and the City movie because I loved the television series (mainly due to its witty writing - I would LOL). However I was horrified by the SATC1 movie mainly because it chose to ignore all the witty writing and focus and glorify on the superficial things instead - fashion, over the top scenes (i.e., the wedding scene and Charlotte's screaming at everything) and it was way too long. I remember sitting in the theatre watching it and waiting for it to end because it was so bad. I think I will wait for SATC2 to come out of DVD. There may be some good things to watch in it.

Vinda Sonata said...

i read the review about this movie too early this morning. can't believe people think this is kind of disappointing. why did they ruin the images of those modern women then? i can't get it!

anyway, thanks for the review. your writing style is golden, erica! i've been a fan for long before i started my own blog :)

LittleBlackDash said...

Maybe they were all just admitting to things that aren't perfect or attractive or moral that some women feel? Yes, there were some cringe-worthy moments but I also thought there were some fairly honest (even if it was a bit forced) moments that made me feel something and made me think... just sayin'...

Joanne said...


I absolutely LOVED the series, and I've always been a loyal fan of sex and the city.

I saw the movie today and went into the theatre with the same attitude as Erica, to try and see it as just a piece of glitzy fun. Unfortunately I too found myself cringing too much to enjoy it. Several scenes were TERRIBLE, and would never have appeared in the series.
The part where they all sing karaoke and the whole bar joins in and the belly dancers start dancing in coordination and the group of rugy players start lifting their shirts off...ewwwww.

The part where they swap clothing with some muslim women so that they can disguise themselves from a pack of arab men who are chasing them because some condoms fell out of Samantha's bag...just really painfully stupid. Oh and then Carrie flashes her leg so that they can get a cab to stop for them...hmmmm.
The disrespect for middle eastern culture was horrible to watch - wern't these women suppossed to be smart?
Carrie's meltdown after kissing Aiden was just kind of annoying and pathetic.
However I did think that the acting was very good. Especially Kisten Davies as Charlotte, her storyline was the only one that I found convincing (but only the part about her kids driving her crazy not the part about her Irish nanny who doesnt wear a bra).

It's such a shame because the series was intelligent and well written. It raised interesting questions about sex, relationshps and women's lifestyle choices.
I don't understand why they even chose to set the majority of the movie in the middle east...part of the magic of the series was New York. Would't it be great if the inevitable 3rd movie was much more like the series?

Rochelle said...

Amen, Erica. I'm not articulate enough to eloquently voice how much I absolutely despised this film, but I will say that it was possibly the worst, most condescending, vulgar piece of crap I've ever seen. A total car crash.

I totally identify with the feeling of betrayal so many people are talking about. I used to love these women. Why they had to morph into vapid, self-obsessed, whiney, excruciating dimwits is completely beyond me.

RIP Carrie and Co.

Mrs Press said...

I wish I was surprised that SATC2 rated "half a star" from David in The Movie Show, but somehow I'm not.

Inevitably, what seemed groundbreaking and close to the cultural bone a decade ago seems hackneyed and cliched today.

But I suspect what triggered the death knell for Carrie's broad appeal was the rampant commerciality - and yes, the Hollywood greed - that came with the blockbuster ratings. When coachloads of middle aged women from Wisconsin are descending daily on Manhattan with the sole purpose of driving past "Carrie's apartment' you know the thing has lost its edge. Because...Carrie never actually lived in that brownstone (you don't say? Yes, I say! Carrie was a cartoon from a book - hello!).

There was never much realism behind "the woman who lived in her shoes" but once-upon-a-1990s time she presented as fresh, exciting, even shocking. Now she reads as just another "Woman's Day" cover star with more money than sense. Give it up already! There's more to life than cashing in, and we on the other side are ready for a new approach.

Melinda Mahaffey said...

While I generally agree with your post - and that Carrie lived a lavish life on a make-believe budget - there was at least one episode where her profligate spending habits were addressed. I can't remember what season, but it's when Aiden moves out and she doesn't have the money to buy her apartment back. Her friends point out how much money she's spent on shoes - and she realizes that's the money she needed to house herself.

Anonymous said...

My thoughts exactly! Well said.

Chloƫ, Wardrobe Quarry said...

This was a really good review. Most of the reviews are like this and are not very happy with it, although I still feel the need to go and see it.

Footprints Australia said...

Thank you for expressing everything I've ever thought about SATC.

Mel said...

Oh, I have just now breathed a sigh of relief. I've only read your first paragraph yet, but I'm so glad it wasn't just me.

I cringed from start to finish as well and I so desperately wanted it to be just a bit of fun and fluff. But it wasn't...it was horrific. I'm going to read the rest of your article now!

Shaz said...

Totally agree with Chelsea. Nothing much more to add accept I cringed every time "Carrie" put on that "dumb shake of the hair flick with vacant eyes" look (happened about 20-30 times during the movie-I lost count). She (SJP) wasn't her usual acting self - I found her to be too overly aware of herself unlike the Carrie (SJP) of old.

jess said...

As someone who claims to be a pop culture junkie, I've never seen an episode of SATC or either of the movies. Aside from fabulous clothes, I'm glad to know I'm not missing out on much!

Bon said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I still plan to, despite all the horrific reviews. I feel compelled to almost, because I love the series and I enjoyed the first movie. I do not relate in any way, shape or form to the characters and their lifestyles and values, but despite all the things there are to dislike about SATC, it is still one of my favourites. For me, it really is just pure fantasy - and I don't think the writers/producers of the show ever tried to make out like it was anything else. The one thing that really crystallises this for me is their treatment of the World Trade Centre disaster in the series - by basically ignoring it. For a show that essentially casts New York itself as another character, to ignore such a defining and shocking event just doesn't make sense. Unless you accept that these women are characters who live in a fantasy world where things like terrorism and politics and tragedies don't happen. It's like they live in an alternate reality, where 9/11 didn't happen and freelance writers can afford to buy a new pair of $400 shoes every week.

Anonymous said...

They didn't ignore 9/11. They were classy about it and dedicated an episode to the city but didn't mention as a sort of a protest. Sort of to bolster the city's mood which was pretty dark after the attacks. To completely ignore the suffering of American's during the GFC and to act like a bunch of spoiled idiots in Abu Dhabi is just completely ridiculous. It showed that Michael Patrick King and SJP (who produced it) haven't lived in the real world for a long long time - even the jokes were so dated. OMG Don't even get me started on the racism. So horrendously offended by this movie is SO many ways.

Scarlett Harris said...

While you make some valid observations on Sex & the City 2, Erica, I have to disagree; I loved it!
It was certainly an exercise in glitz and glamour more so than the first film (http://earlybirdcatchestheworm.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/movie-review-sex-the-city-2/), and I think if audiences who are going to see it now, after reading all the negative reviews in the past two weeks, take it as such, it is an enjoyable movie.
You make reference to Carrie “struggling to get by on her last 20 bucks” in the series (the time when she says she’d rather buy Vogue than food because she felt it fed her more comes to mind), yet is still able to afford designer shoes and daily brunch with the girls on her measly writer’s salary. That, I find wildly implausible and certainly took away from the integrity of the show. I can swallow the implausibility of the movie, but I like my TV true to life, and sometimes that’s where the series fell flat.
I love nothing more than a fluffy movie – hence my appreciation for said glitz and glamour (and impeccable set decoration) of SATC2 – a sporadic two hours of escapism from my hectic and overthought life.
My television shows, on the other hand, I like replete with dramatic story arcs, compelling characters and thought-provoking subject matter – sometimes this is where the series flunked out. You mention “values of sexual permissiveness, rampant consumerism, appearance-based narcissism and cocktail-swilling”, which sometimes detracted from the positive aspects of the show (well written scripts, and the addressing of “women’s issues that were previously taboo on commercial TV”). I found Carrie’s frivolous attitudes to money (“I like my money right where I can see it… hanging in my closet”) and her column insulting, as a writer myself, and stereotypical. Sometimes the more I watched the show, the more I found Carrie to be “a little girl lost in big girl’s shoes”; irritating and childish. (She also acknowledges this in the second movie, after kissing Aidan.)
However, I feel in the two films SATC has spawned Carrie, especially, has grown and (finally) matured. Yes, SATC2 was weak in terms of storyline, female empowerment and even the fashions, but so long as we accept SATC2 for what it is – sparkly, fluffy escapism – it’s just a fun, frivolous and lengthy movie about girls (women) in the big city.

Ann Nolan said...

Oh Im seeing this film tonight with some girlfriends and have to say though I was a big SATC fan when it came out and also used to race home from a late uni class to see it I fear it might be....shock, horror....dated.

I've just seen snippets of the film to date and even then the clothes look...too loud, too crass...too in your face.

(With my best Carries voice on here rapping away on my Apple Mac) "Has our fashion not to mention morals changed so much post 911 that the concerns and worries of these 4 ladies not to mention their clothes look from a bygone era??

Oh well I'll know in about 10 hours!


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but why should women have "to let go of fashion, jobs, dreams, youthful skin and bodies"?

I find it completely absurd that women should wake up at a society designated age and turn into Granny May.