Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex and the City, Part One

In the summer of 1999, I was a 33-year-old, never-married, dating-fixated, straight woman whose TV got the HBO channel. I didn't have a boyfriend, I was ready for love and, yes, I was hooked on Sex and the City. One of the series strengths was its willingness to tackle taboo subjects and I have always hoped the movies would do more of that. They haven’t.

Although I wanted to be confidently single Samantha, I was much more like Charlotte, who pined for romance, but even more like Carrie, as I moved into my late-thirties, still never-married and hoping. Should I feel self-conscious about how much I identified with a gratingly self-absorbed character who failed at relationship after relationship, yet remained fixated on a guy who stayed out of reach even as she reached her 40's? So it goes because I really identified with the show, except for how white it was. I'm not quite that white. Where were all the people of color who are supposed to live in New York? But that's another discussion.

I recently watched the first Sex and the City movie (I avoid theaters and never got around to seeing it in 2009). What struck me was that in the last season of the series, Charlotte and Miranda get married and the first movie could have given a window into what married life is like for them. In the final season of the TV show, we see Miranda struggling with the reality of marriage which includes taking care of a mother-in-law with increasing dementia. I wanted more of that reality because the unspoken iron curtain between marrieds and never-marrieds is a ripe taboo for Sex and the City to tackle.

For most of the TV series, the women are on the outside of that curtain. In one 1999 episode, Carrie describes an unspoken arrangement with married friends who own a summer house: Carrie gets a free vacation with them in exchange for juicy stories about her dating life. She explains that when married people ask a single person about her love life, she's expected to share some good stories, but it doesn't go in the other direction.

As Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha move from being four single women to being two singles and two marrieds, I wanted to see them tearing down that iron curtain and dishing about cohabitation struggles, til-death-do-us-part doubts, buyer's remorse and how sex changes when it's with your husband. Instead, the first Sex and the City movie shows us a blissfully, happily married Charlotte, a still-swinging Samantha, and a marriage-fixated Carrie who seems to assume that Miranda's marital problems are a temporary fluke that will never apply to her. Obviously, when you have four women in their 40's and 50's who exhibit middle-age spread only when the storyline wants to make a quick point, we are far removed from reality, but I still felt disappointed.

What I might be reacting to is the tension the show always had between wanting to be every woman's dream life and wanting to show the emotional realities of dating and relationships: it's tough, it's glamorous, it extremely painful, it's gorgeous. The first Sex and the City movie showed the pain of having your dream of getting married destroyed and the gradual recovery that comes afterwards. Parts of it were unblinkingly raw and I appreciated that it gave us an experience we could all relate to: sometimes life sucks. But unlike most of us, Carrie finally gets that unattainable, Hollywood-handsome, impossible man. The glamorous, happy ending makes it another movie that teaches us that we shouldn't give up on those cheating, unavailable, disappearing men who have everything we think we want, except for emotional accessibility. It’s a bad message and it doesn’t break any new ground.

Charlotte's storyline is also disappointing to me. When she gets married, we definitely see some behind-the-marriage-curtain dirt when her Prince Charming husband turns out to be impotent and then she's incapable of conceiving a child. But the neat solution is divorce, after which she marries a man who, although he's the opposite of what Charlotte had idealized, also seems perfect for her (she even tells Carrie that she gets frightened by how happy she is). So, if your marriage has problems, get a divorce and find one that has no problems? This is the kind of myth that is causing so many single, mainstream, highly educated American women to hold out for the perfect guy and it's causing a lot of loneliness.

Samantha, the ever-youthful sex queen who clearly hogged the self-esteem that Carrie and Charlotte need, is a wonderful, life-affirming fantasy creature who should replace Snow White and Ariel, but who never will because society (and that includes us) will never allow it. She's a great role model, but as much as I’ve wanted to, I've never been able to identify with her. Did I ever know, deep down, that I really didn't need a man? No. Also, Samantha is 50 and has the body of a 25-year-old. Does anyone really identify with her?

Only Miranda's storyline comes closest to breaking dangerous myths about dating and marriage. She's the anti-Carrie, and Steve represents the opposite of Big, which of course, means Steve is marriage material from the start. It's the Miranda story I identify with, as much as I'd rather be petite Carrie with her wealthy, muscular Big. I, too, married a man who had to grow on me, who didn't look like my romantic fantasies, but who turned out to be a hundred times better for me than those Bigs I cracked my heart on. Only the Miranda storyline shows what happens after the ceremony, back at home with the kid and the mother-in-law. We see her make mistakes with Steve and have to admit those mistakes and we see her reach the same conclusion as Charlotte - that's it's time to split up - and then come back from that decision to forgive her husband, and herself, and accept the compromises of a true union.

I'm not pro-marriage. Divorce is a great idea if the marriage is truly wrong for you and I wish more people would get divorced because there are some marriages that never should have happened in the first place. But the myth of marriage is that if it's right, it always feels right and that is crap. Marriage actually feels wrong a lot of the time and all of us wives (and husbands?) are making the choice every day, every year, to stay together, to give him another chance, to not quit just yet. There's a balance sheet and we regularly compare the pros and cons of staying married. When you hear of a couple celebrating an anniversary, it means the balance sheet is still coming out on the side of marriage over divorce, but no one knows how big that margin is except the couple themselves.

The story of Miranda and Steve illustrates this. It comes closest to showing how you often back up by accident into a long-term commitment and then surprise yourself by staying there. It’s rarely Hollywood-romantic (except for their bridgetop reunion scene) and is the behind-the-marriage-curtain reality that single people need to hear to balance the Carrie and Charlotte attitudes that are hampering our relationships.

Unfortunately, Miranda’s story is overshadowed by the others, as when we witness the arrogance of Carrie counseling Miranda on her marriage, when it should be Miranda giving Carrie the hard facts of true commitment. But I guess the Miranda story has to be downplayed in order to appeal to the advertisers, as well as to us women. We’re hooked like junk food, which is like cocaine, and I understand the new movie does an even worse job of addressing anything real. I’ll let you know after I see it.

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