When the Sex and the City movie was released in May of 2008, there were crowds. Not just crowds, hoards of people, oceans maybe. And everyone in the theater opening night shared a common swell of emotion for every up and down that Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda go through in the film. (I may or may not have been one of those people to see it opening night. With my girlfriends. No shame.)
What about this HBO show struck such a chord with so many people as to draw such huge audiences? There was something different about this show that reserves “Sex and the City” an important slot in the history of television.
In the early days of television, women were portrayed (aligned with the social norms of the time) in a domestic setting with goals no higher than keeping up a happy home, their own happiness satisfied by the men surrounding them. This is perhaps an extreme description of some television classics, but it is easy to see how shows like “The Burns and Allen Show” and “I Love Lucy” show women is something less than empowered.
Check out this clip from “The Burns and Allen Show”:
“We have so much in common…When I was her age, I was seventeen too!” Gracie’s misunderstandings and miscommunication can be seen as a coping mechanism for a life of domesticity without agency. Of course, we can also see it as comedy, we can’t look at any television without seeing it in social context.
Next, let’s look at some clips from “I Love Lucy”:
It’s a classic episode, you’ve probably seen it before…pay close attention to the end, too. In this episode, as in most, the conflict exists over Lucy trying to work or get out of the house in some way. However, her efforts are always thwarted, because, as the end of this episode shows, the woman’s place is in the home.
As we saw in class, things changed in 1970 with “Mary Tyler Moore,” where we see Mary, a single woman in the workplace with an acknowledged dating life…a far cry from hausfraus of yore. In this clip, we see Mary being interviewed for a position at the TV station. When pressed on her social life, she holds her own with strength in “spunk”:
“Sex and the City” picks up where MTM leaves off, taking the lives of four successful New York women and showing their lives from their perspectives. Of course, what caused the biggest splash was showing women talking openly and explicitly about their sex lives.
“When I RSVP to a party, I make it my business to…” Oh, Samantha. We have four caricatured women in Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha and Miranda: each has their own “thing,” a facet of the modern woman. Charlotte is traditional, searching for a husband, Miranda is career oriented, Samantha is successful in bed and in business, and Carrie quasi-quirky girl-next-door…dare we call her the “intellectual,” being a writer and all. We only see superficial visions of their lives, with what is left unseen leading to a certain number of problems.
First of all, the four leads are all white and well off. This excludes a huge portion of the potential viewership that identifies as a marginalized group of race or class. Secondly, despite the show having “Sex” in its very title, the view of female sexuality is (for the most part) heterosexual. Samantha does have her lesbian tryst, however, her lover is a minority as well as a lesbian, problematic in implying that these things exists only outside of the “norm” of the white main characters. Additionally, despite how progressive this show was to talk about sex on TV from a female point of view, this concept is so centered around organizing their lives around men. Sure, it’s also about friendship. Sure, it’s also about escapism and clothes. But for crying out loud, Mr. Big was so ubiquitous that is is called MR. BIG. He became a concept more than a person.
These fragmented characters were no mistake. For another class, one of the writers of SATC came in to talk with us. We asked about why we never really see anything about any of the women’s families. I wondered if this was to distance the show from the past domestic representations of women in TV (such as “Burns and Allen” and “Lucy”). She said that in fact, it was because during the preparations for an episode they were writing that was going to include a familial reference, the producers found that the writers had all projected their own familial situations onto the lives of the women. They found that this ability to identify with them was an important connection for the viewer to have: a blank slate is easier to project onto and relate to than a fully fleshed out character.
This kind of wish fulfillment and identification through projection covers plenty of sins, and in the end, there is success in that.