Issue 228 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
Trendy reviewers were drooling at the prospect of another controversial programme about the battle of the sexes when Sex and the City came out. We were told it would be sassy, brassy and taboo busting--a ruder, bolder Ally McBeal. Any aspiring dinner party hostess could simply whisper the words, Sex and the City, and the success of her evening was assured--her guests would plunge into a memorable argument about its methods.
The reality was different. Sex and the City is based on a regular column in the New York Observer which satirised the Manhattan mating game. The television series features four women: the sexually predatory successful PR woman, Samantha; the conventional gallery owner, Charlotte; Miranda, the lawyer, and Carrie, the 'sexual anthropologist' columnist. The woman are all conventionally attractive, thin and high cheekboned. Their careers are so successful that they barely work at all--instead they lunch and shop. Most importantly of all, they have sex, lots of sex with lots of different men, all in pursuit of the perfect mate.
It is impossible to ignore this series but not I hasten to add, because it dominates the conversation at dinner parties or in the pub. on the contrary, it is only worth discussing Sex and the City because, under the glamour and sophistication, it is so sordid and pernicious. It is not as original as it is cracked up to be. The idea of a television series based on single women's experience of living in the big city was done better in Take Three Girls or The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These women actually had more independence than the new crop of single and desperate women.
The only difference with Sex and the City is the explicit sex. Of course, any programme that helps people to feel more confident about exploring their sexuality is welcome--but Sex and the City isn't it. This is sex in a context where women are explicitly trying to turn the tables on men, 'to have sex just like men do', but by this they mean to have sex without any emotional involvement, to have sex casually and then walk away. Thus it is seen as liberating to have an orgasm and then leave before the man you are having sex with does. Thus it is seen as taboo breaking to discuss anal sex, but in the same conventional terms as women used to discuss losing their virginity in the 1950s and 1960s. Thus it is seen as a great breakthrough to 'reclaim' words which are the most offensive towards women and their bodies.
This programme is not about challenging sexist ideas. It is about giving them glossy new packaging. The pressure to explore sex so openly does not come from the (virtually non-existent) artistic needs of the show, or from any commitment to exploring important issues around sexuality and sexual confidence. Rather, it is because of the financial interests of Home Box Office, the makers of the programme who happen to be a subscription only channel whose financial success depends on making programmes which are more titillating and explicit than those shown on other channels.As a result Sex and the City is derivative and exploitative. It is just another aspect of the commercialisation of sexuality which seems to have gathered pace in recent years. Sex is everywhere, being used to sell everything, and we are supposed to be at it all the time. But the truth, according to a recent Journal of American Medicine survey, is that around a third of women still do not have the knowledge or confidence to enjoy satisfying sexual relationships, and 40 percent of men 'have no interest in sex'. Programmes like Sex and the City seek to manipulate and profit from the gap between people's sexual aspiratlons and their experiences.
Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte are fed up with men because men don't recognise their qualities and pay court to them: maybe they should ask themselves why any man would want to go anywhere near them when all they do is wallow in their status and wealth, when they are so self centred and trivial.
This is dreary designer softporn or the desperately sad. It is post-feminist and definitely post-interesting. The only cheering thing about Sex and the City is that its, viewing figures fell dramaticallyfrom 3.6 million to 2.6 million--and that is in the first week.