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Sunday, June 1, 2008
For years, I’ve been irked by certain criticism of Sex and the City, the series. I understand if someone doesn’t think the show was funny, entertaining or moving. But lashing out at the lifestyle of the “self-absorbed” female characters in what is, after all, an escapist comedy, telegraphs a fear of the undomesticated woman.


This isn’t the first time that a thirtysomething (or older), attractive, stylish, successful, single-and-looking, fictional female has terrified people with the notion that not every woman is mating and mothering according to social expectations. Some of you SATC fans might not remember the show Ally McBeal, which started airing in 1997, just a year before SATC. The show didn’t have the lasting impact of SATC, but for a while, it was notorious indeed, not just for miniskirted star Calista Flockhart’s increasingly twig-like physique but for reactions like Time Magazine’s 1998 cover story, which showed Flockhart’s face over the caption: “Is Feminism Dead?”

The very notion that a fictional character can somehow set the women’s movement back decades is sexist itself and condescending in the extreme. The attitude is, “We’re just concerned about YOU, dearies” with the implication that women can’t tell fact from fiction. Why does every modern, urban, single woman on TV or in film have to be a mistake-proof role model? The concept of the “model minority” character annoys me in other cases as well. A (black) friend recently told me that she thought Flava Flav set black people back decades. WTF? First of all, most of the world doesn’t know who he is. Secondly, it’s flat-out ridiculous that any individual can single-handedly roll back the progress of the last century; only already-prejudiced and uneducated people believe that an individual represents an entire race, nationality, religion or gender. No one in a free society should have to organize his or her life — or even TV show — around the insecurities of the bigoted. If you can make a good living wearing Viking helmets and big clocks, I fail to see how that hurts anyone else.

Yeah, he’s an idiot, but so what?

After all, white men can take credit for Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and both George Bushes, but no one says those fellows set white men back centuries. As far as the entertainment world goes, white guys have played the wife-threatening Ralph Kramden and the idiotic Three Stooges. Groucho Marx created a lecherous but somehow adorable persona. In this decade, Hollywood exalts the undeserving and inept slob with the much more attractive female partner (it’s always best to write from your own experience, right, boys?). Everybody Loves Raymond and The King of Queens have thankfully ended their television runs, but According to Jim still sullies the airwaves (interestingly, the show’s own website calls the character an “Everyman” and points out his “boyish bravado” aka immaturity). In the movies, Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen have created an oeuvre devoted to the doofus who is either single-mindedly looking for sex or trying to get out of the consequences of having had sex. How are any of these characters less self-involved than the SATC ladies? Oh wait! It doesn’t matter. Only women have to be selfless mommies; men are allowed to be stubborn, macho AND charming.

According to Jim

Men are also allowed to be unattractive. They don’t even have to TRY to look decent with whatever is within their control. It’s okay to have a beer gut, a bad shave and a smelly t-shirt. But God forbid a woman combines a less-than-Barbie-like appearance with a less-than-Mother-Teresa-like personality and is still portrayed as desirable. (It’s okay to be uglified if you have a heart of gold and don’t have too much sex.) I’m truly tired of the abuse heaped on Sarah Jessica Parker for her face. She was born with that face! I think it’s great that she became successful without remaking her nose, shaving her chin down and getting cheek implants. Charisma, personal style, talent and (even if you disagree with talent) great taste in choosing projects go a long way towards making someone lovely.

The late Isabella Blow was fashionably fabulous without being “pretty”

Interestingly, Parker first came to TV viewers’ attention playing the nerd with a heart of gold on the 1982 show Square Pegs. That’s the Ugly Betty syndrome. The non-Barbie is acceptable as long as she knows her place. Just don’t let her become a big star with an amazing wardrobe. Now she’s stepped out of bounds! How dare she get above herself!

Incidentally, I did see SATC The Movie last night because MrB wanted to. There were plenty of other men in the audience, despite the many stories I read about how no man would be caught dead in an SATC theater. I didn’t think the movie compared to the TV series at all. In my opinion, the writing was labored, the product placement was terribly heavy-handed, there were many scenes that went nowhere and everyone seemed to be trying too hard to live up to what they had created. On the other hand, there were some genuinely emotional moments and the four women had the excellent on-screen chemistry they always had. I think it was that chemistry that made the show such a success in the first place and I totally enjoyed it in the movie.

On a totally different note, the guy who complains about his psychologist’s cleavage in this story about how SATC has turned women into fashion sluts obviously has mommy issues. I’m sorry you weren’t breastfed, dude. Now get over it!

UPDATED TO ADD: Midwestgrrl has a good post that puts the same thing a different way. Pat Field says men are just jealous it’s not all about them for a change.

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66 Responses to “Sexism and the City”

  1. miss_B says:

    This is my first comment and all I need to say it’s totally agree!

    PS: I haven’t seen the movie yet!!!

  2. enc says:

    Best.Post.Ever.

    “According to Jim” should be titled “According to Jack@ss.” King of Queens isn’t intolerable, but I think we can aim higher. Jerry Stiller was the high point of that show.

    The thing that’s sad about all this sexism and stereotypes is, people continue to pay to see them. Bleah.

  3. Jules says:

    Could you hear me yelling my encouragement to you as I read this post? well, I was. Great fucking post!

    http://www.shinylittlethings.com

  4. editor says:

    an A+ post.

  5. Deja Pseu says:

    How did I miss this post?? Brava, brava!!!

  6. kat says:

    TRUE, SO SO TRUE! thankyou

  7. Laura says:

    Okay, I just wanna say, I do agree with most of your post. I hate, hate, hate According to Jim for those very reasons (and the fact that it’s not funny AT ALL). I agree with you about Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen (I hated Knocked up more than anything).

    But, I do think the women on Sex and the City do tend to be…self-absorbed and shallow. I remember seeing one episode where they were talking about how many abortions they’d gotten like they were talking about how many times they had gone to the dentist, completely casually.
    ‘How many have you had?’
    ‘5.’
    ‘I’ve only had one!’

    I am in no way against abortions, but…seriously.

    Okay, maybe this wasn’t what you were talking about, but I just wanted to say that I do think they’re kind of self-absorbed. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not because they’re not mothers or doting or need a guy. It’s because of the way they seem to treat people. I haven’t seen too many episodes though, so I could be wrong, I’m just writing based on what I’ve seen. Okay, that’s my two cents, thanks for reading my ramblings.

  8. WendyB
    Twitter: WendyBrandes
    says:

    Laura, I agree that the characters were not necessarily good role models. But why did they have to be role models at all? People recognize that Homer Simpson, Jim Belushi and the lunatics of “The Office” aren’t role models. Admittedly, there will always be people (often teenagers and guys who watch Jackass) who can’t distinguish between TV and their own lives and will follow the bad example that they see in a show. But we can’t stamp every single work of fiction — whether TV, movies or books — with a warning that says, “Don’t try any unpleasant personalities at home.”

  9. Laura says:

    WendyB–

    I didn’t mean that they had to be good role models. It seems to me like they’re supposed to be role models, though. The Office and The Simpsons are quite obviously fiction and satire, but According to Jim seems to say, “this is how every American lives/should live, and if you don’t, people will laugh at you. Even though we’re supposed to be funny, this is how real men should be. This is how real women should be.”
    And Sex and the City seems to me to say, “we’re real 21st century women, and if we do something that’s not okay, it’ll be obvious by the end of the show and written in Samantha’s journal. Every woman should be so lucky to be like us.”
    And too many people are easily impressed by TV.
    Sorry I’m bad at explaining what I mean, I guess I just have issues with that show. :)
    Also, I don’t mean to single this show out–like I said, there are certain programs that just rub me the wrong way.

  10. WendyB
    Twitter: WendyBrandes
    says:

    Fair enough, to each her own!

  11. Sabbah Haji says:

    Nice! And I don’t even like SATC, but not for the above reasons. I am blameless! Well writ. :)

  12. diya says:

    Wendy-

    YOU ARE MY HERO(INE). That is all. ON a slightly different note, I’m always pissed that some people view even a gal dressing up/shaving her legs as anti-feminist… how does that work? Being feminine does NOT mean being anti-feminist.

  13. JY says:

    A misguided defense. If it was instead a movie for guys about self-absorbed men who only care about sex and treating women like objects and gadgets it would get the same amount of criticism.

    The phrase of “set back” is just a phrase, I think you’re taking it way too literally. Nobody is saying SATC by itself set women or feminism back it’s just a way of saying how horrid and awful that SATC is so admired by women.

    As for Sarah Jessica Parker I think the reason so many people call her ugly is because all these fashion magazines and celebrity news shows go out of there way raving about how gorgeous she is when she’s not, she’s about average. So it’s really a backlash.

    • WendyB
      Twitter: WendyBrandes
      says:

      “If it was instead a movie for guys about self-absorbed men who only care about sex and treating women like objects and gadgets it would get the same amount of criticism. ” — you mean like any of hundreds of movies from Porky’s to The Hangover? You sound make it sound like that kind of movie is a rarity when it’s very common indeed.

  14. Fasshonaburu
    Twitter: fasshonaburu
    says:

    OMG, I especially hate how women have to be pretty but men don’t!

    And yeah, the movie was kinda forced and cheesy, but I really loved that one scene with Miranda and Charlotte.

  15. jennine says:

    You know, I don’t think SATC goes far enough. I love the fact it’s about women who own their sexuality, but they’re perfectly dressed, wildly successful, intelligent and still they fit into what cultural norms..who’s mom doesn’t work? what woman doesn’t have her own career… It’s shocking because there isn’t a lot out there, but not because they are addressing anything that hasn’t already become acceptable.

    Personally, I’d like to see a show based on the book ‘Wetlands’ by Charlotte la Roche. The character in the book really challenged our notions of femininity and sexuality. I had to shut the book a couple of times… it was like watching Family Guy for the first time. Brilliant.