Hillary and the City
Is Sex and the City our culture's consolation prize to Hillary Clinton's supporters?
Does the movie version of Sex and the City owe its success to the failure of Hillary Clinton's campaign?
I haven't seen the movie. That's probably because I'm a man, according to the demographic breakdown of Sex and the City's opening weekend. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Josh Friedman reports that Friday's opening-day crowd was 85 percent female, dropping to 75 percent female on Saturday and Sunday. But despite this dearth of Y chromosomes, Sex and the City drew an opening-weekend gross of $55.7 million, which is the highest opening-weekend gross ever for a romantic comedy. (The previous record of $45.1 million is from Fifty First Dates in 2004.)Remember Thelma & Louise back in 1991? That was the last phenomenally successful girl-power movie; Time magazine ran a chin-pulling cover story wondering "Why Thelma & Louise Strikes a Nerve." The total domestic gross for Thelma & Louise, calculated in 2008 dollars, was $71.61 million. Sex and the City earned more than two-thirds as much in just its first weekend. Variety is callingSex and the City's opening weekend gross "an unprecedented takeover of the box office by women."
By weird coincidence, during the same weekend when Sex and the City demonstrated women's unprecedented consumer clout at the multiplex, Hillary Clinton's campaign developed its death rattle. Clinton's campaign has enjoyed strong support among older white women. Sex and the City's audience, meanwhile, in addition to skewing heavily female, skews old (at least by moviegoing standards): 80 percent of the opening-weekend audience was over 25. (I have no idea how white this audience is, but Helena Andrews noted in The Root that the movie's only black character is the lead character's amanuensis—the sort, it's been noted, played in bygone days by Hattie McDaniel.) Hillary's white-female shock troops are probably older than Sex and the City'swhite-femaleshock troops, but remember that Clinton's support among white women of all ages is quite substantial; a recent Gallup poll indicated that white female voters of all ages favor Clinton in a Clinton-John McCain matchup but McCain in an Obama-McCain matchup. Put all these numbers together and one gets the feeling that a Venn diagram would yield a good-sized proportion of white women who were both Sex and the City fans and Clinton voters.
The Clinton campaign has gotten a lot of white women jazzed up at the prospect of electing the first female president, and a good number stayed jazzed up even after it become apparent that Clinton almost certainly wouldn't get the nomination. By this past weekend, however, it was becoming clear to all but the most delusional Hillary supporters that the game was up. Sisterhood was powerful, but in this case it wouldn't prevail. That realization left a lot of white women all dolled up with nowhere to go. And so … they went to the movies. The connection, I'll grant you, is somewhat glib, but considerably less so than the widely accepted chestnut (disputed persuasively here by Slate's Fred Kaplan) that America embraced the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show because they needed their spirits raised after the Kennedy assassination a few months earlier.
Sex and the City and the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton will, at the very least, be perceived in the distant future as twin manifestations of a weirdly conflicted feminism. As the first serious female candidate for president, Clinton broke a glass ceiling. But it's problematic that this symbol of women's progress achieved prominence as the wife of a successful male politician—one whose flagrant affair with a White House intern nearly destroyed his own presidency but not his marriage. And indeed, a fair number of prominent feminists, including Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, Susan Sarandon, and Mary Gordon, cast their lot with Obama. Sex and the City, meanwhile, is a narrative that on the one hand celebrates female independence, sexual fulfillment, and career success—all important feminist goals—but on the other hand portrays women as clothes-obsessed, money-obsessed, status-obsessed, and hell-bent on catching a rich husband. (Or so I've gleaned from watching a few episodes of the TV show and reading reviews of the film.) Clinton and Sex and the City both represent a somewhat compromised female dream of power. Hillary Clinton nearly won the Democratic nomination, but only after marrying Mr. Big. Sex and the City celebrates camaraderie among strong women, but don't ask these ladies to sacrifice their Jean Paul Gaultier pajamas to pay for government-guaranteed, quality universal child care.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Still from Sex and the City by Craig Blankenhorn/New Line Cinema; photograph of Hillary Clinton by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.