Once a season or so, some piece of pop-cultural fluff that has hung around past its sell-by date--Forrest Gump, Twin Peaks, the Backstreet Boys--is declared an icon of our times. The newspapers run stories on how it has transformed the entertainment industry. Time and Newsweek place its stars on their covers, accompanied by earnest analyses of the social implications of its success. Producers of nostalgic documentaries make a mental note to include footage of it in their libraries of stock images.
Halfway into its third season, the HBO series Sex and the City is undergoing this process of canonization. A slight but charming farce featuring four superstylish single professional women in their 30s and a dreamily glamorized Manhattan has become the occasion for ponderous meditations on the state of American unions. More urban thirtysomething women than ever before are failing to marry, in the manner of the women on the show. In consequence, sociologists and family-values advocates must be interviewed in Time; a 32-year-old female TV anchor and her quest for a mate must be scrutinized in Talk. There are important questions to consider. Have American women given up on men, or is it the other way round? Does a woman's pursuit of liberty and a life preclude happiness? Are women happier because they're no longer forced to settle for men they don't really love, and where does that leave the guys? And off we go, leaving the show behind in our rush to answer the big question that every female-oriented entertainment product is for some reason expected to address nowadays: Has the liberation of women been good for us or bad for us?
But how relevant is feminism, really, when you're talking about Sex and the City? The show has as much to do with the actual women's movement or real women's lives as Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl did, which is to say, very little. It's true that there's something vaguely feminist about the stated premise of the show--that upper-class single women in their 30s aren't the pathetic losers everyone thinks they are but fabulous swingers instead--but once you've watched it for a while, you realize that that particular come-on is a bait-and-switch. Our heroines don't turn out to be Hugh Hefners for the new millennium. They're neither carefree nor sexually empowered. They're angst-ridden clotheshorses. They're not worrying about their careers, in which they appear to have little interest, except when work can serve as shtick. (With the exception of one who's a lawyer and has the hardest time getting a date, the protagonists have the usual girly jobs. Carrie, the narrator played by Sarah Jessica Parker, is a sexpert, a profession that seems to occupy the same cultural position as stewardess used to, at least in the sense of offering up bountiful opportunity for sexual experience and chitchat. Her other sidekicks are a publicist and an art gallery director.) Neither liberation nor self-actualization--the big issues of 1960s or 1970s feminism--enters their minds, except insofar as those things can be obtained through men. That, of course, is the answer to the question of what these women want--they want men, to date, to sleep with, or to marry, depending on which of the four you talk to. At least three of them turn out to be unreconstructed Rules girls. They'll play the game however they must to get what they want. You'd have a hard time distinguishing them from the kind of career girls offered up for our titillation in popular fiction, movies, television, and comic strips--think Brenda Starr--since the late 1910s and '20s. The main difference is that, since the show is on HBO, they talk a lot more frankly about bodily functions.
Actually, the dirty talk does more for this show than merely make it seem of the moment. To understand how cleverly the writers exploit the absence of censorship, you have to go back and watch an episode from late in the first season (the current season, sadly, is flaccid and soap-opera-ish and lacks comic specificity). The transgressive subject is a fart. It comes about like this: After weeks of sleeping with her new boyfriend, Carrie finally relaxes enough actually to sleep with him. One morning, though, while lying in bed, she farts. Mortified, she jumps up and runs out of his apartment and spends the rest of the day replaying the audio tape of the fart in her head. Miranda, the lawyer, laughs when Carrie confesses her worry that the fart has turned the boyfriend off sex forever. "You're only human!" she exclaims. But Samantha, the ultra-promiscuous publicist, who often seems like she wandered out of the 1970s soft-core classic Coffee Tea or Me, disagrees. "Huge mistake," she says.
"You think?" Carries says. "I mean I'm only human."
"No, honey, you're a woman," Samantha replies, "and men don't like women to be human. We aren't supposed to fart, douche, use tampons, or have hair in places we shouldn't. I mean, hell, a guy once broke up with me because I missed a bikini wax."
This is dorm-room humor at its best, deployed in the service of blatant paranoia. It's ridiculous, and yet it's also everyone's worst nightmare, that their partner will leave them because of some unfortunately passed gas. This sort of frippery is what makes Sex and the City so appealingly adolescent, despite its thirtysomething demographic. Farting--and freaking about it--turns a bunch of hyper-glammy babes, who in the real world would be utterly unapproachable, into people who seem almost earthy and real. Male viewers like the frank talk too: Aha! they think. So this is what women talk about when they're alone! TV critics take it as evidence of the show's feminist presumptions: Now, at last, women are free to say what's on their minds! But the women's obsessive dissection of farts and vaginal odor and menstrual etiquette whenever they find themselves in all-female company actually makes the opposite point. It shows you how much they can't say or reveal to members of the opposite sex. If a flimsy plot device about a fart that ends a relationship has any resonance at all, it's as a barometer of the fragility and provisionality of the emotional connections between men and women in this imaginary world, as if the romantic climate in which they dwell has about the same atmospheric weight as a photo spread in Vogue. If we really wanted to have a feminist discussion about Sex and the City, fear of farting would be the place to start. I mean, here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, and our leading female fictional characters are right back where they were at the beginning of the 20th--tying themselves up in constipated knots in order to make themselves palatable to men. The women's movement might as well never have happened.
Prefeminist as it is, though, Sex and the City is also oddly post-feminist. It's equal-opportunity in its ability to make people doubt the possibility of ever achieving intimacy, regardless of sex or age or whether they really ought to know better. I'm married and luckily no longer subject to the horrors of dating, but I still fret that I'm fat and unattractive after watching the show--and I can't imagine that men get up off the couch feeling any less self-conscious. Sure, Samantha's account of the feminine condition makes it sound like a sentence to life inside a laddie magazine. But she and the other women are as harshly judgmental of men as men are of them. Here are a few of the failings for which the girls dump their boyfriends on Sex and the City: a short penis, bad breath, sour-tasting semen, a lack of professional success, bad taste in shirts, impotence, and a tendency to make inappropriate noises while kissing.
Maybe that's just life in the sexual marketplace, baby--tentative, reductivist, and wittily devoid of compassion. Certainly, if there's news brought to us by this show, it's that even our most personal relationships are now wholly market-oriented and comparison-shopped. Interestingly, though, Sex and the City's cavalier hilarity on this score isn't limited to the single state. Its view of marriage is that it, too, is only skin deep. Wives are always dragging their husbands away from our temptingly available heroines. The husbands cheat on their wives anyway. Women about to give birth mourn the lost freedom of their single days. The only girl among the four to get married so far was immediately treated to a rude surprise: Her wealthy, genial, accommodating husband turns out, alas, to be impotent.
She should have known she couldn't get out of the rat race so easily! There's a war going on in Sex's city, and no one wins who doesn't pay in blood. The desperately tactical struggle to triumph in the sweepstakes of love--and to avoid being dragged down by the losers--is what keeps this show going from week to week. But since when can you trace sexual Darwinism back to feminism? Consider some of the original goals of women's liberation, and how they fare on the show: Female independence? Nobody wants that, at least not if it results in a drought of dates. Fulfillment? Sure, but it hardly seems likely. A more humane and equal relationship between the sexes? Equally cruel, perhaps, but far from humane. So don't blame the world of Sex and the City on us women--and we won't blame you men. What we really need is a new movement big enough for the both of us. Call it Freedom to Fart.