Spoiling Sex and the City
Four women argue about the clothes, the men, and the ending.
Posted Saturday, May 31, 2008, at 7:46 AM
Readers take note: This discussion is designed to be read by people who have already seen the Sex and the City film. There are REALLY BIG SPOILERS ahead. GIGANTIC, ENORMOUS SPOILERS right in the VERY FIRST LINES. Read at your own risk.
Dana Stevens: Let's kick off with the most spoiler-y question of all. What did you all think of the ending? When Carrie finally married Big—after he'd left her at the altar (well, near it) in the movie's first act—did it make you swoon, gag, swoon while gagging, remain poker-faced, or what?
Meghan O'Rourke: I felt numb. The movie was heading toward Schindler's List length. The whole thing felt bloated and self-important—precisely what the zippy TV show never was.
Erinn Bucklan: It felt like the characters hadn't changed, especially Carrie, even after all that drama. These women will continue their pattern:blow up at a man, bond with the ladies, buy a few things, and go back to a man.
Meghan: The show (and even more so, the original book by Candace Bushnell) was essentially episodic and nonteleological. And that was part of what was good about it:It dispensed with one-dimensional Cinderella narratives about women and talked about what dating life in NYC was really like. But the movie reneged on that essential contract with the viewers.
June: I agree. This movie convinced me that at least in some cases, telly is better.
Meghan: I never loved the show all that much, but I tuned in for the clothes and to have something keeping me company as I paid my bills. It was short, tight, and sorta charming (like S.J. Parker herself). I thought the movie was shallow and materialistic. And the materialism of the show feels very different in 2008 than in 2000. E.g., Carrie, after Big jilts her, says, "I feel like I took a bullet." Um, really? You mean, like a soldier? It totally animated the moralist in me.
Erinn: It's so funny that you bring up that "bullet" line. So many audience members were sobbing throughout my screening, and I was struck by hearing more crying in that movie than during any serious war movie or mourning scene I've watched in a looong time. I left thinking, Geez, people are really hurting for love.
Dana: Erinn, can you describe your relationship to the show as our resident hater? Did you watch it regularly despite (or because of) the fact it got on your nerves?
Erinn: I actually did watch it regularly because so many people around me were obsessed, and, well, I did like to track the cartoonish fashions. It was a train-wreck of a group of women.
June: One thing I really missed in this movie was work. Yeah, yeah, the apartments and clothes were always beyond their pocketbooks, but they did have jobs. In the movie, Samantha was still working but hated what her job had turned into—got no pleasure from it. Miranda doesn't seem to like her work, but she's responsible and knows she has to do it. Carrie didn't do any bloody work, though she seemed to have produced some books. Charlotte's got her man. But there was no joy in work.
Meghan: There was no joy in anything! There was just a lot of fear. And porn, or what counts for porn in NYC: The movie opens with the money shot, as it were—a beautiful view of a stunning prewar penthouse that Carrie and Big want to buy and live in.
My big problem with the movie is that no one talked about anything. Steve fucks another woman when Miranda won't have sex with him (they've had sex once in six months). And she gets mad and won't forgive him. But there's no discussion of what role her frigidity played or whether they might be able to get past it. The film invokes all these contemporary koans about what's hard about marriage (commitment, fidelity, etc.). But it never investigates them with any pathos.
Erinn: It's true. These women are supposed to be so sophisticated. But they are always so emotionally crude.
June: And the big dilemmas the characters face are over nothing—Steve did something wrong, but thoughtlessly, unintentionally, almost accidentally; Big jilts Carrie, but only because he wanted to talk to her before the wedding and forgot that brides don't always have their cell phones handy (there were no pockets in that Vivienne Westwood, after all—maybe grooms should see the wedding dress beforehand so they realize that).
So the characters weren't asked to compromise—just to forgive transgressions that are almost random.
Dana: Anyone notice that Miranda never once asked Steve the most obvious thing to ask when you get cheated on:Who was she? Maybe the movie didn't want to make a big thing of the rival, but it seemed unnatural for the subject not to at least come up.
Meghan: OK, but here's what I liked about the movie:that little stretch of real melancholy in the middle after Big jilts Carrie and the gals go to Mexico. There's an amazing moment when Samantha feeds Carrie yogurt in bed. I confess tears welled up in my eyes. (OK, I'm a sentimental pushover.) But that scene seemed to capture something real about female friendship:It gets stronger, in my experience, as you age and become more vulnerable, as you find yourself living with less drama but, perhaps, more pain. And the way that Samantha and Charlotte in particular tend to Carrie after Big leaves her at the altar felt authentic. My favorite moment in the film—the only one I really will remember, I think—is when Big tries to talk to Carrie on the street after he jilts her and Charlotte screams: NO!
June: Yeah, they looked like soldiers protecting and then retrieving their fallen comrade, then nursing her back to life and eventually health and happiness. There's that war imagery again.
Meghan: Ah, but love is war, my friend. The movie did want us to think that, didn't it? But then it backs away at the last minute.
Dana: When Carrie goes back to the Fifth Avenue penthouse at the end to get her shoes, there's a voice-over line about "going back to our prewar apartment, post-war." The comparison of what happens between her and Big to armed conflict is a pretty explicit, if low-key, theme throughout. But the movie's total divorce from real political events didn't really bother me—SATCneeds to be oblivious in that way. Just imagine how much worse it would have been if they'd attempted to slip in some somber hand-wringing about Iraq in between the lovelorn anguish and the Lacroix gowns.
Meghan: Actually, the moral of the story—if this were a Jane Austen novel—would have to be: Don't let the flower girl hold your cell phone. She makes a terrible go-between. Also, don't let careless friends mouth off at your rehearsal dinner about how much marriage sucks.
June: I've got to say, though, Lily's obviously got taste. I know Carrie's style is mixed-up wacky, but bejeweled phones are heinous, and Lily was right to hide it.
Erinn: I knew the minute I saw Carrie's fiendish bridal headgear that she was going to be jilted. She looked horrible. She was selfish and taking that wedding over the top. And she looked ugly to underscore that.
Meghan: Some mixed messages there, no? You should be a bride, but you shouldn't wear a Vivienne Westwood gown and invite 200 people.
June: I thought she looked awesome in the Vivienne Westwood and mousy in the vintage suit she wore in the eventual wedding. The bird was weird, but Carrie's at her best when she's looking weird.
Dana: The bodice to that Vivienne Westwood gown fit horribly! I guess that was supposed to be the look—it was repeated on a dress at the runway show—but it looked like a giant breastplate sticking out 6 inches from her torso! Part of the ongoing warrior subtext, maybe?
June: Here's my question: Do people really come to New York for love? They come for work and worry that they'll never find love because New York's so weird. (Except gay men, but gay Americans—who are surely one of SATC's core fan groups—were severely dissed in this film. There was the Chelsea "he's hot, oh, he's with a guy" moment, then the Mario Cantone character getting together with Stanford (never in a million years for so many reasons) at New Year's. And that, my friends, was it).
Meghan: June, you're totally right: That theme rang hollow for me. People come to NYC for money and for work. That's in fact how Sex and the City the book opens; with a discussion of the fact that love in NYC is impossible because it's not the point.
Dana: What did you all think of the fact that Carrie and Big do finally end up together, after all she goes through to convince herself that he will never stop doing ... that thing Big does? June, I was thinking in particular about your theory that Big should always be a MacGuffin, that when he becomes an actual character everything falls apart.
June: I do think that Big is better when he's a MacGuffin—a cipher that doesn't even have a name. When I see him reading the WSJ in bed at night (a man like him would have to read that before 8 a.m. or not at all) or cutting tomatoes (everybody did an awful lot of food preparation for New York—I have a lot less money than all the characters but I never so much as buy corn, much less shuck it myself), I have to treat him as a real person, and since he's not terribly convincing as a big businessman/guy-so-rich-he-has-a-driver-with-him-at-all-times, I lose interest and faith.
I did enjoy (you know what I mean) the jilting because of the way the women responded, but Big's actions made no sense. I still don't know what he wanted exactly—but I don't know that I'm supposed to.
Erinn: I think Big was frightened to commit once again to a woman who would always put her girlfriends above him. If I were the bride and my groom spent the night with his guy friends and I called him distressed about the wedding and my groom didn't come home and never picked up my phone calls (OK, for a good reason, but in a moment of panic, who thinks clearly?), and all I wanted was to "walk in" together but I couldn't because he was surrounded by his pals, if I had the guts, I might have bailed too.
Meghan: I like your sympathy for Big, Erinn, and it's clever to flip the gender like that: We'd read his ambivalence really differently if the genders were reversed. I thought he seemed within his rights. He felt that Carrie was ignoring his ambivalence about having a huge wedding, and he was right. She wasn't listening. Not that she deserved to be jilted, but the issue there was more complicated than it might seem. Same with Steve. Yet the movie's writers never let the viewers really contemplate the true back and forth that needs to go into any partnership—which is what, since the movie is about these characters growing up and finally dealing with commitment, I hoped to see. But nope! Instead, it was off to the next iconic moment: A fashion show! A scene with Cosmos! Charlotte being humiliated! Carrie in fur!
Erinn: Very interesting about Big being a MacGuffin. But if that's the case, then what are they striving for? I never thought of the men as not the point. I guess because the women can be so mean to each other (laughing at Charlotte's Montezuma's revenge; Miranda telling her bff's fiance "you're crazy to get married"; Samantha rushing off the phone when Carrie says she's engaged) that their friendship doesn't seem like the point either. If it's not about men or women, what's the point of the show then?
June: They were mean to one another in places. The idea that Charlotte soiling herself would be the really funny thing that finally allowed Carrie to laugh totally baffled me.
Erinn: Their friendship is toxic.
Dana: I don't have a scatological sense of humor myself. But I have at least one friend who would fall down laughing if I crapped my pants, and that wouldn't mean she loved me any the less.
June: OK, now I'm laughing at the thought of you crapping your pants!
Dana: Does that mean our friendship is toxic?
June: Let me just put it this way: When you notice I've put on 15 pounds, no need to be quite as direct as Mario Cantone's character was to Samantha.
Dana: God, we haven't even touched on that horrible fat-Samantha plot development—a moment when you realize that for all its glossy "feminism" the show really is policing women's bodies quite closely. God forbid a 50-year-old woman have the tiniest roll of belly flab, or that a working mother's pubes should go unwaxed.
June: As uncomfortable as the pubes thing made me (I wanted to plug my ears and shut my eyes), it was one of the rare moments when the women were presented as having flaws. Samantha was a bitch. (And why didn't anyone else say so?)
Dana: But that's the problem. The movie presented it as Miranda's flaw (having visible pubic hair) instead of Samantha's (being a bitch).
Meghan: To answer your question, Erinn: I think the point of the show was to try to capture something accurate about the rhythms of mating in NYC in the shadows of hedge funds. I think it wanted to show what it felt like to walk down a West Village street wearing an outfit that would make power brokers (of fashion, of film, of art) turn around. I think it wanted to portray how fleeting interactions between men and women in penthouses could leave deep scars. I think it wanted us to mourn for its characters and to envy them, and to realize how screwy that was—like wanting power more than happiness, a condition many New Yorkers find themselves in. And the show did capture a lot of this stuff (early on, at least). The movie, on the other hand, wanted merely to recapture the iconography of the show.
Erinn: That makes sense. Someone told me that when she left New York and moved to Hong Kong she enjoyed the show much more than when she returned here. I think that's important. I just love this city too much to think the meatpacking district's crowd embodies it. Because it doesn't.
I guess, in the end, I actually liked the movie as far as the SATC phenomenon goes. I didn't see it as much of a departure from the characters' essences, but this time it was like I was sitting in a really big living room with the jampacked audience hooting and sniffling away. Yes, unfortunately, the craze will go on and the movie will be a hit.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Erinn Bucklan is an editor in New York.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Still of Sarah Jessica Parker (left) as "Carrie Bradshaw" and Chris Noth (right) as "Mr. Big" in Sex and the City by Craig Blankenhorn/New Line Cinema.