Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sex and the City - How did I Dodge That Bullet?

I lost my virginity yesterday - my Sex and the City virginity (I've even started talking like them, eww!). Yes, I who was in my early 20s in the late 1990s - prime age for indoctrination into the ideology of Cosmo-swilling, overpriced shoe and handbag shopping and talking way more about sex than actually doing it - I had never seen an entire episode of Sex and the City till yesterday.

Most of my Sex and the City knowledge had been entirely derivative until now. I had read page after page about how SATC was the definitive show on how the young urban live their lives - women who fuck like men (whatever that means), women bonding over being single, handbags and shoes as validation of self-worth, ladies who lunch ad infinitum in the middle of a working day etc., etc.

So after the umpteenth commentary on the SATC-fication of the lives of urban young women, I couldn't hold out any more and saw a few back-to-back episodes on Youtube.

To begin, let me go ahead and say what criticism of the show I find absurd:

1. It show women as uni-dimensional creatures who are obsessed with sex and little else: Umm...hello, the show is called Sex and the City. Obviously the idea is that it is the sex lives of the women that are the highlight, while everything else sort of recedes in the background. Now it's valid to say that it's impossible to isolate a woman's sex life in this way from her professional and social life, but surely this sort of creative license is par for course.

2. These are privileged, wealthy women whose lives are in no way representative of the lives of women everywhere, or even New York women: I think the show does tend to claim that it's presenting some sort of archetypal New York women, which is sheer nonsense. But the characters are clearly a slice of very affluent New York society and surely you're not deluded enough to think that a newspaper columnist can afford to frequently buy $400 shoes (1996 prices) without some kind of family money to shore her up? These are not typical New York woman, and that is transparent enough.

So there, I have no problems with the focus of the show (sex, men, sex, sex, men) or the protagonists (independently wealthy 30-something NY women). In fact, there are a few things I liked about the show:

1. The female bonding: This, I suspect was really the main attraction of the show for a lot of women. It is also the aspect of SATC that women "get" and men don't. In the same way that most women "get" Jane Austen and most men don't. The fact that more than what is being shared, it is the act of sharing - of lazy brunches with friends and chatting about our lives (one of my favourite things to do in the whole world).

2. The urban life: I love shows where cities are as important a character as the people in the show. Also, shows where a lot of the action takes place in urban spaces during day time, with people bustling about, or just sitting down for a bit for a cappuccino, or stopping for a bit on their way to work to admire a quirky window display. These are all things I love to do and love watching people do (another beloved pastime of mine being people watching on busy sidewalks).

Oh crap, enough with the love-fest, start with the bitching already!

1. On its own, sex, men, sex, men, men, sex, gets boring after a while: It does - and I'm not just saying this because I'll be a prime contender for the Bad Sex Writing award if I ever choose to write about a sexual episode. If I recall the times when I was single and dating, the only memorable bits are the very unexpected, epiphanic, strange or absurd moments and the "so bad they're fantastic stories to tell friends" dates. The sex per se wasn't the most memorable, even when it was very good, or was only memorable when it was atrociously bad.

Like the Indian neurosurgeon who after an all day museum date said: "Wow that was a productive museum visit! Let's see, we saw two Kandinskys, three Dalis, and, maybe four Picassos. And oh that room with the Georgia O'Keefes, there must have been about 10 of those, no?" (Splendid - perhaps we should spreadsheet this and calculate a Museum Visit Productivity Index?)

Or when the Spanish director and I went to get some coffee at Starbucks and an 80-something looking American man, a total stranger, turns to us and says, loud enough for everyone to hear: "So, are you two fucking"? (Yes we are, and none of your business you asshole - I never said that to him, I just shook my head and smiled).

Or the economist (who read for his PPE at Balliol dah-ling) who thought he was being oh so seductive when he said "how about a Sex on the Beach", when we were walking on the beach at night and I just burst out laughing because it sounded so incredibly cheesy and silly.

Or when I was taken to a sushi restaurant on a date by an American actor, who when asked what we would like by waitress said with a grand flourish - "Surprise us"!
Waitress: "Sorry sir, we don't serve surprise"!

And that's just me with my relatively uneventful dating history. Most actual women have far more interesting stories of quirky, eccentric men, funny or disastrous dates. Yet, most dates and relationships on SATC are cringe-worthy and cheesy, with men who are caricatures of real men and drawn from a severely limited pool of about half a dozen professions, all incredibly successful at what they do. Episode after episode of nausea-inducingly one-dimensional men with little to recommend them, which brings me to my second point.

2. The level of misanthropy that permeates the show is shocking: Yes, the men are not the focus of this show, but why oh why should they fare so badly. If they are successful they are cold, calculating, emotionally unavailable, if they are of modest means, they are wimps, the opposite of alpha-males, and unable to take charge of their lives. If it is true that the show was scripted by a team of all gay men, then perhaps they went with what they think women perceive men to be.

Are women really so disappointed in men? I mean, sure I've said the usual "all men are bastards" after a bad date, and every time I read another story about violence against women I despair of the state of our civilization. Maybe I've been incredibly lucky in life, but a majority of the men I know are sensitive, have strongly internalized values of gender equality, are not threatened by strong women, and are not callous assholes in general. Which leads me to my third point:

3. What exactly does "fucking like a man" mean?: Is it having sex for the sake of having sex? And we had to wait for 1996 New York to invent this? Are you trying to tell me no women were having guilt-less emotionally unattached sex before? And what exactly is so masculine about it? What really annoyed me was the fact that the men on the show were being portrayed as cads for doing the exact same things that the women on the show aspired to.

So if you do it, you're a nasty toxic bachelor.

If I do it, then I'm living feminist ideals

Vive la difference indeed!

There's nothing exclusively male about having sex just because you want to and not because it's a means to some other emotional or social end like a relationship or marriage. Sometimes women want a relationship and sometimes a one-night stand and shock! horror! many don't feel any guilt over this. Unlike the SATC women, who obsessively analyze every move they make in their sex lives, seeking validation in the opinions of their friends, because they are too scared to trust their own.

4. Finally, no, designer shoes and handbags are not equal to self-affirmation: Let's cut women some slack because men are hardly targeted with the kind of consumerist onslaught that women are. A tiny fraction of the advertising budget of the apparel industry is spent on men, with the lion's share spent on attracting female consumers. Ditto for cosmetics, accessories, furnishings, and so on. The men have their razor and deodorant ads and that's about it.

And quite frankly, shopping is fun, buying shoes and handbags is great instant gratification and does give you a lot of pleasure (says the woman with the shoe and dress habit). I'm not particularly opposed to consumerism - I'd much rather the rampant consumerism of the West compared with the killjoy socialism and oppressive pessimism of pre-liberalization India (a lot of those who oppose the harmful effects of Western culture are either prudes or plain jealous).

However, I'd much rather this shopping and consuming be seen as fulfilling for its own sake rather than some broad statement about how a woman is magically transformed into an urban sophisticate with savoir-vivre wearing the right kind of shoe and drinking the right cocktail.

No and no.

For one, the Cosmo sucks. Take my word for it, and I'm an immensely trustworthy source because I basically hate all cocktails. Well, in any case I haven't seen a single woman in any LA bar order a Cosmo in the last 5 years, so perhaps it's fallen out of favour anyway and women dread ordering it for fear of being labeled SATC wannabes.

As for the shoes, of course you should buy as many designer shoes as you want if that's what you want. But the whole thing is quite a scam. These shoes are way, way overpriced. I have Louboutins and Pradas that were purchases marked down 90 per cent and I still felt I paid a little bit too much for them (one of the perks of being in LA is the Barney's Warehouse and other designer sales).

My absolute favourite higher end shoes are the ones made by the French ballet shoe company Repetto that also makes primarily ballet flats and other shoes. They cost a fraction of designer brands and are much prettier and more comfortable (and even then I buy them only when they are heavily discounted. I'm cheap that way). For everyday shoes I adore a lot of the stuff at Payless Shoes. $9.99 silver ballet flats baby!

But fuck, that's not even the point, no? The point is that a sophisticated mind cannot be purchased off the racks of Barneys and Bergdorfs. You can wear all the Chanel and all the Balenciaga you want, that still won't make you cool by association (and anyway, Chanel is for society matrons). This sounds positively old-fashioned but what happened to reading a book or learning an art goddamit? Who are we more likely to be impressed by: a woman who burns through her savings with a designer shopping spree or someone whose effortless charm and grace is the result of a lifelong devotion to intellect and aesthetics?

Quite frankly, in real life, I wouldn't want to be an acquaintance, much less friends with any of the four main SATC characters. They are all equally vacuous and boring (besides, Sarah Jessica Parker's little girl voice would grate on my nerves in 5 minutes flat).

And yet, somehow it is these SATC women who have become the definite urban women of our age. The quintessential modern single girl whose life revolves around fashion, parties, shopping, men, sex and work (not necessarily in that order, but work comes last any which way you line these up).


Blogger The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

oh. took some thoughts right out of my head. i even have a post like this in my drafts. just find the s.a.t.c series plain unworthy of a post. glad you wrote this. what about the really horrid acting by SJP? besides that voice, yes.

10:35 AM  
Anonymous rishi_khujur said...

The first time commenting here.
Very thoughtful...what you wrote.

Had very similar feeling when I saw "sex in the city" episodes. Especially the way the girls justified their thoughts and actions.

Rishi Khujur

12:08 PM  
Blogger IR said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:04 AM  
Blogger IR said...

you know finally a woman said it , if men do it they are shallow however if women do it is "womens liberation"

what i find appaling is that , if this whole thing is about letting "women" decide what they want to do, then why are women who do not lead the kind of lives as shown on the show , are looked down upon.
why are women who look after the family instead of work outside , looked down upon.

"women" who do that are no different from either men or those sections of the society who belive women should never leave the house.

nice post ,

7:10 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

The Girl from Ipanema: SJP is just a terrible actress and has exactly one face for every role - a girly, cutesy wide smile. The voice I cannot stand.

Rishi: Welcome. Yes there was way more Talk Sex and not the City.

IR: You know, I'm a little bit uncomfortable with letting it all go down the spiral of relativism - historically speaking, most women have stayed at home out of compulsion, not choice. But yes, there are people who think that a woman always stays at home by compulsion or lack of options - not true.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Rohan said...

You can't review a show after watching a few episodes on YouTube! Watch all the seasons! The level of misanthropy does come down, I'll tell you that much. It was a nice review though. Very thorough, like most of your posts.

1:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well.. I also lost my SATC virginity just a week back, and now on a constant urge to watch the episodes back to back.

So far in Season 2, and I feel every of those bold comments to be true. But its still fun to watch.
And yes.. I hate SJP, and Charlotte's character... Big is nice!

(Unable to bear my SATC banter, TGFI gave me this link :))

10:59 PM  

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