Maybe I’ve been reading too much Slate, but I’m going to be contrarian and, instead of joining in the Sex and the City 2-bashing, I’m going to defend it. That’s right! I’m going to make a feminist case for Sex and the City 2.
First, let me concede most of the zingers unleashed by critics are justified.** The film’s treatment of the Middle East is quite offensive, not because the film is wholly ignorant (Michael Patrick King turns Miranda into a walking Wikipedia) but because it wants us to think it means well while simultaneously caricaturing complex cultures and geopolitical phenomena. The second most persuasive charge against the film is the “girls” have not yet grown up or they’ve in fact grown down since the series ended. The Village Voice‘s Ella Taylor gets Carrie good, lamenting her “simpering, mincing, hair-tossing, eyelash-batting little-girl shtick.” Roger Ebert pegs them as “flyweight bubbleheads.”
All justified. But I think all the Sex and the City 2 hate is missing a big part of the conversation. Sex and the City still raises questions about the institution of marriage and what female sexuality should be at a certain age, questions we almost never hear in cinema today. It really irritates me how often people miss or underestimate the extent to which Sex and the City questions the institution of marriage while opening up spaces for female bachelorhood.
“Our four heroine-libertines are shocked when the gay spouses at the wedding that begins the film announce, with good humor, that institutionalized infidelity is part of their agreement of what marriage is…Even the haters must admit this is a radical opening gambit for a pop-culture film.” -Choire Sicha, in the Daily Beast
Perhaps because the film is written by a gay man, it’s not vigorously invested in the tradition of marriage. Yes, most of the women are married, but not in the way we often see. Marriage is discussed in the films not as a necessity — “the way things are supposed to be” — but as an option. I get the sense Michael Patrick King is not a particularly deep thinker, so he gives women their fairytale endings and leaves out the nuance, but both films begin with a serious interrogation of the much-maligned institution (among feminists).
In the first film, we saw Carrie and Big very explicitly debate whether marriage is right for them. I found it rather remarkable how at first Carrie is averse to the idea of marriage and finds it unnecessary. What changes her mind? Property. She realizes that Big is much richer than she and she has no claims to the life they’d build together if they ever split.
Why’s this so important? First, numerous scholars have criticized mainstream films for whitewashing marriage, making it about love and “keeping a man,” whereas the institution has historically existed solely for the securing on property (property held by men). The modern discourse on love has obscured the fact of marriage as a contract (“the merging of assets,” as Miranda says in the series), a contract firstly about capital. (Here, again, it makes sense a gay man would write this, so focused are gay advocates on the list of property rights bequeathed by marriage).
Sex and the City (2008) starts off by demystifying marriage, tearing it down to its unromantic and gender-imbalanced origins. Of course by the end of the film it forgets about all that.
But the second film restarts the conversation. This time, Carrie has written a book lampooning marriage, even as she herself is married. The central question of the film is: “why did I get married?” This might seem a tawdry question — it’s not one, but two Tyler Perry movies! — but it’s no small beans. The question doesn’t just concern Carrie and Big’s qualms about becoming old and boring. Nor is it only about retrofitting marriage to fit your lifestyle — making it flexible, like when Carrie and Big contemplate taking days off from each other.
The question of marriage in 2 is really about questioning whether women really need to get married at all. This is different from the Tyler Perry question, heavily invested as it is with supporting the institution. Carrie, by now, has written several books. She is financially secure. She has her own life. Why did she get married? Throughout the film we’re not particularly invested in whether she and Big stay married. What we want is for Carrie to find what works for her; who cares what her husband thinks.
We’ve seen these narratives before, but not too often. Think of the top romantic comedies of the past few years. Precious few question whether marriage is the ultimate goal of their single female protagonists. Single women want to get married. For those films about couples who are already married, the entire film is geared to make sure their marriage works. From Date Night to The Proposal, Couples Retreat to He’s Just Not That Into You (we’re not happy for Jennifer Connelly!), women are happiest married. Movies like It’s Complicated and Alice in Wonderland are few and far between.
Andy Cohen, writing to Choire Sicha, probably put it most succinctly: “Given the amount of actually stupid/ridiculous movies that come out every year, I was amazed by the degree of vitriol leveled at a good one (of very few) that celebrates women.”
SAMANTHA: THE RARE FEMALE BACHELOR
Well, I guess. After all, Kim Cattrall is 53 and her character is 52. Yes, she is old.
But let’s be honest, even though Hollywood is slowly getting over its obsession with youth, we still rarely get examples of sexually active women over the age 50. Rarer still is the sexually active women over 50 who isn’t pining after a man. Even my personal favorites, the Nancy Meyers films Somethings’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, still have women who are clinging to two, and really one, man.
Meanwhile, we get dozens of these promiscuous men in film. The James Bond series is the most classic, but it’s rare year when we don’t have a Solitary Man-type film.
In the first film, MP King actually does something smart by having Samantha dump Smith Jerrod, repeating her breakup line to Richard in season 5: “I love you, but I love me more.” It sounds cliche, but that’s brave for a 50-year old woman. And why should it be? She’s financially independent and wants to sleep around. Golden Girls premiered over a decade ago, but we still aren’t used to this woman. Many critics saw Samantha as selfish. That’s one way to read it. But we can equally see it as a statement against the Hollywood trope of marrying off the old gal. That’s a narrative we know and accept. Yet it’s not believable for Samantha. She’s a female Clooney. Or James Bond. Sex and the City is a fantasy, and this is a fantasy we actually need.
In the second film, Samantha shows no signs of remorse. She just wants her sex drive back. How refreshing! Are we really willing to brush aside this novelty?
Many of my female friends write Samantha off as unbelievable. No women is like that, she’s a gay man, and on and on. I get it. Yet once again, if Hollywood is the place of fantasy, as it clearly is, I’m all for a fantasy of a women who need not pine for men and never wants to get married. Ever.
IS SEX AND THE CITY FEMINIST?
All this isn’t to give the franchise a pass, which has sold out completely after the completion of the series. The writing has devolved — it seems MP King did best with a staff of (women) writers but on his own is without any creativity. The characters really have not grown. Charlotte has become purely juvenile. Miranda has nothing to do. The girls spend most of their time screaming and giggling like twenty-somethings.
Still, films and TV shows are complicated, and even amidst some of the most offensive and politically backwards narratives, more progressive ones can thrive. Right now both films have been so superficial and breezily produced critics have missed what’s redeeming about the franchise. Let’s not be overly cynical.
**For what it’s worth, I found the film pleasurable as a fan, but, as a filmgoer, clearly lacking, though I think criticism the foursome look “too old,” which I’ve read a lot, are more than a little sexist.