Watching Sex and the City, in Good Faith

Or at least, in as good a faith as I can possibly conjure up.

I can’t watch TV in the last month or so without constantly running into a commercial for the movie, and I see its billboards everywhere, hear it on the radio, and see it in the papers. I must applaud the studio for its massive, carpet-bombing like marketing of this movie. And from a purely financial perspective, this movie is interesting, because it’s being marketed like a summer blockbuster movie, but with a completely demographic: instead of courting the usual 18 to 34 male demographic, the movie is courting women, which traditionally have not driven the kind of summer blockbusters that the studios usually put out. So it will be interesting to see how this movie performs, and whether it will pioneer a kind of marketing and distribution that breaks the monopoly held by the 18 to 34 male demographic on big-budget movies.

But aside from that brief tangent, all this over-saturation and over-exposure of the movie got me thinking about the show itself. Of course, coming of age in the late 90’s and early ’00s means that Sex and the City is an inevitable cultural presence, even if most guys have a settled pre-conceived notion about what the show is “supposed” to be like.

Of course, I shared that pre-conception, but from an intellectual point of view, I felt that having these pre-conceptions without actually having watched the show in any meaningful manner is an act of dishonesty. After all, what kind of person would I be if I judged anything without actually having analyzed it? I would be Bill O’Reilly, that’s who I’d be. So having that in mind, I decided to give the show a fair chance, in good faith, after I was done with my classes. So for a month and half, from April to now, I have pretty much watched all the episodes I could get on TBS re-runs. And this is my good-faith evaluation of the show. Of course, I’m only a man, so there is probably a threshold of sympathy that I can never quite overcome, but I’m going to try my best to render a sympathetic interpretation of the show.

And my conclusion: the show is clever and witty, but does not enough substance to warrant repeat viewing and loyalty in the long-run. It is an exercise in style, but not much more, albeit its style is good, sometimes even very good.

To me, the best part of the show is undoubtedly the writing: it is undeniably witty and clever, some of the best writing on television. As someone who appreciates good writing, I found the show to be more than satisfying in this respect. However, I don’t know whether this is snobbery or not, but I always took the use of voice-overs to be lazy-writing (SHOW, not tell). Second, I appreciate the fact that the show features female characters who are not your traditional beautiful types. I’m not Peter Griffin, so I’m not going to say that Sarah Jessica Parker’s face looks like a foot, but she’s no Helen of Troy. But I take this to be a strength of the show, because it’s showing relatively (emphasis on this) real women on TV.

But here is my biggest problem with the show: the characters just aren’t sympathetic. In fact, most of the time, they are narcissistic, shallow, and materialistic to a fault. I am not accusing the characters of one-dimensional, but they are, for the most part, not people that I can feel sympathetic for. Again, I might be the wrong person to talk about sympathetic characters, because I’m only a guy. But I don’t think my lack of sympathy has all that much to do with gender differences, because there are plenty of other female characters in the media and in literature whom I am deeply sympathetic toward

I can’t say whether the characters portrayed on the show are representative of how most modern women think, but if they are, then I have to say that there is something wrong. This isn’t a normative judgment on how they behave, because god knows I’m no prude, and I don’t think women should be subservient wives to domineering men. So I have no problem with the characters’ “modern” take on sexuality and relationships; rather, my problem is with their persons.

Put it simply: my problem with the characters is not their promiscuity. I don’t dislike them because of what they do, but what they are: shallow, self-absorbed, materialistic, emotionally brittle

What’s worse, these characters are all mirror-images of each other: sure, there are differences, but I tend to think that they only hang out together because they see themselves in each other. Now, one could call that a close friendship, or, as I’m inclined to say, co-dependence.

But don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed watching the show, quite a lot actually. It is a fun show to watch, but ultimately not emotionally rewarding, which largely derives from my inability to connect with the characters, due to what I perceive to be seriously personality flaws. Granted, I’m no well-adjusted, contributing member of society, but even I find their personalities deeply alienating.

The ultimate irony, at least the way I see it, is that the show, at bottom, is not even true to its own ethos. If the show is about four successful, single, independent professional women and the strength of their friendship through rain or sunshine, then why is it the overriding objective of the characters to find a husband and create the traditional nuclear family? Doesn’t this quest ultimately undermine the show’s subversive suggestion that for successful professional women of today, having a husband is no longer a requirement for success and happiness?

So it looks like to me that the show can’t quite make up its own mind: is it trying to show that traditional notions of family, success, and sexual mores are no outdated for our modern lifestyle? Is it trying to show that women today no longer need those things to lead happy, rewarding lives? Or is it trying to say that ultimately, the path to happiness still lies with marriage and family?

The show constantly vacillates back and forth on this position, and maybe this should be counted as one of its virtues–showing the complexities of what it means to live in our modern society. Or perhaps it’s just not as radical and subversive as it claims. Had it leaned more in the former position, then I would have had a much higher opinion of the show, because it would then truly offer a radical position, and there would be something to analyze and interpret further.

But for now: the show is merely entertaining, but not much else.

Then again, I could just be talking a lot of shit.


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