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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

more reasons to hate ‘Sex and the City’

Sex and the City 2 is doing remarkably well at the U.K. box office, handily retaining the No. 1 spot this past weekend and overall doing about twice as well, comparatively speaking, as it is performing in North America. As Charles Gant at the Guardian’s Film blog notes:

After two weekends in the US, it has grossed $73.1m, a figure that would suggest a UK result in the £7-8m range, by industry rule of thumb. In fact, Sex and the City 2 has taken £13.7m here.

Why? Damned if I know. I don’t understand even why it has done as well as it’s done here in the U.S. But it gives me a chance to bitch some more about how fucking much I hate Sex and the City, and in particular this second movie.

The primary reason is the enraging assumption that many men seem to have that all women absolutely adore Carrie and her friends and their various misadventures. This comes to the fore in supposedly hilarious works of subversive pop culture commentary such as Brian Donovan’s annotated trailer for the film, offered at True/Slant. Entitled “What men think when watching a ‘Sex and the City 2′ trailer,” it is in fact a good approximation of what many women, myself included, think while watching that trailer. Well, except for the out-and-out misogyny and ageism, of course. (There are plenty of reasons to hate SATC that have absolutely nothing to do with the ages of the characters or the actresses who portray them, and that have absolutely nothing to do with the notion — which appears to surprise an awful lot of men — that women continue to be sexual as they get older.)

Donovan’s commentary also references the absurdity of personal gender politics when it comes to our consumption pop culture. He indicates terror at the prospect that his girlfriend will drag him to see SATC2, though he concedes that there is one thing that might make him give in: the promise of a blow job. Indeed, it is invariably part of the discussion when it comes to movies denigrated as “chick flicks” that women must coerce men into seeing these films with them, and that men are helpless to resist, particularly if they are offered something in return.

It makes me want to take aside whatever idiot women would do such a thing and say, “Why on Earth would you want to force your boyfriend/husband to sit through a movie he really doesn’t want to see? Just go with your girlfriends, for Christ’s sake.” It makes me want to take aside whatever idiot men would allow themselves to be so manipulated and say, “Why do you put up with that kind of treatment? Just find a girlfriend/wife who doesn’t need to be bribed into having sex with you.” It makes me want to take aside everyone who would be a willing participant in such an unhealthy relationship and smack them.

I don’t like seeing movies — even movies I hate — become such divisive weapons. Could everyone please just grow the fuck up?

And then we have Bill Gibron at PopMatters, who offers us his “clearly male manifesto,” which he imagines may reveal “an irrational fear of my feminine side”: “The Three Reasons I Won’t Be Seeing ‘Sex and the City 2.’” The reasons:

“Because I Have An Intellect”
“Because I Have A Complicated Aesthetic Appreciation”
“Because I Have A Penis”

Remember, Gibron believes these are all “clearly male” characteristics when, in fact, only the third is.

He goes on to explain in depth how all of these “clearly male” qualities lead him to be offended by SATC, and along the way, he actually uses the word “spinster” and the phrase “maiden aunt,” indicating that even when he appears to get it, as in this bit:

But the main message of Sex and the City has always seemed to be linked irretrievably to the notion that no woman is complete unless she’s crammed full of…well, you know, and that’s not enough to base a 140 minute movie on, let alone two.

he really doesn’t.

More reasons why Gibron will avoid the movie:

I don’t get lathered up over faux romanticism, don’t see myself foaming over a tie-dyed scarf set or a pair of Manolo Blahnik thigh highs.

I don’t get lathered up over such things either. But I still don’t understand in what way not getting lathered up over these things is “clearly male.” (And hey, I bet there are plenty of gay men, and probably a few straight guys, too, who do get lathered up over these things. Are they any less “male”? Of course not.)

Gibron’s wrapup is particularly infuriating:

So let female nation have their nonsensical exercise in product placement piffle. It’s really not meant for me anyway.

He really does believe that all women love SATC.

Gibron gets extra bonus points for annoyance, too. He’s a film critic, and he’s making a specific point of avoiding this movie because he thinks it’s for women. Imagine if a female film critic wrote a long essay explaining why she wouldn’t be seeing the latest Michael Bay explos-aganza because she “has a vagina,” and went on to further assume that anyone with an intellect who wouldn’t want to see that film must also have a vagina. Do you think she would taken seriously as a film critic after that? I doubt it.

Plus, of course, any female film critic who avoided films she thought were intended for men would have a helluva time finding enough films to write about on a regular basis.

As I said above, there are many, many reasons to hate SATC that have nothing to do with the gender or ages of the protagonists, but many male critics have chosen to focus their vitriol on those very facts, without, for the most part, noting that this is a fault of the film, which treats its stars very poorly. The tenor of these complaints could have been: Isn’t awful how Michael Patrick King appears to have deliberately set out to make four vital, sexy, attractive, adult women look like hell? Instead, though, it has been: These women look like hell, like all women of those ages invariably must.

Which, in turn, has prompted some feminist critiques of the male-written film criticism. But even those doesn’t seem to understand the problem with SATC, either.

From Jill Filipovic at Feministe, in a piece called “Defending Sex and the City (sort of, not really)”:

The film also challenges our ideas about marriage and motherhood — and those challenges are rarely met with enthusiasm in a culture that lionizes both, without actually taking steps to support the individuals who make up (or wish to make up) those institutions.

It’s true that the one moment of genuine honesty in SATC2 comes when Miranda and Charlotte are talking about how hard it is to be a mother, and how children cannot fulfill all a woman’s needs. But then the moment is utterly, horrifically ruined when a baffled Charlotte says that she “doesn’t know how women without help do it.” By which she means the full-time live-in nannies that both women have. The tone-deafness of this moment is absolutely shocking. Most women who are mothers somehow do manage to balance career and parenthood without benefit of this kind of “help,” and for these characters to display this level of clueless entitlement completely negates the reality of their commiserating, because it suggests that they truly are not women the women in the audience are meant to identify with. If these women feel such despair even though their situation is the very best it could possibly be, and the mere-mortal-middle-class women in the audience are somehow coping better than they are… well, how does this “challenge” anything?

The wealth and privilege that these women toss around without even appearing to appreciate it is part of what is so off-putting about this film in particular. Imagine if one of the wealth-fantasy films of the Great Depression featured rich people toasting one another with expensive champagne and marvelling about how they didn’t know how all those poor dumb rubes standing in bread lines or working for the WPA were managing? If SATC is meant to be fantasy, then the fantasy is shattered when the characters actually throw their wonderful lives in the faces of the audience.

I’m not sure how SATC2 is meant to challenge our ideas about marriage, unless we’re meant see it as subversive that Carrie — whose marriage figures most in this film — finds it stifling that her husband wants to eat at home one night a week. It looks to me as if Carrie married Big for his money and nothing else, and now that she’s done decorating their Fifth Avenue spread — with his money, of course — she’s totally bored with him. Perhaps it’s true that Carrie is challenging our ideas of marriage: I always imagined I would enjoy being alone with my husband, were I to acquire one — what would be the point of having one otherwise. I find myself challenged in the notion that I might not be able to stand being with him.

More from Filipovic:

And while I’m also critical of the emphasis on consumption in the show and in the movies, SATC seems to draw disproportionate criticism for celebrating wealth and stuff. You don’t hear the James Bond or Oceans-whatever-number-we’re-on-now movies being taken to task because the lead characters are obsessed with money and toys.

Where to even begin?! No one is holding up James Bond or Danny Ocean as breakthrough male characters showing us sides of men no one had dared allow to be expressed before in pop culture. No one assumes that James Bond and Danny Ocean represent all men. In fact, you’d get laughed at if you suggested such a thing. And SATC2 is about nothing else but celebrating wealth for its own sake. What do these women do with their wealth and privilege? Not one damn thing except treat themselves to whatever they desire. Now, there’s nothing wrong with spending money on yourself if you have it to spend… but merely spending money on oneself is not the basis for an interesting story.

I’m mystified, too, that anyone could interpret the Oceans movies as being obsessed with money and toys. The money’s just a macguffin in these stories: the challenge of getting it is the point. We only see those characters spend money in pursuit of that goal. Those movies would be really fucking boring as hell if they were all about watching George Clooney shop.

Ashley Sayeau at NPR also focuses on the critiques of materialism run amuck in “The Nation: The ‘Sex and the City” Double Standard”:

The image of women spending money, especially on themselves, has long been a controversial subject — one that taps into cultural anxieties about women’s progress and its effect on masculinity.

That may be true. It probably is true. But there’s a difference between a woman spending money and a story that is about women spending money to amuse themselves and doing no other damn thing at all. Shopping isn’t automatically a feminist statement.

[C]onservative ideology infuses the question of women and spending, and reviewers would do well to remember this.

So we shouldn’t critique the mindless consumerism of these women, or any women, at all, ever? Bullshit.

Oh, and let’s not forget that female consumerism has been a way to trap women since at least the postwar period. There’s a feminist slant to be observed on women and spending, too. The more strides women have made careerwise, the more we’ve been pushed to spend larger and larger amounts of money on clothes, makeup, and other fripperies. And when women might have been saving money to buy a house or invest or travel, we’ve seen feminism get turned around as marketers tell us that spending money on ourselves for clothes and shoes and bullshit anti-aging creams and so on is feminist act. Why shouldn’t we critique SACT for implying that Carrie was right to spend so much money on her appearance, because it did indeed lead to her catching a rich husband? Is that feminist?

And at What Would Toto Watch?, film critic Carrie Rickey is quoted reacting to male critics’ reviews of SATC2:

It’s a fantasy film. No one harshes ‘Iron Man’ for being populated with bubbleheads [as Ebert criticized ‘SATC 2’]. No one criticizes ‘Iron Man’ for its privileged characters exercising their privileges [as A.O. Scott did].

Iron Man 2 is populated with “bubbleheads”? Since when? Tony Stark is a flippin’ genius, and he “exercises his privilege” to force peace upon the planet. (Yes, he also clearly spends money on himself, what with the collection of sportscars and all, but it’s also just as obvious that this is not the only thing he spends his money on.) I may have zoned out during SATC2, but I didn’t see Carrie Bradshaw doing anything of the sort. Do we really want to equate Carrie Bradshaw’s spending with Tony Stark’s? Or with Bruce Wayne’s?

I’m all for yelling, “Hey! Where’s the movie about the billionaire genius philanthropist woman!” But let’s not pretend that the Sex and the City women are out for anyone but themselves. And don’t tell me that that female self-involvement to the exclusion of all else is a fantasy that I need to embrace. Because I won’t.

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