That sleazy yet hallowed HBO television series "Sex and the City" is now in theaters as a feature film, and the cultural elites are having a religious experience. Newsweek previewed the movie by reporting how an estimated 50,000 people, some from faraway lands like Australia and Japan, "make the pilgrimage each year to the shrine," the fictional New York City home of "Sex" protagonist Carrie Bradshaw. The magazine chronicled a tour group standing silently, some weeping.
Am I the only one who thinks that those estimated 50,000 people out there make the Trekkies look sane by comparison? But Newsweek seems to lament how the movie isn’t outrageous enough. The headline is "Girls Gone Mild," and the trailer is all about our protagonist getting married — maybe. Writer Julia Baird was amazed at "how many people speak of it in hyperbolic terms: as a revolution, a phenomenon, a cataclysm, almost an insurgency."
"Almost an insurgency"? I’m starting to believe Ms. Baird is one of those 50,000 people out there.
Plopping this series at the cineplex with an R-rating is certainly a more appropriate venue than landing it on HBO or TBS. But the movie has set the media critics off on another wave of tributes to the TV show for glamorizing independent career women with minds of their own, fashionable women who were selfish and sexually adventurous, but still ladylike enough to lust also after $600 designer shoes. It was touted as sparking openness and candor, as if what America needs is more women talking openly about flatulence and pubic hair. The trailer includes jokes about crotch-shaving. How bold.
What this feminist phenomenon didn’t have and didn’t need, apparently, was a woman who would choose to marry young. That looked like the frightening side of the fence, a prison wall. That didn’t seem like a decision at all. It wasn’t so much a choice as a surrender to servitude. The series could have been called "Sex and the Skittish" for all the phobias about the boredom and lost independence of married life.
Certainly the sexual revolution had come and gone long before this show premiered on HBO in 1998, and that year is remembered more for a baby-boomer sex scandal in the White House than the sexual insurgency on pay-cable TV. But that doesn’t mean "Sex and the City" wasn’t tearing down walls of convention for the young people who weren’t around for Woodstock.
On ABCNews.com, reporter Sheila Marikar had to resort to an alias to describe a teenager obsessed with the show. "Lisa" from Long Island became a huge fan of "Sex and the City" when she was 14. She quickly lost her virginity and soon "graduated" to ordering cosmopolitans at bars she snuck into and "cheating on her boyfriend with up to seven other guys — in one week."
"Lisa" told ABC, "When you’re that age you try to emulate people on TV. Carrie smoked, so I smoked, Samantha looked at hooking up with random people as not a big deal, so that’s what I did, too," she admitted. "It wasn’t ‘Sex and the City’s’ fault. I love the show, but I think it made it a little easier to justify my behavior."
But this is good, something to celebrate, true liberation, right? It’s never the show’s fault. People make their own decisions, and if they make irresponsible decisions, they have to live with the consequences. But television means never having to say you’re sorry or responsible. Hollywood can certainly argue that it didn’t make the naughty people act on their naughty impulses. It merely told them it would be glamorous and liberating to do so.
Newsweek’s Baird agreed that the loosening of sexual mores is undeniable, but insisted HBO never told twentysomethings what to do. "It revealed what they were already doing — and emboldened them to do more." But this show didn’t embolden men to do more. When it comes to sexual adventures, it’s an easy if overgeneralizing joke on men that they don’t need much more encouragement than a "yes." Whatever emboldening HBO did was aimed at women, who were always the natural audience.
The show never boldly declared to women that love was bunk or romance was for suckers. It had enough focus on finding a lifelong love to keep an edge of sweetness, but in the end a skeptic can still suspect that this was just a marketing ploy to soften the edges of its sexual aggression.
Just as for men, HBO suggested that every woman needs a good, long period (perhaps several decades long) of persistent experimentation in vivacious variety until they’re old and tired and unattractive enough to settle down. Marriage becomes a sort of wistful retirement, a Leisure World for playboys and playgirls. But Hollywood never really retires from self-indulgence.