“Women have the right to behave every bit as badly as men” is not a claim made by the big-screen version of the television hit Sex and the City — it is the film’s presupposition. In the world of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte, women are every bit as callous, petty, unforgiving, and sexually promiscuous as any man. It’s not an aberration, the film reveals, it’s just the way things are.
I have a confession to make. I am not familiar with the television series. But I assume that I am not alone in seeing the film version of Sex and the City as a stand-alone experience. The filmmakers go out of their way to make sure that I am all caught up on the storyline before the opening credits are finished. The world into which I am ushered is one of tremendous financial privilege and faint moral obligation.
Arriving at the theater on opening night, my screening was approximately 85% female, and the demographic seemed split between women in their late teens and women in their mid-thirties to early-forties. In the four years since HBO cancelled Sex and the City, a sanitized version of the show has found its way into syndication. It would be easy to bluster that an army of innocents, beguiled by the fashion of the syndicated version, will be blindsided by the fornication in the film. But let’s not be naive — the film is called Sex and the City. Rather than wring our collective cultural hands at what this film might do to those who see it, I think it is more instructive to look at what this film reveals about the culture that both created it and made it a box office smash.
Women, Men, and the Abandoning of Morality
The worldview of Sex and the City is that women and men are completely equal. The lead characters are wealthy, educated, and career-driven. They are drawn to fashion to the degree that powerful men in films are depicted as drawn to sports cars. Their love lives are, with one notable exception, train wrecks — but that’s okay because they can still hang out together. Distance is no barrier. Samantha, a west-coast publicist, regularly abandons her live-in boyfriend to jet out to NYC. She is never gone from the gals long enough to be missed.
With the exception of the happily-married Charlotte, the other three women poorly treat the men in their lives. Carrie appears more interested in her wedding than in being wedded to the man in her life, identified by the nickname, “Big.” Miranda is so caught up in her legal career that lovemaking with her husband has become an infrequent, somewhat burdensome, chore. And Samantha, the only character in the film that received enthusiastic applause from the audience when she first appeared on screen, is so self-absorbed that she throws over a man who nursed her through chemotherapy so that she could resume a life of random sex. Samantha’s next-door-neighbor — described as a man who beds a different woman every night — rather than being rejected as the eternal adolescent, who is the nightmare of every commitment-minded, single thirty-year-old woman, is lauded as a fleshly Adonis, the idol in whose image Samantha wishes to be recreated.
The assumption the film makes is that if men do not have to be shackled by sexual restraint, why should women? The goal is to throw off what are commonly perceived as Victorian notions of female propriety. If this is what it means for men and women to be equal, we have to ask, “What happened to men?”
There was a time, not terribly long ago, when chastity was a virtue — a manly virtue. Chastity is an instance of the overarching virtue of self-control. There has never been a time in the history of humankind in which men did not find women sexually desirable. God would not have to provide a commandment against committing adultery unless He knew that people were inclined by a sinful nature to do so. In an era when men were the leaders in their homes, they were expected to display the virtues of chastity and self-control.
Nancy Pearcey, in her book Total Truth, identifies the breakdown and deserves to be read in full. My brief synopsis will not do credit to the research that Pearcey commands, but in the interest of space, here it is: Before the Industrial Revolution, men believed that part of being manly involved exercises in self-restraint for the good of the family and community. When the Industrial Revolution took men out of the home, it turned it from the center of production to the center of consumption. Work moved to factories, where ruthless, unbridled ambition (once considered a sin) became the key to success. Men chose to become “morally hardened,” and women were expected to take on the moral mantle.
Tension was bound to increase. If women were the new guardians of virtue, then a moral man, a tamed man, must, in some ways, be an emasculated man. Men resisted. The moral divide deepened, and an economic divide widened. Eventually it boiled over. Modern feminism devalued home life, and encouraged women to abandon the home in favor of careers. In a short time, many of the morals that western culture took for granted were imperiled. Women would be like men: ambitious, lacking self-restraint, sexually promiscuous — remarkably like the women in the film. Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte have all arrived just in time to apply an upscale sense of style to a city in ruins.
Moving Toward Materialism
Other than Charlotte’s Judaism, the city inhabited by these characters is thoroughly secular. The only altar at which the women genuflect has as its icon a pair of high heels by Manolo Blahnik. Its religion is materialism.
Instead of an engagement ring, Carrie tells Big she just wants really large closets. Instead of marital intimacy with her husband, Miranda seeks career advancement. Outside of carnal lust, the only object of Samantha’s desire is a jewel-encrusted butterfly ring selling (appropriately) at a divorce auction for $60,000.
In a materialist culture, marriage cannot be sacred, because nothing is. Marriage, despite being the focus of the endgame in this movie, is more often the object of scorn. Miranda tells Big that “marriage ruins everything.” Big doesn’t need the reminder. Despite the fact that he tells Carrie that he wants only her, he must have said that at least two other times to two other women to whom he promised to cleave “till death us do part” — this is his third trip down the aisle. Samantha remarks, “I don’t really believe in marriage.” Both Big and Carrie agree that “we were perfectly happy before we decided to live happily ever after.” The real indicator of true commitment is not the combination of two separate people into one flesh (it happens too frequently to be of note), but the abandonment of one’s personal apartment to take up residence in a home owned by another. Marriage is discussed more as a legal protection against untimely house hunting than a lifelong spiritual commitment to the well-being and happiness of a spouse.
The goal of the women in Sex and the City is to live in a place that will make your girlfriends jealous, to view and purchase high-fashion clothing with designer price tags that would bankrupt most viewers, to reject anything other than the life of a sexual Olympian, and to pay attention to the circumstances of life while ignoring issues of character. Charlotte appears to have a good marriage, but Miranda emasculates her husband, and Carrie is so caught up in being a cover girl that she nearly destroys her own relationship. Samantha’s character would be universally reviled if, instead, she were Sam: a fifty-year-old male skirt-chaser who dumps the faithful woman who cared for him through a nearly terminal illness by kissing her off with this line, “I love you, but I love me more.”
In a world devoid of spiritual connotations adultery become “indiscretions,” serial relationship failure magically is argued to be a herald of marital success; after all, as Carrie tells Big, “We’ve already done everything we can to screw it up.” But G.K. Chesterton would disagree, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” The tough part of life, that this film wants to ignore, is the difficult task of determining how to stand.
Another Way of Looking
When Carrie needs to get her life back together, she hires Louise as her personal assistant. Louise is enraptured by the fashion, but she rejects the lifestyle. Rather than purchase expensive handbags, Louise discovers a company that allows customers to rent Louis Vuitton like a time-share condo. There is a man she loves back home. When the offer of marriage comes, she accepts it.
Louise probably represents more of the women in the audience than do any of the lead characters. Like Louise they are dazzled by the high-digit clothing and accessories, but rather than commit to buying into the whole lifestyle, they choose to rent it a couple of hours at a time. I suspect, I deeply hope, that with any reflection at all audience members will recognize that if they strip away the artsy decor, glamorous clothing, and artificially witty dialogue, the actual lives of most of these women would be objects of pity, not envy.
It would not be difficult to imagine that, ten years down the road, Carrie and Big have divorced, as have Miranda and Steve — allowing the two BFFs to move into their 50s complaining bitterly about the emotional unavailability of men. Charlotte finds that she can no longer hang with the ladies as their worldview no longer squares with the happiness she finds at home. Samantha is dead — either from an incurable sexually-transmitted disease, or at the hands of a jealous, spurned lover or an enraged wife.
Envy, jealousy, material one-upmanship, pride, elitism, sexual promiscuity — there will always be a fleeting pleasure associated with sin. After all, if sin wasn’t fun, no one would do it. But after sin’s work is done, the bill eventually comes due. Why would any of us wish to idolize a lifestyle that has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to satisfy — which, in fact, is predicated upon dissatisfaction? The fixes of fashion are temporary, like drugs. They wear off and wear out and we find ourselves endlessly seeking novelty to ward off the numbness.
The Examined Life
“Can’t we just party and have a good life?” This question was posed to me by an undergraduate student balking at what she perceived as the overly-rigorous philosophical musings of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man — a book that asked her to ponder whether real morality exists and, if so, should she modify her life to adhere to it. My response to her was, “Sure. But could you please answer a question for me first? What constitutes a ‘good life’?” She stared at me like a deer caught in the headlights. She could not answer the question, so I followed up, “If you cannot define it, how do you know you’re having one?”
Sex and the City purports to show women the good life. Sure, it is a fantasy. But all compelling fantasies are made up of versions of our hearts’ desires. If Sex and the City manages to continue its box office success, it will demonstrate that this worldview has more than passing appeal. The women who make up the lion’s share of its audience should take a moment to ask themselves if this kind of life or these kinds of men represent what they really want, and if they are prepared to pay the price necessary to pursue it?