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Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Sex and the City

A little while ago I was chatting about Sex and the City, which as you may know has recently decided to share another movie with us, on another website. Someone there requested me to put my comments into blog form ... so here we go.
My comments can basically be boiled to this: 'Wow, one kind of conservatism got me agreeing with another! That's quite a feat.' (Or, indeed, 'One kind of racism got me agreeing with another racist,' which is an uncomfortable thought indeed.)
The conservatism I'm in agreement with, to be clear, is that of Florence King in her witty autobiography Memoirs of a Failed Southern Lady. King describes her experiences of growing up a misanthropic and contrary young woman in the fifties Feminine Mystique era where a pretty girl was expected to be a melody, and reflects on the nature of Southern culture in general.
Now, there's no two ways about it: King says some horrible, horrible things in the book. Least glorious is her moment of deciding to forgive the good ole boy with whom she's having a one night stand ... well, here's what she says: 'I had no doubt that him and ole Quint had whupped a few nigras in their boyhood forays, and I was even more sure that, driving a long a lonely road on some black velvet night, they had spied a l'il nigra gal and slowed down. Technically they did not rape her, but only because they did not have to; she knew the path of least resistance was the way home.' (Apparently one can hold a knife to someone's throat and it's rape, but if you hold the whole of society to someone's throat, it's not.) But she lets him off the hook because, basically, he's nice to her.
There's no excusing King for this kind of thing. But nevertheless, it's King's complaints about female stereotypes - like many of us, she's far more sensitive to prejudice when it causes her personal inconvenience - that leap to my mind when considering the Sex and the City cast.
Surrounded by women anxious to prove their sweetness, purity and compliance with the Feminine Mystique, proudly writing 'Ambition: housewife' on forms and hiding their intelligence as best they can and certain they won't be real women without husbands and children, King dubs them 'malkins'. 'They'd be afraid of not being like everybody else,' she defines them in youth, before finally settling on the definition: 'A malkin is a woman who worries about her femininity.' A woman who complies with every dictate for femininity that society hands down, and frets endlessly about whether she's being seen to comply with them adequately.
An uncharitable definition, certainly, and a far from common type as far as anyone I've encountered goes. But when it comes to Sex and the City, that's what we're looking at. It's the only time I've ever felt the definition to be really useful. Post-feminist liberation my eye: the Sex and the City girls are a bunch of malkins. They're often criticised for their shallowness, and you can indeed make such a criticism - but what's really troubling is the anxious conservatism that underlies their swinging gloss.
Part of this is a plot requirement: to keep the story ticking over, the show had to create and destroy relationships between the heroines and a lot of different men with swift dispatch. I always found that rather depressing as a viewer because it made for a catalogue of disasters, but it also meant that the heroines often dumped perfectly nice men for completely frivolous reasons. Sometimes the reasons were just silly - dropping the guy who knew how to cook and pay compliments because he proved himself too 'feminine' by being afraid of a mouse (because yeah, a guy who's really nice to you must be feminine, and what's feminism worth if you can't still judge a man for not fitting into the stereotypes?) Sometimes they pointed out just how disempowered the women actually kept themselves more sharply: for instance, breaking up with a guy for peeing with the bathroom door open rather than, y'know, finding your tongue and saying, 'Would you close the door, please? I don't like to watch people peeing.'
But here was the consistent thing: the characters would find themselves in situations where they would have to assert themselves and start negotiating what was and wasn't acceptable in a relationship. He's got a habit you don't like, or a fetish you don't share, or you disagree about something. Maybe he might talk you round, maybe you might talk him round, maybe you might reach a compromise - y'know, the way things get settled in actual relationships - or maybe it's a dealbreaker, but you don't know until you try. But consistently, rather than actually talk about it, the heroines would take to their stilettos and flee. The prospect of losing a man was less frightening than the prospect of hashing out an issue with him.
Similarly, relationships consistently ended if the man saw a woman making a fool of herself. The idea of forgiveness, humour, or being desirable despite being imperfect was swamped in a tide of anxiety. Being seen to be imperfect, no matter what someone's actual character was like, was a death-knell. Appearances were everything. 'The neighbours' were more fashionable than most people's are, but far too much was driven by a tension that basically boiled down to, 'What would the neighbours say?'
And - which is the real problem with a show that proclaims itself to be sexually free-thinking - this even extended to sex. While they liked to consider themselves sexually liberated, the last thing they ever seemed to consult was their own sexual feelings. The pattern was generally this: one of them goes home with a guy who seems fine, he proposes some kink or game that they've never tried before, they get flummoxed ... and the next morning, they meet with their friends to discuss it.
Not 'try it and think it over'. Not 'try a mild version of it with the guy and see if they felt like they could work up to the full-on version'. Not 'try it out in fantasies and see if it appealed'. Not 'look for some magazines or movies that featured it to see if they found it arousing'. And certainly not 'know their own sexual tastes and responses well enough that they could simply say at the outset "sounds like my kind of thing" or "sorry, doesn't work for me"'. They went and asked their friends what to do.
So repetitively did this happen that it seemed less like they wanted to think things through and more like they needed to ask permission, to get reassurance that it wasn't socially unacceptable to do whatever it was the guy suggested. 'Is it normal/okay?' was a much more pressing question than 'Does it turn me on?' The idea of saying, 'Well, I don't know what anybody else would think of me doing this, but I enjoy it, so I'll just do it and keep it to myself if people look judgemental,' never seemed to occur to anyone.
Sexual incompatibility is, indeed, a perfectly good reason to end a relationship. If the characters had decided for themselves based on their senses and fantasies rather than frantically consulting each other about what was normal, I might have bought it. But to have sexual compatibility with someone, you need to have a sexual self with sexual tastes, and these women didn't. There was no real sign that any of them had particular preferences in bed: they were blank slates on which men tried to impose this fetish or that, always to be rejected for it. The ultimate lover was generically 'good in bed', which in the show's terms meant ... er, well, something, it's not clear what, except that he had a degree of technique and no kinks, quirks or preferences to worry about. Sex itself was considered better the more generic it was, and if that's the way a show writes about sex, it's not interested in the characters as sexual beings. Sex is written as an issue of not having things wrong with you, rather than having things right - but in reality, it takes a whole lot more than being blandly inoffensive to make someone a good sexual match.
In the face of such behaviour, it was hard to believe that these women were actually about sex. Or even about relationships with men. They were about being generically perfect - never looking silly, preferring to dispose of an imperfect man than deal with him, checking for permission every time a new sexual possibility came up. In the nineties, sexual liberation was in, honey, and so they were trying to be sexually liberated in the same way that a woman would try to be a perfect housewife in the fifties, but it wasn't about sexual pleasure, and certainly not about sexual connection. It was about being the kind of woman that fashion dictated they should be. Sex was an accessory; more comfortable than Manolo Blahniks but less controllable, so more discussed, but ultimately about image rather than about experience. In fact, the difficulty in controlling sex meant it was as often a threat to happiness as a means to it - not just from the ordinary fears of heartbreak or bad experiences, but from the more high-strung fears that the wrong kind of experience might beckon a woman away from normality onto a dark path where perfection would never find her again - no matter how much fun might be found there.
Sex and the City was always a show full of women who worried about being socially acceptable more than they worried about being happy, pretty much the exact opposite of what feminism was supposed to bring us. Women do, of course, worry about being socially acceptable, and that's something easy to identify with. A show that presents itself as being sexually liberated, though, gets very problematic when it starts letting those worries dominate to the exclusion of any kind of common sense or sensuality.
So what of the movies? Well, I didn't feel inclined to spend my money on them, especially as reviews were so widely negative. But in the latest movie, the women go to Abu Dhabi - yes, that's right, they pack their designer bags and head off to share their liberating fashions with the poor benighted A-rabs.
Remember I mentioned conservatism at the beginning of this post? Sound familiar? Because while I was shocked when I heard about this latest development, thinking it over, it's not exactly surprising. You want to look liberated? (To a conventional Western audience, anyway?) Stand next to somebody in a burkha. You want to look revolutionary? Defy a culture that your own culture condemns rather than taking the risks of defying your own. You want to look progressive? Find someone more conservative than you. That's how far the Sex and the City women have to go to find someone more conservative than themselves: out to the stereotyped East of American fantasy. Extrapolate backwards, and picture just how conservative that makes them.
Not having seen the second movie I can't legitimately beat on the racism as much it sounds like it deserves beating upon, so I'd recommend the excellent social justice blog What Tami Said's comment on the subject, as she neatly dissects the various ways in which difference - homosexuality, non-whiteness, foreignness - are reduced to cute little accessories rather than human states. (On the subject of sexual liberation I'd also recommend this review of the first movie by blogger Greta Christina, though I wouldn't recommend you read it at work.) What strikes me, considering this alarming new direction, is this: as women, I always considered the Sex and the City characters to be keeping themselves disempowered, but going abroad and lording it over the natives shows some pretty sharp power disparities in itself.

What the story is doing, I think, is substituting privilege for power. You can't stand up to a (white, straight, Western) man? Never mind: have a pretty dress and some servants. You can't control your own life? Never mind: responsibility is a drag and probably beyond you anyway. Your confidence is so undermined you'd rather follow the fashions than be happy? Think of the starving children in Africa! (Not too hard, though, or that might ruin your day.) People think you're racist and overprivileged? Well isn't that mean of them?!

I'm hearing Florence King in my ear: 'So far I had heard femininity defined as nervous breakdowns, insanity, spontaneous hysterectomy, and illiteracy. Now to that glorious list I could add defect of character.' Or, in another mood, 'A passion for social change was not part of my rebelliousness; I was content to let the world stay exactly the way it was, provided I could have special privileges.'

Liberation my eye.

Added later: worth reading here is a discussion on Muslimah Media Watch, a site where Muslim feminists critique how they get portrayed in the media. Given the content of the recent film, go listen to them rather than to me, I'd say...

Nicely said. You've put your finger on some of the more subtle things that appalled me (in my limited viewing) about the show.
Back when S&TC was on tv, I used to watch it every week. I was a first year university student and while I didn't find the show particularly aspirational, I did find it relatable, at least some of the time. I rented the first movie and I won't make the mistake of watching the second one, because everything I liked about the tv series was absent from the first film.

It's something I've found quite often with tv shows and even series of novels that I once enjoyed - at some point, either they undergo a change, or I do, and it no longer appeals. In the case of S&TC, I think the tv show at least attempted to potray the characters and NYC in a reasonably realistic way, or at least as realistically as the storylines dictated, in the early seasons. But as time went on, the realism fell by the wayside and the first movie seems to take place in some kind of bizaare fantasy land that isn't even particularly well-realised. It's so poorly done that it isn't even entertaining any more, it's flat out offensive.
I haven't watched the whole series, but from what I can remember of it, I think the conservatism and conventionalism - the malkinishness, in King's term - seemed pretty inherent rather than a fault that developed later. I mean, I'm sure it's gotten worse, especially considering the whole cultural-imperialism kick that the latest movie seems to be enjoying, but I have the feeling that a lot of the problems were there from the start.

More experienced viewers may disagree, but they always seemed pretty wimpish in their relationships to me in everything I saw.
I haven't seen any of S&TC, but am interested in the message sent by using women in more oppressive societies as a covert warning to western feminists. I recall after 9/11 at least several people of my acquaintance insisted that the reason we were attacked was that "we let our women run around with their faces uncovered," an idea I heard repeated, if not in those precise words, in a lot of conservative contexts.

The message is, of course, "you have certain privileges because we allow them to you," with two secondary messages: "we allow you these privileges at some risk to ourselves; we are therefore noble and should be appreciated" and "others like you [women] lack these privileges; be careful--we can revoke them if they become inconvenient."
King leaves me with very mixed feelings. She is an excellent writer, in craft, skill and simple talent. Her piece on Lizzie Borden is a gem. But her racism is very difficult to deal with.

It's dangerous to psychoanalyze from a distance, especially if one is not qualified to do it in person, but, having grown up not far from where King grew up (albeit some years later), some of her racism looks to me very like a malkinism of her own: Virginians, especially those in the northern part of the state, are often not considered "real Southerners," and King always struck me as making more of a point of her racism than the average conservative writer in an attempt to achieve a sort of Southern cred. I've got a cousin similarly situated (without the claims of upper crust ancestry) who did similar sorts of things. He, however, grew out of it.
@Dash - that's an interesting point: she certainly seems to make something of a fetish of 'Southernness'. (Including in a sexual sense; she dwells at some length on how 'Southern' her lover Bres is, for example.)

I think there may also be an element of epater la bourgeoisie in her racism; she tends to class 'Northern liberals' in her autobiography as a generic, comic group that she doesn't actually encounter. Between that and enjoying the comedy potential of her self-proclaimed misanthropy, saying racist things might just be part of that persona (failing to grasp that standing up for your right to oppress others isn't cute and subversive, it's ugly and hegemonic).

But given that she seems to consider 'Southernness' a very important aesthetic ... well, the book that comes to mind is, oddly, To Kill a Mockingbird. All for speaking out against racism, of course, but there's a curious moment when Scout's aunt attributes racism among whites to a lack of 'background'. The idea seems to be that racism is just too, too declasse - that notions of aristocracy versus vulgarity are what, at least for some thinkers, determine what your stand on racism should be: whether and how you're racist is a matter of class mannerism rather than as a matter of humanitarian principle. King comes across as a similar kind of thinker, though on the other side: she isn't about to go around directly oppressing people herself, but getting too worked up about racism would be vulgarly Northern and indignified.

Does that sound plausible to you? You actually are Southern and I'm not (well, I am, but from the south of a different country), so I'd be interested in your view.
I recall after 9/11 at least several people of my acquaintance insisted that the reason we were attacked was that "we let our women run around with their faces uncovered,"

Excuse me, our women? Tell them from me where they can stick that little piece of phraseology.
I think you're very much on target in the analysis of the interaction of racism and social class. But I don't know that I'd say she would regard getting worked up about racism as undignified while refusing to oppress anyone herself. That would be the sort of stance her fellow (and Northern) conservative, William F. Buckley, might take.

King defends Southern racism, in part by invoking the idea that Northerners just can't understand the special relationship of Southern Blacks and Whites, a fairly common Southern white attitude in the 1960's, as I recall. Southern whites also tended to resent Northerners regarding them as especially racist, since, when put to the test, Northern whites showed themselves capable of a great deal of racism.

As for King's context, she was born in 1936 (the same year that Gone with the Wind was written). During the time she was growing up and in her 20's, "Southern" was generally presented in the media as a positive identification. We were coming up on the 100th anniversary of the Civil War and there were television shows and re-enactments celebrating the dashing Confederates versus the staid, unromantic Yankees (think Cavaliers versus Roundheads for relative sex appeal). So Southern identity (i.e., specifically white Southern identity) was represented as both admirable and desirable.

Add to that the fact that King positions herself as the insider who can explain to outsiders what it's like to be a Southerner, much as Leo Rosten explains what it's like to be Jewish. Identity, then, is her job, and she seems to have decided that the Southern identity (or the white Southern aristocratic identity, which is mostly what she writes about) is characterized by some fairly unsavory attitudes, which is it her job to explain and defend.
King defends Southern racism, in part by invoking the idea that Northerners just can't understand the special relationship of Southern Blacks and Whites

*"They can't discuss it," he said. "It's a shame but all they do is get mad whenever you bring it up. I'll never understand it. They're blocked on that one subject. I've lived here over five years now - and they're good neighbours; but if I mention race with any sympathy for the Negro, they just tell me I'm an 'outsider' and don't understand about Negroes. What's there to understand?"

- from Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

(Note: the book was written in 1959, where 'Negro' was the polite term.)
That quote pretty much says it. It's always white southerners who claim that "outsiders" can't understand the "special relationship" (shades of the "peculiar institution", i.e., slavery, which "outsiders" also "couldn't understand").
And, as Griffin discovered, the 'special relationship' wasn't necessarily something the white Southerners could be expected to understand. If someone doesn't dare tell you what they actually think for fear of getting lynched, exactly what kind of relationship do you have with them? It's like a battering husband blaming people for 'interfering in our marriage'.
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