Where We Got By Walking in Their Manolos

By Ashley Sayeau
Sunday, May 18, 2008

LONDON After five hours of craning for a good view, the impossible finally happened: I cursed my vow to never buy stilettos. I'm short, you see, so even though I was only inches from the red carpet, I couldn't see a thing when the crowd started chanting, "Carrie! Carrie! Carrie!"

I'd heard rumors of a green hat, so I raised my camera and shot randomly into the air. And there in my photos it was: about a foot high, looking like Kermit the Frog eating broccoli in the English countryside. But it was all the proof I needed: My heroine was here. Only Carrie (a.k.a. Sarah Jessica Parker) could carry off wearing something that ridiculous.

After a four-year hiatus, the women of "Sex and the City" -- Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha -- are back. Through a fluke of international movie marketing, the film of the long-running HBO series, which opens in the United States May 30, premiered first not in New York, the show's beloved backdrop, but here in London, where I now live. I was ecstatic at my luck, as were the screaming women who packed Leicester Square last Monday as the show's stars made their way into the Odeon theater, ducking under an enormous banner encouraging visitors to "Get Carried Away."

But why? What was it about that self-indulgent, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too show that could turn perfectly serious, accomplished adult women into swooning fans, trying to catch a glimpse of the women they had worshiped on the small-screen since the show debuted a decade ago?

As someone who has studied Carrie Bradshaw's place in the pantheon of popular culture's depiction of single girls, I thought I knew my own answer. Her outsized life is a fantasy, but an empowering one. We couldn't afford Carrie's shoes, let alone ever really hope to walk in them, but in her outlandishly expensive Manolos, she teetered squarely in the footsteps of TV's independent heroines, projecting an infectious kind of confidence.

My new friends in the crowd at the premiere had their own answers, of course, mostly focused less on how Carrie fits in with the depiction of feminine dependence in, say, 19th-century fiction than on good television. I spent the afternoon dishing about "Sex" with them, and we kept circling back to the question that has always plagued the show. I call it the question of reality. Nearly every critic has posed it, many with a furrowed brow. It goes like this: Why do so many women love this show that bears no resemblance to their real lives, that presents nothing but a fantasy world of shoes, sex and staying out late?

"It's inspirational. It's a dream world," said Sam Ramage, 19, echoing what many said. "You want to live in New York. You want to have all the designer clothes, but it's not just the clothes -- it's the way they dress. Their confidence."

I was impressed. These women managed to be both giddy and poised, while I, on the other hand, was growing increasingly wacky. Wanting a proper picture, I had scrambled onto a nearby fence. All afternoon, I had contained myself, been the removed reporter. "What must they think of me now?" I thought, my backside in the air. But the truth was, I didn't care. I hadn't felt so alive in ages.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. My relationship with the series has always been more cerebral than emotional. I first came across it seven years ago while researching my master's thesis on single women. I was looking for a contemporary example of a single-woman archetype, and I found four of them, staring me in the face. I was immediately hooked. I wrote 75 pages describing the show's predecessors, from Theodore Dreiser to Helen Gurley Brown, analyzing Carrie's engagement ring and ultimately arguing that the series represented a profound step forward for women in its portrayal of sex, friendships and single life.

But there was nothing sentimental about it. Like many academics who write on popular culture, I insisted that I related to the show on only an intellectual level. Fans were to be studied, not emulated. And yet here I was, perched on that rickety fence, watching Carrie and Co., my heart fluttering.

For a cultural critic, this is as metaphysical as it gets. On the one hand, I knew that the hoopla surrounding the $60 million film spoke to the fact that "Sex and the City" is above all a brand, one that has only grown since the series ended in 2004. TBS spent a reported $750,000 an episode for the syndication rights, and DVD sales have done nothing but soar at home and internationally. The series is good at a lot of things -- especially marketing.

On the other hand, none of this diminished the excitement that I, or the other women, felt at the premiere. I'd been secretly pleased by the women's dismissive attitude toward those who disdained the show as just fantasy. I've always felt that the question of reality was a ruse, and that what really upset reviewers was not that the series lacked verisimilitude (it's a television show, after all, not real life), but that so many women flocked to this alternate world, this fantasy of four women let loose in the city.

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