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Where We Got By Walking in Their Manolos
From the beginning, critics feared that television would bring subversion to the suburbs, disillusioning women about family life, as well as distracting them from their domestic duties. "Whatever happened to men?" wondered TV Guide in 1953. "Once upon a time (before TV) a girl thought of her boyfriend or husband as her prince charming. Now having watched the antics of Ozzie Nelson and Chester A. Riley, she thinks of her man as a prime idiot." The critics were right to be worried. In the decades that followed, the tube was a key site of women's rebellion. It's where Lucy avoided housework, Mary took the pill, Maude got an abortion and Murphy got on a vice president's nerves.
"Sex and the City" continued this courageous -- if madcap -- tradition. With conservatives pushing abstinence and pro-marriage programs, it was an adroit form of protest to have a show where women questioned marriage, made more money than their boyfriends did, and declared (more eloquently than I can here) that they only give oral sex if they get it. So what if it was over the top -- if we're going to fantasize, why not fantasize about women staying out late and making tons of money? After all, nobody's particularly bothered when Tony Soprano does it. (Though he may have other hobbies that moralists would quibble with.)
Of course, even the best kind of fantasy has its flaws. I learned this the hard way -- on a "Sex and the City"-themed bus tour of Manhattan, back in 2002, where two dozen women paid about $30 for three hours on a chartered coach that hit pockets of the city made famous by the show. As we drove from one expensive shop to another, I sat appalled as my fellow passengers propositioned random men from the bus windows and compared their own tokens of male affection, or their "rocks," as they called them. Shortly after, I chronicled my horror in Salon, where I shamefacedly acknowledged that not all fans equate Jimmy Choo with empowerment or see Carrie in Charlotte Brontë's "Villette." I felt that the series had let me down. As breakups go, it was a toughie.
And yet seeing the characters again years later, atop that fence at the premiere, I couldn't help but forgive them. I'd always insisted that I loved them for their minds, not their bodies. But now I realized that it wasn't true. Seeing them again was like seeing an old friend -- a refrain I heard throughout the day.
I realize this is sappy, but I'm not alone. At the premiere, I noted none of the hostility emitted years ago by those older tour-bus riders, who had seemed bitter that their lives could never really match those of the stars. There were older women in this crowd, too, but mostly it was younger women, women who had grown up watching the show with their moms or on DVD. They were fun-loving but sensible -- nicely dressed, but nothing outrageous. In fact, I counted not one stiletto. They weren't afraid to admit that they were inspired by the show. They weren't befuddled by the idea of fantasy. Instead they took it for what it was worth. I finally acknowledged that what I had always loved most about the series, but was too afraid or too shy to admit, was that it made me feel as though I could do anything I wanted.
This sentiment was echoed by the women I talked to. When I asked them how they related to the series, most said they looked to the women for guidance in their careers, often as future journalists, fashion designers or PR people.
"Carrie writes about her life, and for me, wanting to go into journalism, wanting to go into theater, [I see] that you have to do what you love -- not just job-wise, but relationship-wise too," said Megan Wheeler, a 21-year-old from Washington studying abroad in London. "It's part fantasy, but it makes me feel like it can happen, that it can be done."
The fans also reminded me that although there's fantasy in "Sex and the City," there is, especially in the later seasons, an equal dose of real life. I recalled my favorite scene, certainly more meaningful since my daughter was born two years ago, in which Carrie visits Miranda shortly after the latter has had her son. The top-notch lawyer is trying but failing miserably to listen to her friend. She hasn't slept in three weeks and her boobs -- on full display -- look like whoopee cushions. Suddenly she says, "This is so frustrating. I can't follow your thoughts. It's all about nursing and nipples. I am not gonna become one of those mothers who cannot carry on an adult conversation. I am not."
Thinking about that scene, I realize that "Sex and the City" has on several occasions made me feel less alone, more thoughtful and more bold. I have never spent more than $50 on jeans. I have never invited the UPS guy inside -- and I probably never will. But you know what I have done? Sometimes when I'm writing, I look out my window and scrunch up my face just like Carrie. Sometimes I even pretend to smoke a cigarette. I'm 30 now, the same age she was when the series began. I'm not sure that the next decade will bring me everything it brought her -- a trip down a runway, a great bob.
Yet I feel, in some vague way, as though I'm here, at this computer, because of her. I too come from a nameless suburb and spent my youth daydreaming about being a writer in the big city. It's hard to believe that I'm actually doing it, because back then -- and for much of my 20s, too -- I thought it was just some silly fantasy.
Ashley Sayeau is a freelance writer in London.