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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.

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@ashleysayeau.com

Ashley Sayeau is a freelance writer in London.

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