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Screwed by 'Sex and the City'

What terrible hold do these aging Barbies have on us?

By Dorothy Woodend 30 May 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Cartoon women in Disney, NY.

It's a little like clockwork, every summer an article appears decrying the dearth of female parts.

No, not vagina and breasts, there's plenty of those about, but juicy thespian bits for the female sex. This summer isn't that different, with the usual slough of Batman, Ironman, The Hulk, Indiana Jones, etc., on offer. There is one gonzo gender exception however, when the four women of Sex and the City storm the cinema gates on Friday.

I don't quite know what to think about this. I like shoes as much as the next person, but the attendant hoopla is a little ridiculous. The breathy frenzy over SATC has been ongoing for the last few months, and has reached a fever pitch of TV specials, Vogue Magazine layouts and interview after interview. It's a full on gorge of frothy femininity and label lust so slick, you might want to become a Carmelite nun afterwards, merely to rest your eyes on something severe and spare.

The whole conflagration has me thinking, "How does something become its opposite?"

Affairs to forget

Once upon a time, a woman named Candace Bushnell wrote a book about a group of New Yorkers looking for love, and finding only sackcloth and ashes. She writes: "The glittering lights of Manhattan that served as backdrops for Edith Wharton's bodice-heaving trysts are still glowing -- but the stage is empty. No one has breakfast at Tiffany's, and no one has affairs to remember -- instead, we have breakfast at 7 a.m. and affairs we try to forget as quickly as possible. How did we get into this mess?"

Despite the sex, the cosmopolitans and the shoes, nobody seemed to be having a very good time. The rituals enacted by the tribe of single women and men who had seemingly lost faith in love were often mean spirited and empty. Within the guise of her alter-ego Carrie Bradshaw, sexual anthropologist and gal about town, Bushnell described how women became men, and men became scarce. "We were hard and proud of it, and it hadn't been easy to get to this point -- this place of complete independence where we had the luxury of treating men like sex objects. It had taken hard work, loneliness, and the realization that, since there might never be anyone there for you, you had to take care of yourself." There really isn't much separating Wharton's Lily Bart from Carrie Bradshaw, except that Carrie marries well at the end of the story. Both women want love and luxury: one gets it, the other doesn't.

Barbies in Disney York

Someone once said that nothing is as distant as the recent past, and even before they had to alter the show's opening sequence to delete the twin towers, Sex and the City had become just another Disneyland version of New York, suitable for middle America to gawk at. Bushnell's salvos at '90s Manhattan dating culture seem almost as far away now as Edith Wharton's of the 1870s, or Mary Cantwell's of the '50s and '60s. This is a bit of an aside, but if you're at all interested in the notion of fashion, New York, and what it meant to be a single woman trying to navigate these tricky waters, go find Mary Cantwell's book Manhattan Memoir. Long before Ms. Bushnell came to town, Mary Lee was busy crafting a portrait of a time and a place when the world still came to New York looking to make something of itself.

Heather Mallick recently took the spurs to the Sex and the City audience, but she's a bit late to the party. By the time the show had ended its run on HBO, it was already like putting lipstick on a corpse; the flesh was willing, albeit a bit withered, but the spirit has long departed. Not that there ever was much soul to begin with. What is more curious than the evolution of the show into a cultural juggernaut, is the jettisoning of any reality, however slight, for a full-on Barbie's Dream City, complete with four Barbies, and all the mix-and-match kooky outfits you could possibly want. Cuteness really is a bit of a curse when you're older. It's like patent maryjanes or frilly white pinafores, truly sweet only on a six-year-old. Cute in your 40s and 50s looks a lot like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

I watched the show when it first came on air, mostly because it was a bit of novelty, frank talk about sexual matters, and the occasional shoe fetish moment. Over the years I watched as the series quickly lost anything even slightly complex and genuine, and replaced it with cartoon versions of adult women. Even if the latter episodes were obviously driven by the ego of one Sarah Jessica Parker, who seemed determined to frost Manhattan in pink tulle, and throaty giggles, the turn around was somewhat remarkable. Marriage, babies and conventional morality were offered up in lieu of independence and self-determination. I felt a little sick, but it was sort of like watching a car crash, you couldn't really look away. Still, I kept watching until Sex finally went off the air. "At last, it's over," I thought. But, of course, it wasn't.

The main distraction

Mallick's message in her column about the show, that women are idiots if they choose to partake of such stuff, is only partly right. Certainly, the Sex and the City phenomena is a marketer's power puff, but you could also view the film version as the equivalent of the '30s musical extravaganzas, movies that were supposed to distract people who were down on their luck, and simply needful of some glamour. Even while outside the world went to hell, inside the movie theatre a bespangled blast of beauty and shine awaited, a place where marabou starlets, soft and downy as new born chicks, descended staircases, wafting Arpège and Evening in Paris. There is some element of that glissando fantasy in Sex and the City, but of course, the modern version lacks any innocence of purpose. The world is still apparently going to hell, it's just a wee bit closer to the fiery pit. Women still need their $800 shoes, or whatever Manolos cost these days.

If there were only a few cartoon women in TV and film, balanced by some other stuff, I suppose it wouldn't be so bad, but they're everywhere. Reality and fiction have an odd way of blending lately. A recent article on the Cannes Film Festival brought it home.

But even the barest glance at the television reveals a very strange cultural collision. It gives one pause when the only way women can apparently get their own TV show is by being complete and utter bitches. Denise Richards (It's Complicated), Lindsay Lohan's Mother (Living Lohan), and Baby Phat Designer Kimora Lee Simmons, all resemble cartoon witches: grasping, greedy, screeching creatures that might make you loath to admit that you share the same gender. It's the collusion that makes you feel sick to your stomach, like Amos and Andy with breasts, or Stepin Fetchit for the next generation.

Debased glamour

It's little wonder that in a recent BBC poll the most loathed celebrities were all women. (The most beloved on the other hand, were all male.) Maxim Magazine named Sarah Jessica Parker number one on its list of ugliest women. The sheer meanness of this shouldn't come as a shock, but somehow it still does.

Sometimes it feels as if we, as a culture, decided to go backwards. One only needs to take a quick look at the cover of Vogue Magazine to see evidence of this notion. Here is one Carrie Bradshaw -- AKA SJP as she is referred to throughout the accompanying article -- crouched at the feet of her man, actually pinioned between his legs, her head positioned exactly over his crotch. It's as if she'd been caught in the middle of performing a sex act, and turned just in time for her head shot. A picture is worth a thousand words supposedly, but this picture only brings up one word. And it ain't pretty.

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