Wednesday, February 25, 2004

“Sex and the City,” the HBO sitcom that mesmerized millions of hotties and hottie wannabes, was a true cultural phenomenon finally mugged by reality. This was supposed to be the sitcom for liberated urban women, even touching on such issues as breast implants, breast cancer, physical abuse of women, elder care and the emotional aftermath of September 11, while drowning the little screen with sex, sex and more sex.

But the series finale, anticipated by young, liberated urban women in the way their men anticipated the Super Bowl, played its audience for fools. S&C insulted the intelligence of the women it set out to challenge. Edginess sank deep into sentimentality. Women were asked to put their brains, if not their bodies, on hold.

The sitcom for the liberated urban woman, born in the Clinton years to ride the sexual explicitness that emanated from the Lewinsky affair, was hailed as a sitcom to “empower” women against the powerful men who exploit them in relationships. It encouraged women in their sexual independence, exploring what one professor described as the “semiotics of masculinity” — the need for women to understand men. But as season followed season the series grew ever more remote from the lives of real women.

Their men were cardboard stereotypes, pushed around by their personalized phallic symbols. The women were witty and attractive, but their conversations never expressed any big, great or even medium-sized idea that transcended the usual conversations about neurotic “relationships.”

When life’s complexities entered the lives of the fictional characters they were treated with superficiality and condescension. Maybe we shouldn’t expect anything else from a medium lost so deep in the shallows. The infertility of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), for example, an excruciatingly painful affliction, is at first mocked by suggesting that she sublimates her emotional pain in affection for her dog (the animal, not the man, in her life). Her patience is finally rewarded with the news that she can now adopt an adorable Chinese baby girl, available because the one-child policy in China encourages certain parents to abandon the first-born female. But there’s no discussion of anything so substantial. Nor is there any suggestion that the SARS epidemic closed the doors for adoptions from China.

The character of Samantha (Kim Cattrall), a nymphomaniac, is diagnosed with cancer when she seeks breast implants. This is trivialized by television’s usual tastelessness. Insult is added to ignominy when the wig she wears to cover her chemotherapy baldness falls off at a particularly intimate (and explicit) moment in the boudoir. In off-sitcom interviews, Ms. Cattrall boasts that all her good sexual experiences in real life were with her husband and she even wrote a book about it. That’s nice. But she doesn’t tell us that her real-life marriage was considerably shorter than the length of the sexual adventures she exhibits on the little screen.

Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), protagonist anchor and narrator, doesn’t learn anything in six years of bad sexual relationships. When her Russian artist boyfriend hits her during an argument, the slap is treated as a “mistake” — no physical abuse here.

The one character who actually grows with maturity and insight is Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) whose mother-in-law has a debilitating stroke and requires attentive and loving care. In one poignant scene, Miranda bathes the older woman, accepting the profundity of the connection.

“Sex and the City,” set in New York, was always as much about the city as about the sex. After September 11 erased the Twin Towers from the Manhattan skyline, the characters on camera encouraged each other to go shopping to help their Manhattan neighbors make a financial recovery. The women could wear their expensive Manolo Blahnik shoes as acts of patriotism. All that and a foot fetish, too.

For all the show’s wit and stylishness — and many of the earlier episodes had an abundance of both — it was never the feminist celebration that the critics said it was, unless feminism is about female freedom to exploit sex in multiples of various kinds. It’s hardly a victory for feminism, it seems to me, for women to do unto men as they have been done unto.

In its sixth season, the sitcom was exhausted and so were most of the women who watched it. On the day after the finale, newspapers typically visited bars where young women gathered to cry into their cosmopolitans while saying teary farewells to “Sex and the City.” It was tempting to say good riddance. Too bad. This coulda been a contender.

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