Sex and the City, and Other Onscreen Treats

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Sex and the City, and Other Onscreen Treats

Sarah Seltzer

This spring brought us a host of female-centric movies, but none hit the sweet spot of genuine artistry and popular subject matter.

This spring brought us a host of female-centric movies, but none hit the sweet spot of genuine artistry and popular subject matter.

When the first Sex and the City film came out, feminists wrote that the film failed to live up to the show’s hallmark probing-of-modern-womanhood-and-its-discontents. We lamented the fact that years after the series had ended, no suitable entertainment franchise for women had come along to tread upon the ground Carrie and co. had broken with their pointy heels and merrily complex sex lives.

That was before Twilight, a franchise so dispiriting in content that it led many who lamented SATC‘s occasionally poor feminist credentials to pine for the days when Sarah Jessica Parker’s midriff-revealing tops bore the standard for empowerment.

And then came last weekend’s Sex and the City 2: [Insert sequel joke here.] Trailers promised a film that would be bloated with corny puns, take advantage of every crude Orientalist trope imaginable during a sequence in Abu Dhabi, and flaunt material goods in a manner discordant with the current, more impoverished, zeitgeist.

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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The Sex and the City 2 trailer

Fortunately or un-, the movie delivered on these promises. It was indeed overly long and full of obvious gag lines, had an embarrassing and lengthy detour to “The New Middle East” which involved resurrecting as many old stereotypes as possible, and indulged in a fashion and interior-decorating orgy that moved from couture into camp.

And yet, despite these not insignificant problems, and more than a few snoozeworthy sequences. I was among those baffled by the insane level of vitriol and disgust that ran through the mainstream reviews of SATC2. The bile was spewed by many of the same critics who fawned over the supposed cleverness of Hot Tub Time Machine [yep!] and who adored the original Iron Man, a movie as plotless, racist, and full of expensive toy-fetishes as this one, if not more. This movie ran straight up against a truly gendered distaste–a pile on, if you will, of everyone trying to outdo each other to torment the middle-aged women with disposable incomes. It’s a little unfair. If we’re going to evaluate superhero films within the context of their (shallow) genre, then it’s time we do the same for carnival-like women’s escape flicks.

As to the merits of the film itself, I confess that I enjoyed SATC2 more than its predecessor (yes, that’s not a particularly tall order). As generally offensive and un-sharp as the film was, its central foursome, of whom many of us grew quite fond in yesteryear, seemed more true to their original conceptions this time around. Miranda returned to being a more softened version of herself, as she had evolved to be by the series’ end. Instead of being a shrill harpy, she got to help Charlotte have one of her signature “patriarchy isn’t all that great” moments, admitting that devoting oneself to motherhood wasn’t tantamount to bliss. Meanwhile Samantha was happily single, no longer dangling in an unfulfilled relationship, and therefore back to her sexed-up shenanigans. Carrie had also returned to being as status-conscious and emptily, breezily contemplative as we’ve expected her to be–not the mute depressive she was in the first film.

The screenwriters also neglected to utterly dumb down the script, accidentally allowing some interesting lines to slip through, lines that garnered a chorus of “uh-huhs” from my packed theater. When complaining about her sexist boss, Miranda remarked that men in America pretend to be pro-women’s empowerment, but secretly wouldn’t mind if we were veiled. Yes, free vs. veiled is a reductive comparison, but the point that women’s voices are still not heeded in the “land of the free” clearly resonated. Another moment I noticed was when Miranda told Charlotte that “motherhood is great–but it’s not enough.” This also hit major chord for the audience, who being women, are doubtless often told that saintly, self-sacrificing motherhood should be the sum of their natural urges.

If only the film had spent more time investigating these kinds of real women’s dilemmas–in a feminist way or not–instead of having a twenty-minute furniture tour of an Abu Dhabi hotel led by a “magical Desi” character. If only the franchise could honor its multi-racial, multi-cultural, devoted audience by giving them escapism that isn’t invariably racist. And if only, during the previews, they hadn’t run out of comedies to advertise and switched to hyping upcoming “weepies.” You see, there aren’t even enough rom-coms in the pipeline to fill up the trailer slots for the biggest women’s film of the summer. So Sex and the City remains the ace up that genre’s sleeve. It’s enough to make you want to down a bunch of drinks that end with “tini.”

The Just Wright trailer

If Sex and the City 2 failed to even approach sensitivity when it came to race but did better justice to its characters than it might have, Just Wright, commissioned by Queen Latifah’s production company and directed by a female auteur, Sanaa Hamri, had the opposite problem. Just Wright contains a love triangle between an injured NBA player and two Jersey girls, best friends and polar opposites. It was lovely to watch a rom-com with a confident, larger woman of color at its center, but the dichotomy between Latifah’s girl next door protagonist and her gold-digging, makeup-loving foil played by Paula Patton was paint-by-the numbers and trite. And as pleasant as it felt to watch a woman onscreen with a career as a physical therapist and a real set of interests (Hamri’s other feature film, Something New accomplished this as well), the heroine’s passion for basketball and jazz felt like a gesture rather than a personality. The film hovered in that deadly rom-com limbo between having real, believable characters with actual flaws, and being so over the top you dont care that they’re not real. And yet that this film was no less wooden than your average mainstream chick-flick, particularly one starring Katherine Heigl. It’s unfortunate that silly films with white women at their center are seen as being for everyone, while fluffy films like this are pigeonholed as Af-Am interest flicks. Hamri loves making truly romantic movies about strong African-American women with accomplished lives, and she has a glossy mainstream touch as a director that could go far. So I can’t wait for her next project–I just hope it has a better script than this one.

After these two flicks left me feeling rather savage about women’s movies, I felt it incumbent upon me to catch a female-directed and penned film that was critically beloved, Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give. Centering around a woman (Catherine Keener) who buys estate furniture and resells it for a profit, the film is an exquisite, hilarious and sad portrait of existential angst–of the female variety.

The Please Give trailer

This film takes place among moneyed and middle-class New Yorkers, but it couldn’t be more different than SATC2 in its approach, choosing to zoom in on its characters’ ugly flaws, their class privilege and the neuroses that are a function and luxury of that privilege. “Please Give” catches the subtle rhythms of women’s lives, the way we evaluate ourselves by sizing up other women. It also catches the way all of society’s anxiety about death and aging seems to end up focusing in on women’s appearances: men deal with aging by lusting after younger women, while women envy each others’ seeming beauty. The scenes between Keener and her acne-prone teenage daughter during a jean-shopping expedition ring so true to mother/ daughter relationships that it’s almost too much to watch. Several of the female characters are crippled by guilt, and Holofcener pokes fun at them, but also seems to suggest that women often carry the caretaking burden of society; we also often can’t enjoy material or romantic success because we feel that we’ve somehow robbed someone else. (All of this couldn’t ring more true days after seeing SATC–look at how critics reacted to older women with money who didn’t feel bad about it.)

Moviegoers are more interested in fantasies about Prince Charming and fancy real estate than a darkly comic, unflinching probing of the connection between women’s anxiety about our appearance and our inevitable deaths. Fair enough. It’s too bad–if a touch of “Please Give”s excellent characterization, ironic self-knowledge, and sharp script was allowed to bleed into mainstream romantic comedies, they’d be back in business.