This Is Not Your Life: The “Role Models” of Sex and the City
In 1993, Lisa Simpson assessed the female role models of her time, and came up with a grim prognosis.
“Millions of girls will grow up thinking that this is the right way to act,” she said, “that they can never be more than vacuous ninnies whose only goal is to look pretty, land a rich husband, and spend all day on the phone with their equally vacuous friends talking about how damn terrific it is to look pretty and have a rich husband.”
In 1998, “Sex & the City” aired for the first time, and Lisa Simpson’s fears came to life.
“Sex & the City” was (does anyone not know this?) a TV series that followed the lives of four women as they navigated the perilously sexful world of life in New York City. These women were meant to stand in for their entire gender, in spite of the fact that they were uniformly white, straight, and rich enough that they could have afforded to feed third-world villages with the money that they spent on shoes. They spent their (apparently endless) free time engaging in all life’s most vital pursuits: boys, gossip, clothes, and parties.
In spite of its patently unrealistic set-up, its exaggerated characters and neatly ridiculous plotting, many viewers were convinced that “Sex & the City” was a masterpiece of realism. People moved to New York because of the show. If they lived here, they tried to live like its characters; if they didn’t live here, they imagined our lives on its terms. These people, mostly women, who Gawker aptly christened Scary Sadshaws, elevated “Sex & the City” out of its proper place in the universe – light entertainment, with sex and terrifying costumes – and treated it as a lifestyle guide.
It’s no coincidence that one of the most successful SATC alums – a “plot consultant” by the name of Greg Behrendt – moved out of television once the show disbanded, and now writes handbooks for dating. Underneath every “revelation” sparked by the show, every gushing magazine piece that praised its “honesty,” every conversation between girls who decided the SATC girls were “just like us,” and proceeded to become more like them, there was this assumption: that this was the way women did, or ought to, behave.
Therein lies the problem.
Boys, gossip, clothes, parties: women have been assigned, and confined to, these pursuits since, roughly, the beginning of time. Back in, let’s say, the Victorian age – or 1950s America – sexism was justified by the idea that women were essentially children, in need of a strong Daddy figure to pat our heads and lay down the law and make sure that we didn’t spend too much money on those all those silly dresses and manicures. Be a good girl, kitten, and I’ll take care of you. This was the dream, and the program, and the trap.
It’s also the guiding myth of “Sex & the City.” Its characters may have jobs (although we rarely see anyone but Carrie working), but they nevertheless adhere to the old formula, running around in a tight circle of frivolity and consumption, rarely (if ever) exercising any real power. They’re children set loose with Daddy’s credit card in the world’s biggest shopping mall. And they are all, in the end, looking for a man to complete them.
Of course, in the long run, this conversation may go back to a problem addressed (where else?) in an episode of “Sex & the City.” When Charlotte chose to quit her job and rely entirely on her husband’s income, Miranda, as the token voice of feminism, told her to reconsider – to take a second look at the old, and scary, form of powerlessness she had embraced. Charlotte, of course, answered that her decision to be completely dependent on a man was empowering, because she had chosen it. The conversation ended with Charlotte sobbing, chanting her demented mantra into the phone: “I choose my choice! I choose my choice!”
So do we all. But “choice” is not – has never been – the point. Choice means nothing unless you understand the options on the table, unless you really examine the goals that have been laid out for you and understand how they fit into the larger picture. Choice remains meaningless until you play some role in creating new options for yourself, and for the rest of the world. And none of this can happen if you’re taking directions from a damn TV show.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write a column about my sex life. Someone, please alert me when I’ve saved the world.