Sex?

Not tonight. I've got a headache.

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It’s odd how prudish educated people become when the topic turns to consumerism. They’re fine with the raunchiest sex talk, but bring up product talk and they get all fussy and judgmental. We’ve seen some of this in the response to the new Sex and the City movie. All the high-brow types are appalled by the film’s consumerism, but you don’t hear a peep about the sex. As I see it, it’s the sex that’s vulgar and pedestrian and the buying that’s creative and inspiring. After watching the film, I wanted to renovate my wardrobe and redecorate my house.

Along with showcasing things, the movie is an object lesson in carrying them off. Carrie Bradshaw isn’t the most beautiful or the tallest or the youngest of women, yet she wears her bubble skirts, robin hood caps, and high-heeled gladiator sandals with the  panache of someone convinced she looks great in them. Her conviction is convincing. One can’t help but feel that, ridiculous as she looks, she also looks good. The latest turn in women’s liberation is to stop imitating men and to celebrate not being them. High-level corporate and academic women have jettisoned their power suits for miniskirts and scooped-neck tops. Carrie Bradshaw is the patron saint of this empowered female self. And only a dolt would take her sartorial choices literally — they’re meant to showcase an idea, not serve as a blueprint.

The movie as a whole operates in this vein. You’re not supposed to take the food, the real estate, or the sex any more literally than the clothes. They’re a limit point for a certain kind of female expressiveness.

The women in the theater where I saw the movie understood this. Every set piece got an explosive reaction: “Look at those shoes!” to the gladiator sandals; “How darling!” to Charlotte’s baby; “Oh my God!” to the renovated closet. At the end, the audience was on its feet, clapping and whistling. The only time I’ve seen such female exuberance in one place was at a feminist rally in the 1970s, where the look was angry and ragtag. Now, it was happy and soignée — also, redolent of Estée Lauder’s “Youth-Dew” (I recognized it because my mother used to wear it).

So to recap: I loved the pretty stuff in Sex and the City. I was impressed by the esthetic power the film exuded and the joyous response it evoked from its female audience. But now for what I didn’t like. I hope I won’t be pummeled by a Louis Vuitton bag or get a Cosmo thrown in my face if I say that the film had some low moments: Charlotte refusing to drink or eat while on vacation because of her fear of “germs” (“It’s Mexico”) and Miranda saying she followed the “white man with the baby” in order to find the right neighborhood in a move to downtown Manhattan. I’m not a PC sort of person, but these strike me as ignorant, racist bits. Add to them the casting of Jennifer Hudson as Carrie Bradshaw’s assistant. Hudson has appeal — she’s part sultry diva and part all-American girl — but she seems glaringly out of place in this movie: too earnest and too big (excuse the appropriation) to consort with the frothy, high fashion Carrie. Hudson’s presence seems a sop to women of color, but a startlingly condescending one. I didn’t laugh when the character says she rents her designer bags, or when she squeals in delight when Carrie presents to her with “her own” Louis Vuitton in appreciation for her services.

There’s lots to be said about the vexed relationship of race to consumer culture, but this movie does not seem the place to say it. Carrie and her girls are fantasy figures, so why define them as an exclusionary group? Is it to make the white, middle-class women in the audience feel more entitled? Even Charlotte’s conversion to Judaism for the sake of her gnomish husband (talk about a funky accessory!) in the TV series is both unconvincing and condescending — another embarrassing sop to the ethnics.

Other things I didn’t like? The film is too long by about an hour. It’s a common Hollywood mistake: If something works once, it’s assumed to work better twice. But there’s a fine line between daffy fun and tedious silliness. “More” in this case becomes “too much.” One goes from admiring the products to seeing the product placement.

Finally, I didn’t like the movie’s denouement. (Warning: I’m going to give away a major plot point.) The jilting of Carrie Bradshaw midway through is a moment of epic humiliation — the hisses of Carrie’s minions in the theater were deafening. But wasn’t this outcome to be expected? The man had strung her along and humiliated her for 10 seasons, so why would he change? It came as a relief to have it finally be over — to see Carrie go all spastic in her Vivienne Westwood gown. The film objectifies men unabashedly (bare male bottoms are accessories like buckled handbags and strappy sandals), so why not box and return this one once and for all? If the film had ended with Carrie going into her wedding alone so as not to waste the gown and the flowers not to mention the site (couldn’t we have at least seen what she did with the New York Public Library, goddamit?), it would have been a feminist classic.

But the specter of Jane Austen is unshakable. Carrie’s jilting is, therefore, not the end of the film but the beginning of its second half. It is the excuse for piling on more stuff and bringing the heroine back together with Mr. Lummox. Reader, I’m sad to say, she marries him.

To salvage my disappointment, I’ve decided to see Carrie’s final union as a metaphor. As I argued elsewhere, the film follows the trajectory of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign: jilted in Iowa, crying before New Hampshire, mobilizing her base and hanging in — even when deprived of the blockbuster prize, determined to get at least something. That something in the movie is a City Hall wedding in a vintage suit. In the political arena, it could mean — well, I won’t postulate what it could mean. The point is that the demographic for the film and the campaign are the same. If you heard the hisses when Mr. Big behaved badly, you know that this group — pink pumps and frilly blouses, cosmos and closets notwithstanding — is going to give Barack a hard time, too. • 9 June 2008

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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