. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

From my mouth to your ear…

The inevitable Sex and the City post, belatedly. I forgot about the film the minute after I saw it, but if you write a book called The Female Complaint people ask you all the time whether you saw the latest chick flick, and whether something other than the predictably condescending thing can be said about it. Here’s what I wrote the night I saw it, raw. More on Intimacies soon.


Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ new book Intimacies opens with this hilarious sentence: “Psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex” (1). This is the funniest thing I have ever read.

The difference between Intimacies and Sex and the City is that the women in the film are not in psychoanalysis. But, as they are not having sex with each other, they can simulate the freedom to talk about sex where it isn’t. It’s a good thing that they have each other, too, as they are incapable of talking about sex with their lovers. But ladies, this is a problem.

If any of these women had ever even walked by feminism on the sidewalk they would have learned that one of the points of sexual liberation was to put your mouth where your mouth is. Sex talk was to be part of sex, part of sex pedagogy, part of allowing fantasy and desire to produce creativity and improvisation in the now of the event. Sexual liberation culture gave skills and permission for not just resorting to reenacting the default expectation out of fear that sex talk would make sex disappear.

But in this cinematic romantic world, the reigning fantasy is that sex and love ought to go without saying. Love objects are supposed to be like purchased objects, which in this film give instant radiant satisfaction and harbor no enigmas. But where love is concerned, the problem is that lovers are not objects, but subjects. Discussion is a fall from grace. Discussion is a sign that something is off. It puts you in the room with what’s too achingly human.

These women are so frightened of what’s uncontrollable and uncomfortable about sex that, rather than to talk well about it to lovers, they prefer to laugh and complain to each other about it. At one point, they even have to use the word “coloring” for “sex,” ostensibly to protect a little girl from hearing that it’s not about fantasy and play after all–but really, of course, to protect themselves from the embarrassing fact that they desire romance to corral sex into being something simple. Here’s Carrie’s description of Big’s sexual prowess, I kid you not: “he colors outside of the lines.”

So don’t believe it when people tell you that Sex in the City is fantasy: it is realism. Not in its racial and consumer politics, which are execrable and ridiculous. But because its protagonists are terrible at talking about sex, really talking. They track the effects of their failure but absolutely refuse to take the cure, which is risking eloquence and ineloquence where they are intimate.

In this film, the women want everything. They want to be and to turn all love objects into mothers, people who represent the possibility that the huge world of desire might provide satisfaction if it’s located in one person who’s in charge of all of the important reciprocities. They want to be children, fed yogurt and takeout, and tended to by their friends when there are no men around to protect them from their gaping aloneness. They want to eat excessively and to shit their pants and laugh about it. They want to be objects of animal lust too. They want to cultivate their appetites and never feel shame (that’s the part I like). Everything they do aims to keep them from confronting one more time the fear they will never be loved if they are actually seen in the whole range of who they are, a mess of incoherent desires.

But of course they cannot say this to themselves, because this is romance for the Bush and Blink generation. The explicit therapeutic dictum of the film is that women should stop overthinking desire and go with their gut. Their gut always knows what it wants, unlike the actual humans. This is also therefore the most conventional female complaint there is, except for all the other ones. Here’s what’s wrong with the conventional life I’ve chosen, and the romantic ideology that magnetizes me there, but I want what I want.

Sex and the City is just one more faux camp film about being clothed, not naked; sheathed, not exposed; tender and enraged that romantic risk feels like risk. Romantic love is supposed to protect you from feeling the risk that you know that it is. In the beginning of the film Carrie borrows Big’s glasses because she doesn’t want to admit that she’s ageing; at the end, she’s wearing glasses of her own, signifying her greater depth of soul and knowledge. She is wearing a conservative suit and giving a reading from her new book. The message she wants to spread is that, in love “we should make our own rules.”

What she means by this is that women should stop wanting greedily all of the conventional romantic trappings and invent better institutions and situations for the feeling of love. There was nothing manifestly queer or feminist about this, but as a message, it could be worse. In context what she meant, though, was that “we” should be less demanding and more forgiving, so that we can continue to live in proximity to the dream. The standing ovation and tears in the audience were its confirmation of the unfairness and terrible, romantic beauty of that exhortation.

8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

That really is the funniest line in the world. Oh, gosh, do I really have to see this movie??? xo great post, Cat

Comment by cathy davidson

Great post and great opening line! I also cringed at “colouring outside the lines.” Sheesh. For a show that claims to be about sex–about open, honest sex–they sure do a great job of glossing over it.

Comment by Blind Man

Thank you for posting on Sex & the City. I wish I had, like you, forgotten about the movie a moment after seeing it because I am rather embarrased by the depth and persistence of my disappointment with it. I feel like the political subjects you describe in a post on political optimism (and Obama) that tentatively (and in hushed voices) name their political allegiance out of fear for the desire ‘naming’ brings into being. I was shocked at how badly I wanted Sex&the City to talk about sex and love in ways that were risky, curious and suggestive.
In the context of your post, I am thinking about the movie as it compares with how the television show attended to the function of “talking” as a fall from intimacy. In the television show, it felt like the conversation amongst women was accomplishing what they could not do in their relationships: they talked openly and freely with each other, laughed, felt ashamed and needy, and attempted to navigate difficult questions. But what your post brings my attention to is that in the movie, not only did the women retreat from talking about sex with their partners, but barely talked about it with each other either. Why do you think that is? I wonder if after 6 years of talking together about sex the only thing left for them to do, in a movie, was either to have it with each other or banish it completely. Or is that simplistic? Could this be why, for a group of women who, with humor and love, had heretofore talked so much, there was nothing left to say? Becuase I think more than anything, what felt depressing about the movie was that there was no conversation *anywhere*. Shopping as the movie’s alternative to talking-about-sex?
If we shift the focus from the womens’ relation to their partners to their relationship to each other, how does our understanding of sex-talk and proximity to desire change, if at all?

Comment by ashtor

[…] Oh Lauren Berlant, you dreamy dream woman. On Sex & the City The Movie: […]

Pingback by not the motorcycle diaries » Pleasures, text, etc.

I saw Sex and the City last night, finally, and kind of expected guilty pleasure. But it wasn’t guilty, just only so much pleasure. It’s a shopping pic and I can like a good shopping pic if the merchandise holds up–their’s was kind of wacky. I was sitting way up front in a big theater, and a lot of color swooshed by. I did like being able to see the actors’ faces up close; they’re all groomed within an inch of their lives, but still you could see they were older than in the series and had been shot to reveal that, which I appreciated. But you are so right about why-talk-to-your-lover-when-you-can-complain-to-
your-girlfriends. I couldn’t believe it when
Miranda was already moving out within 3 cuts of Steve telling her he’d had sex with someone else. (Do people over 20 still do that?) Get mad, be hurt, make someone deal with your anger and hurt feelings. But walk out? The temporality of the film was pretty compressed (from snow to forsythia across a cut), but that was one place where it just collapsed.

I knew to expect the other shoddy places–the mammy vibe of Jennifer Hudson’s BBF (Hudson looks great but will she ever get another role that doesn’t lead with her ladies?)–but I didn’t know to expect Lily, a near-mute China doll of a 6-year-old girl. Good grief! Why hasn’t the film been cited for child abuse? Dressed up and dragged around like Samantha’s humping terrier, with lines confined to “again” for another go at Cinderella. In the tv series the child was adopted as an infant, so it isn’t like Lily wouldn’t be a chatty, 6-year-old English speaker by then. Just one of the 5 girl-children but this one racially marked and voiceless. Awful, kind of like watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s and wondering how the hell they got away with Holly Golightly’s Chinese landlord. Made me want a kid power protest of the film, no adults allowed. But maybe that’s how you become a woman obsessed with romance who only complains to her friends; start as a high-fashion accessory child who doesn’t talk at all.

Comment by Lisa Henderson

[…] people ask you all the time whether you saw the latest chick flick, and whether something other thanhttps://supervalentthought.wordpress.com/2008/06/23/women-are-from-mars-women-are-from-venus/Read “RE: The Dutiful Husband” at Relationships & Marriage Forum… of feigning sleep to the quite […]

Pingback by tender is the night feminism

The best way to watch Sex and the City, the movie is on DVD with – if you can get it – the US version which allows you to switch on the Spanish-dub version and, if you wish, Englsh subtitles – and turn off two thirds of the way through. Which turns it into an Almodovar film, about the bitterness of desire, far more interesting that Almodovar films.

Comment by kim serca

[…] But even more than your awesome Duke monograph (which at least has the removing paratexts of the form), I am intimidated by your hilarious and engaged blog. Your review of Sex and the City, […]

Pingback by dear lauren berlant « Dear Sandy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: