If you have grown up as a woman with exposure to television and the internet, chances are you have watched or heard of Sex and The City. Personally, Sex and The City has played quite a significant role as I charted my ideas of femininity while coming of age- I remember trying to see myself through the lens of the show, wondering if I am a Carrie, or a Samantha, or maybe even a Charlotte. It harnessed my pubescent feelings about love, loss, sex (I would have had a better way of learning about sex if there was sex education in my school, but never mind), and like many other women who swore by this show/film, I took life advice from these four women- how to deal with men, when to give in, when to stand your ground etc. Obviously, it took me a few more years to understand that all that advice was pretty shit, and the only viable source of my ideologies resulted in me into looking more into myself, than into those characters.
Now before I delve into the obvious (and maybe not-so-obvious) problematic parts of the eponymous movie and show (the Sex and the City franchise ie) and why I reached the aforementioned conclusion, I would like to mention something which I believe is of prime importance in this respect- the Bechdel Test. If you don’t know what’s it all about here’s a small intro- the Bechdel-Wallace test or Mo Movie Measure is a media test which was developed by Liz Wallace to test how ‘feminist’ a film actually is. It became widely known after Alison Bechdel featured it in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, where the character Mo explains why she refuses to watch any film that doesn’t fulfill the following conditions:
- the movie [media] must have at least two women characters;
- who talk to each other;
- about something other than a man.
The sad part of the Bechdel Test is the fact that when you look back at some of your favourite movies through this feminist lens, you realize how problematic they could be. And only when you focus minutely on the third condition of this test, it dawns on you on how some of your favourite on-screen female characters actually have no character arc than one that supports the growth of the male protagonist (refer to how La La Land is a prime example in this post). Now before we go into where Sex and the City fares with respect to this test, we should also remember that this test is not the sole definition of a feminist film. The theory has been visited and revised to serve as a better litmus test, however for this article I shall refer to the three conditions stated above.
At first glance Sex and The City seems to be an empowering if not a feminist film the protagonists are women, the narrator is a woman- the entire narrative is thus for women, by women. It gloriously ticks off the first two conditions of the Bechdel test; it’s a show with more than one female character, and they regularly communicate with each other. What’s interesting is that the characters channel different ideologies whether it be Charlotte, the orthodox woman, Miranda as the type-A workaholic, Samantha as the sexually-liberated one, and Carrie…who doesn’t really know what she wants. You might be appalled at why I described these characters and their stories using merely a few words, but that just brings me to my point- it fails the third condition of the Bechdel Test as the whole of Sex and The City revolves only around these women’s sex lives. This is also illustrated by the first few minutes of the first Sex and The City movie, where Carrie introduces herself and her three friends only with respect to their sex lives as if the other parts of their personalities don’t hold as much significance.
Alright, even if we consider the show to be a chronicle of the complexities of women being in love (as suggested by the name of the show), why are all the characters so sloppy in their ways of dealing with men? Why does the show try so hard to make us root for Carrie and Big- when Big routinely mistreated her, left her at the altar, went on and off the relationship when he seemed fit and chose to reappear in her life every time she is dating other people and is happy without him? Or Miranda, when she apologises to her husband Steve for being too busy with work when she finds out that he cheated on her? Or why, in the sequel of the Sex and The City movie, was Samantha made fun of for taking pills to keep herself young? And most importantly why is the protagonist of the show/movies such a royal loser? Carrie has no idea what she wants, she fails to stand up for herself when necessary, and she lets the men in her lives get the better of her (one might also wonder how she affords Manolo Blahniks and a Manhattan address at a freelance writer’s salary, but that’s a conversation for later.) You might argue that the creators attempted to represent real women who fuck their lives up, who are indecisive, who make fun of each other, who lose some, but if you do choose to represent flawed characters, you must also show a side to them which one can look up to. Carrie, in this respect, fails, maybe at the cost of the screenwriter’s incapacity to develop a full-blooded character arc for her where she does/thinks of things other than love, sex and shoes; but this is also where the character of Samantha wins. For her character, not only do they show her as a woman with desires, they also show how hard she works to earn what she wants, and how great she is at what she does. Same goes for Miranda to some extent. We can also appreciate the fact that the show maintained the different ideologies of their women, especially Charlotte who believes in traditional marriages and families and is occasionally appalled at Carrie’s decisions.
Bechdel Test aside, a critique of the Sex and The City franchise is incomplete without mentioning the inherent elitism and privilege of the female protagonists, and their whiteness– even the significant others of these women are predominantly white. What about work-life balance and the responsibility Sex and the City to advertise and promote alternative careers that aren’t as shiny and in the limelight as Samantha’s celebrity publicist gig is? How can Carrie afford a closet full of labels and an apartment in Manhattan? Why does Charlotte choose her men keeping their financial backgrounds in mind? All these prove the show’s willing suspension of disbelief but is very unrealistic especially when you realise how formative this show is for female prepubescent and pubescent audiences.
In conclusion, I would like to state that for future references, the Bechdel Test is not the end all of feminist film readings. If we go by this test, feminist readings become impossible for certain films which are widely known and academically proven to have taken a stance for the representation of women, like Ray’s Charulata which quite prominently addresses the 19th Century women’s question in Bengal. It is safe to say however that this test can work for easy, primary readings of any film and presents to us the bigger picture of sexism in the media.