The positive takeaways from Sex and the City 2

Well, I finally saw Sex and the City 2. I know I’m late to the party, but I would like to add my 2 cents to the discussion that happened earlier this year about the film. As plenty of reviewers and bloggers noted, there are a lot of problems with this movie. A lot. A lot a lot. There’s rampant consumerism, cookie-cutter gender and sexuality stereotyping, complete indifference to the reality of women who are not wealthy,  insensitivity and superficial treatment of Islam and gender issues in the Middle East, etc… If this particularly scathing review in The Stranger by Lindy West is any indication, this flick is, for the most part, a “feminist fail.”

But despite all of that, there were certain things about the movie I liked and appreciated. There were some valuable lessons in there that undoubtedly resonated with many women. As Sex and the City has always been a good indicator of where the feminism is at in the minds of the mainstream, I think it’s important to celebrate the good messages as well as critique the bad. And since plenty of others have already critiqued the movie, I would like to focus on the good.

One of those good messages is the same one that is carried throughout the series: friendships. What is actually quite radical about SATC is that it features female friendships as the primary relationships. When most of the “chick flicks” coming out of Hollywood these days portray women as backstabbing and catty a la Mean Girls and Bride Wars, the women of SATC’s friendships are loving, supportive, complex, and long-lasting. It’s actually kindof revolutionary. In SATC 2, this focus on friendship continues. I would even argue that it is stronger in this film than it was in the first SATC movie, in which the women’s stories were told individually and other than the short trip to Mexico, the women didn’t seem to spend all that much time together. In SATC 2, the women’s individual situations were less prominent and the focus was on their shared experiences.

One of those experiences was motherhood, or in Carrie’s case, the decision not to pursue motherhood. Carrie deals with the scrutiny and judgement that many women today face for being childless by choice. Through the film, she and Big wrestle with the social pressure to have kids and the common belief that “just us two” isn’t enough to have a full life.

For Miranda and Charlotte, the choice to become mothers has its own challenges. Miranda, who has her son Brady during the SATC series, was never the “maternal type” and her story deals with those types of stereotypes and assumptions about motherhood. Charlotte, on the other hand, was always portrayed as the stereotypical “maternal type” and her primary objective was to get married and have children. In SATC 2 we see Charlotte – the paragon of the “happy mom” – break down and shut herself in the pantry when she becomes overwhelmed by her children. Though her younger daughter is supposed to be going through her “terrible twos” in this movie, the scene reminds me of postpartum depression and the struggles mothers face trying to meet the needs of crying newborns.

Miranda and Charlotte have a heart to heart about this issue later in the film – a scene which got slammed in the reviews. Both of the women have full time, live-in nannies and as they discuss how hard motherhood has been, they both wonder how much harder it must be for women without help. And then they toast to the women without help. I know the superficial treatment of the subject and the barely-a-nod nod to “regular” (aka not rich) mothers made a lot of people cringe. But at the same time, it’s important to recognize that in the mainstream media and pop culture, the fact that this conversation happened at all is progress. The women of SATC are rich – we already knew that. At least they were aware enough to recognize their own privilege.

And if I may get a little preachy for a moment, it isn’t very feminist to tell one group of women that their struggles aren’t valid because they have money. Rich women’s experiences with postpartum depression and struggles with motherhood are valid, just as middle class women’s experiences and lower income women’s experiences are all valid. The important thing is that SATC 2 has added to the growing pile of evidence that yeah, motherhood is hard. And we need that evidence to fight the still-pervasive image of the 50’s housewife and mother who handles everything with ease and a smile.

Speaking of housewives, perhaps one of the most interesting and most progressive messages in SATC 2 is that relationships don’t have to follow a prescribed set of rules. Not everyone’s relationship has to look the same. This idea was discussed in the first SATC movie in terms of a wedding and what it has to, or doesn’t have to, be or mean. In SATC 2, the discussion is continued in the context of Carrie’s marriage with Big, who suggests that they spend 2 nights a week in different apartments in order to have time for themselves and keep the “sparkle” in their relationship. It pops up at other points throughout the movie as well. For instance, at Stanford and Anthony’s wedding, we learn that Anthony is allowed to cheat in the states in which they aren’t legally married. The idea that couples can “make up their own rules” is incredibly progressive and feminist-friendly. It opens the door for plenty of alternatives to the standard “monogamy + cohabitation + shared bank accounts = marriage” formula. Not to mention that it is the closest a mainstream pop culture institution has ever come to endorsing polyamory or other “alternative lifestyles,” even if only on a theoretical level.

But on a less political and more personal level, the idea that every relationship is different and every couple can “make their own rules” is an important lesson that I’m sure most of us can relate to. Being in a relationship is about give and take, and we have all at one time or another, had relationships that challenged our own ideas of what a relationship “should” look like. The closing monologue of the film was a comforting reminder telling us that it’s really okay if your relationship doesn’t follow the standard formula. It’s okay if you decide not to get married. It’s okay not to have a big wedding. It’s okay if you don’t live together / do live together. It’s okay to not be monogamous. It’s okay not to do everything together. It’s okay to do things your own way. I love this message.

SATC is, and always has been, problematic. While it has been progressive in many ways (Miranda as an ambitious career-woman, Samantha’s sexual liberation and distaste for committed relationships, etc…) it has also perpetuated stereotypical portrayals of gay men and celebrated wealth and consumerism. Even though it did not handle each and every issue from a decidedly feminist perspective, it at least looked at a number of issues facing women today and discussed them with a real-world, mainstream understanding that many many women could relate to. Did we really expect SATC 2 to be a hardcore feminist film?

Telling a modern “feminist” story is not easy. It used to be that all it took to make something feminist was to put a female character with some agency in a setting in which women usually had none. Today it’s more complicated. It’s not enough anymore to be a “strong woman” or to be a “career woman.” Perhaps SATC2 is an addled representation of our own confusion. Is it feminist to have a nanny and still find motherhood challenging? Is it feminist to engage in unabashed consumerism you can afford because of your successful career? Is it feminist to buy into traditional standards of beauty if you choose to do so? These are the questions SATC 2 raises. It forces us to address these issues and re-examine our own understanding of what feminism means.

The film may have failed – miserably – on a number of levels, but it still continues the positive traditions of SATC: celebrating friendship and questioning traditional ideas about sex, relationships, and marriage. And that’s something I think is okay to feel good about.

One Comment

  1. Thank you.

    I highly, highly enjoyed the movie, in spite of its ridiculousness, and the parts that I loved were the ones you mentioned–how much Carrie’s friends rallied around her, and especially the messages that we pave our own way, that we make our relationships our own, our way, and that we don’t have to subscribe to society’s notions of what is “right”. I liked that they did highlight a lot of struggles women have–motherhood, expectations, that no matter how old we get, we will always have problems. These are important messages, and they are overshadowed by the criticism of the film. Yes, the film is very flawed, but I love it for trying.


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