Sex and the City the movie: Having your (wedding) cake and eating it

The Sex and the City movie makes for a disappointing postscript to the more subversive TV series, argues Catherine Redfern

Catherine Redfern, 5 June 2008

SATC posterThis review contains spoilers after the first section. Read at your own risk.

While obviously not perfect (frankly, what TV show is?), I do believe that Sex And The City put forward some genuinely feminist messages during its six-series run. Messages such as: having a perfect wedding isn't the end of the story; don't judge people on appearances; women's sexual pleasure is important; you shouldn't become dependent upon a man; your friends can be the more important people in your life; you can choose to be childless and happy; don't stereotype people; follow your own path in life; you don't have to get married to be in a happy relationship; there's nothing wrong with being single... and so on, and so on.

So I was keen to see how the film would take forward the storylines of the four characters, now in their 40s, and what new messages or subversive, unexpected angles it would explore. I also wondered how they could possibly get any new plotlines that we hadn't already seen before.

My expectations were influenced for better or worse by the fact that I had been following all the latest news about the film on the internet, including leaked photos and clips which showed Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, in a huge meringue-style wedding dress hurling flowers at Big, suggesting that he'd jilted her at the altar. Then the counter-rumours started on the internet: no, no, it can't be as simple as that; it must be a dream sequence; it's a red herring to distract the fans; there's a much more unorthodox, dark storyline (maybe someone dies?); there's a twist in the tale; it's not what you'd expect. Quotes from Parker implied there would be a dark, unexpected plot.

I was hoping they were right. I wanted something that would really surprise me and turn all the traditional romantic storylines on their head. I had faith in the franchise to surprise me and the audience.

We want women strong enough not to be rescued yet at the same time, men who are traditional enough to attempt to do the rescuing

I was wrong. Basically, if you watch the trailer, what you see is what you get; there's no big twist, no big shock. Big does leave Carrie at the altar. Steve does cheat on Miranda. Charlotte gets pregnant and Samantha is tempted to stray with her hunky neighbour. That's basically the story lines of the four characters summed up right there.

I have to admit that I am a teensy bit disappointed that it didn't involve anything more surprising or shocking. But maybe my view of the subversive nature of SATC was overinflated to begin with.

SATC has always tried to have its cake and eat it (and miraculously stay a size zero at the same time). What I mean by this is that it was often successful in being shocking and different in many ways, but when it came to the big romantic plots, there was always just enough of the old-fashioned aspects to satisfy the traditionalists amongst the viewers, particularly around Carrie.

A prime example came at the end of the last series, when Big flies to Paris to 'rescue' Carrie (having our cake) and yet Carrie has already decided to leave the Russian of her own accord, so doesn't need rescuing (eating it). The viewer can sit back and enjoy the double satisfaction of "ahhh isn't that romantic of Big to go and save Carrie" and "yay, Carrie is a strong independent woman who doesn't need rescuing, how feminist, how empowering!". So basically, we want women strong enough not to be rescued yet at the same time, men who are traditional enough to attempt to do the rescuing. SATC tries to have it both ways.

Before going into more detail on the issues and themes raised by the film, which is a very funny, enjoyable, light-hearted comedy, I should say that I am a big fan of SATC. I love the show, I love the women, I could watch them all day long and I'll be the first in the queue for buying the DVD. But that doesn't mean I can't be critical too. I'm also going to point out where I think the series has already covered many of the issues raised in the film and I experienced a sense of déjà vu. Let's bring it on!

Spoilers from here on out

Love and Marriage

Figuring out what the film is saying about marriage and weddings is difficult. On the one hand, Big and Carrie's relationship is shown as fine as it is before marriage. The only reason why marriage comes up is because Carrie realises that by allowing him to buy the whole apartment for them both she has nothing of her own, she's dependent upon him, and she has no legal protection should anything go wrong between them. The way Big and Carrie talk about the idea of getting married was handled very realistically: no clichéd faux-romance, just a halting, slightly embarrassed discussion: "Do you want to get married?" "Is that what you want?" "What do you want?" "So... we're getting married then?" So, marriage is not seen as more important than anything else as a goal in itself; and yet the film is centered around marriage as its core plot. Hmm.

You can see the writers were thinking that viewers would be disappointed by the fact Big didn't get down on one knee and do all the traditional stuff

Carrie has always been reasonably anti-marriage and weddings, even to the point of having a panic attack when she tried on a wedding dress. So it is weird watching her turn into Bridezilla in this film. Was it really all about the Vogue shoot she is cajoled into taking part in by her editor, and the Vivienne Westwood dress she's given? Surely by now, in her 40s, with countless relationships behind her, she'd be grounded and grown-up enough not to be distracted from love and Big by a designer dress. It didn't feel right to me.

[Déjà vu: In season three's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell', we've already learned that the big perfect princess-style wedding (in this case, Charlotte & Trey's) does not a perfect marriage make.]

In fact the whole wedding sequence just didn't feel real to me, although maybe that was the point of it. Carrie looked severe in the dress with her bright red lips, hair scraped back and dark green feather in her hair. She turns into a total cliché in this section of the film. At one point it's as if she's going to actually faint and ask someone to pass her the smelling salts. There's dropping of a phone, there's the angry throwing of the flowers, there's cars passing each other in the street and skidding to a halt. Whatever happened to subverting the rules and having unexpected plotlines? I feel like I've seen this a million times before.

While the film seems to reject old-fashioned ideas about weddings and marriage, by making the big traditional-style wedding the cause of all their problems, there is also the feeling that somehow all their problems would not have begun if only the proposal was done in a 'proper' (traditional) way. You can see the writers were thinking that viewers would be disappointed by the fact Big didn't get down on one knee and do all the traditional stuff. And so, this is sorted out at the end. Just when Big and Carrie decide that the whole full-blown 'romantic' wedding extravaganza was totally unnecessary and all they need is love and each other, Big gets on one knee and proposes.

We're having our cake and we're eating it. It's wedding cake, actually.

Happily Ever After, The End?

Through various trials and tribulations the film tries to put forward the moral message that getting married is not the end of the story, life is not like a fairy tale, and 'happy ever after' (as a concept of being an 'end' in itself) doesn't exist in reality. And yet, after all this, the film pretty much ends with a wedding! So in this case, it literally is the end of the story.

Sarah Jessica Parker always said that New York was the fifth lady of the series, yet in the film it's Vivienne Westwood

Again, at one point Carrie says that 'finding love' is not the end of the story; what happens after that is the interesting part, and it's the concept behind her new book (one of her previous books being called, I hope you noticed, MENhatton). But when we look at Charlotte's role in the film, it seems that finding love is the end. Charlotte is happily married, pregnant and has her adopted daughter Lily. She has everything she's ever really wanted in life. So she doesn't really have any storyline as such. She's left to be the comic relief (which she does amazingly well). Her only issue is feeling scared that her perfect life is inevitably going to go wrong, something that probably many people can relate to - but this is dealt with in two short scenes. She doesn't have a job, she doesn't have any significant parenting issues or problems to deal with, she doesn't have any struggles to overcome. Surely being a parent and becoming pregnant would at least involve some major life changes and issues, but there's nothing. So whilst we're told that being happily married is not the end of the story, we're actually shown in Charlotte's case that it is, because in fact she has no story.

Labels, labels, labels

Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Christian Lacroix, Prada, Oscar de la Renta, Monolo Blahnik, Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, Dolce and Gabbana, Fendi, Vera Wang, Vogue....

Now imagine that stretched out over two and a half hours.

Apart from the designer obsession, the fashion was a fun part of the film and I loved seeing what Carrie is going to wear next. Fashion as fun has always been a major part of SATC. But hasn't the label obsession got just a bit over the top? The series wasn't always about the high end of fashion, but it seems to have become more and more so over time. Carrie always wore amazing outfits, but these were usually a mixture of vintage and designer rather than an all-out designer label obsession. Sarah Jessica Parker always said that New York was the fifth lady of the series, yet in the film it's Vivienne Westwood.

Admittedly, there is one important scene at the end where Carrie does wear a non-designer vintage dress and she looks lovely. This is supposed to show that Carrie has rejected all of the superficial trappings of stereotypical weddings and is getting back to what is really important. But she wears a pair of Manolo Blahniks with it. See! Having your cake and eating it. Told you.

Body image issues

There are good and bad points here.

There are no negative connotations about the women's age. It's mentioned in passing that Carrie needs glasses and, at the end, she's shown wearing them at a book signing - but no-one jokes about this or makes fun of her. Absolutely no issue is made over Samantha's age either (OK she does go on about botox in one scene, but that's not seen as mandatory for all the women). In fact the film ends with the friends celebrating her 50th birthday. There is no shame or denial over this (rightly so) and they toast to "the next 50 years!" Now that is a positive, life-affirming message.

It was good to see four leading ladies over 40 in a film. Just think about how unusual that is and how that in itself is such a good thing to see. More, please!

Is this the same woman who once berated a lover for his sexist double-standards when he told her she could do with a trim 'down there'?

However, there is a section in which Samantha returns to New York on a visit and everyone is visibly shocked, repulsed and comments openly about how disgustingly fat she has become. What the f--k?! There is nothing to her! I was totally flummoxed watching this part. When the camera panned down to her midriff I didn't understand what I was supposed to be looking at. Yet everyone is appalled and concerned for Samantha's well-being because of this. It's supposed to indicate Samantha's depression, but it is ridiculous how everyone overreacts.

There's another section in which Samantha humiliates Miranda for showing some pubic hair when wearing a bathing suit. The scene is played for laughs, with Samantha employing her usual scathing wit, and Kim Cattrall is a very talented comedic actress who delivers the lines brilliantly. But Miranda is visibly upset, embarrassed, close to tears and covers herself with a towel before running off. She feels that Samantha is blaming her for being the cause of Steve's infidelity. After all, as Samantha points out, Charlotte has waxed and she's married and we all know that Charlotte's marriage is a happy one. Is that because Charlotte hasn't 'let herself go'?

I wasn't quite sure what this scene was trying to say. Were we supposed to be on Samantha's side or Miranda's? Why couldn't Samantha have mentioned it (if she even had to mention it at all) in a more kind, yet still humorous way rather than barking "Jesus, honey, wax much?" Is this the same woman who once berated a lover for his sexist double-standards when he told her she could do with a trim 'down there'?

Sex - how often?

Coming back to Miranda feeling attacked for her relationship's breakdown, it does seem that she is shown as being mainly at fault for Steve's infidelity. She's stressed and busy with work and looking after their child, which puts a strain on their relationship. When making love with Steve she is conscious that she only has four hours before having to get up to work (she is a senior lawyer, the main breadwinner in a high-pressured job) and says to him: "Can't we just get it over with?". Steve complains they haven't had sex for a long time; later she confesses that they haven't had sex for six months, and this is mainly shown to be her fault. So is she 'to blame'? I find this quite troubling.

I admit I was moved when Miranda and Steve embraced on Brooklyn bridge and got back together. But I don't know if it's anything surprising or new, or radical, or unusual. It's a bit depressing really

For Miranda, lack of sex apparently led Steve to cheat on her. Lack of sex causes Samantha to be unhappy in her relationship too, complaining to Smith that if things keep on they are, before they know it they'll "only be having sex five times a week" (!) Carrie remains schtum about how often she and Big do it, as usual.

[Déjà vu: "How often is normal" was covered in the season one episode 'The Drought'.]

You know what a really radical thing would be in Sex and the City? To have it all be less about the SEX. I know, I really am going insane aren't I.

Forgiveness

A major theme is forgiveness. Carrie must forgive Big for jilting her. Miranda must forgive Steve, and Miranda must beg Carrie for forgiveness for saying something to Big which may have contributed to his cold feet at the altar.

Everything is leading to Miranda forgiving Steve. She repeats all the same lines to Carrie that Steve said to her: "I didn't mean to hurt you", "please forgive me" and so on. It's meant to suggest that now that she's had to beg for forgiveness, surely she understands how Steve must feel, can't she empathise with him and forgive him? Even Charlotte, who has always had very traditional morals about the sanctity of marriage says that Miranda should take him back, but at the same time doesn't think Carrie should forgive Big.

I'm sorry, but sleeping with someone else when you're married is much worse than having cold feet about getting married, or saying a few words to Big when you're on the verge of tears, like Miranda did. Yet its almost made out to be the same or even worse.

I don't know how I feel about Miranda's storyline. At the end of the day, to cut the storyline down to its bare essentials, Steve cheats on Miranda, Miranda is shown to be to blame/to be the cause of it because they didn't have enough sex, and she ends up takes him back. I guess it's realistic, as that is what thousands of women do. I admit I was moved when Miranda and Steve embraced on Brooklyn bridge and got back together. But I don't know if it's anything surprising or new, or radical, or unusual. It's a bit depressing really.

[Déjà vu: Begging for forgiveness after an affair has already been covered in season four, 'Time and Punishment', in which Carrie begs Aidan to forgive her for her affair with Big.]

Friendship

I had hoped the film might do more to progress the relationships between the female leads, but there was no real change at all in their friendships. Samantha living in LA didn't seem to affect the group at all. I wondered if they would do a storyline about her feeling left out of the group and tensions arising between them as a result of that, but everything was basically fine between the friends, although at one stage Carrie and Miranda do fall out and have an argument in a restaurant.

Jennifer Hudson plays the only woman of colour in the film - she's a humble, naïve, 20-something black woman who listens wide-eyed to Carrie's words of wisdom about life and love

It could be argued that the relationship between Carrie and Miranda is the most important one in SATC. One of the most moving parts for me was when Carrie goes to Miranda's on New Year's Eve, embraces her and tells her: "You're not alone." So when they do argue, it feels worrying and wrong, and edgy. I think SATC needs more about the friendship in it. Surely friendships develop over time, in different ways, don't they? Perhaps that would have been a more surprising plot, a story about something really threatening the women's friendships?

[Déjà vu: Carrie complaining about Big after a break up and being comforted by her friends... ooohh... err.... pretty much every episode, ever? But in particular, season two, 'Games People Play'.]

White guy with a baby! Race & class issues

Jennifer Hudson plays 'Louise from St. Louis', a personal assistant who Carrie hires and who plays a role in helping Carrie sort her life out again. It has been pointed out by others that this character is rather problematic. The only woman of colour in the film, she's a humble, naïve, 20-something black woman who listens wide-eyed to Carrie's words of wisdom about life and love. In a scene I found rather nauseating, Carrie gives her a Louis Vuitton handbag for Christmas - Louise now able to go back to her presumably black working class home showing off her fancy achievements in the big city. This is edited with music to seem like a very emotional, wonderful moment, and Carrie proclaims this was the best money she'd ever spent, which sounded to me like the same kind of self-satisfied glow you get from giving money to charity. There's another bit where Carrie actually says "boot-ay" to her. It's embarassing.

Louise's character has been seen by some as tokenistic and I tend to agree. Her character is good, but a bit one-dimensional and at the end of the film she moves back to St. Louis to get married to her on-again off-again boyfriend - presumably we will never hear of her or see her ever again. I was debating with my friend about why she was there in the first place. We thought that apart from tokenistic argument, she plays the role of 'the fairy godmother' - sorting Carrie's life out, suggesting she goes back to the apartment where she ends up reconciling with Big; being the catalyst for Carrie finding Big's love letters.

I just wish they could have made the character a bit more interesting, a bit more radical. Why couldn't she have been a lesbian? Or been in a mixed-race relationship? Just something ever so slightly less represented and less stereotypical would have been nice.

Yep, the world of the SATC women is still pretty much as it was before, a world of white, rich, heterosexual fashionistas.

We see the four to go an auction house - in which Samantha almost spends $50,000 on a ring. We see them get the front seats at fashion week. We all know that this is the world some people do live in and the show is reflecting that. But I wish they would show a bit more of the rest of New York in a positive light. Emerging from fashion week the women are greeted by anti-fur protesters who are portrayed as old, unfashionable, unattractive hags screeching "MURDER! MURDER!" They throw red paint over Samantha who, to her credit, says "God, I love New York" and genuinely means it (cake alert!). But why show the protesters as unfashionable and unattractive - why not have a younger, punky woman with a nose-ring or something alongside one of the older ones?

At one point in the film Miranda says to Steve 'I changed who I was for you'. Samantha isn't willing to do that for anyone

When searching for a new apartment in a predominantly Chinese-American neighbourhood, Miranda actually shouts: "White guy with a baby! Follow him - wherever he goes, that's where we'll live." Bloody hell. I leaned over and whispered to my friend: "Did she just say that?" Indeed she did.

"The movie goes to a very dark place that we've never done before." - Sarah Jessica Parker

Sorry SJP but no, it really doesn't. I wish it did, but this film is in no way as ground-breaking as the series was, at least not for me. I enjoyed the film, no doubt about it, but I guess I was hoping for more.

Having discussed the film with my friend afterwards, we came to the conclusion that actually, Samantha had the most radical, unexpected storyline. Her 'happy ending' comes in the form of re-focusing her life around herself rather than her man. She comes to the realisation that as Smith's agent she's just spending all of her time talking about him, thinking about him, being at home alone, waiting for him to get back from his filming. She says something along the lines of "I never thought I'd be the kind of woman whose life revolves around a man" and while it seems that the lack of hot sex is the problem (Smith being out all day filming and working late), perhaps this is more of the problem. "I love me more," she tells him at the end. "I've been in a relationship with myself for 49 years and that's the one I want to work on."

[Déjà vu: In season five, 'Luck Be an Old Lady', Samantha breaks up with Richard, saying: "I love you Richard. But I love myself more."]

Carrie's voiceover at this point explains how some relationships are novels and some are short stories, but that doesn't make them any less important, valid, or filled with love. I think in a world which still expects a permanent monogamous marriage to be the ultimate, only truly valid and appropriate form of relationship, this is a positive message. Maybe some relationships do just have a shorter life span, and there's nothing wrong with that. Life is all about growth and development after all, and if a relationship is preventing someone from growing and developing as a person, then perhaps it is better to move on. At one point in the film Miranda says to Steve "I changed who I was for you". Samantha isn't willing to do that for anyone.

There are rumours of a sequel, but I can't really imagine what they'd do next if they are as obsessed with marriage and weddings as this film shows them to have been. Maybe now we've got the final, final, final (?) break-up and reunion of Big and Carrie out of the way, there'll be space for some really new plotlines. I'll be speculating about what those might be.

About the author

Catherine Redfern

Catherine Redfern would like to thank Helen for ideas and discussion. Catherine was wearing her critical feminist* hat during the film. It's vintage, and is a bit itchy. (*critical feminist - is there any other kind?)

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