Saturday, January 9, 2010

Sex and the City and "Relationshipism"

As most of you have probably noticed, the arrival of 2010 has brought with it heaps of obligatory retrospectives on the decade that was. The best of these pieces have offered up insight into specific cultural nuggets or trends that don’t necessarily “define” the 00s but rather crystallize some of the prevalent anxieties or preoccupations of the 00s in a way that looking at a decade’s worth of material can provide (Alessandra Stanley’s “Men with a Message: Help Wanted” in The New York Times is a perfect example). Even in a culture that seems to be moving a mile a minute, we’re in no way far enough removed from the past decade to think we can define it. I think the true benefit of these retrospective projects—and I mean everything from essays to simple “Top 10” lists—is the potential value they add to our own experiences of watching, listening, reading, etc. different forms of contemporary media right now.

So I want to talk about Sex and the City –which you’ve probably seen on many 00s retrospectives—and Lee Siegel’s 2002 essay “Relationshipism” (first published in The New Republic and later in Siegel’s 2006 collection Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination). I stumbled upon the piece while reading Troy Patterson’s decade retrospective in which he characterizes Siegel’s essay as “a hall-of-fame takedown.” And he’s exactly right. Siegel does his best to eviscerate Sex and the City, invoking gay-male conspiracy theories and misogynistic misapprehensions about women’s feelings towards sex in order to do so. Siegel’s main problem revolves around the “Relationshipism” alluded to in the essay’s title:
Just as an attitude toward labor only hardened into an ideology called Marxism when the worker got cut off from the product of his labor, so erotic bonds only hardened into Relationshipism when people started, for a million familiar reasons, getting cut off from each other. A "relationship" is not to be confused with a union. It is an ongoing argument between two stubbornly sovereign selves about the possibility of a union.
I’m not sure what to make about his choice of analogy, but soon thereafter Siegel makes clear his disapproval of Sex and the City’s depiction of Relationshipism:
Instead of plunging into all the strange new present-day configurations of sex and emotion, the series has proceeded to divide sex from emotion. There is an abundance of fucking in Sex and the City, but it is the sort of fucking you did years ago, when you were very young, lying on the bed and cavorting in the head. As the series rolled along, you became aware of a damning artifice, an un-mimetic quality startling in a series that was supposed to be a candid look at urban life: none of these women is hurt by sex.

What is startling is that for these smart, canny, emotionally alive women, pretty much every relationship comes down to the quest for sex--for perfect sex--as an end in itself.
It goes without saying that Siegel’s assessment is far from definitive, and I’ll spare you the point-by-point refutation.

What’s great about reading the essay now is that, when examining his conclusions, I think Siegel inadvertently shows just how much Sex and the City got right—and continues to get right—in its depictions of the actions and temperaments of modern American women. As a television series, Sex and the City was (to use critic-speak) charmingly uneven. The show’s dramatic narrative was unmistakably adult, touching on issues as varied as marriage, divorce, money-management and, of course, sex.

Michael Patrick King, the show-runner for almost the entire series (and who remains the brain behind the films), and the writing team used the benefits of HBO and premium television wisely, presenting each story arc in a way they saw as both unfiltered and true as well as properly comedic to sensibilities and concerns of modern American adults. But what is “properly comedic” anyway? For Sex and the City, this meant a mixture of high and low comedy; this meant a group of four adult women enduring and discussing events as mannered as coupling and dating alongside incidents as raunchy as tasting a guy’s “funky spunk.”

For those of you who do or who have attempted to write comedy know, balance is everything: balance not just between high and low but also between the comedy itself and the dramatic arc it supports. Sex and the City, like all television comedies, never managed this balance perfectly. Just take the voice of the show, Carrie Bradshaw. She was not a good writer, and I often find myself laughing at her cheesy, pseudo-profound narration. But this type of writing failure never seemed to dissuade critical or audience opinion. In fact, the narration becomes endearing after awhile, especially when you remember that this is a women using a newspaper column to write about sex and relationships in what I can only describe as a post-liberation way.

I hate to use academic jargon like ‘post-liberation’, but I really can’t think of a better way to describe Carrie’s column writing and what it represents. Carrie Bradshaw is both a product of and an active participant in feminism. She writes about sex and relationships openly, frankly and (this is key) apolitically. The plots and story arcs of Sex and the City follow this same precedent. Samantha, Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda are not women who realize that it’s okay to talk about the size of a guy’s cock or how awful his spunk tastes. They are women who actually do talk about these things and don’t think one way or the other about it.

This is what Lee Siegel just doesn’t get. The gals of Sex and City, like most modern American adults between the ages of 18 and 35, often just want to get laid. Siegel’s view that the women on the show aren’t necessarily hurt by sex is thus misguided because he’s attaching a value to sex that is not necessarily archaic but is most certainly inaccurate. Fucking is an end to itself for many American adults, just as “ending up with the nice guy” is really not the most palatable option for most young adult women. In his “hall of fame takedown,” all Siegel really does is make Sex and the City a scapegoat for what he feels is mass-cultural devaluing of sex and courtship rituals. It appears that Siegel pines for the days when a woman was supposed to feel that having a man (preferably a husband) stick his cock inside of her was a priceless gift. And how dare a show make light of that way of thinking.

So I’ll use my own economic analogy now: I prefer a world where all participants—women and men—set the cultural value on sex. Knowing that Sex and the City is a big ‘fuck you’ to “traditional” forms of Relationshipism only makes me like watching the show more.

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