Sex & the City & Sister Bernadette
A nun tries to discover what it is about SATC that women find so appealing?
To be honest, I was never a fan of Sex and the City when it was on television so I really had no interest in seeing it when it hit the big screen earlier this summer. I just didn’t think it was my kind of movie as a nun, if you get my drift. But after it had such extraordinary success at the box office—its opening night grossed more than Indiana Jones, establishing SATC as “by far the best [opening] of all time for a romantic comedy,” according to EW.com—a call from a friend of mine piqued my curiosity. He mentioned during our conversation that he was surprised at the broad range of women he knew who absolutely loved the movie. Whether it was college-age young women, accomplished 20, 30 and 40-something professionals (both single and married) or older grandmothers—it seemed to make no difference—women from all different social, economic, geographic, racial and religious backgrounds seemed to embrace this film with a remarkable amount of passion.
He then asked me an interesting question: who are these women who have elevated this quartet of New York women to such iconic heights? What do they see in SATC that makes them such avid fans of it? His question provided me with all the motivation I needed to visit the local multiplex and plunk down $11 for a ticket.
The most striking thing for me about SATC was that it does a good job of portraying what I have come to call “women forming community.” Through the bond of friendship that exists among women, we are able to create meaning and navigate the rest of our lives. SATC has made the friendship of Charlotte, Miranda, Samantha and Carrie the story. Despite the fact that I personally cannot relate to the characters’ issues or lifestyles, I found their bond of friendship deeply engaging.
Do SATC fans connect with it in the same way? Do they relate to the themes? To the lifestyle? Or is the friendship element the connection with them as well? I sent out a questionnaire to a range of different women who had seen the movie to gauge their opinions. Though my “research” is admittedly not scientific, the voices of these women provided some compelling insights that reveal the extent that SATC has spoken to them and how they relate to the themes and characters. While I have changed their names, other personal information is their own.
Holly is a 28-year-old high school counselor whom I met at Staples. When I asked her if she had seen SATC, an instant connection was established between us. She is “a huge fan” who started watching re-runs of the show when she was about 25. “I never really ‘got’ the themes of the show prior to that” she says. “However, now I am hooked. SATC speaks to me because of its characters…they are all different. I think we all have a friend who is similar to a Charlotte or a Samantha and it makes the show more real and enjoyable to watch. I identify least with Samantha…no one has that much sex! I feel Samantha is rather slutty and in a day and age where HIV is still a serious problem, I think her promiscuity is tacky and irresponsible. I would love to give her a good talking to. The themes are very true to life. SATC makes a point of letting the viewers know that no relationship is perfect. So often we see shows that depict nothing but ‘moonlight and roses’ when the female characters are dating. These women are real and their problems ring true.” That being said, Holly was not too impressed by the movie. “It could have been a two hour HBO special” she said. But the experience of going to see the movie itself had a big impact on her. “I went with five girlfriends, all different ages. We saw the movie in a packed theatre in Elizabeth, NJ. So many of the women were dressed up, as if this was an Oscar Party. It was like being in a room with 250 sisters. I will never forget it!”
Trish, a 37 year old single administrative assistant from the East Coast is a “marginal” fan who enjoys watching SATC when she stumbles upon reruns on TV. For her the movie had great universal appeal and did a good job of capturing what people loved most about the series and condensing it down to 2 hours. “I guess I enjoy the fantasy of watching fabulous women lead fabulous lives” she says. Trish sees that fantasy spilling over into the way the main characters seem to have no worries about finances and live rather well in one of the most expensive cities in the world. But while she’s also aware that the lack of inhibitions that the SATC women have over new sexual experiences and the availability of such experiences does not portray reality, she is still able to identify with them. “Somehow I find I can relate to their feelings” she says. “I find myself identifying with one or other of the characters with each episode. The women in the series have experiences that I might not be willing to admit that I admire and/or fantasize about. The themes are definitely exaggerated, but I think the core issues tackled in the show are common to all women. Issues such as insecurities in relationships, striving for perfection and balance in life, love affairs with clothes/shoes and yearning for happiness are what all women experience.”
Madison, a 31-year old single, graphic designer from the Midwest feels a sense of support in following the lives of the SATC women “it’s OK to be single after the age of 25” she says. “I also love how much these girls depend on each other. The friendships are a really central theme. Other themes like trying to find someone to date who will be on the same page as you; your relationships with girlfriends; moving in with someone for the first time; getting engaged, etc., we can all identify with.” She identifies with Carrie the most. “I see elements of myself in her. We have some of the same insecurities and flaws. We’ve made some of the same mistakes.” Her feelings about Samantha are a bit more ambivalent “only because her character is promiscuous. I love that she doesn’t care what other people think and goes after what she wants. I wish I was a bit more like that—but she is the extreme example.”
Marilyn, a 43-year-old single, television producer from Los Angeles became an instant fan of the show for a variety of reasons. “I enjoyed hearing the point of view of Carrie, as she set out to resolve and learn from whatever challenge she and her friends faced” she says. “A big part of the series and the movie is the friendship between the women. Through thick and thin, they’re there for each other, offering advice, honest opinions without pulling any punches and genuine love.” Like many women, she’s also a fan of the show’s fashion sense. “As a self-professed ‘hippie’, the show made me suddenly want to dress in a more feminine way.” Marilyn finds the challenges that this group of women face are not unlike the circumstances that appear in her own life and the her friends lives as well. “Women have been fiercely independent since the women’s movement, and at times it has not served us in ways that are conducive to raising a family, being a good wife or mother. Most of my women friends in their 40’s and early 50’s are childless and single. Though they don’t participate in the kind of bed-hopping that goes on in the series, I find that they’re ill-equipped when dealing with men, though tremendously successful in their careers” she says. Despite the show’s fictitious material, Marilyn felt its themes were often presented in an entertaining and poignant manner that was conducive to self examination and discussion. “The series evolved” she says. “We watched as the women went through stages of growth and learning. Through this series, we witnessed inadequacies, foibles, and a look in the mirror of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, navigating between independence, career, family and relationships.” Marilyn loved the movie and left the theater wanting more. “[I] wanted to find out what happens next. By the time I got home, I missed the girls.”
Kathleen, a woman in her thirties who works in religious education feels a kind of guilty pleasure in watching SATC and believes that even risqué aspects of the series have redeeming qualities. “It is totally shallow for the most part, and the morality can be debated. It’s fun. It’s like science fiction for girls” she says. “There’s something about having women who are liberated in different ways, in the midst of a life style that is different. It’s wonderful to see women talking about issues, but the issues aren’t really the ones that are shaping the world. When you get down to it they are talking about–friendship, love—in the midst of commercialism and sex.” Kathleen also finds the relationships between the friends entertaining. “Their individual friendships help them get through the problems they encounter. These four women are kind of like superheroes for women—feminine yet powerful to some extent” she says. “They are powerful at work, but they are weak in terms of relating with men. They are seeking fulfillment and happiness, how they go about is not how most of us would go about.”
Sarah, a single 39-year-old inner-city school teacher finds great humor in the plights of Carrie and her friends. “The show is funny. The plot lines are real but exaggerated, and that sometimes points out the absurdity of my reality” she says. “I am single, and don’t date much, but like the ladies in the movie I find that my girlfriends are my family. Also, the theme of ‘single in a couple’s world’ is handled well and often. I find it to be real, and it validates my own feelings.” Sarah finds the treatment of sex to be problematic “I’m thinking…not much mention of condoms or STDs. Lots of sex, but it’s not really like that in my world. There is worry about pregnancy and STDs in the real world.” She loved the movie but felt a bit overwhelmed. “It was almost too much all at once, like seeing an entire season in one sitting. I’m hoping for a sequel.”
Emmy, a 50-year-old from the East Coast is a fan “because some of the fantasy and reality does hit home. The characters do go through some of the things that we go through in real life.” She identifies with almost all of the characters in one way or another. “I am similar to Charlotte in personality but I am a writer like Carrie. I identify with Samantha the least but I like her gusto” she says. Though many of the themes ring true she finds their self absorption to be over the top. “The shopping and love of self is more fantasy than reality. They are beyond selfish, particularly Samantha.” Emmy also found that SATC is not necessarily females-only entertainment. “I saw the movie with my husband and we both enjoyed it. There were tears for Charlotte, Harry and Carrie. I also got emotional from the scene on the Brooklyn Bridge.”
Michaela is a self-described “medium” fan wholikes the fast pace of the show and the scenes from NYC. “SATC speaks to me because it is a show by and about women seemingly for women though dress and story lines might be ‘for’ men” she says. “Women are taught to compete for men and dress for women (as a means of that competition).” The primary reason she likes the show is that it supports the work of women actors and writers making a living and having a creative outlet, but she doesn’t find much reason for identifying with the characters. “SATC does not much speak for me—47 year old, overweight white Midwestern lesbian who has lived with a man for the past 17 years. But as a feminist the economic and creative aspects of the show are meaningful.” She has no problem with the show’s element of fantasy “isn’t that what entertainment is meant to be?” she says. “This fantasy is better than Iron Manor the Hulkand other films of superheroes hitting our theatres! I went to see the film by myself. I was glad to see the folks but I thought the focus on wedding and things moved too fast and then vaulted to a stop and centered too much on Carrie, in a way, and not on the connections between them. I wasn’t impressed with the story line much and thought everyone looked and seemed great in the reunion work.”
Not all the women I interviewed found something redeeming in the movie. Marie, a 61-year-old grandmother from the Midwest rarely watched the television episodes because she found it to be too much like a soap opera. “SATC seems to make women appear shallow except for their relationships with other women” she says. “The themes in SATC and how they are handled are not the true world as I know it or my friends for that matter.” Marie confessed that she only went to see the movie because it was a ‘reunion’ evening for her and 5 of her girlfriends that had traveled together to New York two years ago. “Part of our adventure was to wear our hot pink t-shirts that we had made with the NY cityscape and embroidered with ‘Six in the City.’ In our discussions after the movie, none of us liked it, but maybe we are old.”
A Feminine Gift
The overwhelming consensus among the women I spoke with is that these fictional “superheroes” from SATC who may externalize what we fantasize about also embody something that is accessible and real for all women. The friendships that we create, the bonds that overcome the limits of time, space and culture, our ability to create community—this is a feminine gift that is a constant theme in movies made about women. It is a gift that transcends the human experience, however. I believe that this reality could be the way in which we most closely image God as women. By focusing on this gift when telling our story, rather than on the more negative portrayals of women that focus on how we have inherited Eve’s curse, we may be able to correct the stereotype. And just as the friendship of the four ladies in SATC leads to forgiveness, reconciliation, and self-awareness among other things, so can our own friendships affect our families, and the other forums in which we create community.