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Sex and the City, 2008

Posted By Nick Jones On May 27, 2008 @ 9:00 am In Film Note | Comments Disabled

Plot New York, present day. Author Carrie Bradshaw and her long-time boyfriend Big buy a luxury apartment and decide to marry. Meanwhile, her friend Miranda leaves her husband Steve after he reveals he has been unfaithful. Their friend Samantha, who is feeling sexually deprived and constrained by her monogamous relationship, starts to spy on her strapping neighbour. As Carrie’s wedding plans start to get out of hand, Big becomes increasingly unnerved by the prospect of marriage. At their pre-wedding party Miranda makes a bitter remark that disconcerts Big further. When the big day arrives the groom is not waiting at the altar. However, at the last minute Big changes his mind and rushes back, but it is too late. A humiliated Carrie rejects him and together with her three friends, goes on vacation to Mexico on what would have been her honeymoon. Carrie remains miserable for months. She hires an assistant, Louise, who organizes her personal and professional life. Carrie asks Louise to block all of Big’s emails. Charlotte becomes pregnant. An unhappy Samantha turns to food for consolation. Miranda tells Carrie about her pre-wedding remark to Big. This briefly estranges the two friends but the issue is resolved. Miranda and Steve reconcile. Samantha leaves boyfriend Smith and returns to New York. Louise moves back to St. Louis to get married. Charlotte bumps into Big and goes into labour. Charlotte’s husband Harry tells Carrie that Big has been writing to her. Carrie finds a backlog of emails from Big in a hidden email inbox. Carrie returns to their apartment, which has been sold, in order to collect some shoes, runs into Big and they make up. They decide to marry alone in a civil service, celebrating with their closest friends. The four women celebrate Samantha’s 50th birthday (adapted from Stables 77).

Film note A media frenzy of tributes, features, interviews and an hour-long farewell special, followed the final credits of HBO’s Sex and the City, the award-winning romantic comedy television series spanning six seasons and 94 episodes from 1998 to 2004. Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Candace Bushnell, Sex and the City chronicled the life and loves of Carrie Bradshaw, a mid-thirties single writer living in New York City and her immediate group of female friends. A testament to the success of the series, the Sex and the City franchise expanded in the summer of 2008, when New Line Cinema and HBO — two subsidiaries of Time Warner — brought the small screen to the big screen with the film Sex and the City: The Movie. Subsequently, the joys and woes of these four women were available for consumption again by loyal fans, and the franchise has continued to be a salient part of academic discourse surrounding postfeminsim.

Bankable nostalgia Television to cinema crossovers are not a recent phenomenon. The two media have been in dialogue with each other since the early 1960s, with many films being adapted from television shows or vice versa. Whereas, in the 1950s television may have been seen as a threat to cinema, by the 1960s the two media had formed a symbiotic relationship, and television has since become a source of funding, revenue and most importantly, the ideal marketing platform for new cinematic ventures.

During the 1980s and 1990s there appeared to be a mania for nostalgia, which triggered what Lee Goldberg calls the ‘revival business’ (1). Hollywood, quick to respond, gave new life to cult television shows in the form of big budget features. To highlight one example of this trend, the popularity of the series Police Squad (1982), which after its cancellation had sold well on VHS, prompted Paramount to make The Naked Gun (1988). The incentive for such projects was the fact that there was no need to build an audience from scratch, as an established market was already in existence. Since then there has been a constant stream of television spin-offs, many with postmodern takes on original sources. While some television shows have become material for blockbusters created decades later, for instance the Mission Impossible franchise (1996, 2000 and 2006), which could be regarded as a reworking of the sixties series, Sex and the City: The Movie was in development immediately after the show’s cancellation, and the series was kept alive through retaining the same cast and setting, creating an extension rather than a reworking of the original.

Being the brand-conscious franchise that it is, coupled with the superficial nature of the show, Sex and the City: The Movie was a marketing dream — a perfect vehicle for companies to link their products to the franchise, irrelevant of whether they featured in the film or not. As marketing president for New Line Cinema Chris Carlisle put it, “We’ve positioned this movie from the beginning as ‘the Super Bowl for women’” (qtd. in Elliott). The products that matched up with the Sex and the City brand were extensive, from beauty and clothing lines, to confectionery goods, beverages, and even automobiles. Advertising campaigns started to emerge a month before the film’s official release, appearing in newspapers, online, on radio and television. Bacardi and Skyy Vodka launched their own microsites, while Mercedes-Benz used the film to debut and promote their latest model, the GLK. Even the main star and co-producer Sarah Jessica Parker, created official merchandise for her clothing line Bitten, to coincide with the film’s release. More importantly, besides promoting their respective products, many of the advertising campaigns encouraged women to experience the film, not alone or with their partners, but in groups with other women. Magazines, websites and blogs took to encouraging women to hold viewing parties, emphasizing that this was to be a collective experience; an event, not just a movie.

As a result of international syndication deals, Sex and the City was not just viewed largely within the US but also by people all over the world. The show’s established and ever increasing fan base because of box sets and reruns, and reruns of reruns, meant that the creators and investors felt confident that there was a pre-existing market ripe for further exploitation. In fact, by its delayed but eventual release in 2008, Time Warner was relying on the film to boost its sliding revenue. Unfortunately, Sex and the City: The Movie did not bring in enough money at the box-office to cancel out a 26 per cent fall in profits, forcing Time Warner to divide its AOL online branch and announce that “New Line cinema would be absorbed into Warner Bros. Entertainment as a genre unit”, and that “New Line’s international sales activities would be terminated” (Goodridge 6). Financial crisis aside, the film grossed $152.6m domestically, placing it in the US box-office top ten for 2008.

The postfeminist mystique What is clear is that the Sex and the City franchise has always been deliberately geared for and marketed towards women and so unsurprisingly, it has predominately been a huge success with women from a variety of different ages and backgrounds. While many have lauded the television show for depicting liberal and broad-minded images of women, considered a turning point in the way women’s relationships — mostly with each other, but also with men — have been depicted on screen, there are flaws to this particular narrative. Sex and the City: The Movie displays these in its opening frames, when it announces that the interests of the main characters are “labels and love.”

Rampant with the colour pink, the first of the film’s official posters, dazzles, with a sparkly title that takes center stage, and features Carrie in a pretty pink billowing dress. Similarly, the final poster includes the ubiquitous pink title but this time all four women are included. Marketed as a film about women, for women, Sex and the City: The Movie fits into Hollywood’s wider investment in producing more and more women-centered narratives. Several sources have cited Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) and more recently, The Devil Wears Prada (2006) as having renewed the confidence that films targeted at a female audience can achieve monetary success. This is not to say however that female perspectives and female oriented issues being explored in Hollywood is a culturally new phenomenon.

The woman’s film is a broad term, but it is essentially a label for films that rose to prominence in the 1940s that were commonly associated with the melodrama genre and directors such as Vincente Minelli, Douglas Sirk and George Cukor. These films were “psychologically focused conflicts which touched at the heart of discontents concerning patriarchy, the family and personal and sexual identity” (Landy 20). They linked women’s culture and consumption practices through a narrative which was composed of moral dilemmas and conflicts, and were more often than not set within a white middle class milieu. While the melodrama shifted from cinema screens to television sets in the form of soap operas, the romantic comedy and chick flick are dominant subgenres in contemporary cinema that have their roots in the woman’s film.

In particular, When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Pretty Woman (1990) are regarded as having revived the romantic comedy genre. Yet they are also considered chick flicks, culturally defined as female-oriented films that  feature romance, desire and female friendships. Sex and the City: The Movie conforms to the same generic conventions as the films mentioned above, as it places heterosexual relationships at the heart of the movie. It also corresponds to popular chick flicks that feature plutonic relationships between women . Exemplified by films such as How to Make an American Quilt (1995), The First Wives Club (1996) and Calendar Girls (2003), central to the narratives is the notion that close bonds between women can help to deal with issues like the non-committal male, aging, loneliness and so on. While Sex and the City: The Movie highlights such matters, its main appeal comes from the ability it gives women to “live vicariously, mentally strutting in Manolo Blahnik heels as our virtual exclamation points” (Akass and McCabe 6).

Sex and the City: The Movie can also be compared to Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), a film which Charlotte Brunsdon claims shows how “post-feminist women can try on identities and adopt them” (qtd. in Hanson 305). As Brunsdon has noted about “girls films” in the 1980s and 1990s, “scenes in which female characters shop and try on clothes recur […] signifying an historically specific shift to a post-feminist concept of female identity, influenced by notions of ‘performance, style and desire’ that are ‘partly constructed through a relation to consumption’” (qtd. in Hanson 305). Unlike many of its predecessors, rather than being satirical, consumerism is not only maintained in Sex and the City: The Movie but is blatantly reinforced. It is a somewhat celebratory aspect, acting as the film’s pièce de résistance. Even if the creators declare that the film’s main message is that material possessions are not comparable to love, capitalist ideals are not subverted or challenged. Women are told that you must consume if you want to get ahead, especially if you do not want to remain single. Whether your shoes are designed by Chanel, Dior, or Prada, the film clearly shows how “dress can acquire a symbolic function as a ‘status leveller’” (Cornut-Gentille 118). This is especially pertinent to Carrie’s PA Louise (Jennifer Hudson), the film’s only African American character, whose token role fails to significantly alter the racial homogeneity evident in the film or the original series. Louise’s reliance on designer rental handbags displays her longing for acceptance. Her final acquisition of a Louis Vuitton handbag, a Christmas present from Carrie, acts as a marker of her success in the big city. Indeed, consumer goods are not simply essential in the creation of the film’s glossy aesthetic, but also play an important part in its narrative structure. It is Carrie’s desire to retrieve her shoes which lead her back to Big. Using the shoe as a replacement for an engagement ring during his eventual proposal, also accentuates the narrative structure’s reliance on the Cinderella fantasy. Sex and the City: The Movie sees that old realities are simply swathed in couture.

Therefore, although we are told that this is a film that finally speaks to all women, the reality is that it is a film about four white, heterosexual, middle class women who are extremely fashion and body conscious. It never questions this elitism and neither does it point out the ongoing interaction between our gendered identities, as defined by capitalism and patriarchy, and those of race. What it does do is create anxiety, and promotes a culture of living beyond one’s means in trying to achieve status that is only available through fashionable commodities. As Lisa Reich notes, “Meanwhile, role models such as Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget Jones and Rachel from Friends all live by the motto: ‘If in doubt, buy shoes’ […] Frances Walker of the Consumer Credit Counselling Service says more than a third of people seeking help are single women. ‘Credit is more available than ever before,’ she says. ‘We’ve become used to having things when we need them, rather than when we can afford them’”. This is ironically prophetic considering the current state of the world’s global economy, an issue that is never raised in the movie. Written and created during the subprime mortgage crisis, and released during a period of economic instability, many criticized the film for being frivolous and irresponsible. Sex and the City: The Movie is symptomatic of today’s fabricated media mantra that continually reminds us that we “are worth it” and deserve things, as Samantha’s (Kim Cattrall) bidding at the Blair Elkin auction demonstrates.

From a postmodernist perspective the four female characters are independent, have their own lives and careers, and the ability to control their own images as well as choose their love interests. On the flip side, instead of subverting preconceived stereotypes of women, the marketing campaign, the film’s narrative and characterizations actually conform to certain stereotypes, they are just repackaged in a modern, commercial context. Charlotte for instance harks back to earlier days, seeming more like an embodiment of 1950s female domesticity, when the ideal passive woman celebrated her family life. The remaining trio are also portrayed to be at fault throughout most of the film. It is Carrie’s over zealous wedding plans and inability to speak to her partner that is the main cause for her break up, while Miranda’s failure to satisfy her husband sexually and the placing of her career over her family are also seen to spark her marital turmoil. Although, Samantha is seen to get the independence she has so desperately craved throughout the entire film, the closure seems to suggest that this has not really brought her happiness. It is marriage, or rather weddings, that are presented as the end goal, not simply symbolically as the reinforcement of heterosexual stability but also as the fairytale ideal all women strive for. Michael Patrick King himself, who directed, co-produced and wrote the screenplay for the film, informs us on the DVD commentary that the Vogue bridal fashion shoot became a necessary inclusion as, “the Vivian Westwood dress wouldn’t have been enough for all the women out there.”

East side story New York has been a locus for film narratives since the medium’s conception. However, it is a place that has long been adopted by the romantic comedy subgenre. Since 2001, there appears to be an increase in the number of romantic comedies electing to use the locale as its principal setting. However, romance no longer seems to be the sole preoccupation, instead it has increasingly become eclipsed by fashion. The Devil Wears Prada has been regarded the source of this craze with Sex and the City: The MovieThe Women (2008) and Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009) following in its designer footsteps, alongside television shows such as Ugly Betty (2006–2010). Combining romance and fashion in their portrayal of New York, this representation can be related to the experience of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Diane Negra argues that the post-9/11 cinema was shaped by a cultural anxiety fostered by the experience of the attacks. New York based films such as In The Cut (2003) and Reign Over Me (2007) broke with the “urban romanticization” associated with the romantic comedy preferring instead a realist, melancholic tone (52). However, since the release of The Devil Wears Prada, the romantic comedy has returned with a vengeance to a time when the city acted as an urban playground, foregrounding the cityscapes present in romantic comedies before 9/11, which  “provided a wealth of shops, restaurants, vistas, views upon which the genre appeared dependent” (Negra 52). Sex and the City: The Movie promotes the city in this way, it endorses an idealised way of life which clashes with the real, indigenous experience, presenting New York as a space to be consumed, a space to reasssure.

Perhaps mirroring this intention are the numerous Sex and the City guided tours available that have come into being since. The tours, like the film itself, avoid whole sections of New York, as it is the Upper East Side that is given precedence over other areas of the city. Manhattan is featured as prominently as the four main characters who belong to this sphere, traditionally home to an upper class. Due to their purchasing power the NYC Elite possess the freedom to easily move in and out of various areas in the city. Hence, while Miranda is seen to travel effortlessly from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn, an area to her distaste, her bartender husband Steve cannot make the same socio-cultural transition with ease. His arrival in Chelsea at the rehearsal dinner marks him out from the other guests mainly through dress, accent and mannerisms. Miranda’s exclamation that she altered her lifestyle for the sake of her relationship, coupled with her aversion to the area she lives in with her family, comments on the divergence in social geography and class dynamics. In addition, her search for a new apartment in “Old Ukrania”, a place “New York magazine says […] is the new up-and-coming neighborhood”, adds to this. Miranda convinces herself that the neighbourhood is suitable only due to the benediction it has been given by a popular journal, while the appearance of a “white guy with a baby” in the area, confirms the location’s suitability for a person of her ilk. Consequently, once again the film demonstrates how location can act as a marker of identity.

Carrie also falls victim to this, when to her horror she no longer retains her 917 area code, which is associated with those living in Manhattan. Her switch to 347, the code assigned to inhabitants of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, causes a dissatisfaction, which presumably stems from the notion that the area you live in reflects and conveys to others your position within society. Carrie tells Samantha “I want the old New York with my old 917 and my old will to live”, to which Samantha replies, “Old New York, new New York. Honey, at least it’s New York”. This exchange itself may be alluding to, if somewhat weakly, the unity of the city in a post-9/11 era. Even so, New York is one of the most multicultural capitals in the world and yet we do not see this diversity represented in Sex and the City: The Movie.

References

Akass, Kim and Janet McCabe. “Introduction: Welcome to the Age of Un-innocence.” Reading Sex and the City. Ed. Kim Akass and Janet McCabe. London; New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004. 1-14. Print.

Cornut-Gentille, Chantal. “Working Girl: A Case Study of Achievement by Women? New Opportunities, Old Realities.”  Terms of Endearment: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1980s and 1990s. Ed. Peter William Evans and Celestino Deleyto. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998. 111-128. Print.

Elliott, Stuart. “Sex and the City and Its Lasting Female Appeal.” nytimes.com. The New York Times. 17 Mar. 2008. Web. 30 Oct. 2008.

Goldberg, Lee. Television Series Revivals: Sequels or Remakes of Cancelled Shows. London: McFarland, 1993. Print.

Goodridge, Mike. “Screen Analysis- The End of the Line.” Screen Daily, Media Business Insight Limited. 7 Mar. 2008. Web. 30 Oct. 2008.

Hanson, Helen. “Desperately Seeking Susan.” Contemporary American Cinema. Ed. Linda Ruth Williams and Michael Hammond. Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006. 304-306. Print.

Landy, Marcia. “Introduction.”  Imitations of Life: A Reader on film and Television Melodrama. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991. 12–30. Print.

Negra, Diane. “Structural Integrity, Historical Revision, and the Post-9/11 Chick Flick.” Feminist Media Studies, 8.1 (2008): 51–68. Print.

Reich, Lisa. “Buy now, pay for the rest of your life.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group. 2 Jul. 2004. Web. 30 Oct. 2008.

Stables, Kate. “Review: Sex and the City.” Sight and Sound, 18.8 (2008): 77. Print.

Written by Charlie Cauchi (2009); edited by Alice Clarke (2017), Queen Mary, University of London

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