We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Carrie Bushnell's _Sex and the City_ · 28 June 08

Dear Friends,

I have now read about half-way through Carrie Bushnell’s Sex and the City and regret to say I didn’t find it funny at all. Maybe it was me, but I did laugh and laugh at Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. The thing that’s important about it is that it exists at all, and that (like other books by women in this era) it’s startlingly frank about the amoral life of people working in middle class occupations in a modern city, in this case New York.

Sex and the City is hard and left me with a kind of bad taste: it shows the same world Bridget Jones’s Diary does: men won’t commit, no security or community at work for real, hollow goals, work whose purpose is corrupt or ridiculous if you consider what’s sold, money the ruler. We do see examples of what Andrea Dworkin argued at the of her life: feminism has not led to any liberation in women’s common lives, for the structure of society remains relentlessly capitalist with values in tow, and sex is practiced or understood as some male adolescent would see it in say Playboy. But the writer does not manage comedy. I find the style wooden. This is not Cold Comfort Farm either, not satire on other literature; it’s not informed by any sense of other texts. Nor could I find hilarity; the TV show and movie changed the original text a lot. Perhaps I’m misreading or read too late at night?

But it is sharp. The portraits of men show them wanting women who just delight in group sex, and expose the reality of sex clubs in the 1970s—sordid places, grubbing, strict rules to stop the experience from getting out of hand, so to speak, which it could easily. I lived in NYC in the 1970s and remember Plato’s Retreat was a famous sex club; even I heard of it :), and I heard from friends at the Graduate Center of group sex parties. Everyone in the book is out for what they can get and they take the surface values of materialism as everything; women are surprized when they marry and find themselves happy because the man makes enough money and is kind. We are told nothing else so perhaps nothing else is needed? It’s at this level you discover how inadequate is the book’s reach. Bushnell was maybe not trying?

I was relieved there is no graphic sex. I do not enjoy these cool descriptions of women doing blow jobs or sitting on someone’s penis, accompanied by a cheerful tone and assertions of how much fun or pleasure this is. Nonetheless, surely the lack of such scenes goes against the spirit of a book meant to be 50% about sex. Jane Smiley’s Ten Days among the Hills is filled with graphic sex to startle and be about the world of movies; when Carol Shields wanted to, she could write some graphic sex (in Unless self-reflexively about her own narratives of love). I realize real and fulfilling descriptions of sex would not be this mechanical see how virtuoso I am at this technique (as in sex manuals from the 16th century on accompanied with pictures), but this would take a level of seriousness in the tone, nuance, and another mood altogether.

The four heroines chosen for the TV show do not dominate the book, and emerge slowly. Like the original columns that led to Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bushnell’s book is thought up and quickly written as she goes along. Carrie Bradshaw is there frequently, but not the others—at least as far as I managed to read, for I finished skimming. Someone else cunning in what’s wanted on TV at the moment, saw in this unorganized choppy farrago of columns and typology of males and females, four useful female ones which they pulled (and Mr Big) and made a coherent pattern out of it all. Carrie Bushnell was lucky, for she is one very rich woman today, for someone else was able to pull her nervy book together.

Maybe the one thing that may be said of it not true for the movie (for I never saw the TV show) is Bushnell is not reverent at all, no false pieties, and the consolations she offers (and come to think of it through these four heroines) are believable because prosaic and everyday successes. I can see how it was ripe stuff for a TV situation comedy.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. P.S. Mentioning two others which might fit our post-feminist era I’ve read quickly through: Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women and Antonia White’s Frost in May. I enjoyed both—though Frost in May is painful; it reminded me of Diderot’s La Religieuse, only now the terror of bullying spreads to other girls, and the focus is on religion as such (which Diderot kept away from). Excellent Women did fit the caricature of Pym familiar to me: solitary spinsters going to jumble sales, living in and around churches and church groups. What is not said sufficiently often is this literal surface allows for a new kind of story and for the narrator to be an outsider with a distanced ironic tone, and also to be passive, to be herself as she is, accepting herself. It’s a comfort to read. No love story at the heart of either, no career plot, no tremendous mysteries or goals :)

    Elinor    Jun 29, 11:08am    #
  2. P.P.S. What got me started on Sex and the City was a kind thought from my friend, Kathy:

    “The other day I was riding my bike and suddenly thought Sex and the City might fit into your Austen studies. (In the humidity you need brainstorms.) The four SITC friends seek love and work and ultimately marriage in New York. The 2-and-a- half-hour movie is basically a finale to the TV show, and possibly will be well-loved only by fans, who know the background and thus can flesh out the characters on their own. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is very good: she reads love poems in bed and arranges to get married in the public library (though there are a few snags along the way). If you get a chance to watch the DVDs of the TV show, you might enjoy them. My favorite: Kim Cattrell takes back a “vibrator” to a gizmo store and the clerk claims it’s a massager. She insists on a refund and on calling it a vibrator at the top of her lungs and gives advice to women in the store: “Don’t get that one; it will burn your clit off.” That’s not quite the Austen we’re looking for, but if you concentrate on Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) it might work.”

    I can see how Carrie Bradshaw in the book can be likened to our sense of Austen as narrator, and some of her more sombre ironic characters. Elinor could be a journalist today. She is not there enough, and, alas, not enough evidence of wit or inner life.

    Elinor    Jun 29, 11:10am    #

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