Nov 19, 2008
Sex and the City’s Samantha (Kim Cattrall) meets a male version of herself twice in the show’s third season. At a nightclub, she runs into Tom Reymi (Sam Robards), “the male Samantha,” who utters the immortal line, “We know the same people, we should go to dinner, blah blah. Wanna fuck?” (Ten seconds later comes another great utterance: “You haven’t fucked till you’ve fucked in the swing.”) Later in the season, she meets “Sam Jones,” who’s not so much a cross-gender duplicate as he is a bizarro-world twin: young, obsessive, and virginal. Gender twisting is everywhere in season three: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) briefly gets cast adrift in a subculture of pansexuality (meeting her boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend, kissing Alanis Morrissette); Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) becomes the man in her relationship with Steve, choosing when it starts and when it ends; Charlotte (Kristin Davis), meanwhile, just becomes a man, for a photo series made up entirely of women dressed up to look like men. She looks remarkably like Orlando Bloom.
All of which makes you wonder: What is the male version of Sex and the City?
The question itself holds a wealth of implicit gender assumptions which the show either broke down or built up, depending on your perspective and which season we’re talking about. Is Sex and the City really a women’s show? People talk dirty and make jokes about things you aren’t supposed to make jokes about. There are copious female nudity and at least two or three sex scenes per episode. In fact, all that anyone seems able to talk about is sex; or, more to the point, about fucking. Charlotte:
Don’t you ever want to be just pounded hard? Like when the bed is moving all around, and it’s all sweaty, your head is knocking the headboard and you feel it might blow off? Dammit, I just really want to be fucked. Just really fucked!
How is this not a schoolboy fantasy come to life?
Sure, women are the stars, but from start to finish, this is a show about men—landing them, screwing them, figuring them out, trying to ignore them, and ultimately loving them. (That’s with the noteworthy exception of the strange, flawed, short, boring, yet kind of wonderful season five.) In the same episode in which Samantha and the world meets Tom Reymi, Carrie tells Samantha, “You’ve heard stories about affairs where people realize how great their other relationship is and end it without anyone being the wiser.”
Samantha retorts, almost angry, “I don’t watch ‘Lifetime Television for Women.’”
If Sex and the City is a “women’s show,” then you have to point to Quentin Tarantino as the pre-eminent “women’s director” of the last decade. Sure, he became famous for two guy’s guy art flicks—the all-male cast of Reservoir Dogs, the testosterone-ridden palookas firing guns and bible verses in Pulp Fiction—but Jackie Brown is all about Pam Grier, and Kill Bill features a cavalcade of strong, albeit twisted, female types (Vivica A. Fox is the suburban mom making war in her kitchen; Lucy Liu is a business woman who rises to the top of the most male-dominated business in the world, the Tokyo Yakuza; Uma Thurman is the knocked-up girl burnt by her ex who seeks vengeance on his new girlfriend and ends up as a mother to his child), and Death Proof is basically two episodes of Sex and the City plus a twenty-minute car chase.
But the show did become a true cultural phenomenon for women (and an anti-phenomenon for men.) And, in some ways, season three is the last time in the series when you can really watch the show as itself and not as phenomenon. In fact, there’s a point in the season where the show explicitly deconstructs its own cultural impact—Matthew McConaughey, playing himself as no one else can, meeting with Carrie in Los Angeles about adapting her columns into a movie in the season’s thirteenth episode, “Escape From New York”—and I don’t know if it ever fully recovers. The first twelve episodes of the season, from the fireman’s fashion show through Charlotte’s wedding in the show’s 42nd installment, represent the absolute peak of the show’s powers.
Right from the premiere, the show is teasing us with two plotlines that will extend through the entire season and beyond. Charlotte decides that she wants to get married—“This year!” she announces, with the kind of fourth-wall-breaking directness in which the creators speak directly to the audience. Miranda, meanwhile, gets back together with Steve, a move that will reverberate throughout the series. Even Carrie has the beginnings of a plot arc, albeit a tiny one—she meets a politician at an FDNY benefit and starts a relationship. Only Samantha is left to singlehood and uni-episode plotlines: the fireman, the midget, the Scotsman, the “funky spunk,” the black dude with a sister who doesn’t like her brother dating white women. (The only two Samantha plotlines in this first block of twelve that aren’t about her sex life are about her health—she gets the flu and fake menopause, and she even has sex during the fake menopause.)
Truly, this is the Golden Age of Sex and the City—after all, this is the beginning of Carrie’s relationship with Aidan (John Corbett), and more importantly, of the Aidan/Big (Chris Noth) duality which dominates Carrie’s personality and may, in fact, essentially symbolize women’s relationship to the male race. I’d venture to assume that when most of us think about Sex and the City, we’re not thinking about the later seasons, when everyone is in long-term relationships and everyone has health problems and Baryshnikov tries acting; nor, for that matter, are we thinking about the early seasons, when Carrie talked to the camera but almost never mentioned shoes.
All TV shows that last several seasons, especially those that can be said to change the face of television, are really radically disparate within themselves. Usually, they’re at least three different pieces, loosely but obviously divided across the show’s run. The first season of The Sopranos is completely different from its last season—the whole visual look of the show has changed into something more noirish, half of the supporting cast is dead, Anthony Jr. is a main character, no one ever has any fun, and Tony has become the villain. Lost is also miles in season four from where it began in season one—in its primary narrative and thematic concerns; in its main characters (how could the show last so long without Ben?); in the length of its seasons and the level of production design. Even Entourage, an ode to SoCal decadence, has become, as it’s evolved, radically different in scope—less about Hollywood glamour and more about Hollywood business.
Yet still, we consider a TV show to be a single work, and especially when we think about the show in the abstract, I would argue there is usually some precise period in the show’s history that we are collectively considering. This is it, right here: the vague eternal moment summoned and referenced when we talk about when we talk about Sex and the City, the exact point at which the show was equally funny and serious, equally about long-term relationships and one-night stands, equally focused on the women’s relationship with their men and their relationship with each other. The show was occasionally better than it was in this run of twelve episodes, but it was ever quite as perfect again.
This is, after all, the season in which Carrie asks the question “Are We Sluts?” She never answers that question (which is also the title of that fantastic episode), and it’s rarely repeated when people talk about the show, which is ironic, since most of the columns that criticize Sex and the City (especially ones like this, which draw comparisons or contrasts between the show and the fall of Hillary Clinton) are basically dancing around an answer: Yes You Are.
Are they sluts? That’s a loaded word—like bitch or cocktease or whore or the unmentionable c-word, you can make the argument that, because there’s no similar derogatory term for men, the word is patently unfair, and should not be used in reference to anyone. Several vague statistics were thrown around the talkosphere after the Sex and the City movie came out, to the effect that, although Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte sleep with more men in the show’s run than the average American female, they sleep with the exact average amount of men for a New York woman. (Which doesn’t really change the question: fundamentalist preachers and investment bankers would argue that that just proves that all New York women are sluts.)
This all also brings us back to my first question: What is the male version of the show? The usual shorthand is to point to shows about a group of male friends having and talking about sex: Queer as Folk, Big Shots, and most specifically, Entourage. After all, Entourage is basically the great American young male wet dream—hanging out, smoking weed, playing video games on a bigscreen projector, going to clubs and getting bottle service, hooking up with Mandy Moore, and best of all, getting to call it Work.
Certainly, Entourage has been as much an essential Los Angeles monument as Sex and the City was for New York; certainly, the interplay of the four friends on that other show seems to mirror the interplay of the four friends on this one. Vince (Adrian Grenier) is Carrie, the head of the group and the face of the show, who’s also the least interesting character played by the least talented performer; E is Miranda, the most realistic character with an actual job and realistic relationship troubles (played with rueful sarcasm by the most subtle and poker-faced Kevin Connolly); Drama (Kevin Dillon) is Charlotte, lovably old-fashioned and lusting for an impossible dream (fame for Drama, true love for Charlotte); Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) is Samantha, the extreme personification of the show’s already extreme treatment of its respective gender (he: chubby, stoned, freeloading, unshaven, talks like he’s listened to too much hip-hop; she: thin, fashionable, independent, endlessly sexual, refusing to age past 35).
But beyond those relatively superficial similarities, the comparison doesn’t quite hold. Sex and the City focuses its eye closely on every new man who comes into each girl’s life, even if it’s only to explore one particular detail; all the women on Entourage are essentially the same hot twentysomething model wannabe (unless they’re actually models). The relationships on Sex and the City are all about flirtation, where most of the relationships on Entourage basically skip straight to the sex:
More generally, Sex and the City asks big questions—about gender, about city life, about modern day America—where Entourage lives in a zone of blissful ignorance. You could argue that it’s precisely these differences that make Entourage “the male Sex and the City.”
But you could also argue that those differences make it “the West Coast Sex and the City.” In the middle of season three, after the greatest moment in the entire run of the East Coast Sex and the City, the whole gang escapes with Carrie to Los Angeles. They hang out at wild parties and meet famous Hollywood actors playing themselves (Matthew McConaughey) and playing other people (Vince Vaughn, Sarah Michelle Gellar). Everyone they meet is incredibly good looking. They even go to the Playboy Mansion. Is it any coincidence that this is basically sums up Entourage? And it is another coincidence that these are the worst two episodes of Sex and the City‘s entire run?
Sex and the City and Entourage are also underwent drastically different evolutions. I haven’t watched nearly enough of Entourage beyond its impeccable second season, but neither has anyone else. The first season of that show is very similar to the first season of Sex and the City—few real overwhelming plot arcs, a very basic episode-by-episode premise, a parade of paramours. The first season of Entourage, and especially the second one, is all about lovable decadence—it’s not really about anything, and there’s never really any major tension. Both season finales flirt with tension—will the group be broken up?!—only to resolve that tension after a few moments, setting everything aright. Oddly enough, as the show become more dramatically intensive—with the ongoing Medellin plotline, with failure for the characters—it became less interesting, as if somehow the whole genius of the show was in its pop escapist vision of a world without consequence. Entourage evolved as a show, but the Entourage phenomenon had ended.
In season three, Sex and the City takes a similar move, becoming more dramatically intensive and moving away from the relatively flighty narratives of the first season. Season three truly starts to test the nature of the show: Charlotte gets married, the beginning of the end for the show’s sexy-singles phase; Samantha and Charlotte quarrel, briefly breaking apart the friendship circle; Samantha gets sick, the first time we’ve ever seen her demonstrate any real weakness and the first time she ever seems to consider the disadvantages of singlehood; and, most importantly, Carrie sleeps with Big, cheating on Aidan, at the exact moment when everything in her life seems to be perfect:
Sex and the City had to evolve to become a true phenomenon, because after Carrie’s affair with Big, the show gained an added heft, and a whiff of danger. The glam fashion-show image that tends to be propagated by the media doesn’t quite do the show justice; nor, conversely, does the sexual-anthropological-analytical concept (“sex columnist debates modern female issues”!) really get to the core of why the show is a true epic narrative, and not just a fuck-of-the-week. When Carrie sleeps with Big—doing it dirty, first in an elevator, and then in the bedroom, and then lazily smoking tobacco just before the credits roll—she becomes, briefly but effectively, her own show’s villain.
This plotline is the show’s greatest argument for itself, and also against itself—for once, Carrie’s analytical mind (the invisible narrator, the columnist whose columns we never see) is not given the last word. I suspect this is because this is one of the few times that Carrie, or anyone on the show, does something truly dangerous, and sinful, and unforgivable, and yet also touchingly human. This is the first time that Cheating will play a major role in an ongoing plot arc; and considering how little screen time is devoted to Charlotte’s dalliance with a gardener and Samantha’s uncomfortable top-floor bonus screw with Richard, you could make the argument that this is truly the one Cheating Plot in the show’s history. With the Carrie-Aidan-Big plotline, the show didn’t just nail modern gender politics, it found a way to question our own preconceptions of the show and the show’s initial concept.
I know many people who can’t stand Carrie. I can’t decide if that’s because they don’t like her as a character or as a person—that is, if they can’t stand her for who she is or for what she does. True, she’s a whiner, and so painfully into fashion as to basically ruin her bank account, and in later seasons she’s got the most utterly painful habit of talking in cutesy black talk (we get our first taste of this quirk in the season three finale, in an exchange with trannie hookers). All of that is why most men hate her. But she also makes poor decisions, and dates the wrong men, and complains to them without every really solving anything. That’s why most women hate her—but only as friends hate friends who do stupid things. In fact, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that although all the girls on the show make bad decisions often, Carrie makes the worst decisions constantly.
The thing is, Carrie is a writer. Although we never actually get a look at her column, we can extrapolate that it is largely autobiographical. Her voiceover narration often bleeds into the writing; once her book is published, Mr. Big teasingly asks for his own name; at the beginning of season three, her affair with a politico gets an anonymous tell-all, with the awful title “To Pee or Not to Pee.” So she writes about herself and her mistakes constantly, and despite the fact that the end of each show is structured as an epiphany, she essentially learns nothing. She continues to make the same mistakes; in fact, makes worse mistakes the further she goes. (The downward trend from Aidan/Big to greedy ineffectual Berger and finally to the remote Aleksander is fine evidence of that).
We should not forget that the entirety of Sex and the City is set many years after the golden age of these women’s lives. They are no longer in their twenties; it is a long time since sex, or even romance, was something new and unique; their bodies are beginning to fail them, in small ways (cellulite) and in large ways (infertility.) This shines a weird ironic light on all those college girls (hell, those high school girls) who idolize Sex and the City: the characters on the show hate college girls. (There’s a great episode later in the series in which Samantha hosts a party for an adolescent socialite who drinks, smokes, and fucks; the result plays like a pre-satire of Gossip Girl, except played more realistic than anything on that other glam New York show.) The essential themes of Sex and the City are loneliness, frustration, confusion, and awkwardness. Girl power!
This is why, beginning with season three, the real “male version” of Sex and the City becomes, undoubtedly, The Sopranos. Yes, The Sopranos had its share of main female characters, but always focused on a man’s world. Notice how whenever a woman tries to stand against the preconceptions of the mob men, and of the show itself, the male hierarchy forces her back in: Adriana gets killed; Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi, gets raped first by a man and then by the system; Carmela tries to divorce Tony but gets trapped by him at every turn. Even Angie Bonpensiero gets absorbed—in season two, she’s talking about leaving her deadbeat husband; by season six, she’s “one of the boys.”
At a basic level, Sex and the City and The Sopranos shared a basic thematic characteristic—they were all about analysis, and specifically, a pointed analysis of modern gender roles. For most (though not all) of its run, The Sopranos drew its power and focus from the scenes between Tony and Dr. Melfi. Their ongoing dialogue put everything else on the show under microscopic examination: Tony’s relationships, Tony’s work, Tony’s self-image, Tony’s dreams:
Those scenes were the gateway towards the show’s dissection of modern America. You can learn nearly everything you have to know about contemporary manhood from six and a half seasons of The Sopranos. In season one, Tony wonders, “What happened to Gary Cooper?” as he considers the sad state of his own medicated, manic depressive generation; by season six, he’s admitting, “I hate my son,” when he considers the overstimulated, intellectually undernourished, lazy generation represented by his son.
True, Carrie only goes to see a psychiatrist once, but whereas Tony requires a (female) psychiatrist as a medium in order to examine himself, Carrie needs only her Apple computer. Those scenes of her, alone in her room smoking a cigarette, while Narrator-Carrie rhapsodizes on the soundtrack, serve the same function as the Dr. Melfi scenes—they take you, briefly, one step back from the show, into the MST3K-style audience, to consider what it all means.
The two shows come to radically different conclusions about “what it all means,” but they follow remarkably similar avenues for getting there. Both shows improved over their runs, up to a certain point (around season five of Sex and the City and season six of The Sopranos), at which the shows became steadily more intelligent, but also steadily darker, and weirder, and much less fun. Season six of The Sopranos features endless funerals; by the end of the show, there’s scarcely anyone left of the old gang. Similarly, by the end of Sex and the City, the show has morphed completely from a show about single women to a show about women in relationships. (Two of them are even married!)
This is a natural progression, and for TV it is a decidedly modern one (nothing ever really changed in 20 years of Gunsmoke), but it also makes both shows far more difficult to like. Just as it’s easier to enjoy Sex and the City when it’s all glam and one-night stands, it’s easier to like The Sopranos when it’s all guns and fights and drugs. Yet the endings of Sex and the City and The Sopranos could not be more different. The modern-fairy-tale ending of Big and Carrie is miles removed from the ambiguous, bleak ending of The Sopranos—which isn’t, technically, an ending at all.
There’s an important difference between The Sopranos and Sex and the City (although it may say more about the difference between women and men than between the shows’ respective styles). Tony’s analysis on The Sopranos circles endlessly around his parents—first his mother’s horrible emotional abuse, and then his father’s even more horrible moral abuse. It’s an openly Catholic notion: sins of the father, original sin, dicks dicks dicks. So much weight is given on the show to where people have come from—the interlocking family relations match the importance of “family” in the real-life and movie mob.
On Sex and the City, conversely, Carrie mentions her father only once, in season four, when she starts working at Vogue, and reveals to a man her father’s age that her dad left when she was only five. This is thrown out at the end of season four, and I’ve read at least on review that calls this as a left-field revelation, but it’s not handled that way, really. After seven seasons of the Sex and the City, it’s remarkable how little we know about the girls’ lives before 1999. Miranda’s mom dies so quickly that they didn’t even hire an actress to play her; we never catch a whiff of Charlotte’s or Samantha’s parents (perhaps they were born at the beginning of the creation and split in two, yin and yang, slut and prom queen?). We get occasional tidbits of background—Samantha lost her virginity when she was 12, Charlotte was in Kappa Kappa Gamma and rode horses—but those tidbits merely confirm what we’d already expected.
What I’m saying is that, for these characters, for their lives in New York, their past simply doesn’t matter. This is a show focused entirely on the present; and it is also a show with a profound understanding of its own bullshit. It’s telling that Carrie decides a psychiatrist is not for her after one episode, even though her psychiatrist is right; comparatively, Tony Soprano spends seven years hating psychiatry, often leaving or threatening to leave (or threatening Melfi herself), before finally pleading, when Melfi kicks him out, “We’re making progress!”
So perhaps when we are talking about the Sex and the City’s feminine quality, we’re talking about its uniquely feminine strength—the way in which disappointments are conquered, and sins are forgiven, and cancer itself fades away over the coffee table with friends.
And so perhaps the “male version” of Sex and the City is a show with the exact opposite quality—uniquely male weakness—in which the sins of the past, and particularly the sins commissioned by parents upon their children, are revisited over and over again in the present, with the implication that the future will never be any better. Sex and the City has the quality of constantly starting over—a new column, a new man, a new chance to find love, a new apartment in the meatpacking district, a new marriage for Charlotte, new shoes for Carrie, a new guest appearance by Miranda’s Steve—but this other show, its male counterpart, would have the quality of endless repetition, of fighting the same battles. Like Sex and the City, this show would also be essentially analytical, attempting to discover some essential “truth” (with any number of tertiary truths along the way)—but unlike on Sex and the City, in which the women are ultimately as confused as ever, this show would focus, fetishistically, like Oedipus, on the search for that truth, and it would keep going, no matter that every new answer resulted in a hundred other questions.
And whereas Sex and the City is set in the modern city—New York in the new millenium, with a truly infinite array of relationships to form and social circles to navigate—this male Sex and the City would strip down its worldview to primordial society, away from the thousand distractions. A world where men can be men, where the individual reigns supreme, where everyone starts out equally and can become King. Unlike Sex and the City, there would be considerable eye candy—in fact, the eye candy would be the protagonists—but also unlike Sex and the City, there would be precious little actual Sex. Just as Sex and the City evolves, in its run, from focusing on the women’s relationships with men to focusing on their relationships with each other, this other would steadily focus in on its male characters, and their fathers, and the games they play with one another.
At the very beginning of season three, Carrie and friends stare at Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry. Someone says, “Who would’ve thought that an island that tiny would be big enough to hold all of our old boyfriends?”
Is Lost the male version of Sex and the City?