Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Holly Go Lighten Up

Dawn Eden proves her powers of awesome by writing a fine op-ed while still recovering from surgery.

The ongoing discussion about Sex and the City (sparked by the new movie) has brought out some good points about the competing cultural values. As quoted in Dawn's op-ed, the creators of the show had a pretty clear objective: "As he [producer Darren Star] told Entertainment Weekly, 'I really wanted to do a show that objectified men.' "

Some people see no problem with that, and wonder why we're fussing. I think the best way to demonstrate it is to compare SATC with Breakfast at Tiffany's.

All five women (the four leads of SATC and Holly Golightly) live glitzy, fab lives in the heart of New York City. All of them are "free agents" - with Holly having ditched a kindly older husband (Buddy Ebsen) to get to that point. All indulge themselves in a good many vices. All long for a home, but loathe the idea of being caged. And Carrie and Holly have at least one flawed knight riding into the picture - Mr. Big and Paul Varjak. Why should one be preferred to the other?

I think that there are two big reasons, which go side-by-side in my mind - first, that Breakfast occurs in a moral world, and second, that it is a better-crafted work.

Holly may well be a call girl, but both the character and the film have quite a different attitude to it than Carrie does to her sexual exploits. Holly is matter-of-fact about it (as much as she could be in the days of the Code) but she is equally matter-of-fact about the consequences. The only creature she can bond with is Cat - and even he gets tossed into the street in a fit of self-loathing. And the self-described "wild thing," in the end, realizes that settling for appearance instead of substance is a poor idea. She even says at one point, "I don't want to own anything until I find a place where things and I go together." Paul is much the same, and his own self-loathing at being 2-E's "kept man" is palpable, and he dreams of escape.

Despite their flaws, Holly and Paul are people one can root for - one hopes that they will escape, and find their rainbow's end. This is something I've never seen in any clip of SATC. There, appearances and sensations are the whole point. There's nothing to escape from. Sure, Carrie wants a Prince Charming, but is she willing to change who she is once she finds him, or does she want him on no terms but her own?

That leads right into the dramatic crafting of the show. It's possible of course to do a show about nothing, as Seinfeld was famously described by Larry David - it's also no surprise in the end to find that, as much as the show may have entertained, it didn't actually mean anything. Certainly it's foolish to think of such a show as "boundary-breaking" or whatever the phrase is. Strictly speaking, such a show recognizes no boundaries at all. If men could flap their arms and fly away nobody would have thought that the Wright Brothers accomplished anything; likewise, a show that doesn't adhere to any sort of moral framework isn't really daring anything.

If one doesn't consider promiscuity a serious moral failing, then it's simple to consider Carrie a positive character. It's much trickier to treat promiscuity as wicked (or at least an obstacle to true happiness) and yet have Holly and Paul come out as sympathetic. It takes more skill. What we know of Truman Capote's life is quite sad, but he was at least an honest writer and did not presume that his failings were something the characters in his book ought to aspire to.

The creators of SATC have no such compunction, as we have seen, and the consequence is that people take them as they mean to be taken. The result isn't just that men are objectified, either. By treating their potential Princes as commodities, the women in SATC do great damage to themselves. Simply put, one can't respect one's stuff. One may lose weight to fit into a fabulous dress one simply MUST have - but that's only because the dress flatters one; if it goes out of style, it goes into the trash. There's no question of appealing to the dress, or wondering what the dress wants. How could there be? Stuff exists for one purpose only, and that's to serve the interests of its owner. But a husband or wife is not merely just another accessory like shoes or a handbag or a great dress, and treating them that way kills the human connection that the characters claim to want. In such an atmosphere one can't be an equal, can barely aspire to be even as much as a pet.

Unless Carrie decides to act far above the standards upheld by the show, she is not going to be a good partner for Mr. Big, precisely because she won't be looking for a partner for herself. She will be looking for (begging your pardon) a good sexual accessory, and the character's nickname is certainly a tip-off to how the four friends thought of him at first.

Should there really be so much of a fuss over a TV show (now movie)? That depends. I don't think that the show beams subliminal messages into one's brain to sleep around and buy stuff one can't afford. Neither do I think that unlikeable main characters are a death knell for any book or show. What is, to me, the deal-breaker is that the writers of the show ought to play fair with the audience and demonstrate some sort of grounds rules for the characters, and then hold them to those rules.

Even Seinfeld wound up with its self-absorbed "no learning, no hugging" characters in jail, true to their shallow vanities to the last and justly rewarded for it. The Sopranos ended with a Dante-like twist - Tony forever trapped in a small, mean circle of hell, looking over his shoulder for the next threat; his future represented by his uncle (the former boss of the family) crumbling from Alzheimer's in a jail-like nursing facility, and his son sucked back into apathy. David Chase may as well have chosen "Once in a Lifetime" for the end sequence - same as it ever was, same as it ever was. We never see if Tony is killed because we don't need to.

Of course, SATC is fluff, "just a show" - but it's fluff that presumes a point of view that would prove ruinous to anyone who actually tried to live that way. That doesn't mean that watching will automatically turn us all into harlots with dishy friends and fab clothes; but it's not healthy to hold up that sort of thing as a positive.

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