Difficult People

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© HBO

What comes to mind when you hear “mob boss”? Probably power, money, ruthlessness, sex. Now, go watch The Sopranos, and answer again. Power? Tony Soprano was constantly on edge, afraid his crew would consider him untrustworthy or obsolete and put one in his head. Money? Tony’s arguments with his wife, Carmela, and his crew over what comes in and what is spent were endless – tightening belts was the name of the game for most of the show’s run. Ruthlessness? Tony was constantly plagued by the smallest repercussions of his actions (though at the end, he did become detached and paranoid – more a response to creator David Chase’s state of mind than an actual organic character development). Sex? Tony didn’t seem to be able to sleep with a woman without becoming a) completely entangled in romantic madness (a.k.a. jealousy, quarrels, suicide) and b) guilty over his infidelity to Carmela (admittedly, this particular symptom didn’t manifest as much).

Now, what comes to mind when I say “thirty-something single female journalist”? Probably not much – it’s not a figure on the established archetype canon of storytelling. Which is why, when watching Sex and the City (a show created in the same period and channel, HBO, as The Sopranos), the viewer’s expectations where a little different. While Sopranos worked with a character whose archetype has already been established in the public consciousness (mostly by Scorsese, something the series jokingly alludes to in its plot) only to deconstruct it right before our very eyes, Sex and the City promised a completely fresh start. Our heroine, Carrie Bradshaw, was not to be a run of the mill, romantic comedy damsel in distress: she was a successful professional sleeping her way through the Big Apple, intent to show the world that 21st century women don’t play by the rules anymore: they work like men, have sex like men, and are more than capable of slaying the dragon and climbing down the tower by themselves. They will marry the prince if, and when, they chose to. Except Carry did no such thing.

21st century women are more than capable of slaying the dragon and climbing down the tower by themselves

Recently I came across a New Yoker article by Emily Nussbaum, in which she criticized Brett Martin for his remiss attitude towards Sex and the City in his book Difficult Men, which explains the origins and backstage of the third Golden Age of television (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am a huge fan of this book, which, as I have stated previously, changed my life). According to Nussbaum, Martin gives credit to the series only by its edge when it came to sex and by its portrayal of New York, not by deconstructing female stereotypes (“the Slut, the Prude, the Career Woman, the Heroine”), something Nussbaum believes the show did – or didn’t, but for the sake of verisimilitude, since archetypes don’t need to be deconstructed if they’re true.

When confronted with this criticism of a book I hold so dearly, I set out to watch Sex and the City, a show I’ve avoided for years, mostly out of dislike for Sarah Jessica Parker and for what seemed like a frivolous attitude towards life (a pair of fabulous shoes and a good Cosmo can solve a girl’s problems and so on). I was at first pleasantly surprised by the show’s fake journalistic style (I loved the anonymous testimonials that answered Carrie’s questions, something that disappeared after the first season), the realistic portrayal of the 90’s New York (which I’ll never get to know) and the dialogues, which are fast paced and very funny. Still, having recently finished the whole Sopranos run, comparisons where inevitable.

Sopranos gave us a mob boss only to reveal a son who had a very complicated relationship with his mother, a father having to raise his children in the middle of a world going to shit, and a boss whose crew acts both as family and enemy. Sex and the City, in turn, gave us a real life woman only to reveal an insecure princess who, at the end of the day, won’t really be OK unless she has a man by her side (on an side note, it’s funny how Carrie’s friends – even Charlotte, “the Prude” – are many time shown naked and in the middle of explicit, sometimes embarrassing, sex acts, while Carrie herself is show in a bra at most, and her sex scenes are always very romantic/sensual, not at all life-like). This, on Nussbaum’s opinion, was to “push back at the audience’s wish for identification”, which is to say, the show was being “daring” by refusing to meet the audience’s expectations, supposedly making women across all nations realize that “yeah, I’m like that, and I shouldn’t be” – even though the on-screen heroine refused to behave like anything but a 90’s Sleeping Beauty, ready to be taken out of her feminist slumber by true love’s kiss.

Carrie refused to behave like anything but a 90’s Sleeping Beauty, ready to be taken out of her feminist slumber by true love’s kiss

Not only do I not believe the show provoked the reaction stated by Nussbaum, I believe it did the exact opposite – to toxic levels. It has always frustrated me when a story explicitly sets out to do something and then does the exact opposite. Take The Fault in Our Stars, for example, in which heroine Hazel Grace Lancaster (what kind of name is that?) states at the beginning that she was always annoyed by cancer movies for treating the disease as an opportunity to discover oneself and grow, when it is in fact a very painful, down to earth experience – and then proceeds to tell a story just as chick-flicksy as any other (perhaps even more boring). The worst offender in this field is, to me, He’s not that into you, supposedly the anti-romantic comedy that would show women the proverbial light, but instead reinforced the idea that assholes are just men who haven’t met the right girls and, thus, you should allow yourself to be treated like shit, because he will show up your door at 2 AM to confess his mad love and admit the error of his ways.

Sex and the City does this in the form of Carrie’s perennial lover, a man known only as Mr. Big (we only learn his real name at the end of the series, which should attest to his life-like qualities). In the beginning, they share a sexual passion, which eventually turns to love, at least on Carrie’s side. Big suffers from commitment issues, which end up being revealed as just plain “I don’t love you” symptoms when he runs off to France and marries a girl he just met. Thus far, I was satisfied – I too believe commitment issues stem from disinterest in one’s partner. But then Big did what any girl (supposedly) would dream of: he comes back, he’s sorry, he cheats on his wife, he’s desperately in love with Carrie. My experience in life tells me this seldom happens, though it is what most women (and men) fervently wish to happen after being dumped. That this series, the one that was supposed to usher the 90’s crowd into a new millennium of feminist revolution, compromised its characters this way, allowing them to act out a crying teenager’s fantasy, really did it for me (and by “did it”, I don’t mean I stopped watching – the show can still be very funny and insightful – it means I stopped taking it seriously as a work of culture).

I’m not saying the Sopranos is perfect. As I mentioned, in the last seasons, Chase’s pessimism and the need to be gritty and adult made some of its characters (chief among them, Steve Buschemi’s Tony Blundetto, that went to repented ex-con building a life to cold blood killer in just one scene) behave in unnatural ways. But still, we got (mostly) a cold deconstruction of a myth set in real, day to day life – and I could comfortably project myself on those people. And while Carrie’s friends did follow a semi-deconstructive path (Is marrying another WASP everything in life? Does really liking sex make you a slut? Can women earn more than men?), projecting onto Carrie herself would be a pointless exercise – life would never be able to imitate a love affair as contrived as hers (or a career as ethereal, or a financial life as unrealistic). Which could be forgiven of any other romantic comedy – they exist to amuse – but not of this supposedly feminist manifesto.

I’m off to watch The Wire – which, I’ve read, is the most realistic portrayal of Baltimore, and police work in general, in television. See you on my next rant.