Sox and the Shitty: Why Desperate Housewives and The L Word Can't Fill Sex and the City's Shoes
People used to mock me for loving Sex and the City, but I had a very good reason: It rocked. Yes, it was a hyperbolic version of the lives of single Manhattan women, but anything worthy on TV is hyperbolic to the extent that hyperbole is required to make broad strokes visible on small screens. During the show’s entire run, it was still against my politics to pay for television, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t too principled to leach other people’s paid-for television, and almost every girlfriend I had sacked out in front of HBO Sundays at 9 pm.
The girls of SATC (an acronym my boyfriend had to master before I felt comfortable calling him my boyfriend) were single, well turned-out, feminine, old school-new school, and really fierce about their friendships with each other. When they obsessed about boys too much, they called each other on it. They laughed from their diaphragms, not through their noses. They were different from each other, and respected those differences. They wore serious stilettos. They knew how to argue without reverting to passive-aggressive bullshit. They talked about sex in bawdy detail. They were adamantly on each other’s sides, but never to the degree that they shined each other on. They served as moral barometers for each other, though rarely as moral watchdogs. The omnipresent puns grated sometimes and the Manhattan they inhabited summoned a fairytale most of us hadn’t visited since the late ’90s. But Charlotte, Samantha, Carrie, and Miranda (my favorite) delivered the most accurate yet utopian portrayal of female friendship that’s ever graced television.
None of what I’m writing here so far is original, and that’s the point. For the first time, a TV show captured not just un-Cathy-like dating but the friendships women formed in our 30s, and scores of us ate it up with a spoon. With most of our peers dropping like flies into the land of two, those of us still single in our 30s (and yes, 20s and 40s and insert-decade-here) had learned to rely on each other, to ask more of our friendships than that we merely be audiences for each other’s travails. For those of us who were still single, especially for those of us who opted out of panicking about our singlehood, the time we spent with our girlfriends was primary, not secondary, possibly for the first time since many of us had hit puberty.
SATC reflected that. It also reflected a way to be feminine, sexual, witty, and still very, very genuine.
Growing up in Boston in the preppy ‘80s, I learned that as a woman, you had two options in terms of how you presented yourself: neutered or slutty. Naturally, I opted for a psychedelic brand of slutty, but it wasn’t a perfect fit since, as an anorexic, I was infinitely picky about what I put in my mouth. A women’s college solved that problem: At Bryn Mawr, the dykes were the coolest women I’d ever met. Unapologetic, funny as hell, immune to Ophelia's malady, these were broads to emulate. That I didn’t really dig chowing box (thank you gawker) was irrelevant for a while, though it did peeve my boyfriends — huge rugby players, inevitably — to have to hide when I ran into any of my friends.
And that was the delicate balance I preserved until I moved to NYC, where I learned from both drag queens and Southern fashionistas how to project a different, more capable sort of femininity. That steel magnolia mythology is the real deal: Those girls taught me how to discuss a 401k and a good lipstick in the same conversation. I learned from the drag queens still strutting downtown in the mid-’90s how to say no to the wrong guy, and then stop dwelling on it. I learned how not to apologize for myself. How to flirt. How to more fully occupy myself. And how to be a real girlfriend not only to my boyfriends, but to my girlfriends — as that’s only possible when you’re no longer just looking for confirmation or a mirror image in your mates. It’s called your 30s, if you hang in there long enough to achieve that self-reckoning.
Enter SATC. Candy that we could digest.
I liked that Miranda bossed her boyfriend Steve around too much, and that her personal evolution entailed compromise rather than capitulation. I liked that in her struggles with Big and her other boyfriends, Carrie managed to flounder without entirely losing her sense of humor. I liked that the show changed when the city changed post-9/11, as did Carrie's wardrobe. I liked that when a baby was introduced, the show didn't change its entire tenor. I liked that the show was actually shot in NYC, and looked like it, but better. I liked the Barbie-on-coke wardrobes, even if they did render moot everything my friends and I wore with an alarming regularity. (I'm done wearing heels with jeans and kitsch t-shirts for at least a decade, thank ya veddy much.)
And no show ever made me cry so much. When Miranda’s mother died, and Carrie jumped into the funeral procession so that her girl wouldn’t have to walk alone, I wept. When Aidan dumped Carrie for cheating and she leaned into her girlfriends at Charlotte’s wedding for support, I wept. When Carrie stood alone at her book party and said, “My loneliness is palpable,” I wept in recognition. When Samantha got breast cancer and told her oncologist to fuck off for suggesting her single lifestyle was to blame, I wept, too. When Miranda proposed to Steve and married him in a community garden, I wept like a baby.
Here was a heterosexual model of enterprise and friendship and maturation that I could recognize and even aspire to. It was my friends and I reflected in good television: a place we could climb into just when Sunday’s mean reds came calling, which is arguably the main point of TV in general.
The show ended just when almost the last of my straight girlfriends my age leapt into family, hetero style. 2004’s been a lonely year in many ways. I’ve finally found myself found a man equipped with the ability to wink at me across a room, buy flowers when I’m sad, and let me be nice to him without freaking out. But still: It’s quieter these days. I miss the chatter of my girlfriends, disappeared into admittedly worthy occupations like motherhood and the cities and suburbs where they grew up or where they or their husbands found jobs. I never thought it would happen, but, lordy, it did. With the first bloom of youth decidedly lifted, I’ve started to feel less like a pioneer and more like an alien as an unmarried woman. I get cross when everyone acts like my life has wildly improved just because I found a good man. He's wonderful, but those days when we straight women weren't so divided out into mommy-daddy pairs were wonderful, too.
It seems too much that, at the same time, in SATC’s timespot CBS has cynically offered us the debacle Desperate Housewives. The show's about women roughly my age who've morphed into abstractions of the worst every decade since WWII has had to offer in the way of housewifery. It's only accurate in the worst possible ways: the Stepfortification, the Mommy’s little helpers that have afflicted some of my coolest female friends. The Desperate equation for success is apparently bad writing + a cast comprised of the dregs of expired nighttime soaps (save Felicity Huffman, who’s always better than the shows she appears on) + cleavage + desperately bored women (and men) at 9pm = high ratings. Though Desperate could’ve offered a smart look at how the role of wife and mommy still gets ghettoized despite our best intentions, it's really just Twin Peaks minus the irony and plus an estrogen infusion. Or Lucy and Ethel on Zoloft and Ritalin, a deadly dull combination.
This is not what I signed up for when I emigrated to NYC. Not in my Sunday night TV, and not in my real life. Something greater has to loom between acne and menopause than this mishegos.
So I’ve reverted, once again, to a by-proxy lesbianism: The L Word. As the show’s set in LA, some of these dykes are far more lipsticked than I, and though neither they nor the show they appear on are as funny as my Miranda, at least they live in the ballpark of women that I know or even like. I can see hanging out with them, and, indeed, since the first season came out a few weeks ago on DVD, my real girls and I have been shut-ins. We can hardly wait for the second season. It’s just I’m the only one who’s not a dyke. Again.
At this point, I’ve gravitated back to the gay community for personal inspiration not because I don’t like who I am but because, gay marriage laws notwithstanding, more models exist here of how to sustain connection and character outside of the traditional heterosexual trajectory than anywhere else. There’s got to be more options represented for those of us in our mid-30s without babies or husbands — or at least those of us who don’t wish to have babies and be in relationships the way that we were taught.
Bottom line is there’s got to be more models for smart straight broads of a certain age than lipstick lesbians and desperate housewives. And there are. They’re just not yet on the dial.