The sexually explicit scenes in Sex and the City – now into its last series on Channel 4 – make me feel like Maurice Chevalier: I’m so glad that I’m not young any more. It is not that I feel, as my husband Richard West does, that it is all quite ‘filthy’ and ‘disgusting’ (he recalls with fondness the Old Aussie saying ‘There’s nothing worse than toilet talk from sheilas’): goodness me, I’m no prude.
It is just that some of the sexual gymnastics, particularly as demonstrated by Samantha and the young men she picks up, seem somehow both humiliating and competitive. I mean, you look at Olympic swimming and marvel at what the human body can accomplish, but you do not imagine that you are supposed to do likewise in the municipal pool the next day. But you look at the amazing positions which Samantha and her lovers demonstrate, and it might worry you dreadfully if you could not emulate these Olympics successfully.
Samantha is the sassy one of the quartet of New York ‘liberated’ women, the unashamed man-hunter who goes after men in rather the way that men, long ago – say, in the stories of Ethel M. Dell – once went after women. She is the Sheikh: she takes ’em rough and bends them to her will. But Samantha’s penchant for pretty boys with cute little butts rather confirms the legend well established among Sex and the City viewers: although conceived by a woman, Candace Bushnell, the script is an agenda for gay men. Samantha’s desirable guys are exactly the type you might see in a gay man’s magazine – fabulous pecs, adorable derri’res, and exquisitely vacuous. It doesn’t seem to me to match female psychology at all; but then you have to have a character like Samantha so as to disguise, somewhat, the emerging evidence that in its last series Sex and the City is moving towards a gratifyingly conservative conclusion.
Consider, for example, Charlotte’s increasing desire to convert to Judaism. And, by the way, lest you think there is something half-hearted in being ‘Jewish’ – ever since Jonathan Miller, in answer to the question, said he was ‘Jew-ish’ – Charlotte boldly affirms that she wishes to become ‘a Jew’. (Note this, you scholars of cultural textuality: just as serious actresses now say ‘I am an actor’, so serious Jews, of either sex, apparently say ‘I’m a Jew’.) Anyway, Charlotte has fallen in love with this plain but funny Jewish guy (now there’s a far sharper construct of female psychology) who says that, while he adores her, he cannot marry a Gentile. Excuses, excuses!
Rather unfairly, she taxes him with this matter as he is about to reach orgasm, and he can’t think straight; the old Yiddish proverb ‘When stands up the cock, then shuts down the brain’ comes to mind. Later, in more rational mode, he says he cannot marry a non-Jew (a) because his dead mother wouldn’t like it and (b) because of the Holocaust, which, as Charlotte says, is an unfair conversation-stopper. The real reason is that Harry wants to have Jewish children but, sadly, Charlotte is ‘reproductively challenged’ and may not be able to have children at all. Still, the Charlotte and Harry story is unfolding admirably. Charlotte is visiting the rabbi (who initially turns her away: you have to be refused admission to Judaism three times before you are admitted – a little like not having sex on the first date, she reflects) and sitting in on Friday-evening family Shabbat, listening to the rabbi’s wife intone Hebrew prayers over the food. Indeed, the praying went on almost as long as one of Samantha’s scenes of sexual gymnastics.
Miranda’s story has long taken a conservative twist. The pretty redhead has had a baby, much to the disapproval of Helen Gurley Brown, the childless founder of Cosmopolitan magazine. Not only has Miranda become a mother: she has now fallen in love with the father of her child, who is, in the most sweetly old-fashioned way, now playing hard to get. Most recently, though, he has done something wonderful for her: he has fixed her television set. There! A real man!
As for Carrie, the prima inter pares of the quartet, the attractive but strangely horse-faced Sarah Jessica Parker, she is just longing to settle down with a nice guy and have a baby. Time is ticking on. She has found Jack Berger, but though they get along wonderfully otherwise, somehow it doesn’t work in bed. (Could it be because she keeps her bra on during congress, thus minimising the skin-to-skin contact that enhances sensual experience? In America, oral sex may be portrayed on screen but not bare breasts.) Samantha asks, ‘Did you bugger Berger?’ When there are two episodes of sexual disappointment, Samantha reproves Carrie, ‘You fuck me badly once, shame on you; you fuck me badly twice, shame on me.’ De Valera once said something very similar to Lloyd George, using the word ‘trick’.
But behind all the girls’ locker-room talk it is obvious where Sex and the City is going. These liberated women want to find husbands, settle down, have children, go to church – in Charlotte’s case, synagogue. It is all moving towards a thoroughly conservative conclusion, and that is, moreover, the natural order of things. The ‘forces of conservatism’ always win in the end, because it is the natural order. To be sure, Samantha will go on picking up waiters with cute little butts, but the lady is not too far off 50 and she’s going to find it tougher to pull. Still, she’ll always have the vibrator that the series has launched, and which Good Housekeeping has recently road-tested. But is that fulfilling or sad? I think we know the answer, really.
Many heterosexual men find Sex and the City both decadent and unsettling. So it is. It thrusts competitive sex in your face and challenges you to come up to the mark, which is a brash, competitive and indeed consumerist approach to an activity which evokes in human beings something both animal and transcendental. In this sense, this cult series is crude. Nor, incidentally, is it a feminist tract: the women have no serious conversation whatsoever. They’re airheads and fashion models: the clothes and shoes are gorgeous, but feminism was supposed to get away from all that painted-doll stuff. However, the underlying message is actually quite old-fashioned, and becoming more so by the week. By the end, as the weddings bells ring out, it won’t be all that far from Ethel M. Dell, with explicit knobs on.