Media Hype Sex and the City: The Movie

Freelancer Ashley Sayeau's column on the premiere of Sex and the City: The Movie received spotlight treatment in the Post's May 18 Sunday Outlook opinion section.  Sayeau's piece is just one of the more overwrought notches on the media bedpost in the near non-stop promotion of the movie by the media. Entertainment Weekly's May 23 edition boasts of devoting 63 (!) pages to 'Sex.'

Sayeau's column documented the “ecstatic” giddiness she felt while standing near the red carpet at the movie's recent London premiere.  Sayeau called the fashion-forward character “Carrie” her “heroine,” and described the “wacky” efforts she made to get a picture of the movie's stars, even climbing a fence, as her heart was “fluttering.”

Sayeau's column is full of worship.

    I hadn't felt so alive in years. For a cultural critic this is as metaphysical as it gets. I'd been secretly pleased by the women's dismissive attitude toward those who disdained the show as just fantasy. I realize this is sappy, but I'm not alone.           

In all of this adoring fluff, Sayeau's main point is that the characters in Sex and the City (SATC) are “empowering” and have positively influenced women and their lives.  She says the show made her feel like she could do anything she wanted.  The fans she interviewed at the London premiere told her they looked to the SATC characters “for guidance in their careers.” The column fits a pattern that several media outlets are using in their promotion of the movie: examining the impact the series had on culture. (Click here for analysis on a recent Good Morning America story.)

Sayeau tossed in a slam on social conservatives and “moralists:”

From the beginning, critics feared that television would bring subversion to the suburbs, disillusioning women about family life, as well as distracting them from their domestic duties. "Whatever happened to men?" wondered TV Guide in 1953. "Once upon a time (before TV) a girl thought of her boyfriend or husband as her prince charming. Now having watched the antics of Ozzie Nelson and Chester A. Riley, she thinks of her man as a prime idiot." The critics were right to be worried. In the decades that followed, the tube was a key site of women's rebellion. It's where Lucy avoided housework, Mary took the pill, Maude got an abortion and Murphy got on a vice president's nerves.

Sex and the City continued this courageous -- if madcap -- tradition. With conservatives pushing abstinence and pro-marriage programs, it was an adroit form of protest to have a show where women questioned marriage, made more money than their boyfriends did, and declared (more eloquently than I can here) that they only give oral sex if they get it. So what if it was over the top -- if we're going to fantasize, why not fantasize about women staying out late and making tons of money? After all, nobody's particularly bothered when Tony Soprano does it. (Though he may have other hobbies that moralists would quibble with.)

Sayeau spent a fair amount of ink trying to excuse the emotional frenzy and justifying the “intellectual” connection and history she had with the HBO series. Sayeau's Web site indicates she writes from a feminist perspective and SATC has been frequent fodder for her.  In the May 18 piece she opined that “the series represented a profound step forward for women in its portrayal of sex, friendships and single life.”  Feminists would see it that way. 

There is little doubt that SATC had impact.  But to make the claim that this impact is a “profound step forward” for women is a head scratcher.  Protesting marriage and meaningful relationships while glorifying greed, casual sex, gossip, and objectification is a step forward? Was it because they could afford to buy ridiculously overpriced Manolo Blahniks?

The media spin on the movie and the series that spawned has also made for some bizarre editorial choices, like featuring Sarah Jessica Parker, an ardent supporter of Planned Parenthood, on the Mother's Day cover of Parade magazine with the headline “America's Most Fabulous Mom.”  A more truthful headline would have been “Mom with Movie Coming out in 19 Days.” 

On the May 19 broadcast of Nightline, producers hyped the series and used Parker's new line of clothing to lead a story about a discount clothing chain called Steve and Barry's. The May 26 issue of Newsweek carries a four-page story titled “Girls Gone Mild” and asks whether SATC was “really all that revolutionary.”  Reporter Julia Baird bemoans the fact that Sex and the City: The Movie has a “heavy investment in what you might call a Cinderella complex.”  Despite the fact that the series “daringly and shamelessly” talked about all manner of sex, the fact that “Carrie” just might marry “Mr. Big” in the movie proves to Baird that in the end SATC isn't a “profound step forward” like Sayeau suggested.

While the vast majority of coverage of the SATC movie has been positive promotion, there are a few brave reporters who don't see the same gilded lily.  A May 15 column in the New York Post actually provided a list of twenty ways in which SATC “ruined” New York City.  Sara Stewart observed that SATC “was essential TV for millions of women, who took its pro-friendship message as gospel.  Unfortunately, the antics of its leading ladies didn't always provide the best examples for their viewers.”


Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.