Midway through Sex and the City 2, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) suddenly drops her married name, Goldenblatt, and assumes her maiden one, York. She’s feeling ambivalent about marriage and motherhood, but that’s not the reason. “We’re in the Middle East,” she explains. In point of fact, the gang has traveled to North Africa on vacation (Morocco plays the United Arab Emirates) but you get the joke anyway, don’t you? Those wacky coolies with their anti-Semitism!
The SATC franchise has long been described, and defended, as pure fantasy. And yet its relationship to reality has never seemed more fraught than in this new film, another tedious two and a half hour exploration of 26-minute sitcom themes. Charlotte feels frustrated by parenting and so does Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), while maneater Samantha (Kim Cattrall) battles the deleterious effects of menopause on her sex life. Carrie’s problem, meanwhile, is the same as it ever was. Mr. Big (Chris Noth), whom Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) finally married at the end of the last film, is perfect in every way except for those things she’d like to change about him. You’ve seen this episode before.
Not that that’s going to dissuade the millions of fans who purchased advanced tickets for SATC2 and booked their flights to JFK weeks ago. Director Michael Patrick King may have established new standards of cinematic incompetence with the original Sex and the City: The Movie, but he did so to the tune of $415 million worldwide. Clearly he’s feeling emboldened about his filmmaking techniques, because in SATC2 he once again illuminates the details of every garish interior for maximum bling. The problem is that King shoots his aging actresses in the same unforgiving light, evoking nothing so much as the hyperreal, grotesque portraits of Lucien Freud. (It’s a testament to the beauty of Cynthia Nixon, always the prettiest and most talented of the four leads, that she manages to look attractive in a couple of scenes.) Of course, King’s male gaze is a gay one, which explains why Noth’s waxed torso is treated, by comparison, so flatteringly and so prominently.
SATC2 throws a few other bones to its queer fan base, most notably a Big Gay Wedding presided over by Liza Minelli. But consumerism, not liberation, is the brand’s raison d’etre, and it should surprise no one that Charlotte describes the Gays as accessories. “My best gay friend is marrying her gay best friend,” she squeals while shopping for a present at Tiffany.
SATC the television series began in 1998 as a soft satire of the narcissism of white bourgeois women in Manhattan. It was a dumbed-down, acid-free Absolutely Fabulous for Gothamites. But much like its HBO dude counterpart, Entourage, the series quickly devolved from parody to self-parody, and by its third season had abandoned any pretense of irony. Viewers were now meant to identify with these women, and boy did they. As Salon’s Heather Havrilesky recently put it, in a piece that has to be read to be believed, “Enter Miranda, Charlotte, Carrie and Samantha, the yin, yang, yenta and yeah baby! of the female psyche.”
Twelve years on, the fantasies promulgated by SATC have begun to usurp our local reality. Carrie and her friends aren’t responsible per se for bottle service in the Meatpacking District, just as Big didn’t single-handedly cause Wall Street’s implosion (though you may gasp at the view from his office). But there’s no question that the show created a Platonic ideal in the Bloomberg era for this city’s wealthiest, most obnoxious residents, as well as those tourists who wished to emulate them. It affirmed their existing worldview, even as it helped shape it. As the Times‘s A.O. Scott writes—though he means it approvingly—the original series gave its viewers a “fantasy picture of New York they could both aspire and relate to.”
Two summers ago, Carrie and Big got married at City Hall in Manhattan, the same place I had once eloped with my own bride. The difference is that Carrie and Big took their vows inside a classy woodpaneled courtroom gussied up for the movie, instead of the actual spartan chapel where civil ceremonies used to take place. Predictably, SATC was trendsetting. Six months after Sex and the City: The Movie landed in theaters, the Manhattan Marriage Bureau moved to a more glamorous downtown location, designed, at the cost of 12 million of our taxpayer dollars, by the same guy who “did Madonna’s Los Angeles home and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Upper East Side town house.” The fees for a license went up, and tourists, after they make a pit stop at Magnolia Bakery, are now encouraged to visit the chapel for their own SATC nuptials. People keep telling me that this vacuous cultural leviathan is harmless, but as it continues to transform New York in myriad undesirable ways, that argument looks increasingly untenable. If Sex and the City is mere benign escapism then why has it become so difficult for us to escape it?