Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sex and the City: Gender Minstrelry Masquerading as a Chick Flick

"It's written by guys, who happen to be gay, who are sluts. That's what I think. Let's face it: most men are sluts." - LAUREN HUTTON, on the film Sex and the City, as quoted on NBC's Today.

Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/New Line Cinema

I was never particularly fond of the television series "Sex and the City" for a number of reasons. I found the whole premise to be fraudulent. If you read into and dissect the television series in its context, you would come to the same conclusion as I have: Take away the estrogen and the mammaries and what you have left essentially are four gay men dishing about their love and sex lives. My assertion should not come as any surprise given that its creator, Darren Star, is strictly DC, if not PC.

But the unexpected box-office success of the film adaptation of "Sex and the City" was something that I found distressing and disturbing at the same time. First, the movie itself -- expanded and inflated to multiplex proportions -- is essentially a tranvesti minstrel show masquerading as a chick flick, with women serving as mattachine-like proxies for the wish fulfillments and the ways gay men project themselves on screen. Having seen the movie inside a AMC multiplex, I can tell you the experience of watching mattachines speaking emotional truths from behind their masks was every disconcerting.

Fortunately, I discovered I was not alone reaching for the poison pen of criticism. As the blog Galley Slaves observes:

"Look, before you start with the chorus of “That movie wasn’t for you” remember this: I enjoy a good chick flick. But this wasn’t good; not by any stretch of the imagination. This was a dick and fart joke movie for women. Make no mistake, the humor in this is as crass and base as anything the boys’ movies have to offer. Someone shits themselves. There’s a close up of some forty-year-old pubic hair poking out of both sides of a swimsuit. A four year old utters the word SEX to the amusement and shock of all present in the room. A dog repeatedly humps pillows. Sound familiar? I spent a goodly portion of this film wondering when the Farrelly Brothers had decided to cut their balls off and develop a fondness for Prada."

And here's another scalding critical blast, this time from Anthony Lane at the New Yorker (via Andrew Sullivan):

"No self-respecting maker of soft erotica would countenance such shots, and, as for the matching dialogue (“Something just came up,” Samantha murmurs over the phone, as her boyfriend stands beside her in bulging briefs), it’s a straight lift from flaccid, mid-period James Bond. In a daring plot development, she buys a dog the size of a child’s slipper; the camera keeps cutting away to it, and guess what—the pooch screws, too! Mirth is unconfined."

Lane calls the flick for what it is: Superannuated fantasy posing as a slice of modern life...All the film lacks is a subtitle: “The Lying, the Bitch, and the Wardrobe.”

And as blogger Brock Savage comments on, "To me, (SATC) encapsulated everything that is wrong with this country, and the fact that is just accepted that the girls were stand-ins for gay men says something about how America sees gay men, or (how) gay men see themselves that is just very, very sad."

But perhaps the most vicious one-liner came from Rex Reed at the New York Observer, who viciously spews, "There’s nothing wrong with Sarah Jessica Parker that couldn’t be cured by wart-removal surgery."

Despite the scathing attacks from some quarters of the cultural divide, the film has proved to be a surprising financial windfall (and lucrative franchise) for Warner Brothers (New Line Cinema has since ceased to be a seperate entity and was asorbed into the WB umbrella), its left-field success apparently tapping into an audience that the major studios have unjustly neglected over time. As Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Fikke notes:

"Here are Friday's official North American numbers from the studios for the biggest romantic comedy debut -- No. 1 Sex And The City truly shocked Hollywood pros by opening with a hanging-from-the-chandeliers $26.9 million from 3,285 theaters. The big question now is whether this staggering wanna-see among women for the HBO Films/New Line/Warner Bros female froth sustains through Saturday and Sunday showings so the weekend total can soar past $70M and maybe even $75M. I'm already hearing that studio moguls are looking through their film and TV libraries to see what else they can produce for the fortysomething-and-older female -- a demographic that the entertainment industry generally ignores. Not any more -- or is SATC a once-in-a-generation phenomenon? But younger women are also seeing the pic. As one tipster told me, "I saw the throngs of women waiting in line -- starting at 9ish and still there at midnight when we got out of the movie. The thing I noticed: the women were all early 20s, not in their 30s or 40s at all. They were 18 to 25. So I'm not sure where people are getting this over-40 demo but I am pretty sure it's the young girls who are the most excited for this flick."

This led to responses posted by its readers on the DHD web site like these:

"This is the next mogul mistake: That the only properties suited for this demo is from old TV shows and remakes...How about developing some good new movies for this demo instead of trying to do as little work as possible?"

"The point is: females of all ages are grossly under-served in movies...When one of these movies fail, don’t dismiss it wholly as a failed ‘genre.’...Apply the same failure allowance to female driven movies as you so generously apply to male driven movies (which fail more often than not.)...Applying more restrictive standards to female driven films is irrational bad business. The female demographic is huge and the dollars in their pockets have the same value - actually more value because females make 80% of household economic decisions, and they are 51% of the population.

And as Fikke herself noted last year:

"I frequently write that all moguls are morons. Because I can’t believe the dreadful mistakes they commit on an almost daily basis. The content is terrible. The process is tainted. It’s an accident when a movie is good and comes in under budget. Everyone in Hollywood is part of a very broken system. Feed it with praise and the players will never step back and say, “What the hell are we doing even playing this rotten game?”

Let's face it, anyone with a brain stem will come to see a good movie if it's executed properly and has universal appeal. It is obvious studio executives have not learned any lessons from the success Tyler Perry has achieved in catering to an underserved audience: If you come up with projects that the audience can relate to, and market and nurture them properly, the payoff can be very substantial.

Better yet, how about chick flicks written and directed by women? Perhaps projects from a woman's perspective would be a hell of a lot better than having men projecting themselves onto their stories.

Warner Bros. Pictures president of production Jeff Robinov, who decreed last year that the studio would no longer make movies with women cast as the main lead, must be eating crow for dinner tonight, with humble pie for dessert afterwards -- and a megadose of Pepto-Bismol for his overindulgence.

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