From My Mouth To Your Ear…
by Lauren Berlant
Sex and the City,
dir. by Michael Patrick King,
New Line Cinema,
Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips’ new book Intimacies opens with this hilarious sentence: “Psychoanalysis is about what two people can say to each other if they agree not to have sex” (1). This is the funniest thing I have ever read.
The difference between Intimacies and Sex and the City is that the women in the film are not in psychoanalysis. But, as they are not having sex with each other, they can simulate the freedom to talk about sex where it isn’t. It’s a good thing that they have each other, too, as they are incapable of talking about sex with their lovers. But ladies, this is a problem.
If any of these women had ever even walked by feminism on the sidewalk they would have learned that one of the points of sexual liberation was to put your mouth where your mouth is. Sex talk was to be part of sex, part of sex pedagogy, part of allowing fantasy and desire to produce creativity and improvisation in the now of the event. Sexual liberation culture gave skills and permission for not just resorting to reenacting the default expectation out of fear that sex talk would make sex disappear.
But in this cinematic romantic world, the reigning fantasy is that sex and love ought to go without saying. Love objects are supposed to be like purchased objects, which in this film give instant radiant satisfaction and harbor no enigmas. But where love is concerned, the problem is that lovers are not objects, but subjects. Discussion is a fall from grace. Discussion is a sign that something is off. It puts you in the room with what’s too achingly human.
These women are so frightened of what’s uncontrollable and uncomfortable about sex that, rather than to talk well about it to lovers, they prefer to laugh and complain to each other about it. At one point, they even have to use the word “coloring” for “sex,” ostensibly to protect a little girl from hearing that it’s not about fantasy and play after all–but really, of course, to protect themselves from the embarrassing fact that they desire romance to corral sex into being something simple. Here’s Carrie’s description of Big’s sexual prowess, I kid you not: “he colors outside of the lines.”
So don’t believe it when people tell you that Sex in the City is fantasy: it is realism. Not in its racial and consumer politics, which are execrable and ridiculous. But because its protagonists are terrible at talking about sex, really talking. They track the effects of their failure but absolutely refuse to take the cure, which is risking eloquence and ineloquence where they are intimate.
In this film, the women want everything. They want to be and to turn all love objects into mothers, people who represent the possibility that the huge world of desire might provide satisfaction if it’s located in one person who’s in charge of all of the important reciprocities. They want to be children, fed yogurt and takeout, and tended to by their friends when there are no men around to protect them from their gaping aloneness. They want to eat excessively and to shit their pants and laugh about it. They want to be objects of animal lust too. They want to cultivate their appetites and never feel shame (that’s the part I like). Everything they do aims to keep them from confronting one more time the fear they will never be loved if they are actually seen in the whole range of who they are, a mess of incoherent desires.
But of course they cannot say this to themselves, because this is romance for the Bush and Blink generation. The explicit therapeutic dictum of the film is that women should stop overthinking desire and go with their gut. Their gut always knows what it wants, unlike the actual humans. This is also therefore the most conventional female complaint there is, except for all the other ones. Here’s what’s wrong with the conventional life I’ve chosen, and the romantic ideology that magnetizes me there, but I want what I want.
Sex and the City is just one more faux camp film about being clothed, not naked; sheathed, not exposed; tender and enraged that romantic risk feels like risk. Romantic love is supposed to protect you from feeling the risk that you know that it is. In the beginning of the film Carrie borrows Big’s glasses because she doesn’t want to admit that she’s ageing; at the end, she’s wearing glasses of her own, signifying her greater depth of soul and knowledge. She is wearing a conservative suit and giving a reading from her new book. The message she wants to spread is that, in love “we should make our own rules.”
What she means by this is that women should stop wanting greedily all of the conventional romantic trappings and invent better institutions and situations for the feeling of love. There was nothing manifestly queer or feminist about this, but as a message, it could be worse. In context what she meant, though, was that “we” should be less demanding and more forgiving, so that we can continue to live in proximity to the dream. The standing ovation and tears in the audience were its confirmation of the unfairness and terrible, romantic beauty of that exhortation.
Piece crossposted with Supervalent Thought