Sox and the Shitty: Why Desperate Housewives and The L Word Can’t Fill Sex and the City’s Shoes

Sunday night TV has got me wishing I were a dyke again.

People used to mock me for loving Sex and the City, but I had a very good reason: It rocked. Yes, it was a hyperbolic version of the lives of single Manhattan women, but anything worthy on TV is hyperbolic to the extent that hyperbole is required to make broad strokes visible on small screens. During the show’s entire run, it was still against my politics to pay for television, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t too principled to leach other people’s paid-for television, and almost every girlfriend I had sacked out in front of HBO Sundays at 9 pm.

The girls of SATC (an acronym my boyfriend had to master before I felt comfortable calling him my boyfriend) were single, well turned-out, feminine, old school-new school, and really fierce about their friendships with each other. When they obsessed about boys too much, they called each other on it. They laughed from their diaphragms, not through their noses. They were different from each other, and respected those differences. They wore serious stilettos. They knew how to argue without reverting to passive-aggressive bullshit. They talked about sex in bawdy detail. They were adamantly on each other’s sides, but never to the degree that they shined each other on. They served as moral barometers for each other, though rarely as moral watchdogs. The omnipresent puns grated sometimes and the Manhattan they inhabited summoned a fairytale most of us hadn’t visited since the late ’90s. But Charlotte, Samantha, Carrie, and Miranda (my favorite) delivered the most accurate yet utopian portrayal of female friendship that’s ever graced television.

None of what I’m writing here so far is original, and that’s the point. For the first time, a TV show captured not just un-Cathy-like dating but the friendships women formed in our 30s, and scores of us ate it up with a spoon. With most of our peers dropping like flies into the land of two, those of us still single in our 30s (and yes, 20s and 40s and insert-decade-here) had learned to rely on each other, to ask more of our friendships than that we merely be audiences for each other’s travails. For those of us who were still single, especially for those of us who opted out of panicking about our singlehood, the time we spent with our girlfriends was primary, not secondary, possibly for the first time since many of us had hit puberty.

SATC reflected that. It also reflected a way to be feminine, sexual, witty, and still very, very genuine.

Growing up in Boston in the preppy ‘80s, I learned that as a woman, you had two options in terms of how you presented yourself: neutered or slutty. Naturally, I opted for a psychedelic brand of slutty, but it wasn’t a perfect fit since, as an anorexic, I was infinitely picky about what I put in my mouth. A women’s college solved that problem: At Bryn Mawr, the dykes were the coolest women I’d ever met. Unapologetic, funny as hell, immune to Ophelia’s malady, these were broads to emulate. That I didn’t really dig chowing box (thank you gawker) was irrelevant for a while, though it did peeve my boyfriends — huge rugby players, inevitably — to have to hide when I ran into any of my friends.

And that was the delicate balance I preserved until I moved to NYC, where I learned from both drag queens and Southern fashionistas how to project a different, more capable sort of femininity. That steel magnolia mythology is the real deal: Those girls taught me how to discuss a 401k and a good lipstick in the same conversation. I learned from the drag queens still strutting downtown in the mid-’90s how to say no to the wrong guy, and then stop dwelling on it. I learned how not to apologize for myself. How to flirt. How to more fully occupy myself. And how to be a real girlfriend not only to my boyfriends, but to my girlfriends — as that’s only possible when you’re no longer just looking for confirmation or a mirror image in your mates. It’s called your 30s, if you hang in there long enough to achieve that self-reckoning.

Enter SATC. Candy that we could digest.

I liked that Miranda bossed her boyfriend Steve around too much, and that her personal evolution entailed compromise rather than capitulation. I liked that in her struggles with Big and her other boyfriends, Carrie managed to flounder without entirely losing her sense of humor. I liked that the show changed when the city changed post-9/11, as did Carrie’s wardrobe. I liked that when a baby was introduced, the show didn’t change its entire tenor. I liked that the show was actually shot in NYC, and looked like it, but better. I liked the Barbie-on-coke wardrobes, even if they did render moot everything my friends and I wore with an alarming regularity. (I’m done wearing heels with jeans and kitsch t-shirts for at least a decade, thank ya veddy much.)

And no show ever made me cry so much. When Miranda’s mother died, and Carrie jumped into the funeral procession so that her girl wouldn’t have to walk alone, I wept. When Aidan dumped Carrie for cheating and she leaned into her girlfriends at Charlotte’s wedding for support, I wept. When Carrie stood alone at her book party and said, “My loneliness is palpable,” I wept in recognition. When Samantha got breast cancer and told her oncologist to fuck off for suggesting her single lifestyle was to blame, I wept, too. When Miranda proposed to Steve and married him in a community garden, I wept like a baby.

Here was a heterosexual model of enterprise and friendship and maturation that I could recognize and even aspire to. It was my friends and I reflected in good television: a place we could climb into just when Sunday’s mean reds came calling, which is arguably the main point of TV in general.

The show ended just when almost the last of my straight girlfriends my age leapt into family, hetero style. 2004’s been a lonely year in many ways. I’ve finally found myself found a man equipped with the ability to wink at me across a room, buy flowers when I’m sad, and let me be nice to him without freaking out. But still: It’s quieter these days. I miss the chatter of my girlfriends, disappeared into admittedly worthy occupations like motherhood and the cities and suburbs where they grew up or where they or their husbands found jobs. I never thought it would happen, but, lordy, it did. With the first bloom of youth decidedly lifted, I’ve started to feel less like a pioneer and more like an alien as an unmarried woman. I get cross when everyone acts like my life has wildly improved just because I found a good man. He’s wonderful, but those days when we straight women weren’t so divided out into mommy-daddy pairs were wonderful, too.

It seems too much that, at the same time, in SATC’s timespot CBS has cynically offered us the debacle Desperate Housewives. The show’s about women roughly my age who’ve morphed into abstractions of the worst every decade since WWII has had to offer in the way of housewifery. It’s only accurate in the worst possible ways: the Stepfortification, the Mommy’s little helpers that have afflicted some of my coolest female friends. The Desperate equation for success is apparently bad writing + a cast comprised of the dregs of expired nighttime soaps (save Felicity Huffman, who’s always better than the shows she appears on) + cleavage + desperately bored women (and men) at 9pm = high ratings. Though Desperate could’ve offered a smart look at how the role of wife and mommy still gets ghettoized despite our best intentions, it’s really just Twin Peaks minus the irony and plus an estrogen infusion. Or Lucy and Ethel on Zoloft and Ritalin, a deadly dull combination.

This is not what I signed up for when I emigrated to NYC. Not in my Sunday night TV, and not in my real life. Something greater has to loom between acne and menopause than this mishegos.

So I’ve reverted, once again, to a by-proxy lesbianism: The L Word. As the show’s set in LA, some of these dykes are far more lipsticked than I, and though neither they nor the show they appear on are as funny as my Miranda, at least they live in the ballpark of women that I know or even like. I can see hanging out with them, and, indeed, since the first season came out a few weeks ago on DVD, my real girls and I have been shut-ins. We can hardly wait for the second season. It’s just I’m the only one who’s not a dyke. Again.

At this point, I’ve gravitated back to the gay community for personal inspiration not because I don’t like who I am but because, gay marriage laws notwithstanding, more models exist here of how to sustain connection and character outside of the traditional heterosexual trajectory than anywhere else. There’s got to be more options represented for those of us in our mid-30s without babies or husbands — or at least those of us who don’t wish to have babies and be in relationships the way that we were taught.

Bottom line is there’s got to be more models for smart straight broads of a certain age than lipstick lesbians and desperate housewives. And there are. They’re just not yet on the dial.

They’re French, Meta, and Not Bad: La Petite Lili and Sex Is Comedy

A new, great passion for freely admitting when I’m wrong — stemming from my eternal desire to Not Resemble George Bush, no doubt — prompts me to acknowledge that despite my long-professed hatred of:

1.metamovies

2.contemporary French film

I dug the two recent French metamovies La Petite Lili and Sex Is Comedy, though both are predictably self-indulgent.

La Petite Lili isn’t actually anything to write home about; it’s all long, tawny limbs wrapped round each other, older and younger mirrors of female beauty, lips pursed in tiny mews (and that’s mostly the boys, naturally), and the raging questions, posed without a flicker of the aw-shucks American self-effacement: What is art? What comprises good art? What of life is so real that it resists translation into art? Is anything? Really? The young Lili is a local, lolling about in the high grasses with the young aspiring filmmaker living in the country house of his famous actress mommy, who’s with a famous, establishment director. Ya, ya, guess who ’lil Lili makes a play for? And which pouty lil filmmaker expresses his anguish a little too literally on that bridge called his back? And survives to make a movie about it, starring everybody as themselves. Life is but a pretty dream, gold and green. You’ve got to give it to the French, though: They know the difference between porn and erotica. The line between art and erotica is a slippier slope. And a sloppier one, at that. But so, so easy on the eyes.

The nice thing about Lili is that it’s so pretentious it’s laughable, which kind of voids its pretensions and allows you to bask in its prettiness. Sex Is Comedy is less comedy (and less sex), but it raises specific points that are uncomfortably compelling — perhaps the only useful function of a metamovie. Directed by Catherine Breillat, the movie can be summed up in one handy axiom: Regardless of your gender, you have to be a girl to be an actor. And you have to be a man to be a director. The story, once again, is primarily of a young girl’s tawny limbs wrapped around a young boy, but it’s wrapped up in a larger story of a female director laboring to coax that sex scene out of a truculent young actor. Or should I say actress. (Nah, I mean actor.) In the director’s statement in the press notes, she writes, “It’s a story about human relationships, male and female, and the subtle ties between those who give orders and those who obey them.” More than that, it’s about how the complicated act of creation requires a meeting of will and willingness, of the qualities traditionally associated with men and women. The boy falls into sulks, unaccustomed to being spoken to in so strident a manner by a woman; the woman coos, barks, coils as she whispers into the young boy’s ear whatever it takes to extract the performance she believes her film requires. Sex is a silly dance that should be French Feminism 101, but in its own way, is instead terribly original. More than that, though I rolled my eyes more than once, I never once glanced at my watch.

Two more French movies rolling soon down the pike that are even better: Look at Me and Somebody Killed Bambi. I’ll describe them in greater detail as their release date draws closer, but suffice it to say I am revising my opinion of contemporary French film. See? Like the shirt says, my bush would make a better president.

Cinderella’s Glass Ceiling (p.s., Birth, Being Julia)

Used to be there were no good roles for women in film, period. Yes, yes, I’ll roll out the old cliche: Witness how many Oscars have been awarded for portrayals of Gal Fridays, wifies, hookers, and molls (though I shall never, never decry the Oscar handed to Queen of Brooklyn Marissa Tomei). But there’s been a weird trend gaining steam over the last decade: great roles for women buried in powerfully mediocre vehicles. At least three films released this fall really crystallize that trend — p.s. with Laura Linney, Being Julia with Annette Bening, and the what-the-bleep Birth, with Nicole Kidman, who (I grudgingly admit) is a gifted actor, if also a surgically enhanced giraffe with a teensy-tiny baby voice.

Not one of these movies is genuinely bad. In fact, I’d I recommend all three, though half-heartedly as they’re so half-baked. But what’s interesting is that the quality of the films relies heavily upon these actresses’ abilities to cohere the half-baked plotlines. Without these actors, the films would be nothing. And even now, their only noteworthy aspect is how little they achieve for anyone. Observe:

• In p.s., Laura Linney is Louise, a Columbia admissions officer embroiled with MFA applicant F. Scott Feinstadt (tartlet Topher Grace), who happens to a T (for tartlet) share name and appearance with the dead teenaged love for whom she still pines. Got it? Also her professor ex-husband Gabriel Byrne is a self-confessed sex addict who schtups his students. (In the ’70s, that’d just be called “dippin’ into the academic pool.”) Also her brother is a recovered drug addict so he understands the 12-step programs and feeds her ye olde “let go, let God.” Also her childhood best friend Marcia Gay Harden (as yet another slatternly malcontent) tries F. Scott on for, er, size to ensure he’s not a Canal Street knockoff. So: Is Topher really Louise’s reincarnated boyfriend or just your garden-variety 15-years-younger hottie who happens to be a dead ringer for the long-lost love of her life? And how come Louise isn’t in trouble for so baldly fucking an applicant? (It’s easier to get mired in details when a film’s logic falls out.) But Linney burrows past the plot’s — and Louise’s — nutty brittle to excavate her now-standard revelatory tiny moments: fucking F. Scott on the couch, clothed; violently applying rouge to her cheeks; quivering almost imperceptibly as she stands, pashmina-clad, in the hallway of her mother’s home. Linney’s performances always surprise; her ability to abruptly transform the tone of a scene renders her, and thus the movies in which she appears, forever mesmerizing.

• I question not that two of these three movies are about a woman involved with a too-young man who just might be her reincarnated lover, again with the same name. (Maybe that’s the real trend story here: Why the Reincarnated Lover Schtick Never Works) But Birth, about a young boy who claims to be the reincarnated dead husband of Anna (Nicole Kidman), offers a slower, more disturbing take on said topic. It’s a crazy, disturbing movie in general. Yes, I am an American ’70s baby and therefore possess a short attention span, but many shots not only linger but malinger: the opening tracking shot of Big Sean keeling over in Central Park and entering the, uh, pre-reincarnated state, for example, extends so long that you want to join him. That pacing, coupled with the eternal winter that comprises Birth‘s psychological and metereological climate, adds up to the worst Swedish-inspired American film since Woody Allen’s Interiors. Damn, that’s bad, but Kidman is good. Like Naomi Watts, she’s a very physical actress, but on a much smaller, more restrained scale — a slightly pursed mouth, a sudden straightening of the spine convey as much as a wracking set of sobs from someone else. She’s good enough that at times you actually focus solely on her character’s devolution rather than the film’s terrible, myriad plot deficiencies. Such as: Why does she still live with her family in her mid-30s? Why is her fiance (Danny Houston) so creepy? Why is her mother so blasé (besides the fact that she’s portrayed by blasé Lauren Bacall)? How much of the reincarnation is the kid Sean really conscious of? Why does he abandon his pursuit of Anna so completely? Why is his family so accepting of his relentless pursuit of a mid-30s woman? Why is she? It’s an unintentional mystery, which is the very worst kind. And drowning at its center is not only Anna, but Kidman, who has no choice but to drown in Anna. But gracefully, so gracefully. Kidman is nicest to watch when she’s stonily bearing a terrible burden. It takes the edge off her smarmy complacency. Here, as in The Others, she drowns swimmingly.

• In contrast to Kidman, Bening is anything but restrained, and she never has been. Herein lies her great appeal. In her performances she typically races from indignation to despair to elation, never pausing for a second at anything resembling listlessness. As Julia, a British stage actress whose marriage and career have grown stale, she finally visits that place, and the results are intriguing, if uneven. At times Bening seems weary, and wary, of the film itself. While that trepidation is merited — the story of an older woman humbling herself at the feet of a silly younger man is dully retold — it’s also a bit of a shame. Perhaps a good performance can be measured by the distance evident between an actor and the character she is portraying: the smaller the gap, the better the performance. And perhaps the stretch required to portray Julia proved too much for Bening in her most recent venture from nearly constant retirement. True, the plot contrivances, particularly when Julia proves her theatrical mettle by tripping up her on- and off-stage rival, not only read as unlikely but unlikeable. But I enjoy Bening all the more in this bad vehicle: When she scrubs off her stage makeup with cold cream, she looks aged, for possibly the first time ever. (LA women don’t age so much as congeal.) She also appears grim, disgusted, and flinty — all hinting at a new, chewier era in her career, perhaps when that Beatty brood grows a bit older.

So what to make of this trend? Certainly it’s refreshing to watch any film centered around very complicated, capable women; those projects are still far and few between. (Television may afford greater opportunities for the hens, possibly because the stakes are not quite so high.) But possibly, too, we’re to learn that a good female role remains hard to find — particularly as they’re so frequently entombed in what can only be described as bad movies. It’s keeping the broads in their place, however inadvertently.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy