Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mendelson's Memos Flashback - As Sex and the City 2 opens, a look at female escapist fantasy and how it differs from male escapist fantasy.

I have a heck of a lot more readers now than I did in September 2008, when I first published this massive essay on gender and escapism. Since Sex and the City 2 is facing (fairly or not) the same kind of scrutiny that the first did, I thought it was worth a re-look. This is not about whether the films are good or not, but whether critics properly understand the genre that said franchise represents. If you've been reading me from the beginning, this is pretty much as it was with a few minor tweaks...

I would love to get on a high horse and proclaim that Sex and the City: The Movie is a terrific movie and that the critics who hated it were misogynist pigs. Some of them may be, but it's still a mediocre movie. Once the emotional plot comes fully center after the first hour, the film slightly improves. But the writing just isn't as sharp as the best episodes of the series (I've seen a few, my wife's seen a bunch) and the characters feel thinner. The film is 151 minutes long, but there is less plot than The X-Files: I Want To Believe. But, at its core, it suffers from the same problem as many romantic dramas and comedies. Without going into spoilers, the film's plot catalyst never would have occurred if the main characters just talked to each other like adults for three minutes. Furthermore, the conflict could have been resolved right on the spot with another thirty-seconds of straight communication, explaining how last minute jitters and a child's mistake led to disaster (sorry for the vagueness, no reason to spoil something that occurs an hour into the movie). So the film suffers due to the idiot plot, as do many other movies. And the romantic partners refuse to talk to each other like adults, but that seems to be the case for most romantic comedies (and most relationships in the entertainment world to boot). That doesn't explain the outcry of outrage that occurred following the opening day and opening weekend.

The resulting circus, personified by Jeff Wells' statements that the film represented 'an Al Qaeda recruitment film, or was the equivalent of the 'OJ Simpson verdict' in terms of showing women in a negative, superficial light, was sexist and confounding to boot. Mass audiences embrace all kinds of films that are stupid, superficial, or just plain terrible and they have for a century. Now that women are enjoying a film aimed at them that is just as sugary, fantastical, and (almost) fantastically terrible as Ghost Rider or Top Gun, the men in Hollywood are frothing at the mouth in amazement and condemnation.

If anything, this will be good for female entertainment. Hopefully, now women can be allowed to enjoy films targeted at them that are just as fluffy and superficial and wish-fulfillment-y as Transformers. And, eventually, they can enjoy such films without being criticized for it. Yes, there are those who wish that every black-themed film was Rosewood or Do The Right Thing, but progress comes when black people can enjoy Soul Plane without being criticized for it by blacks and whites alike.Sex and the City is just a major film aimed at women that is (apparently) just as superficial and goofy as fantastical as most of the wish-fulfillment aimed at young boys. The huge opening number merely points out how few of these are made for women.

Having seen the film, I think I understand a little about the pomp and circumstance. Escapism and wish-fulfillment is by nature the acting out of something you don't do or can't do. Films like Transformers and Iron Man basically show damaged men and boys who 'man up', take responsibility, do the right thing and use their new found masculinity to help other people and/or save lives and kill bad guys. They really don't sacrifice anything, and as a bonus they end up with a really hot girl who doesn't really expect anything from them in return.

As also noted in Michael Kimmel's book, Guyland, the lessening of the traditional roles for men as the financial provider and/or steady husband and father of the house (both by a cruel economy that all but demands duel incomes and by advances by women in the workplace and the world) has created a culture of boys who are reluctant to become men, who treat women like objects to be used then discarded, who surround themselves with other guys and basically spend much of their time one-upping each other in various behaviors to prove their 'manliness', or to prove that they're not 'gay'. At its worst, this behavior climaxes in bullying, gay-bashing, and sexual assault.

In the real world, they are irresponsible, selfish, and not really able or willing to carry out the roles that were expected of them. Furthermore, the economic advances by women, the advances of childbirth science, and irradiation of the industrial economy has rendered the stereotypical role of the adult male almost obsolete or at least not nearly as vital to the society. Why bother becoming men and growing up when the stereotypical adult male isn't nearly as valued as their fathers were just a generation ago?

This is not a brand new concept, although the book attempts to be the definitive look at the subject. Movies like Fight Club, The Matrix, American Beauty, and (shudder) Wanted deal with this in one form or another (while Wanted is the worst film of the four, it may be the most honest as wish-fulfillment as it defines the solution as ignoring women and committing wholesale mass murder to avenge a father you never knew). But even many films that aren't specifically about this represent an escape or an outlet from this issue. But if you'll note the stereotypical fantasy films directed at men (usually action/adventure or comic book sci-fi), you can see portraits of men who do stand up and take responsibility, who keep their manliness and help other people. It's not just a manly man rescuing a damsel in distress, although that's still a key element (which is why even allegedly modern, independent women usually end up being kidnapped or imperiled at the climax of said films). Tony Stark becomes a man when he stops being selfish and uses his toys to help others. Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) accepts his grandfather's 'no sacrifice, no victory' motto and plays a key role in saving the Earth from rampaging robots.

It may be dramatically unsatisfying, but this template mandates that Sam, not Optimus Prime, be the one to destroy Megatron and save the world. He has manned up, and as a reward he gets to have sex with Megan Fox. In male-escape movies, the girl is simply the bonus prize. The real goal is maturity and being a man in the way your father talked about being a man. With young protagonists, earning the respect of their parents is usually a goal for these boy who would be men (see Shia LaBeouf's Eagle Eye and Disturbia for a perfect examples of this). In the male escapism, the fantasy is proving your worth, being the responsible man, and stepping up to help people who need you without expecting anything in return. In the real world, a great number of men find themselves unwilling or unable to fulfill the time-tested role of men, and they are often miserable because of it. In the stereotypical male fantasy (Iron Man, Transformers, Die Hard, Spider-Man 2), the fantasy is being able to be a man without actually having to grow up or change all that much.

If the male fantasy is about selflessness, sacrifice, and responsibility, the female fantasy is about just the opposite. Fair or not, the expectations of society dictate that women sacrifice on a daily basis, for their kids, for their (allegedly unappreciative) husbands, even for their aging parents. They are the caregivers and selflessness is both their calling and their burden. For many women, life is like The Prize Winner Of Defiance Ohio (terrific movie by the way). Thus, for the female fantasy film, the escape is one of escaping responsibility, of being selfish, of having unlimited funds and unlimited time to make yourself look better and feel better. If Carrie, Samantha, and the gang are a little shallow (as are some of the romantic heroines played by Reese Witherspoon and Jenifer Aniston), then that is only because that is the fantasy of many women: to throw caution to the wind, to be selfish and wealthy, to use your wealth only to better yourself and not worry about others.

Women (stereotypically) spend their lives doing for others, neglecting themselves often at the cost of their own mental and physical health. Thus their fantasy films will often revolve around either someone taking care of them (hence the peril sub-genre that appeals to both sexes equally and occasionally leaches into pornography), them taking care of themselves when no one else can (woman in danger movies like When A Stranger Calls or Red Eye), or being so wealthy or set that the world just takes of you by happenstance (this is where Sex and the City comes in). The other thing to note is that many female-centric movies have 'the guy' as the grand prize, the main object of desire and pursuance. Whether it's just finding love (who just happens to be in the guise of that platonic friend that you always flirt with), or whether it's chasing down a specific guy for the duration of the picture (before the end arrives and he realizes just how awesome you are), finding 'the one' is the paramount concern. Whether that is a more noble thing than the 'man's movie' which treats the girl as the desert after a full meal is open to debate.

A slight digression, but it is worth noting that I have always found Mean Girls to be the very best female-centric high school movie that I have ever seen (of course, writer Tina Fey casting herself as the hot math teacher is worth two-stars right there). While it is certainly well-acted and sharply written, I wonder if the reason I responded to it as much is because it is the rare female-driven movie that operates under the rules of male fantasy. The goal for Lindsey Lohan in this film is about taking responsibility, growing up, not being afraid to do what you're good at (math, in this case), and using your skills to help others (using her math skills to help her classmates win a math competition, giving her ill-gotten homecoming crown to other kids to boost their self-esteems). Like most male-centric films, the love interest is merely the prize, and her winning him over (he likes her because she as smart as she is cute) is simply a climactic grace note, rather than the whole climax. Of course, that would disqualify Mean Girls as a female-fantasy, but possibly render it a serious statement (according to Fey, author Rosalind Wiseman, and maybe myself as a father of a very young daughter) of how young girls should lead their lives. Or maybe it's just a damn good movie.

It is worth noting that even in the female fantasy sub-genre, cold reality usually sets in towards the end. And, sure enough, the ladies of Sex and the City eventually acknowledge their consumerist ways and they eventually have to step up and take responsibility for their life mistakes. Of course, there wouldn't be much of a character arc if they didn't, but it's a little disheartening to see these women forced back into the roles of 'fixers' by the end of the picture. I do like that both the men and the women admit their flaws and their mistakes and accept shared responsibility (the film certainly never demonizes men, nor did the show). But still, if this is supposed to be the 'ultimate chick flick', I wonder if they could have found a way to end the movie without forcing the women to 'man up'.

To (finally) wrap this up, the critics who complained that the characters of Sex and the City were vapid, shallow, and selfish were not off the mark, they were just missing the broader context. They missed that the female fantasy is a whole different breed of film then the male fantasy. You could argue that the male fantasy is more noble because it involves selflessness and potential sacrifice, because it involves helping others and doing good for society as a whole. And you would be correct, but that's only a fantasy because it usually doesn't happen that way. Instead of belittling women for enjoying their own version of escapism, why not critique the film on its own merits as an example of a specific genre. It won't make you 'gay'. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Iron Man 2 are terrible movies, but I see its appeal. I will give Sex and the City and Sex and the City 2 the same courtesy.

Scott Mendelson


Nic said...

Wow, great points! But I think in terms of defining the 'female fantasy film' you may have missed a piece. I think the fantasy comes not only in the escapism, but also in the characters' ability to waver between being sexually liberated and falling into traditional stereotypes.

We had a sociologist at Emory analyze the SATC franchise's historical context, and she gave a great interview!

Scott Mendelson said...

Hmm... that's true as well. The female characters do get to have their traditional 'happily ever afters' as well, usually in the form of a monogamous romance/marriage and/or a baby on the way.

Rob Kristjansson said...

Excellent post, Mr. Mendelson. I where you and Nic would place THE SURE THING ( in this genre model?

This film seems to blend both gender fantasy genres. (And, I suppose it could be argued, does most every other John Cusack lead picture!)

Jennifer said...

This was excellent! Very refreshing perspective. It is for these very fantastical reasons that I am a Sex and the City fan. It's a fabulous guilty pleasure. It is interesting, however, that what is meant to be fantastical has infiltrated our culture as an expected reality for many women. So many women of my 20-something generation (and even 30-something) hold these four ladies as the standard for which they must/want to live their life. Instead of allowing the series to remain a fantasy (of which they can visit and explore at times) they feel incomplete without having achieved these standards of life. Carrie Bradshaw would not actually be able to afford the lifestyle we see. People forget that. I think we are seeing a culture change in women which is much like what you have described in the male sex.

Some College Girl said...

Interesting observations Scott. I actually happened to just see the new Sex and the City film today- its a giant piece of trash and a shocking new low compared to that the first film. The consumerism aspect of the film is in full force here, as is the problematic relationships between the women and their men. Though rather than having the women 'man up,' everything just works out conveniently... thanks to lazy writing paired with bad filmmaking. It's a shame what has happened to these characters and a once somewhat decent series. I'd tell you why it sucks but I don't want to spoil it for ya. An easy pick for the worst film of the year so far, imo.

Scott Mendelson said...

My mother pretty much agrees with you, Some College Girl. She likes the show, liked the first movie, but hated the sequel. Of course, she admits that she'd still check out a third picture if it gets made.


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