Sex, the city and the price of freedom

In the latest whirling, surprising season of "Sex and the City," our four heroines get what they (think they) want.

Published August 21, 2001 7:07PM (EDT)

HBO's "Sex and the City" ended its summer season Aug. 12 with a fairy-tale beginning -- Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), the independent-minded, 35-year-old sex columnist, accepted a marriage proposal, complete with a substantial diamond, from her nouveau-hippie furniture-making beau, Aidan (John Corbett). (The series is on hiatus until January, when it returns with six more episodes.)

Like all fairy tales, this one is fraught with dark psychological underpinnings. Carrie said yes to Aidan, even though the thought of such a commitment literally made her vomit. And even though she secretly got a look at the ring Aidan had planned to surprise her with and dismally informed her girlfriends that any man who would expect her to wear a tacky pear-shaped rock is clearly not the man for her. So why did Carrie say yes?

Well, did you really expect her to refuse? "Sex and the City" has always been an astute little fable about the lies otherwise intelligent women live by, the bad choices they make as they take advantage of the post-feminist freedom to pursue "dangerous emotions" (as writer Steve Vineberg so aptly put it in a recent New York Times piece about the show).

This season (its fourth), "Sex and the City" retained its cocktail-fizzy dialogue, its fabulous fashions, its naughty bedroom scenes and its too-true slices of upscale New York life. But the show has also toughened up and tackled the implications and consequences of the choices its characters make. "Sex and the City" is still fizzy and funny. But it has become unsettling and, sometimes, infuriating, as it mercilessly homes in on the dirty emotional secrets of modern, post-feminist women's lives. Watching the characters obsess over finding Mr. Right or worry that they'll never have babies, you don't know whether to laugh, because it's all so embarrassingly retro, or cry, because you know women exactly like them.

Charlotte (Kristin Davis), the most traditional of the four friends and the first one to score a husband, is living a society marriage nightmare. First, her great catch, Dr. Trey MacDougall (played by Kyle MacLachlan with his old "Twin Peaks" combination of Eagle Scout earnestness and raving kinkiness), turns out to be impotent. Then, when he finally gets the wind back in his sails, Charlotte, envious of new mothers of her age and social standing, becomes obsessed with having a baby. Her inability to conceive only makes her that much more determined to succeed, by any means. The depressing moral of the Charlotte story is that women (some, anyway) continue to approach marriage and child-raising as a competitive sport -- after "winning" the race for a husband, it's on to the next grueling test of female mettle, the momathon.

Then there's ambitious public relations executive Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the most cartoonish character on the show, who revels in living her life like a man, having sex for pleasure with no strings attached. But this season, her cartoon bubble burst (momentarily, anyway) when she almost lost a big job because of a past sexual indiscretion. She had to face the fact that even though she went after sex like a man, she could still get screwed like a woman in the business world.

Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), the workaholic attorney, had her stark moment of truth this season, too. Poor Miranda; it's not enough that she always gets the most unflattering hair styles and clothes on the show -- her character, as written, is unflattering, too. She's a stereotype of a single career woman, a knee-jerk feminist and a klutzy magnet for loser guys. Thankfully, Nixon plays Miranda with fascinating complexity; she gives her a credible vulnerability under the superwoman armor, and always manages to salvage some dignity out of the ludicrous situations the writers put her in (flummoxed by a date who wants to rim her, being rescued by Aidan as she lies naked and immobile with a neck injury on the bathroom floor).

Nixon gives Miranda an admirable resiliency and ability to laugh at herself. She also has done a wonderful job of conveying Miranda's gradual overcoming of her fear of feeling things too deeply, of being perceived as "emotional." In the past, whenever she had to decide between her career or any other part of her life, Miranda always chose her career. She dumped Steve (David Eigenberg), her puppy dog of a boyfriend, because he was too childlike and unencumbered by career responsibilites. He wanted her to play with him, she buried herself in work. He wanted to get married and have a kid, she dumped him. Which is what made Miranda's behavior in the penultimate summer season episode so utterly unexpected.

In that episode, Miranda revealed (to her friends) that she was pregnant, the result of a "pity fuck" with Steve, who had lost a testicle to cancer and was feeling unattractive. Miranda's announcement that she was having an abortion led to a remarkable discussion, not on a political plane but a deeply personal one. We learned that Samantha had two abortions, Carrie one (after a drunken one-nighter with a disco waiter when she was 22). The tone of this coffee shop confessional was just right -- at once pragmatic and tinged with regret. (Charlotte dissents, of course, but not on moral grounds; she's so wrapped up in trying to have a baby, she can't imagine somebody not wanting one.)

Miranda sets up the doctor's appointment (there's a darkly funny scene where she bemoans the difficulty of finding a doctor willing to do an abortion anymore and mimics the way her regular gynecologist added a breezy "No judgment!" to her refusal). She also decides not to tell Steve. But at the last minute, in the waiting room, she starts wavering, asking Carrie if she's doing the right thing. She had always hoped to have a baby some distant someday, and it hits her that, at 38, this could be that day. "Is this my baby?" she asks Carrie, plaintively. But then the nurse calls her name and Miranda goes dutifully into the exam room.

In the next scene, Miranda is lying on her couch at home being fussed over by her friends and you think, Damn, Miranda did the Miranda thing again. But, no -- she has decided to have the baby. For the first time in the series, she didn't suppress her "dangerous" urge to nest. She recognized that life can't be planned down to the perfect moment. In the Aug. 12 summer finale, she told Steve she was pregnant and keeping the baby and he was delighted and puzzled -- he thought she wasn't ready to have a baby. "I'm still not ready -- but when will I ever be ready?" Miranda replied. It was one of the most surprising and honest moments in the show's run, saving Miranda from overscheduled career woman cartoonhood. This is what choice is all about.

As for Carrie's choice, it's setting up a fascinating mess in the making. But that's freedom for you -- it allows you to make bad decisions, too. If you've watched "Sex and the City" from the beginning, you know that Carrie has had a long, rocky, bittersweet, supercharged relationship with Big (Chris Noth), a sleekly handsome, wealthy big shot with commitment issues. Big and Carrie are soul mates, but they're both fighting it. Earlier in the series' run, having landed this Holy Grail of eligible New York males, Carrie pushed too hard for a commitment and Big, frightened of a woman as complicated, feisty and sharp as Carrie, fled and married a 24-year-old model. Carrie eventually took up with Aidan, a sensitive, laid-back craftsman and all-around Mr. Perfect.

At least, I think he's meant to be Mr. Perfect -- as long as you don't dwell too long on his vaguely prissy, controlling personality (he initially refused to go out with Carrie because she was a smoker). But then Big came back into the picture, tail between his legs and miserable in his marriage; obviously in need of a man who not only allowed her to smoke, but lit her up, too, Carrie had a secret affair with Big, wrecking Big's marriage and costing her Aidan.

This season, lonely Carrie wooed Aidan back and undercurrents of emotional sadomasochism began bubbling up in their relationship. Aidan played passive-aggressive head games with Carrie for breaking his heart; wracked with guilt, Carrie overcompensated, trying to be the most contrite, patient, no-strings girlfriend in the world. Despite her guilt, though, and her salvaged relationship with Aidan, Carrie still can't manage to kick Big out of her life. She remains friends with him, or so she thinks -- this man has no use for female friends; he's courting her again, and she cant see it. (In one episode this season, she even forced Aidan and Big to try to be friends; Noth and Corbett's scenes of antler-knocking stud rivalry were played with exquisite comic discomfort.)

In the summer finale, when Carrie told Big she was marrying Aidan, he chortled and advised her that Aidan is the wrong guy, and furthermore, "It'll never happen ... you're not the marrying kind." What he meant was, she's not the marrying kind, if marrying means hooking up with a saintly, self-righteous bore like Aidan.

Carrie and Big (or, maybe, Parker and Noth) spark, parry and smolder together like a couple from a screwball comedy of the '30s; I'd love to see the Big-Carrie-Aidan triangle turn into a modern "Philadelphia Story." Carrie and Big, both pleasure hounds, both imperfect, are completely honest and relaxed with each other. But Carrie is neither honest nor quite herself with Aidan. She finds it strangely easy to lie to him, even though she knows the trouble dishonesty has got her into before. He asks her who was on the phone, and instead of telling him it was Big, she says it was Miranda. He asks her if she ever had an abortion and she immediately says no. (She does end up telling him the truth, finally.) Is this the guilt over cheating on him coming back to roost? She's terrified of appearing less than perfect in his eyes; she is consumed by the feeling that Aidan is "good" and she is "bad."

Doesn't Aidan strike you as a sly mofo, subtly suffocating Carrie in the ties that bind, in her own guilt, by being so accommodating, so good, so forgiving? Before the marriage proposal, Aidan made her an economic proposal -- he would buy her apartment, which was going co-op and which she couldn't afford, and they would live together. Carrie agreed -- so now, like many "unliberated" women before her, Carrie will be dependent on her man for the very roof over her head. Aidan may look like Prince Charming, but he's not. He's bad for her and I think Carrie knows it. But she's determined to prove to Big that she is so "the marrying kind," even if it's a doomed marriage to the wrong guy. The clothes may still dazzle and the dialogue may still snap, but, lately, "Sex and the City" is confidently thrusting its self-styled feminist heroines into "put up or shut up" emotional and romantic quandaries. And, sometimes, the truth isn't pretty.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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