Prisoners of sex, prisoners of the state

In "Sex and the City" and "Oz," environment trumps nature and nurture.

Published January 10, 2002 8:43PM (EST)

In the new season of "Sex and the City," which was written and produced last summer as insurance against a writer's strike that never happened, New York is the same dreamy playground it was before; a place where disappointment is buffered by brunch and loss mitigated by an endless selection of excellent shoes. This untroubled vision might have been more jarring if it had ever existed as much more than a projection of the main characters' fondest fantasies about themselves; but the city in "Sex and the City" has always been far more intimate and personal than the sex.

And yet in these strangely extemporal new episodes, the city of the title seems to define each of the characters more than ever; and after four seasons of careful reinforcement, the girls' carefully constructed personas are starting to crumble. After wedging themselves, like Cinderella's stepsisters, into relationships that pinch, Charlotte (the prim one) and Carrie (the writer) find themselves alone again. Meanwhile, the independent-on-principle Miranda (the tense one) and Samantha (the slut) become reluctantly attached. Samantha finds herself falling in love with her new boss despite herself, and, as Miranda finally experiences her maternal instincts starting to kick in, she may be drawn back into a relationship with the baby's father, her ex-boyfriend Steve.

From this perspective, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha don't even live in the same town. Carrie and Charlotte's New York is a fairy tale. For Carrie, it's a fashionable Neverland where she will never have to grow up; for Charlotte, it's a place where fairy-tale dreams come true. These visions of New York are so germane to their identities that when they start to change, each of the characters finds herself adrift. Despite their little-girl dreams, some girls grow up to be Samantha or, more typically, Miranda. And this comes as a surprise, one that little girls are not particularly equipped to understand. There's nothing like taking away a girl's delusions to make her feel not quite herself.

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So what determines a character's true character? The question -- at least on television -- is usually reserved for impatient arguments between basset-browed cops and feisty D.A.s. On "Oz," HBO's similarly hormone-imbalanced prison drama, Augustus, the show's Virgil, ruminates on what makes a criminal a criminal. ("Oz is filled with murderers, rapists, racists, the most common of criminals. But what is it that makes a man uncommon? Winning wars? Winning awards? No, what lifts a man out of the ordinary is who he loves and who loves him.") For the "Sex and the City" girls, what lifts a woman out of the ordinary is the accessories.

When I received tapes of the new episodes of "Oz" and "Sex and the City," I had just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's essay on Bernie Goetz and the rise and fall of crime in New York. Goetz became infamous in the early '80s for shooting four young black men who were hassling him on the subway. Goetz was acquitted, and the eventual cleanup of the transit system was credited with helping curb the rise of violent crime in New York. "The Power of Context," Gladwell writes, "is an environmental argument. It says that behavior is a function of social context ... The Power of Context says that the showdown on the subway between Bernie Goetz and those four youths had very little to do, in the end, with the tangled psychological pathology of Goetz, and very little as well to do with the background and poverty of the four youths who accosted him, and everything to do with the message sent by the graffiti on the walls and the disorder at the turnstiles." On "Sex and the City," as on "Oz," social context is king.

The similarities between one of HBO's most celebrated, hyped and watched shows and one of its most consistently overlooked go beyond the first-person reflections of wry narrators with a penchant for rhetorical questions, puns and a fancy prose style; and beyond the catchy, bongo-heavy Latin music that plays over the glamour montages of both shows' credits. (On "Oz," images of highly stylized violence replace the glamorous fantasy of Carrie's city stroll; though Carrie is jolted from her reverie at the end when a bus advertising her public persona splatters her pink ballerina outfit with mud.) Both shows are essentially about a place, and what it does to people's ideas about themselves. Like "Sex and the City's" New York, the experimental prison unit Emerald City, inside the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, is unreal. And as in the glittery parade of distractions that is "Sex and the City's" New York, "Oz" is a place where it is impossible for even the most determined person to stay out of trouble.

For Carrie, it comes down to the shoes. Her problems with Aidan consistently boil down to stylistic differences. She can't stand the idea of sharing a closet with him, especially if it means displacing her expensive shoe collection and exposing it to the ravages of Aidan's dog. Her shoes take her and gain her admission into places where Aidan doesn't fit. When she meets a new friend, Oliver -- who happens to be a shoe distributor -- at a gay dance club on a night that Aidan has chosen to stay home with a bucket of KFC, Oliver is horrified to discover the ring on her finger. "But your column is my New York survival guide!" he says. "I can still date other gays," Carrie replies hopefully.

Later, Oliver invites Carrie to Bungalow 8 (a club so exclusive that a key is required to get in), where she runs into her friend Stanford. As her "gay husband," Stanford feels threatened by Oliver and confronts him saying, "I loved her back when she still wore pink suede Candies!"

"I never wore Candies!" Carrie protests -- and we know instantly that she did. But that was before she was the Carrie Bradshaw she is now; that is to say, the Carrie Bradshaw who wonders why she should have to ride the bus if she's pictured on the side of it.

But as hysterical, shrill and even stupid as Carrie sounds when she is having yet another Manolo meltdown, the shoes symbolize the life she has built for herself: the life of a single New Yorker. In Carrie's New York, the accoutrements make the context and the context makes the girl, so it's no wonder she has problems wearing the engagement ring Aidan has given her. Uncomfortable being perceived as an "engaged person," Carrie takes to wearing the ring around her neck, claiming it is now closer to her heart. Meanwhile, she cannot bring herself to discuss wedding plans with Aidan, begging off his suggestions -- "Let's get Maui'd!" -- with protests of "I'm not a Hawaiian Tropic kind of girl." Later, when her friends advise her to consider buying back her apartment from Aidan, she protests, "I'm not a buyer. New York is a town of renters. Everybody rents."

In fact, none of her friends still do. But for Carrie, the whole world breaks down this way -- single vs. married, city vs. country, subway vs. taxi, Candies vs. Jimmy Choos. So, it's fitting that Aidan finally breaks up with her at the Black and White Ball, after Carrie refuses yet another impromptu proposal. In one day, Carrie discovers that she cannot get a bank loan to buy her apartment and that she has, over the course of a decade, spent $40,000 on shoes. "There's your down payment," Miranda tells her. "I will literally become the old woman who lived in her shoes," Carrie laments.

Carrie is so focused on "what kind" of girl she is that she even begins to lapse in her usual behavior. As she says to Miranda -- who is having problems adjusting to her new identity as a pregnant and unwed Miranda ("Everyone else is glowing about my pregnancy; when will I?") -- she doesn't even feel like shopping for a dress. "Me. No dress. What's going on here?" Miranda suggests trying on horrible, over-the-top wedding gowns as a joke, and Carrie breaks into a flaming rash.

It's also a symbol that ultimately breaks up the relationship between Charlotte and Trey, her cartoonishly proper and wealthy husband -- in their case, it's more of a sign. Trey, who has grown tired of Charlotte's baby obsession, gives her a cardboard baby as a joke. Neither Charlotte nor her friends are amused. Despite their well-developed senses of humor, not one of them has the ability to find humor in their unexamined illusions. If the trappings -- the rings, the apartments, the babies, the club keys, the $400 shoes, the illusion of total independence (whether material or emotional) -- were funny, they would be left with nothing. Trey pleads, "Carrie, you're funny. A cardboard baby. That's funny, right?" but Carrie doesn't think so. She has just traded in her relationship with Aidan for the chance to keep the illusion that anything is still possible.

Whereas Carrie's breakup with Aidan leaves her happily ringless and haplessly homeless, Charlotte's separation from Trey nets her both a Park Avenue apartment and a three-carat Tiffany ring that she continues to wear around the house to make herself feel better. Charlotte has spent her New York decade pursuing the glittering image of a well-heeled married life with the same singleness of purpose with which Carrie has pursued the ideal swinging single life. When Charlotte's friend Anthony introduces her to a designer from House and Garden ("I love that magazine!" Charlotte gushes. "I used to wear my mother's pearls and look through it when I was a kid"), she lands herself a photo spread in the magazine. It's the culmination of Charlotte's dreams: the beautiful wife, the handsome husband, the perfect Park Avenue apartment. When Charlotte asks Trey to participate, he asks, genuinely surprised, "I'm in the picture?"

By the time the photographers arrive, Charlotte and Trey have separated, but Trey dutifully shows up for Charlotte's sake. "It's important to you," he tells her, and we realize that Trey understands why he should leave -- and leave all the stuff. For Charlotte, the photo provides perhaps the single moment in Charlotte and Trey's troubled marriage when the whole thing comes together, and in an instant, it's over. As Carrie recounts, "Trey had moved out by the time the magazine hit the stands. But all over America little girls in their mothers' pearls saw the picture and said, 'That's what I want.'"

What are the stories little boys tell about themselves when they are growing up? After the leisurely estrogen soak that is "Sex and the City," "Oz" feels like a cold testosterone plunge. The Emerald City unit of Oz is a fishbowl of a prison, cast in an eerie fluorescent light, with glass instead of bars and video cameras everywhere. Stripped of all material definitions, the men inside peg their identities on their ideas about themselves: white supremacist vs. black Muslim, Italian vs. Hispanic, prisoner vs. guard, idealistic bureaucrat vs. corrupt guard.

In the season's first episode, which focuses on the hours leading up to the first visiting day in months, the bus carrying visitors to the prison is hit by a truck. Augustus' mother, who was worried that her son might go back to being a drug addict when he learned that his wife is divorcing him, dies in the accident. Now that he has lost his mother as well, the question looms larger.

Augustus' monologues, which he delivers from a glass cage filled with television screens, lack the neat symbolism favored by Carrie; and though each episode is ostensibly organized around theme, "Oz" is primarily concerned with showing lots of graphic, violent vignettes about prison life. In the new episodes Augustus provides a catalog of famous inmates, notable people who went to jail for their beliefs. Thomas Paine, he explains, was arrested for treason and fostering rebellion, "but without him America might have never been free." Thomas More for being honest with his king, Galileo for refuting Church doctrine. "Many fine people have spent time staring at the inside of a prison's walls," Augustus says. "Socrates, Gandhi, Jesus Christ." It's difficult to see what these prisoners have to do with the child molesters, murderers and drug lords who inhabit "Oz," until the very end, when he points out that Jesus shared his last meal with a criminal, because he understood that sinners need love all the more.

The prison environment, especially the constant surveillance, is a large part of what drew the show's creator, Tom Fontana, to the material. As he told the New York Times, "Throw rats in the cell? I'm going to do that. The idea of a rat in the pod -- oh man!" Like the "Sex and the City" girls, the prisoners of "Oz" are trapped in both a material and psychological sense. They are never not seen, nor can they prevent what they see all around them from affecting their behavior and their choices.

Gladwell concludes his essay with a quote from a conversation Goetz had with a friend the day after the shootings. "In a situation like this," he said, "you're in a combat situation. You're not thinking in a normal way. Your memory isn't even working normally. You are so hyped up. Your vision actually changes. Your field of view changes. Your capabilities change. What you are capable of changes ... If you corner a rat and are about to butcher it, OK? The way I responded was viciously and savagely, just like that, like a rat."

After watching back-to-back "Sex and the City" and "Oz" marathons -- a parade of rodents, hamsters and rats, in their respective environments -- his feelings make some twisted sense.

By Carina Chocano

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

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