One is the toniest number

New books by two women behind Carrie Bradshaw and her "Sex and the City" cohorts offer more tales of the upscale single girl in the big city. Have they captured an American archetype -- or created an annoying cartoon?

By Heather Havrilesky

Published August 13, 2003 10:35PM (EDT)

Anne Baxter in "All About Eve." Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch." Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman." Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct." Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde." America's concept of the single woman seems to shift from manipulative harlot to quirky, coquettish innocent and back again every few years. Whether she's the girl next door who keeps her panties in the freezer on hot summer days or the prostitute with the heart of gold, our single girl is a sticky sweet temptation with all the depth of a cherry Popsicle.

It's not surprising, then, that we welcomed Carrie Bradshaw with open arms as a more lifelike alternative to the pretty single dolls of the silver screen. But while the sassy, upscale heroine of HBO's "Sex and the City" may be sharp and independent, she's also inconsistent, neurotic and tragically high maintenance. Is Carrie really our "Thoroughly Modern Millie," a contemporary American archetype of the unmarried woman? New books by two of the women behind "Sex and the City" provide a closer look at some of the contradictions inherent in this latest incarnation of the single girl, and hint that Carrie may be less an archetype than a mirror on a high-strung, fussy minority.

For Janey Wilcox, the status-obsessed, 30-something social climber at the center of Candace Bushnell's new novel, "Trading Up," it's far more important to look marvelous than to feel marvelous. Conveniently, Janey is a Victoria's Secret model, and spends the vast majority of her time noticing other people noticing her. While it seems highly improbable that the truly stunning among us would waste their time and energy endlessly assessing their own looks and relishing the impact they have on others, Janey may be more of an escapist fantasy for shallow women than she is a fully formed character. After all, she's tremendously beautiful, wealthy and famous, and she has lots of free time to seduce powerful men and shop for expensive jewelry.

Did I happen to mention how beautiful Janey is? Bushnell does, about once every two pages. Bushnell, whose "Sex and the City" column for the New York Observer sparked the series of the same name, can't stop emphasizing just how great Janey looks. She is "a creature with Amazon-like proportions" with "a glossy, nearly perfect exterior" who is "every bit as beautiful as her photographs." People who encounter her have "never seen anyone with such a perfect figure" or appear to have "suddenly seen an angel." But it's overkill to hear about how supernaturally sexy Janey is at every turn, since each scene provides a new study on just how convenient it is to be spectacular looking. The dull dinner party populated by aging sorority girls panicked at losing their looks and their husbands becomes a three-ring circus of company men averting their eyes while their wives pull out their claws and strike ineffectually at our irresistible heroine. The stuffy Hamptons polo match develops into a heated competition as socialite Mimi drools over handsome polo player Zizi, but Janey knows she's hot enough that the game might as well be fixed.

After Janey's smoking hot bod topples every apple cart in sight for the umpteenth time, though, the vicarious thrills get old and we're sort of hoping for some hint of human emotion, some glimpse of vulnerability that might win us over. But not only is Janey stupid, despicable and careless with other people's feelings, she's intensely shallow as well. "Janey Wilcox was a particular type of beautiful woman, who, acknowledged only for her looks, is convinced that she has great reserves of untapped talents," writes Bushnell in one typically overwritten passage. "The fact that there was no evidence to support this hope didn't dissuade her, and indeed, she believed herself equal to anyone." In other words, Janey is the kind of haughty, deluded character you dream up for your least favorite Barbie when you're 8 years old and you love the idea of a powerful, evil rich girl who's destined to get pushed into a mud puddle some day.

Even that makes the book sound more fun than it is. Sure, it's nice when handsome Zizi rejects Janey's advances. "That's ridiculous," she responds in the on-the-nose dialogue Bushnell seems to favor. "Everyone wants to have sex with me." But once you recognize that Janey's seductions are going to be the only carnival in town, you start hoping that she'll come on to every single man she knows, including her father-in-law and the guy who fetches her boots at Burberry's. This makes her about as compelling as the lead in a crappy porn video. Just as you wish that porno would feature an actress who may actually fit the part of "innocent nurse" or "lonely housewife" instead of "bottle blonde who never removes her stilettos," you hope that Janey will show some new side of herself that will render her, if not more sympathetic, then at least a little more human.

Finally, on Page 275, we get a glimpse of how Janey became the repugnant slut that she is. In an extended flashback to her early days as a struggling model in Paris, we learn that the aspiring model's life is just as tough as Tyra Banks kept telling us it was on "America's Next Top Model." It seems that Janey was just 19, lonely, broke and desperate, when she met another young model named Estella who was not only far more upbeat and carefree than Janey, but had a closet full of expensive designer clothes and a $2,000 Chanel handbag to boot! Let's face it, what girl wouldn't want to find out Estella's secret and follow the same path -- even if it did mean snorting cocaine and becoming a high-priced whore to rich Arab men?

Although the Paris flashback is clearly an attempt to incite some compassion in the reader, Janey is flatly materialistic, vain and tedious even as a teenager, and not in an amusing or clever way, either. This is a character as flat and glossy as a Victoria's Secret catalogue, so it's not surprising that, when she finally does get pushed into a mud puddle, the event has all the suspense and drama of tossing an unwanted catalogue into the trash.

While the voice of Bushnell's "Trading Up" doesn't have any of the humor or the distinct perspective of "Sex and the City," Cindy Chupack's "The Between Boyfriends Book" features first-person essays on relationships that sound so similar to something Carrie Bradshaw would think or say or write, it's tough not to hear Sarah Jessica Parker's voice in your ear when you read the book. Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends on your feelings about Parker and HBO's hit show, which will wrap up its final season in the spring. As an executive producer who's written for the show since halfway through its second season, Chupack obviously played a major part in defining the voice of its characters. And like the show, Chupack's book is often funny and insightful, and sometimes more than a little cloying.

"Obviously looking for a husband is a little bit more complicated than choosing a major appliance," Chupack writes in a typical passage, "but since there are no lifetime guarantees or lemon laws for men, it pays to be a savvy shopper." The puns are spread on way too thick, just as they are on the show, rendering what was once a distinguishing trait a repetitive, overly cute shortcut. ("But in life, there are no safety nets ..." Carrie chirps, and viewers are thankful for that fact -- as they hurl themselves out the nearest window.)

Still, Chupack has that sharp sense of humor that's so notably missing in Bushnell's novel. She gives the urban unmarried woman a much more sympathetic, self-aware voice. Chupack points out a relatable truth that rare bird Janey fails to highlight: single women in their 30s experience a crisis of confidence that most are utterly unprepared for. The truth is, many never imagined they'd be single at their age, and are faced with a life that looks very different from the one they assumed they'd have. "That's the essence of dating in your thirties," Chupack writes. "There is no time to ruminate. Every move could mean the difference between becoming part of a traditional family and becoming a woman who wears caftans, travels to exotic places alone, and brings back elephant tusks for her nephews."

Of course, the real dilemma is that to even point gently in the direction of this crisis is to open oneself to ridicule. After all, how awful is it to admit that you dearly want something that's not only out of your control, but which you should probably appear not to want in order to get? If men in their early 30s felt the same urgency about finding the right woman, they'd transform the search for the perfect partner into a heroic challenge. Women disown their own desires for fear of appearing vulnerable, but wind up putting forward such a muddled, contradictory picture that they're worse off than if they flat-out admitted that securing a good husband was at the top of the perpetual to-do list.

But then, as Chupack points out, maybe it's the underlying ambivalence toward traditional married life that lands the average unmarried female in this position in the first place. As easy as it is for a woman to assume, based on the intensity of her emotional needs, that what she really, truly desires is a man who'll stick by her through thick and thin, it's even more confounding to discover that a man in the hand may not seem quite as desirable as two men in that bush over there -- even if they are gay.

Ah yes! When it comes to relationships, we all seem to have trouble resisting the siren call of puns and pithy dictums! Chupack's sense of humor about herself and the likable humility of her voice is impossible to deny, and after a few pages, Sarah Jessica Parker's pert voice fades and all that's left is entertaining, sharp essays which, at their best, call to mind Cynthia Heimel's hilarious Los Angeles Times columns about the unflappable single girl. Taking on such a difficult realm with honesty and heart requires a lot of courage, particularly when the public has such a knee-jerk dislike of anything that smacks of an unmarried woman in her 30s whose needs are more complicated than the pretty blond thing with her drawers in the freezer.

Still, the obsessive, finicky ruminations of the 30-something women that Chupack and Bushnell present reflect a persistent disquiet and unease with the present. No matter how distracted our heroines manage to keep themselves with expensive shoes, new restaurants and a steady flow of prospective husbands, ordinary life is unbearably dull and painful, like a pea that bruises soft flesh through a tower of the finest mattresses. Even when Chupack points to a pickiness and sense of entitlement that seems to bring her dissatisfaction at every turn, she doesn't have much to put in its place. As much as we applaud their independence or charms, these sassy single women seem to lack a sense of what it's all about, beyond the attachments of a spoiled princess. When all the cabs are taken or their dates aren't quite sexy or wealthy enough, they're overcome with disappointment. "Don't I deserve more than this?" they implore, shaking their jewel-encrusted, manicured fists at the gods.

Even when you scrape away the spoiled trappings of an overly indulgent culture, our urban single girl is a bundle of contradictions. Like Carrie Bradshaw, she shifts effortlessly between a deep-throated, gruffly aggressive intimidator and a simpering doll, all baby-voiced and coy, and then wonders why the men in her life seem confused by her. Instead of understanding what she really wants, she's focused on some image of what she should become, and her outward statements and affectations become an unintelligible mix of passive-aggressive manipulations, bossy foot-stomping, endless weeping and outward covetousness. Being loved by your family and making a living are considered the best that life has to offer by 99 percent of the population. Sadly, our tragic damsels require all that, plus fame, fortune and closets filled with expensive shoes, even though none of these things have the power to make them happy. They're either unsure of what they really want, or they have trouble stating it without shame and fear, so they choose to make a show of glamorous invincibility instead.

Luckily, the Carrie Bradshaw archetype, for all her charms, is most likely a reflection of a few privileged, educated women with far too much time to think, money to spend, and social lives that feed their desire for some larger-than-life existence that's always just out of reach. The flippant fun and fancy shoes are at least a prettier picture than that of the miserable old maid, and the rest of us can certainly enjoy the vicarious thrills of being the happy hooker with the Hermes clutch while recognizing the emptiness of such a path. Ultimately, though, it's a pity that single women are hollowed out as collectors of husbands and handbags, when their independence, talents and compassion make them capable of so much more.

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------