Most of my favorite movies end with declarations – implicit or explicit – of love: Sleepless in Seattle, Much Ado About Nothing, Robin Hood (with Errol Flynn), An Affair To Remember.
But what happens after the credits roll, the theme song fades, and the lights come up?
Nothing good, apparently. Or at least nothing that Hollywood seems to care much about.
Indeed, the critical furor surrounding the movie Sex and the City 2 feels emblematic of our current pop-culture take on marriage, an institution often depicted as entrapping rather than enriching. The movie’s characters, Roger Ebert wrote, “are flyweight bubbleheads” who sometimes “make my skin crawl.”
Of course, once upon a time, around the turn of the century, columnist Carrie Bradshaw and her pals were witty and cutting edge, single well into their thirties, proudly career-focused, and skeptical of tradition.
In one of my favorite Sex and the City episodes – which reflects an unexpected sort of feminist spunk – Carrie attends a baby shower and is asked to take off her $485 high heels, so that the hostess’s children don’t pick up germs from outside.
When a fellow party-goer inadvertently makes off with the heels, the hostess is reluctant to compensate Carrie because her shoes are so expensive.
Carrie is enraged. She has spent lots of money on the hostess, buying wedding presents and baby gifts, but the hostess refuses to accept that Carrie has made different choices. “If I don't ever get married or have a baby, what?” Carrie laments, “I get bupkis?"
When I watched Sex and the City in the early 2000s (I, like Carrie, was an ambitious, single writer) it made me feel cooler, like I was part of a club that didn’t view marriage as a necessity, a club whose members had shockingly frank voices and incredibly exciting lives.
In Sex and the City 2, we discover what Carrie’s life is like after tying the knot.
Mostly, she struts around a dreamy New York apartment wearing heels that are too high and dresses that are too short. She changes clothes constantly, luxuriates in a massive closet, and loves (of course) getting dressed up to go out. Though her marriage initially seems healthy, Carrie criticizes her husband a lot, and pretty soon he says he wants two days off a week.
Perhaps most distressing of all, though – at least to someone getting married next month – is that marriage cripples Carrie’s ability to write. Her newest book, I Do, Do I? is panned by The New Yorker, a magazine Carrie has loved for decades.
Samantha, Carrie’s publicist friend, insists that the reviewer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “You have a strong, female voice,” Samantha says, “and this guy’s intimidated.”
But she’s wrong. Marriage itself has robbed Carrie of her voice; it has turned her into an uptown fashion plate, a piece of sample-size eye candy void of drive or toughness. In the movie, her most heart-wrenching decision is whether to tell her husband that she has kissed an old boyfriend; when she does, he buys her an enormous diamond.
What becomes of women when they have triumphed? When they nab the guy? When the rice and rose petals have been swept up?
Sex and the City 2 provides us with a ready answer: not a whole lot.
To be sure, this is hardly a new phenomenon. Writers have frequently shied away from depictions of life after marriage. Shakespeare, for example, tended to end tragic plays with death and comic plays with marriage. Either way, the excitement was over.
And perhaps – despite birth control, female secretaries of state, and women keeping their last names – marriage still represents a kind of artistic wall, at least for mainstream entertainment.
For 60 years, TV has loved pairing skinny, attractive women with overweight, somewhat schlubby husbands. Think of Alice and Ralph Kramden from The Honeymooners, Carrie and Doug Heffernan from The King of Queens, and Lois and Peter Griffin from Family Guy.
Marriage is too often about women settling, scuttling ambitions, dealing with childlike husbands, and facing implicit pressures to stay young and good looking, no matter how much men let themselves go.
Sex and the City 2 serves as a particularly sad reminder of this. Once a tongue-in-cheek look at women’s efforts to balance love, career, and personal fulfillment, the franchise now feels like a 3D tour of Barbie’s dream house.
Which is not an ending I ever imagined for Carrie. Or for myself.
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