Repressed? No. Depressed? A bit. Obsessed? But of course!
A male friend told me the other day over stale sandwiches in a Cambridge tearoom that Sex and the City depressed him. No wonder there – pretty much every man to whom I’ve ever mentioned SATC flies into a rage, or a frenzy of disgust. But on closer inspection, Samuel was not raging. He was contemplating. To him, Sex and the City is really just depressing; it lowers his spirits, not just about the state of TV but that of humankind. Womankind in particular, I suppose.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to keep talking about SATC- I realise I’m the only person left on earth who likes the show (someone last week, aged 60 plus, accused me of being “obsessed” with it – imagine!). But I think his point is worth lingering on. For the thing that depressed him was the pointlessness of their anxieties, dilemmas and quandaries. That is, all those tricky, fad-led etiquettes and norms which they then had to spend their whole time struggling with. Society made a din that couldn’t be ignored: “shag him, ditch him, buy this, don’t do this, do all at once” and so on. But being humans (well, fake humans), the artificiality of these rules created tension. Lots of tension; lots of emotion. To Samuel, this tension between the sexuo-romantic circumlocutions whipped up by Manhattan culture and the characters’ emotional reaction to them was…depressing. Because self-generated and thus so futile. Like: let’s go create millions of fake issues, then worry about them endlessly?
Samuel has a point. Something’s only depressing if it has wider implications – in this case, implications for romantic/sexual culture. So do we create pointless problems in order to spoil our own fun? Certainly, modern relationship- and sex-havers do not act as happily as one might think a bunch of people liberated from rules about chastity, honour and propriety would be. We spend a lot of time being unhappy and expressing unhappiness, for which there is a wide and developed lexicon. So I think what’s “depressing” about SATC stems from some sense that “being the modern woman” (or man) is more like a tricky job than an easy flow of obvious action. In acting the role of ourselves – that is, modern urban liberal sorts (I know how limited this sounds) – we are not sitting back and relaxing, our minds free to concentrate on other things since the sex and relationships side is taken care of. No, we are busy acting – consciously or not – trying to adhere to a matrix of new norms, some fashion-led, some more deep-rooted. We are constantly expending energy trying to decipher rules of our own creation, when really we should be struggling to understand feminist philosophy or jet propulsion or RNA splicing.
An example. With a wide and open playing field for potential partners today, it has become customary to have a “checklist” of traits one looks for. Jezebel did an article the other day based on an actual written-out list by a single woman on the prowl for a partner. It was an entire side of A4 in length. Now, this woman – for all that she was able to express such specificity – did not seem particularly pleased with having to do so. She was single and didn’t want to be. She was not finding her checklist to be particularly helpful, in fact, it was making her more aware of shortcomings in men than perhaps was fair. The guy could be intelligent, successful, kind and good looking, but he might not like dogs. Dismissed. It reminded me of another list – an Excel spreadsheet constructed by a business school graduate friend, who ranked women he was interested in or sleeping with via a sort of algorithmic rating system. To be sure he got exactly what he wanted, you see. The result? Women, it turned out, are not like cars with various trappings that can be obtained through shrewd shopping.
People spend an awful lot of time agonising about their love lives. I’m not suggesting for a second that we regress to traditional roles. But at this point I am compelled to mention a spot of Foucault and a spot of Stephen Heath as I think they’re enlightening on why Sex and the City depressed Samuel and thus why we might feel a bit depressed contemplating dating culture in general. Foucault argued that a huge proliferation of discourses surrounding sexuality took place in the 19th century. So much for Victorian repression – it is just this repression that pushed sex into every single avenue of life and thought (elephant in the room style). Foucault is primarily interested in institutional ways of fostering and festering sex – medical and judicial techniques such as enforced physical examinations of prostitutes and homosexuality laws. But from this follows the idea of the “sexual secret” – that every person is a sexual person, every person has a secret, and every secret is, ultimately, a sexual secret. This is why we talk about sex and sex’s siblings, like relationships, so much. This is why, perhaps, the women of Sex and the City, and those of Girls, and you and me, talk about them so much. The point is, the talking takes on its own life, creating realities as it jabbers on. Talking about things, eg discourse, makes things exist (much late 20th century theory is based on “discursive construction” of various things, including gender). Moving on. Stephen Heath, the prodigal literary, film and sex theorist, wrote a book called The Sexual Fix. In it, he argues that sexuality (implicitly tethered to dating, courtship or relationships) is a thunderously created thing of the last 100 years, cooked up through psychoanalytic and other discourse. The “fix” idea is the most relevant here, perhaps. It is that we can all achieve that perfect authentic self through sexual fulfilment – we can fix ourselves if we fix our sexual-ness. The “sexual fix” is, as per Foucault, really “the self fix” or just “the fix”. Of course we can never actually achieve “the sexual fix” as that would imply that sex’s usage is finite which, Heath argues, in our present culture, it patently isn’t.
Samuel was depressed by Sex and the City because it reminds him of the world in which he lives. It is a world in which the sexual secret and the sexual fix create endless striving and corrective behaviour – checklists, spreadsheets, date post-mortems, angst, divorce. It is analytically laborious to live in such conditions. Is there an easier route, though, when other complaints such as shelter and hunger are taken care of? Or do humans always turn angst when hardship is overcome? I think perhaps we do.