The Disappointments of Emily Nussbaum

FA Sex_and_the_City_(book_-_cover_art)

Editor’s Note: Following our previous post about books in TV shows, here is a post about a TV show that once was a book, Sex and the City. Our author responds to Emily Nussbaum and her contention in the New Yorker that the show has not gotten its due, especially side-by-side with other shows like The Sopranos. As our author makes clear, “I like Nussbaum.  I like Sex and the City.  I am a man,” we shall also make clear that his views do not necessarily reflect those of everyone at Fiction Advocate (especially in my case, since I have not seen more than a few episodes of either show) though we all agree that they are worth reading. – MM

With the sudden death of James Gandolfini and the return of Breaking Bad for its final season this week, the internet is replete with nostalgia for the golden age of television, pre-obituaries for our era’s amazing serialized dramas and their signature anti-heroes: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Jimmy McNulty, Walter White.  Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum nominates an addition to the list: Carrie Bradshaw.

In her defensive paean to the show that brought zipless fucks into the twenty-first century, Emily Nussbaum argues that both Carrie and her vehicle, Sex and the City, haven’t gotten a fair shake. But the aim of her essay—a pushback against “the reflexive consensus on the show,” that it is merely a “guilty pleasure” inspiring “self-flagellating conversations”—is much broader than the resuscitation of a lone, storied series. It is peppered with implications, never quite made explicit, about the rampant sexism of television criticism and American culture generally.  It’s there in Nussbaum’s complaint that any show will be considered inferior if it’s “stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively)” and in her lament that new shows with female protagonists must be distanced from Sex and the City rather than compared to it.  (And yet, reading this, one wonders how many Hollywood pitch meetings have begun, “It’s Sex and the City meets…”?)

But because she is so reluctant to make this argument explicit, what she says is so narrow as to be absurd: that Sex and the City was just as good a show as The SopranosThat SATC’s reputation is unfair and unwarranted and sexist and would be as good as its HBO brother if only so many critics weren’t men. I like Nussbaum.  I like Sex and the City.  I am a man. Unlike the men whom Nussbaum has apparently polled, I find Charlotte the most unlikable character (she’s naïve and retrograde and, worst of all, boring).  And I feel for Nussbaum because I, too, wish that SATC were a better show. But if we’re going to play the silly game of whether one show is as good as another, there’s just no way that SATC was as great a show as The Sopranos. SATC consistently undermined itself by taking the easy way out — and that, not the cabal of male television critics, is why the show is good but not great.

Nussbaum takes issue with the characterization of the four SATC girls as “types” or “empty, static cartoons.”  She is referring, I suppose, to the age-old question, “Are you more a Charlotte or a Samantha?”  Correct—that question is insipid and annoying.  But then Nussbaum claims that the characters, while not types, “were symbolic,” that they “operated as near-allegorical figures.”  She doesn’t explain the distinction she’s drawing between these terms, but I assume she means something like this: a “type” or “cartoon” is a manifestation of an exaggerated characteristic (the slut, the professional, the housewife, the writer); an “allegorical figure” is a manifestation of an idea or a phenomenon that is larger than the individual (a Mafia don when both the Mafia and America are in decline, perhaps).  Nussbaum states that the SATC characters are the latter and not the former, but she never quite explains why.

So here’s why not.

In all its seasons, SATC hardly ever engaged with race or class or white flight or reverse white flight or global warming or saving the whales… anything outside the characters’ own drives and desires and dissatisfactions.  The only idea with which the characters consistently and thoroughly engaged was how to be as happy as possible—how to pick which type of woman to be and then be the most possible that.  Nussbaum knows this, and so her argument—again, I have to guess, because she never makes it explicit—seems to be that, yes, each woman on SATC is a type, but she’s pursuing her type so vigorously that she transcends the type.  In other words, Nussbaum is not drawing a distinction between “types” and “allegorical figures”—she’s collapsing them.  But that argument is weak sauce.  Any show is going to be hampered by its unwillingness to confront any ideal higher than its characters’ satisfaction, and that narrowness of scope should stop the conversation well short of greatness.  I wonder, even, how many times SATC satisfied the Bechdel test.  While the series frequently features two named women talking to each other (Bechdel Factors 1 and 2), that conversation tended to be about a man (Factor 3).  (The movie, allegedly, passes the test.)

Sex and the City's four allegorical figures contemplate the society-wide systems of definition and regulation that make their lifestyles possible and ensure that they internalize fully the moral consequences of their choices and actions.

Sex and the City’s four allegorical figures contemplate the
society-wide systems of definition and regulation that make their
lifestyles possible and ensure that they internalize fully the moral
consequences of their choices and actions.

Throughout the piece, Nussbaum has The Sopranos and its offspring dead in her sights.  In her characterization of Carrie Bradshaw as the “first female anti-hero on television” we see the heart of her pitch: SATC was not just a glittery exercise in wish fulfillment.  Instead, its literary bona fides are ensured by the fact that, as with Tony , Don and Walter, Carrie Bradshaw makes SATC great because you’re supposed to dislike her.  Here Nussbaum and I agree: Carrie and the girls are selfish, reprehensible, amoral monsters.  This often makes them hilarious.  But even though the show presented the ladies as “jagged, aggressive and sometimes frightening,” it always stopped short of making them unlikeable.  Its operating conceit is that every woman can figure out what works for her, and sure enough, every one of SATC’s women does.  There is nothing a pink cocktail in a pointy glass can’t resolve.  Everything always works out.  Sex and the City isn’t the female Sopranos—it’s the female Entourage.

Ultimately I just find Nussbaum’s article confusing, since even she seems unconvinced by her argument.  Just as she argues that “the show wrestled with the limits of” romantic comedy “for almost its entire run,” she concedes, “In the end, it gave in.”  But this isn’t the show’s fault, she says, because “endings count in television, maybe too much.”  Again we have the implication that the show is not to blame for its own shortcomings.  Perhaps the blame lies with genre conventions or critical expectations or some suit at HBO.  Who knows; Nussbaum doesn’t guess.  The only people free of blame, she’s sure, are the ones who actually made the show.

SATC, at its best, had so much to offer.  The ladies’ lunches are recalled fondly for their repartee, but I particularly savored the unspoken messages—Samantha’s eye rolls and Miranda’s glares foremost among them.  (Charlotte, again, I have no use for.)  Even at the most congenial brunch there was a bizarre tension at play because, look closely—each of them really only engages with Carrie.  They revolve around her like electrons in the Bohr model of the atom.  Any time Miranda and Samantha and Charlotte had to meet up without her, they were at a loss for what to say or how to act.

Only rarely did we get a glimpse of candor in this clique held together with vodka and sequined belts. My favorite such moment is the epic fight between Charlotte and Miranda after Charlotte decides to quit her job to have kids.  Upon hearing the news, Miranda makes a series of snide remarks, leading Charlotte to call her, furious, to try to justify her decision.  “I choose my choice,” Charlotte bellows, “I choose my choice!”  “I don’t have time for this,” Miranda says.  “I have to go to work.  Some of us still have to go to work.”

Nussbaum apologizes for the show’s fairy tale denouement—the ultimate but far from unprecedented embodiment of its constant, pathetic need to please—but says that SATC’s having capitulated “shouldn’t erase the show’s powerful legacy.”  Well, why not?  Forget endings; Sex and the City made a conscious decision to be good instead of great.  That decision is a valid one—it’s fine.  It chose its choice.  Now some of us still have to go to work.

 – @david_rochefort is a former television writer.

7 Comments

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7 Responses to The Disappointments of Emily Nussbaum

  1. Emily Nussbaum

    Thanks for your response, David, but you misrepresent much of my argument. The larger point I’m making about television is not directed at men, per se, and I never argue that SATC is the “equal” of The Sopranos. I never make any grand argument against male critics, either, other than my critique of the Sex And The City summary in Brett Martin’s otherwise solid book. As the people say, some of my best friends are male TV critics (and some of the them like Sex and the City.)

    As I’ve written in the past, I’m not interested in Top 10 lists or mathematical equivalences. The specific comparison I’m making to the The Sopranos has to do with the anti-hero role on television: like Tony, Carrie challenged the older habits of TV, which historically relied on “likable” characters, ones that viewers could cheer for. In all her flaws, Carrie was specifically designed to make the audience feel anxious in their identification, not simply empowered, the way Mary Tyler Moore and earlier breakthrough female characters did. In my opinion, it’s part of what makes the show so misunderstood: people often criticize Carrie’s bad behavior (like her affair with Aidan) as if it were accidental and the writers had meant to make her do something plucky and good, but failed, and so it should make us angry at her. I certainly don’t find the characters anywhere near as dislikable as you do, and in fact I find it refreshing to see flawed women on television, rather than kickass heroines or helpmeets. (Since SATC, there have been a flood of such characters, many in the last two years.) As for the rest of my argument, about how the characters are designed to be simultaneously emotionally layered and archly stylized/symbolic—a rare approach for television—and how the show played with the genre of the rom-com, the way other shows did with the mob show or cowboy show genres, people can consult my essay and see if they find it more convincing that you did.

    But as to my larger point about television, I’m not sure why you’re limiting this to female subject matter. What I describe is a false hierarchy that applies to a whole *set* of qualities that are undervalued and placed low on a hierarchy, only one of which is specifically female. Half-hour comedies, warm shows, stylized shows, shows made collaboratively, shows that emphasize sex/love over violence: ALL of these are undervalued. Shows that emphasize women’s lives are also undervalued, and since SATC is basically the Venn diagram where these qualities meet, it’s a natural series for people to condescend to and underrate. But my aim is a larger one: I’d like people to think about why gritty, grim, masculinity-focused hour-long auteurist dramas about crime are automatically valued over even the most ambitious sitcoms, why relationship-centered shows like Once & Again are written out of “important TV history,” why archly heightened shows like American Horror Story are falsely pegged as fun junk. None of this is a slam on The Sopranos (or The Wire and Breaking Bad): I’ve written in praise of all of them. What I’m trying to do here, and in other essays I’ve written, is open the doors to appreciating varied forms of television ambition and to raise questions about what we consider artistically significant.

    And of course SATC passes the Bechdel test, multiple times (how is a conversation about Miranda’s mother’s death, or abortion, or Carrie’s level of financial debt, or the benefits of the Pink Rabbit, for that matter, a conversation about a male character?) The subject of the show is sex and relationships, and it’s about female friendship, as well—topics that are as legitimate as anything Ray from Girls might suggest are the only things that count. (“Death is the most fucking real issue. You should write about death. That’s what you should write about. Explore that. Death.”)

    In any case, thanks again for reading the piece. And cheers. (Lifting Cosmopolitan and taking a deep slug of it.)

  2. Hi David! Thank you for this excellent rebuttal to Nussbaum’s piece. Her argument seems a lot more shaky now that I’ve read yours. But I wasn’t with you on this point:

    “In all its seasons, SATC hardly ever engaged with race or class or white flight or reverse white flight or global warming or saving the whales… anything outside the characters’ own drives and desires and dissatisfactions. The only idea with which the characters consistently and thoroughly engaged was how to be as happy as possible—how to pick which type of woman to be and then be the most possible that.”

    I think this might be a false distinction. On a show that engages with “big issues” – The Wire, for instance – we’re only exposed to those issues THROUGH specific characters and their quest for (to put it broadly) happiness. Jimmy McNulty WANTS to make his city a safer place. He is picking which type of man/cop/citizen to be and then being the most possible that. That would be his happiness, and his happiness is a big reason why the issues matter to us. (Honestly, Baltimore’s troubles were not even on my map until McNulty and the rest of the characters made them personal for me.) And it’s not like the happiness that SATC’s characters are seeking is any less indicative of complex systems and social issues (of a very different kind). I don’t disagree with your overall assessment of the shows. In fact I haven’t watched much SATC. But I don’t see how we can claim that one show is about its issues, and another show is about its characters’ happiness, when all of these shows are necessarily about both, at the same time, always.

  3. Emily Nussbaum

    Well, I would hope there is one thing we can all agree on: people who haven’t watched a show (or seen a movie or read a book or heard more than one track by a musician) probably aren’t the best judges of whether a critical essay, or a critique of that essay, for that matter, makes its case.

    This is one of the biggest problems with the critical reputation of SATC, and with TV in general—the idea that people who haven’t seen the shows under discussion feel free to weigh in on them. I assume David’s seen all of SATC, which is part of why I found some of his arguments (like the idea that there are no repercussions for the characters, or that it’s a show devoted to “zipless fucks”) fairly strange.

  4. Hi Emily,

    Thanks for your prompt and thorough response. I didn’t anticipate that you’d read this, let alone respond, so that’s pretty cool already.

    I guess I still don’t understand how you are defining “type” and “allegorical figure” (a distinction I guess you refine where you say they are “simultaneously emotionally layered and archly stylized/symbolic”). Are my definitions incorrect? Is your note that you often make this argument while under the influence (AWI?) meant to operate as a sort of disclaimer, suggesting that you don’t really mean this? If not, of what are the characters “symbols” or “allegories,” if not simply the women and men in the audience who identify with them? And how is that different from being a “type”? Or “archetype,” maybe?

    You’re right to call me out for my sympathy for a Ray-style, “Death is the most fucking real issue” argument, which, ok, Ray is ridiculous. Sure, death is not the only topic that a work of art must engage to earn its bona fides. But, come on, give me something. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that SATC was, more often than not (occasional Bechdel examples to the contrary), preoccupied with its characters’ happiness and little else. I just don’t see where the claim to greatness rests if that’s the highest you aim. (Not that being about something is a guarantee of greatness, either — I don’t think the West Wing holds up very well, for example.)

    I take your point that you’re getting at something larger, that this isn’t just about boy shows vs. girl shows but a challenge to the Auteur Theory of Cable Dramas, though I think your list of anti-auteur characteristics is more gendered than you’ll admit. In the hypothetical which ends your piece, you suggest that SATC could have become a tragedy in the end and guaranteed its critical legacy (though likely undermining those movies in the process) but it shouldn’t have had to. I mean, I get that. But I guess I’m at a loss for the criteria you then use to decide what makes a show “great” or part of the golden age or whatever. In particular, it seems prone to become a preference for stories in which the characters most resemble the viewer or are models to which the viewer aspires. And there must be something higher than identifying with a character, right?

    One last question: what’s your basis for the claim that male viewers find Charlotte likable? Because I just, I can’t, ugh, Charlotte.

  5. Emily Nussbaum

    Hi there. I think you’re misunderstanding what I said about the ending. I didn’t hate it because it wrecked the show’s legacy, or because I didn’t *relate* to it. My entire point is that the show was designed to push back against easy identification. I hated the ending because up until that moment, the show had upended and interrogated and played with the modes of romantic-comedy, much the way Deadwood did with the cowboy genre and Sopranos with the mob drama. When Carrie ended up with Big, it show knuckled to the audience’s wish-fulfillment desires, because it couldn’t solve the narrative puzzle of what it would mean for Carrie to be older & single. (And they’d already had a natural ending for that story about Big, in the great episode where he has a heart attack.)

    As for the design of the characters, I meant exactly what I said in the piece: that they are BOTH emotionally layered characters AND archetypal/allegorical figures. It’s not one or the other. This is a style that is extremely rare on television, although it happens more in theater: the only current show I can think of that does anything like that is Community. The four women are emotionally layered in that they are complex human beings, and they grow and change significantly over the course of the series (Miranda and Charlotte especially, but Carrie too. Samantha changes, but she’s a different kind of character, something I didn’t have space to get into in the piece. Here’s an older piece where I did get into it: http://nymag.com/arts/tv/features/61733/.)

    Yet even though they are emotionally resonant characters, they are also symbolic. Every time the four friends have brunch, they are having an abstract debate about the nature and value of single women’s lives, through the scrim of their own experiences; because they represent varied POVs, they disagree a lot. (On tactics, on ethics, on desires, on values—I could name a million examples.) These were breakthrough, funny, arch Socratic dialogues about female experience, within a culture in which their concerns, particularly about love and sex, are sneered at as trivial. As they know very well, single women in general are targets for widespread pity and mockery: in the show’s Manhattan, they are seen as stocks dropping in a bad market. Even when the characters are unhappy or fail or are humiliated or change their path (which happens regularly), their debating group resist the toxic condescension of the culture’s view of female lives, because it views those lives as interesting and valuable.

    On another point: of course “warm” shows and “stylized” shows and “shows about sex rather than violence” are gendered female. They’re not *actually* female (men have relationships, there are warm comedies about men), but anything associated with femininity is smeared as weaker, lesser, unworthy of serious appreciation. That’s why a show like Enlightened is so important, as are all shows that are smart AND warm, because they upend the notion that there’s only one kind of TV ambition.

    I don’t think you understand what the Bechdel Test is. It’s not about whether female characters care about love or sex. Bechdel’s point is that most movies are ABOUT male characters—and if there are women in them at all, there are rarely two of them who have actual names and have a conversation that’s not about the central male character. Obviously, Sex and the City was primarily concerned with sex and love. But sex and love (and marriage and children and independence and abortion and orgasms and adultery and friendship and ambition) are not trivial concerns. They are *important* concerns, ones that are at the center of many people’s lives. The characters on the show are not minor figures within someone else’s narrative—the show is ABOUT them. As the commenter above points out, the SATC women’s desires are no more about “happiness” than Tony Soprano’s desire is for “happiness,” which it is—he wants his children to be better off than he is, and he wants to be capable of success at his job without being destabilized by panic attacks. And what on earth is wrong with wanting happiness, anyway?

    When the show was on, a lot of men I knew talked about how cute Charlotte was. (Which she was: she’s adorable and feminine.) There were whole trend-pieces on the subject. But mainly, my point is that it was the other women were the ones who attracted abuse, consistently called ugly, man-hating, sluts, and all kinds of names, and still are. Charlotte was less threatening in that sense. Obviously, you differ on the subject, but personally, I love Charlotte: she’s probably the character who changed the most fully, without abandoning her essential self. She dropped her whole Rules Girl philosophy, she went through a divorce, she became more sexual, she stopped being focused on surfaces and perfectionism, and she ended up with something different from what she expected, but way more satisfying, in the end. It was a beautiful story.

    Finally, no, the comment about ranting drunkenly at cocktail parties wasn’t a way of downgrading my own ideas. It was a playful joke indicating how passionate I am about this subject.

  6. Emily Nussbaum

    P.S. I enjoyed the West Wing at the time but I also don’t think it holds up all that well.

    P.P.S. I described in the piece what I meant by stylized archetypes—the fact that they fell along three continuums, which colored their debates. Romantic/Cynic. Slut/Prude. 2nd Wave/3rd Wave. These are symbolic stances, which meant that every time they talked about something—like whether it was a mistake to own property as a single woman, or whether you could be friends with an ex—they did it from that perspective. Char: Romantic Prude 3rd Wave Rules Girl. Miranda: Cynic Prude 2nd Wave Egalitarian Feminism.

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