Growing Up in Our 20s, Part I: Sex and the City

[Editor’s note: the opinions expressed in this contributed piece by Joe Moser are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Olive Press (if only because I’ve never watched more than five minutes or so of the program highlighted in the piece). This column is, in his words, “the first piece, perhaps, in a series” devoted to “Growing Up in Our 20s.”]

In less than two weeks I’ll turn 26. Rolling down the road to 30, nothing left to save me from finally becoming an adult. Or is there? At 25, I had really rounded the corner, but it was easy to think of it as the safe age right in the middle. Also, though I hate like hell to admit it, my hair has begun to go, and I honestly don’t how much time we have left together. Now what can I do? Get an expensive transplant and have doll-head hair? Comb-over ad absurdum? Shave the head? I think the only way to maintain any semblance of youth is to go with the last option. However, these things weigh on my mind, make me think about what it means to mature, to settle down, to get old and unattractive, and to die.

Though the 20s might be a good time to consider mortality, to actually start growing up, many of us conspicuously resist maturity for as long as possible. Popular culture does little to discourage us. We are constantly bombarded by images of our 20 and 30-something contemporaries behaving like imbeciles, especially now with the advent of Reality TV. Obviously, these shows are designed to let us live vicariously through the dysfunctional misadventures of others and to make us feel better about our own comparatively benign lives that nonetheless strive towards shallow, hedonistic, materialistic goals. Not surprisingly, a lot of rich corporate types (people I like to call collectively “the Man”) benefit from our immaturity and the spending habits that accompany it. Vanity is big business: make-up, hair jelly, perfume, fancy undergarments and the like.

As a result (of these cultural trends or maybe other things I fail to mention), an incredible number of young people today spend their 30s doing their 20s all over again, or to put it another way, doing something they forgot to do in their 20s: grow up. There was once a show called thirtysomething–what was it about? People in their 30s who still didn’t have their shit together. It was a serious show, though, that encouraged its audience to take these people’s problems (strictly white and affluent though they were) seriously and learn from them. At the same token, Seinfeld, another show about people with fairly insignificant, yet identifiable problems for bourgeois audiences, invites us to admire a set of chronically selfish and self-absorbed, yet amusing, characters. However, we are finally encouraged to condemn Jerry and his friends for their callousness, as many of those they’ve humiliated and bamboozled during the run of the show testify against them in the last episode, and the four end up in jail.

Now what’s all the rage that has the young people’s hearts and glands all a-twitter? Sex and the City. Here is a show that not only portrays people reliving their 20s in their 30s, it celebrates and markets immaturity. At this point, or earlier, one might well ask, what do I mean by “immaturity”? Well, old Karl Marx would call it a lack of “class consciousness,” and he’d be right. He’d tell us we need to understand that what’s good for the individual ain’t so good for the group, that we’re the subjects of sundry ideologies that maintain the Man’s stranglehold on us, even while we think we’re liberating ourselves through consumption–owning stuff that insulates us from vulnerability and death. As the geek-rock band Cake puts it, “Excess ain’t rebellion / You’re only drinking what they’re sellin.” Amen, brothers.

And aye there’s the rub with Sex and the City. They’d have you believe that excess is rebellion, that materialism and hedonism will help young people discover themselves. Author Candace Bushnell (who wrote the fiction that inspired the series) suggests as much in an interview:

My advice to single women is: Don’t spend too much time worrying about men. Really worry about developing yourself. Often women date men who they would actually like to be. Instead of dating the man that you would like to be, become the person that you want to be. Why date a guy with a yacht? It’s more fun to get the yacht yourself, believe me.

Is it just me, or is there some kind of a nasty conflation here of who “you would like to be” with what kind of posh stuff you would like to own? This is a pretty shitty model of identity formation, and it caters exclusively to the ultra-bourgeois. The show itself has little to offer viewers who might not identify with what it’s like to purchase $500 shoes, lose them, and bemoan one’s awful luck. Thus, Ms. Bushnell accounts for the narrow “world” her characters inhabit:

I try to limit my stories to a world, which is something I think a lot of novelists do, but I do write about society. Everything that happens in society happens in all other worlds. People aren’t different because they have money, or live in a city. You know, I’ve met plenty of people who don’t have money, who live in rural areas, who have the same problems as the rich mogul in New York City.

Does she mean to suggest that those denizens of the rural “other worlds” may have lives of equal social significance to those of the rich urbanites? Really, she goes too far!

Most fans I speak to (more like confront) about Sex and the City admit that it’s something of a guilty pleasure and can offer very little to defend its cultural value. The best argument I’ve heard is that the show “counteracts the negative stereotype about women in their thirties” as washed-up old maids; my response being that in so doing it reinforces all kinds of other negative stereotypes about women: that they fetishize clothes and money and make a good run at being just as shallow and promiscuous as their male counterparts.

For those who would accuse me of simple chauvinism and misogyny and claim that I abhor this show for portraying the type of woman I fear in the deepest, darkest recesses of my male ego, I would answer, “No” and “Certainly not” to charges one and two and “OK, yeah” to the third. I do fear these women. I fear them for their ruthlessness, their recklessness and their greed. I fear them for, as Bushnell suggests, wanting to be like the powerful–or, rather, rich fancy-pants–men that I have no interest in emulating myself. Sex and the City might be a great show if the lascivious Samantha were its protagonist and narrator, rather than Carrie, the equivocator who lives vicariously through her friend and looks better by comparison. With Samantha at the center, the show might better suggest the existential void–the quiet desperation–at the heart of these women’s protracted journeys of self-discovery. As it is, the show is enabled by and perpetuates the most materialistic, irresponsible, and un-self-critical tendencies of American culture.

Thus, for me the final episode of Sex and the City can’t come and go soon enough. Fortunately, we still have the proposed film to give us a reason to carry on, and we can also look forward to seeing women sporting “I’m a Carrie” and “I’m a Samantha” T-shirts in the near future. For my part, I hope to learn from their negative example. I hope to grow up early. 26 isn’t too young to start.