My inevitable Sex and the City post

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I don’t know much about the Sex and the City series, or the film, so feel free to get your opinions elsewhere. But, watching the newly-released trailer for Sex and the City 2, I was struck again by one of the brand’s notable features: its portrayal of theme-park New York. It’s an old claim, from Robert Fitch to The Suburbanization of New York, that urban renewal and real-estate shonkery has altered Manhattan’s physical and social makeup. Small-scale craft, manufacturing and retail were replaced with upmarket boutiques and art galleries, ethnic neighbourhoods supplanted by bond-trading yuppies, and exciting public spaces were cleansed to make things safe for tourists.

Films, meanwhile, have been portraying disneyfied simulacra of London, Paris and Chicago for at least the last decade (and of Los Angleles for ever). They’re beautiful tourist postcards, culturally rich, and just the sort of place you’d pay to visit. Sex and the City seems the first, or at least the most explicit, to re-imagine New York as this sort of place. Of course many films, not least Manhattan, have presented audiences with seductive, loving shots of the city’s tourist landmarks. But Woody Allen, urban chauvinist that he is, sought to portray NYC as an actual city, with actual public spaces, physical proximity, ethnic heterogeneity etc. Theme-park New York, on the other hand, shares only visual references with the real city, which it turns into a glamorous backdrop for upscale consumption. 

Of course, Carrie’s world is self-conscious of its fairytale elements, and that’s part of the brand’s appeal. But that still doesn’t explain why anyone should actually want to make a fairytale about an ethnically homogeneous, crassly stylised New York. It merely admits that they did.

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7 Responses to “My inevitable Sex and the City post”

  1. Alex Says:

    Given the SATC fixation on designer goods, it seems natural that NYC itself should be presented as one, too. In the programme the city mirrors the properties of these consumables – shiny novelty, exclusivity and outrageous expense.

    The screen fantasy meets the urban reality on the show’s bus tour, which you can read about (complete with the snotty condescension of VF) here.

    • Nick Says:

      I meant to mention the tours in my post. Without sounding like Baudrillard, the fantasy-image of the city can wind up producing changes in the real city. People go there and expect NYC to look like it does in the movie, and businesses accordingly try to meet that demand. Then the movies acquire a kind of retrospective verisimilitude – the city really starts to look like that!

  2. Chiara Says:

    There’s an episode of SATC that explores Carrie’s “relationship” with “the city” in a way that necessitates quotation marks: visual cliché1 and creepy anthropomorphism2 aside, the fact that the city in question is New York seems entirely incidental to the low modality, colour co-ordinated branding exercise.3 Maybe wondering why someone would want to celebrate fairytale New York is a little too generous?

    1 Aww, sad Carrie standing alone in the rain outside the Guggenheim.. but wait! Sassy singles striding through Times Square! Etc.
    2 NYC is a “great date” and, it turns out, one of the two great loves Carrie gets in life (per the pop psychology du jour). Perhaps because it “goes from bad to cute in a second”.. Blergh.
    3 I stole that from something about Cosmo, actually.

    • Chiara Says:

      Those were supposed to be footnotes. My lofty formatting ambitions are duly checked, wordpress.

    • Nick Says:

      Yeah, I heard about that episode the other day. Sounds like a dilemma for the writers: list actual things you might love about NYC, and come off like Spike Lee; or make it a ‘colour-coordinated branding exercise’, and the point gets missed entirely. Not sure why the bothered.

      Meanwhile, does anybody know why “I ❤ NY" t-shirts suddenly become fashionable a few years ago?

  3. Daniel Says:

    The interesting thing is that videogames have recently started doing this as well. The wonderfully bizarre thing about the interactivity of the medium means that the cities become literal theme parks; in the game Spider-Man 2, for example, Manhattan becomes my own personal jungle-gym. I can crawl underneath the Brooklyn Bridge or jump from the top of the Empire State. Of course, with games like this (and True Crime: New York City*, which both feature largely accurate maps of Manhattan), crime embodies the city in a wholly literal sense as it defines a majority of your interactions. Nevertheless, the whole thing becomes your own fairytale vision of the city as you can do whatever you like. You can even beat up the naked cowboy in Time Square.

    *As an aside, the next game in this series will be set in Hong Kong, that other 21st Century crime-fairytale city.

    • Nick Says:

      Urban-warfare games also come to mind. Seems like there are maybe 2 ways to look at cities in (US, at least) popular media: either the consumerist theme park, or as crime-infested, Third-worldised, yet somehow “vibrant” and exciting – Los Angeles as Sadr City. Of course, in the US, “urban” (as in so-called urban music) functions as a code for African-American.

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