“Year after year, twenty-something women come to New York City in search of the two Ls: Labels and Love,” goes the opening voiceover for Sex and the City: The Movie. These words set the stage for the decadent, emotional rollercoaster to follow, featuring fabulous clothes, shoes, and the question of what is truly important: the wedding or the marriage?
When I was 37 and getting divorced while finishing my Ph.D., one of my girlfriends sensed the despair I felt (but tried to hide) over feeling alone and worrying that party of one would be my fate, despite intellectual acceptance of my ability to survive and remain a strong solo. Sometimes, emotions trump logic. My friend lent me her Sex and the City collection–the entire series–with the simple words, “Watch this. You’ll feel better.”
As many women likely are when faced with divorce and the possibility of life alone, I was skeptical of any advice laced with platitudes, but this sounded different and I trusted her judgment despite being against the entire series when it first appeared. Who wants to watch a bunch of stereotypical white women flaunt their wealth and privilege and leap from man to man while showcasing physical beauty and flawless fashion taste? My skepticism did not hold up and by the end of the first season, I was hooked. My initial disdain was tempered by truly inspiring and philosophical gems in each episode that I needed to hear in my emotionally questionable state.
By the time the movie was released in 2008, I was a true believer in the friendships, humor, and wisdom embedded in this seemingly frivolous packaging. As most fans were aware, this movie promised Big things for Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, and her main love interest, John Preston (also known as Big), played by Chris Noth–namely, the movie buzz suggested that their relationship’s fate would be revealed in the film.
Sex and the City official 2008 trailer
Revisiting this film five years later (as a happily paired person once again), I find myself chafing against the film even as I enjoy the drama. The choices and mistakes that Carrie make from the time that she and Big decide to marry to the moment he leaves her at the altar about a third of the way through the story are the choices and mistakes that many modern American women make: ignore the man and his wishes, allow friends to convince you that you need a fancier dress, venue, event, and become more enamored with the grandeur and history of a luxurious location over the real fears and concerns your partner has about a large, intimidating, and ostentatious event.
Initially, Carrie and Big mildly discuss their future over dinner prep and decide to get married, while foregoing the traditional diamond engagement ring, which Carrie does not want. At about twelve minutes into the film, Carrie announces to her friends, Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), over lunch that she and Big made this decision and Charlotte excitedly screams, while Miranda looks on, horrified.
This tension grows between excitement over a traditional (and suggested to be more financially and legally secure) choice to marry and the unconventional decisions that Carrie tries to make as the story quickly progresses. Carrie’s implied choice of simple, civil wedding service is subverted by Charlotte’s “gift” of wedding planner Anthony Marentino’s (Mario Cantone) services, which turns the wedding into a grander event. Carrie’s elegant, vintage, and designer-less knee-length cream dress is not “wedding” enough for Charlotte or Anthony. Upon seeing Carrie’s dress choice, Charlotte frowns and says, “It’s pretty, but it’s so simple,” and Anthony mutters, “The invitation is fancier than the dress.”
Despite Carrie’s intentions to keep her classic dress and small wedding, her Vogue editor (Candace Bergen) offers her the opportunity to be featured in a photo shoot as a 40-year-old bride wearing bridal couture for Vogue’s annual age issue. Carrie agrees and when the Vivienne Westwood dress that she fell in love with at the shoot arrives at her apartment door, suddenly, the wedding takes on greater importance than the marriage. As Carrie explains to Big when she announces the guest list has jumped from 75 to 200, “The dress upped the ante.” Big seems noticeably agitated, responding that he just wants her and could have gone to City Hall.
In this respect, the film works as a rather harsh mirror for American women, especially those of us who have made or are thinking about making these same choices by privileging the wedding over the marriage and rationalizing the extraordinary expense to the possible detriment of our relationships. In the film these choices have consequences: Big leaves Carrie at the altar and by the time he realizes what a mistake his choice is, Carrie and her friends have left the church. When the two lovers see each other in the street, Carrie thrashes Big with her luxurious bouquet while tearily yelling, “I am humiliated!”
Carrie is humiliated
The question once again becomes what will happen to Carrie and Big? For the audience, another question lingers: Were those choices worth this result? As Carrie admits to Miranda during their Valentine’s dinner the following year, “I let the wedding get bigger than Big.”
When Carrie and Big do finally come back together at the end of the film, have an unassuming civil service, and a low-key restaurant gathering with their closest friends, this seems the perfect end.
However, even after all of the movie’s (and series’) promises to break with convention and turn tradition on its ear, to learn from mistakes, to know better…three of the four main female characters end up in traditional marriages–husband, wife, and for two of them, children. The film promises an alteration of expectations related to weddings and marriage and ends up in the same rut that American society stubbornly refuses to leave, and because we love the fantasy, the opulence, and the promise of love against all odds, Sex and the City is a movie that we love, but hate that we do.
Amanda Morris, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of multiethnic rhetorics at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and when she’s not writing or wrangling students, she loves shark fishing, gardening, and cooking with her man.