Sex and the Four-Color City
|February 7, 2012||Posted by Jess under Comics, Ladytexts|
But let’s talk about one very specific thing I’m conflicted about, from an interview writer Paul Levitz gave to Newsarama:
“The first scene in the first issue is basically a kind of a Sex in the City moment of the two girls at lunch, at a posh place that turns out to be Tokyo…”
The Sex and the City reference immediately reminded me of the coverage of Marvel Divas a couple years back, which was pitched by writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa – and promoted by Marvel – as…well, here, I’ll let Aguirre-Sacasa tell you:
“The idea behind the series was to have some sudsy fun and lift the curtain a bit and take a peep at some of our most fabulous super heroines. In the series, they’re an unlikely foursome of friends–Black Cat, Hell Cat, Firestar, and Photon–with TWO things in common: They’re all leading double-lives and they’re all having romantic trouble. The pitch started as ‘Sex and the City’ in the Marvel Universe, and there’s definitely that ‘naughty’ element to it, but I also think the series is doing to a deeper place, asking question about what it means…truly means…to be a woman in an industry dominated by testosterone and guns. (And I mean both the super hero industry and the comic book industry.) But mostly it’s just a lot of hot fun.” [Source]
“Sudsy fun.” “Fabulous.” “A lot of hot fun.” Is this a pitch for a superhero comic book or Ru Paul’s Drag Race?
The SatC comparison gets thrown out a lot when you’re talking about books starring two or more female characters; I’ve seen it levied as both promotion and insult for everything from Gotham City Sirens to that one issue of Brave and the Bold where Wonder Woman, Zatanna, and a pre-Killing Joke Barbara Gordon go dancing. And no matter the context, it always kind of makes me wonder if the people referencing it have ever even seen Sex and the City.
Now, to be fair, I’m not a diehard fan or anything like that, but I have seen my fair share of episodes – enough to get a good feel for the show, be familiar with the major story arcs, and have at least one very strong opinion about a romance (Miranda and Steve 4eva!!!)3. SatC is often dismissed as frivolous, post-feminist nonsense about unabashedly consumerist and obliviously privileged woman who are obsessed with men to the detriment of all else, and, you know, there’s some truth to that. I’m not going to defend the show on consumerist grounds4, and it was certainly blindingly white and treated gay men as comic relief sidekicks with useful connections rather than people. And it was often silly – Carrie’s voiceovers in particular were kind of mind-numbingly dumb – but, uh, it was also a sitcom. I Love Lucy was pretty silly too.But I think it’s worth pointing out that the women on SatC are not, in fact, obsessed with men. They’re obsessed with sex, which they happen to be (mostly) having with men. Carrie and Charlotte may get hung up on a certain man or a certain romance, but Samantha has exactly one use for men and Miranda barely tolerates them. And yeah, they talk about it a lot, but so did the guys on Seinfeld, to give just one example of the many male-dominated sex-oriented sitcoms out there. They also talk about it in a way that women in TV hadn’t before; they discuss kinks, hang-ups, experiments, one night stands, concerns, regrets, conquests, and above all their very female desire without being judged for any of it by the narrative or each other. The show is a celebration of (straight, cisgendered) female sexuality more frankly than any other show I can think of. (And, I would argue, the obsession with sex is not exactly a secret: it’s in the title.)
Even more importantly, the relationships with men are not the most important relationships on the show. Sure, Carrie’s romance with Big drives much of the plot, but the thing that makes Sex and the City what it is – and the thing that causes every subsequent story about adult women hanging out to be compared to it – is the dynamic between the four main characters. They are friends, first and foremost, and not just because they drink mimosas and quip at each other every day. They care about each other. They sacrifice for each other. They fight, not about boys, but when their very different worldviews – because they are four very different women5 – collide. And they make up, because over and over again we’re shown that the most important thing in the world to these women – more than Big, more than Manolo Blahniks, more than drinking cosmos and making terrible lewd puns – is each other.
And even if the show is silly, even if there are some very real flaws in its particular brand of feminism that should be pointed out and discussed, the fact that this insanely-popular ratings giant that was nominated for over 50 Emmys is about the friendship between four women is remarkable.
But, you know, it was something that women liked, and so it was probably stupid, right? It was girls having brunch and talking about boys and shoes, right? That’s what women want, right? Exclusively?
So again, when a comic book gets solicited as “Sex and the City for superheroes,” I always want to know: has the person saying this ever seen Sex and the City?6
Because the reference always seems to mean one of three things:
1. Sex and the City is a dumb story about women talking about stupid things and so is this comic. This one is usually snide criticism from a dude who hasn’t seen the show, not a selling point from the writer or publisher. Usually.
2. I haven’t seen Sex and the City and neither have you, male fan, but it probably had sex in it, right? Maybe this comic does, too. You should buy it and find out instead of downloading porn from the internet. In other words, Male Gaze Alert. (Check out that weird, grossly voyeuristic quote from Aguirre-Sacasa again.) Expect your female leads to do a lot of gossiping and catfighting and obsessing over boys and shoes and calling each other bitches.
3. Ladies! You liked Sex and the City, right? This comic is like that! It has…feelings! And shoes! This, sadly, is the best-case scenario – an extremely half-assed attempt to appeal to female readers by likening it to something women enjoy, without bothering to find out what your female readers actually want or spending any actual marketing dollars putting an ad on TheMarySue.com or attending Geek Girl Con or in any way treating them like a viable demographic. Look, most women read superhero comics for the same reasons men do: for thrilling tales of heroism and courage against unbelievable odds, and also face-punching. What we’re asking is not that you completely reinvent the genre to include a lot more brunch – just that you not actively offend us over the course of the thrilling tales/face-punching. If I want stories with an emphasis on shoes, sex, and romance, I can go somewhere else for that, like romance novels. Or, you know, actual Sex and the City.
But what I’ve never seen is this:
This comic is like Sex and the City in that at its core, it’s a story of female friendship. It’s about women with distinct personalities and a deep connection who get each other through the rough times in their lives with their friendship and their wicked senses of humor. It’s funny and essentially lighthearted and just a little bit daring.
So, like Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey. Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl. Or Jeff Parker and Colleen Coover’s Wanda Maximoff and Jean Grey stories, or Paul Tobin’s Spider-Girl, or the ladies of Peter David’s Young Justice, or…
Well, if that was what being compared to Sex and the City meant, being compared to Sex and the City would be a pretty good thing after all. So maybe instead of tossing “it’s like Sex and the City” out as an offhand, vaguely dismissive reference to Lady Stories for Ladies, comic book writers and publishers should take another look at what, exactly, made Sex and the City so popular to women to begin with.
Hint: the answer is not “shoes.”
- I have no beef with Helena Wayne, but the Huntress I know and love is Helena Bertinelli. I suspect this new Helena will be written with Bertinelli’s personality, since her 22 years of continuity trump Wayne’s long-ago seven, but I really would’ve preferred for her not to be officially tied to Batman. Alas. ↩
- I love Maguire, but he is sloooow. Oh my God, you guys, imagine if Nicola Scott had been on World’s Finest instead of Earth 2? IT WOULD HAVE BEEN SO BEAUTIFUL. ↩
- I’ve also seen the second movie, which was dreadful and racist and not at all what I’m talking about in this post. Also, it was the worst movie-going experience of my life. Don’t ever see a movie set in a desert on a 95 degree day when the theater’s air conditioning is broken, even if you get a free cosmo out of the deal. ↩
- Except to point out that a) a show about men buying gadgets would not get nearly this much flack, and b) it’s hardly the first TV show to put its characters in unrealistically awesome apartments. (See also: Friends, iCarly’s beautiful two-story loft with elevator (paid for by a struggling modern sculptor who never sells a piece), every televised college dorm room ever.) But a show that has women frequently shopping immediately draws criticism along the lines of HOW DARE WOMEN BUY THINGS, WOMEN ARE SO BAD WITH MONEY, (INSERT JOKE ABOUT SHOES). ↩
- I haven’t seen so many women identifying themselves as “I am such a (character of choice)” since my Baby-sitters Club days. Haha, just kidding, these are still my Baby-sitters Club days. For the record, I’m a Miranda and a Kristy. And a Ginger Spice. ↩
- I should note that I’m not intending to pick on Levitz here. His comment could very well have referred to the context of the scene – I have no problem whatsoever with Peej and Helena glamming it up in Paris, as long as they do other things, too. But the reference sets off warning bells in my head. ↩