Wednesday, June 6, 2018

What's wrong with living like a fictional character?

Ann Althouse has had a couple of interesting posts up the last few days about people who were so inspired by Sex and the City that they tried to have the life. She frames this as "living like a fictional character". I think someone could reasonably accuse me of sometimes promoting living like a fictional character in writing about Mad Men Brideshead Revisited and the novels of Jane Austen. What's my response?

The first thing I'd note is that the people (some of them men) who sought to live Carrie's life as depicted in Sex and the City were inspired more by the life than the character. Carrie gets lots of sex and romance and, while she doesn't have much money, she gets to do a lot of things that cost a lot of money in New York City. How exactly she manages that is not entirely clear although her willingness to have sex with men who will pick up the tab has something to do with it.

And that raises an issue that is worth discussing. Carrie Bradshaw trades sex for what she wants. She likes sex and would probably do it anyway but it's part of the deal. You might be tempted to dismiss her on those grounds but I don't think that's fair. Jane Austen is far less explicit about it but all her heroines are offering sex as part of the deal. One of her characters is named "Fanny Price" and it's interesting to speculate whether Austen made the pun intentionally (in British English, "fanny" carries the same connotations as "pussy" does in North American English) but only a willfully blind reader could miss that whom one has sex with and under what conditions one has this sex is a central issue for Jane Austen's characters.

Someone could be attracted to Don Draper or Charles Ryder because they want the life rather than because they want to acquire the sort of moral character these men have. Both have money and get lots of sex and romantic adventure. Both also, like Carrie Bradshaw, pursue marriage although, and this is very important, we don't see their actually getting it as essential to their personal development the way we do with Carrie.

Althouse remarks, 'I got to that article via Instapundit who seems to accept Allison's blaming "Sex and the City" for the fact that Allison's career of being a Carrie type eventually got played out.' Glen Reynolds and I, both men, see something Althouse doesn't here. Are we right or is Althouse?

In any case, it seems pretty clear that seeking the life is eminently mockable as Althouse claims. Oddly enough, this isn't because you can't have it. Most people don't get to live the life but it is possible for those who are good looking and intelligent. An ex-girlfriend of mine who is roughly Carrie's contemporary lived a rough approximation of it with the singular difference that the guy she ultimately married isn't fabulously wealthy. The first Althouse post was in response to an article by a woman named Julia Allison who said she had lived the life but that it was a lie. The funny thing, for me, is that it does not seem to have been a lie to me when I read the article. She got all the things that Carrie got. Except Mr. Big that is. Here are two facts about Julia for your consideration.
  1. The first sentence of her Wikipedia profile with added emphasis on one word: "Julia Allison (born Julia Allison Baugher on February 28, 1981) is a former journalist, television commentator, public speaker and BRAVO star."
  2. If you do the math, Julia Allison is 37 years old.
In real life, the physical attractiveness that makes such a life possible for some women depreciates steadily after age 25 no matter how carefully it is managed while the wealth that makes the men attractive to them often does appreciate if carefully managed.

Years ago I read a study that had been done of adolescent conversation patterns. There was something that girls tended to do a lot more than boys, although boys did it sometimes. That something was to gauge what was the best behaviour by observing the way your friends react to stories you tell about what others have done. Fifteen-year old Cindy tells her friends that another girl she knows texted a nude picture of herself to a boy. The other girl can be real, someone she made up or a real girl about whom she has made stuff up. Whether her friends approve or disapprove will determine whether Cindy would consider doing likewise.

When you get right down to it, that's how every episode of Sex and the City works. You have Carrie who is attempting to live what the show's creators, and a lot of women of my generation, believed to be a life that balances feminism and femininity or, to put it in virtue ethics language: who tries to be a) a good woman and b) good at being a woman. To help us gauge her success, she tells stories about her three friends. On the show's terms, success is to be a feminist and still get lots of good sex, glamour, romance and, ultimately, a happy marriage. And the contrasting characters? Miranda is feminist but is reserved both sexually and romantically. Charlotte and Samantha both err in being post-feminist. In addition, Charlotte is sexually reserved while Samantha is romantically reserved. The dramatic tension turned on the fact that the show's fans all wanted to be Carrie but were scared of actually turning out to be a Miranda, a Charlotte or a Samantha.

Like all good fiction, character is what counts. All the women pursue sex and romance and get a lot of both. We judge them on the character they develop from those experiences more than the individual choices they make. That is as it should be.

My judgments? I've met Carries, Mirandas, Charlottes and Samanthas in my life. To be blunt, the one I'd be most interested in having a friendship or relationship with is Charlotte. I think Charlotte and Miranda would both make good bosses or coworkers while Carrie would be incompetent and untrustworthy and Samantha would be manipulative and untrustworthy. That said, as noted above, I once was in a serious relationship with a Carrie. I think you could marry a Samantha and manage happiness although you could never trust her. You could easily manage a happy marriage with a Miranda; the potential difficulty would not be trusting her so much as living up to her standards. In the end I married a Charlotte and there was nothing accidental about that. Long before Sex and the City debuted I had decided what I sort of person I wanted to marry and I found her, something that still seems miraculous to me. I'm not alone in my preferences. Charlotte is far and away the most attractive character for all the men I have ever discussed the show with. If there is a central lie about Sex and the City it is that the show never gives Charlotte much of a chance for happiness while my experience is that the women most likely to be happy in life are Charlottes. (And I'd say that the chances for happiness following her are, in descending order, Miranda, Samantha, Carrie.) But ... so what? If a woman really wants to be more of Samantha or a Carrie or, to put it another way, if she thinks those lives are morally superior to Charlotte's life, she will make her own choice.

Let's go back to Don Draper and Charles Ryder for a moment. As noted above, both are unmarried at the end of the stories they feature in. In addition, neither has done a lot to make himself marriageable. Our notion of what makes a satisfactory story arc for a man doesn't require marriage at the end of the rainbow. The makers of Sex and the City seemed to think that Carrie's story did require that. We might object, and a lot of people did, but none of us has made successful TV shows and/or movies. Is there as much of a market for female heroines whose story arcs are indifferent to marriage as there is for male heroes? You can probably guess my answer but, again, so what? Your answer is the one that should matter to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment