There’s an image that has haunted me for years. It’s the opening credits of Sex and The City on HBO. Here — watch it with me.
Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sara Jessica Parker, is walking in downtown Manhattan. We see her face first — brash, charming, flirtatious. Then, as the reel shifts back and forth between the skyscrapers of New York City and the face of the young woman walking, we see gradually more of her outfit.
She’s magnificently dressed, in a shimmering pale pink top and white puffed skirt. The outfit is a bit too innocent, perhaps, for the setting. But it’s beautiful and fits her well.
Then, suddenly, a car drives too fast through a puddle — splashing dirty street water all over her magnificent clothes.
She wheels around, hurt and angry. It’s the first time the camera has caught her from the rear, her blonde curls shaking and her face now contorted.
Behind her we see the side of a bus that has just stopped at her corner. On the side of the bus is a poster of Carrie, lying down seductively in another tight-fitting white outfit. It’s an advertisement for the sex column she writes.
The ad says, “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex.”
Care to see it again?
I can’t help but feeling that the camera is savoring Carrie’s downfall. As if she’s being punished for something.
A female colleague says I take it too seriously. “Look at it this way,” she says. “She’s just a young woman finding out some of the perils of life in Manhattan.”
I don’t think so. I think it’s something darker.
I think the message is that if a young woman intends to celebrate her sexuality, she’s going to be punished for it in some way.
A strangely puritanical message, especially for what was supposed to be a sexy show on HBO. A show that was largely written by and for women.
Why would a woman want to see another woman treated badly?
“Maybe so she can triumph in the end,” says my colleague. OK, maybe. But why such gratuitous punishment along the way?
Enter Fifty Shades of Grey — in which a young woman endures quite a lot of punishment, erotic and otherwise, while attempting to tame her dream lover. Though she apparently has the sexual time of her life in the process.
As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd points out in “She’s Fit to Be Tied,” Fifty Shades is just the most recent in a series of dramatic meditations on innocence versus corruption — the white skirt vs the dirty street water, if you will — that’s captivated Western readers for a long time.
Dowd traces Fifty Shades back to Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded — which I hadn’t looked at since high school. But which I re-read this past week, in an effort to better comprehend why women all over America are so enjoying all the flavors of masochism on display in Fifty Shades.
And in the process, hoping if possible to understand why it was necessary to muddy Carrie Bradshaw’s clothes every week on HBO. And why so few people complained.
Pamela, though written over 250 years ago, has much to say about these issues.