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Archive for Friday, February 27, 2004

Series made single look OK

February 27, 2004

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— OK, so "Sex and the City" didn't end with a climax. It ended with something closer to a snuggle. But pity the poor writers, caught between the wish for a "Big" ending and the desire for no ending at all, an endless time warp of baby T's and Pradas and first dates and girltalk.

"Sex and the City" was not exactly a Valentine to being single, unless you have a particularly raunchy Hallmark in mind. It was too dishy, too X-rated for the Meg Ryan chick flick crowd. But the series arrived just in time to give us some single women to root for.

So as the Eiffel Tower recedes and Mr. Big is transformed from cad to John, this series takes its place in history as an antidote to all the stories that ever made "single" sound like a syndrome rather than a status.

Remember spinsters? Remember old maids? A century ago, a woman who didn't get married ended up like Edith Wharton's Lily Bart, broke and downing laudanum. When Susan B. Anthony turned 50, the headline in the New York Sun even called the mother of us all a "Brave Old Maid."

The old maid became the working girl and even, coyly, the bachelor girl. But it wasn't until 1962 that Helen Gurley Brown shocked the nation by putting "Sex and the Single Girl" in one sentence and one book title.

By the late 1960s and '70s, we had the liberated woman and the zipless you-know-what. But by the mid-1980s we were once again being warned in that infamous and bogus social research that a college-educated single woman of 40 was "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to find a husband. The stories about singletons started ticking with biological clocks. A single woman could be a CEO and a loser.

Halfway through the 1990s, we had the Rules Girls offering up 35 time-tested secrets for catching your man. The none-too-subtle message was that single women had to -- and wanted to -- trick men into tying the knot.

For the past decade, single women were portrayed as inhabitants of the state of panic, weighing their lives as often as Bridget Jones weighed her body. We had Ally McBeal, offering up the single woman as an anorexic, momma-wannabe lawyer in a permanent state of depression.

But we also had Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, the No Rules Girls. The sex was outrageous, the city fictitious, but through six years they created an alternative universe for women who had no intention of settling for the man their mother thought they should never have let get away.

There was bravery under the frivolity and the trash talk. Not bravery in the manner of suffragists who handcuffed themselves to the White House fence. But bravery in the manner of women who have confidence, friendship, work and say, as Charlotte did, "Maybe we could be each other's soul mates and we could let men be these great nice guys to have fun with."

And bravery of the kind Carrie expressed when she wouldn't settle for a second-place love with her sophisticated Russian: "Maybe it's time to be clear about who I am. I am someone who is looking for love. Real Love. Ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can't-live-without-each-other love."

How many men who would never attend "The Vagina Monologues" eavesdropped on this Sunday night single talkfest? Some saw their worst nightmares in the female-bonding and male-grading. It's possible that a generation of spam was spawned by the "Sex" and size talk. But did they notice how, in the end, nice guys won the girls?

If they did nothing else, these women in their alternative universe stiffened the spirits and spine of old married ladies and their twentysomething daughters alike. They created a world in which being alone was better than a bad relationship. In which being alone wasn't even alone.

In its last, growing-up season, commitments were made and mortality faced and happy endings written. Some viewers felt as disappointed as if their own friends had paired off.

But in the grand finale, Carrie said to Mr. Big: "I don't need you to rescue me." For the women in and out marriage, she said, love is not a rescue mission but the icing on the cake of pretty fine life. That's still as subversive as it gets.




Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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