The female narcissist on top. Part 1.
Watched an episode of Sex and the City late last night, "The Real Me," from Season Four, and went to bed thinking I would be writing a great post in the morning making brilliant connections between my thoughts about the show and David Denby's review of The Devil Wears Prada in the July 10 and 17 issue of the New Yorker.
In "The Real Me" fashionista wannabe Carrie is asked to be a model in a charity fashion show. She's reluctant to do it, even a bit appalled by the idea. She is not a model, she keeps telling anyone who will listen, which is just about nobody, she's a writer. She has set up a dichotomy between the two roles, model and writer, which for her represents the difference between a make-believe world and a world of truth-telling.
The world of fashion is about creating an image, a superficial, pretend self for the world to adore. Carrie's world, the world in which she is a writer, is where she gives her readers the real her and they are free to like her or not like her as they please, but they must recognize her as her, and not simply admire her as a beautiful display rack for some other artist's creations.
Writers are admired for what they make. Models are admired, primarily, for what other people can make of them.
But as things progress it becomes clear that Carrie's reluctance isn't all due to her artistic and spiritual integrity. There's also the false modesty of the secretly vain at work. Consciously, Carrie knows she does not look like a model. Secretly, she wishes she did. Below that, though, is the hope that she does and, a little more deeply buried but not totally repressed, is the happy, self-thrilling knowledge that she is beautiful and sexy and will look great out there on the runway.
In one of those aside moments when Carrie works on her column, she reveals that it is that knowledge she is resisting as a temptation. She writes about the myth of Narcissus, a myth of male self-love, but the episode is about the temptations of female narcissism. Carrie is afraid of falling in love with the image of herself as a model.
Which through the rest of the episode she then proceeds to do in fits and starts. Her fall from grace is nicely symbolized by her attraction to a photographer who is constantly taking her picture, keeping his camera between them so that instead of looking at him she is always looking into a kind of mirror, her own reflection held up for her to fall in love with.
That the photographer is more interested in taking pictures of the "real" Carrie and not the "model" Carrie adds to her confusion. Now her real self is being used against her. It's now another reflection for her to fall in love with instead of the true Carrie who can resist the allure of self-love.
Carrie succumbs at last to the point that when she is figuratively stripped of the beautiful blue cocktail dress she was supposed to wear and is sent out on stage essentially naked---she's wearing a flesh colored pair of panties with jewels on the crotch and a a long duster that has one button, right under the cleft of her pushed up breasts and pretty much covers nothing---she not only goes along, she throws herself into it with gusto.
She wants to be seen naked and applauded.
She struts out onto the runway and...
Falls flat on her face.
It's a symbolic moment that's played so lightly that they get away with it. At that point, Carrie is Narcissus falling into his pool and drowning in his own image.
Carrie the model drowns.
Carrie the writer climbs out of the pool and finishes the walk---the limp, she's lost a shoe---down the runway. She is wildly applauded, especially by her friends, but for her spunk and grace and sense of humor, which is to say, for being naked in another way, she is baring her soul. She is a hit for being herself, not an image.
The other characters are tempted by narcissim too. Well, Samantha long ago gave in to that temptation. This is the pre-Smith Jared Sam, the lone wolf Sam, whose favorite sexual partner was always herself; all the men, and the occasional woman, she took to bed were surrogate Samanthas, specially equipped sex toys she needed because the regular forms of masturbation don't allow her to get as hands on with herself as she would like. Plus, she's not sastisfied with an audience of one.
In "The Real Me" Samantha decides to have nude photos taken of herself. Not to show anybody, but to have for herself to look at and admire.
Meanwhile, Miranda, told by a guy at her gym that he finds her sexy, falls immediately into the pool of self-love. She sets out to be as sexy as she wants to be but in the process makes him feel like nothing more than a mirror, in a neat gender reversal of the Narcissus and Echo story, except that the male Echo refuses to pine away, he just walks out on her.
This being Sex and the City, which always had as one of its chief virtues a refusal to judge its characters by anything like conventional ideas of right and wrong, Samantha suffers no consequences for her narcissism while Miranda is humiliated as a punishment for hers, the reasons being that A. Life is just unfair that way and B. Miranda's real "sin" is that in falling in love with an image of herself as a sexy babe she is betraying her true self.
The fatal flaw for Miranda, and Carrie, is not self-love, which is actually presented as healthy and desirable---Samantha's self-confidence is heroic, in its way---it's their failure to be "the real me." Miranda is sexier in a sweaty old t-shirt than in a little black dress showing lots of leg and cleavage because in the t-shirt she was being the real her and in the dress she was acting the part of a babe.
(Cynthia Nixon, not being Miranda, is sexier in a little black dress showing lots of leg and cleavage than in a sweaty old t-shirt.)
Charlotte, by the way, is tempted by a mirror too, but at the key moment she falls off the bed and out of the camera's view, so we don't know if she fainted at the sight of her own revealed beauty or if her real modesty, as opposed to Carrie's earlier false modesty, came along and tackled her and saved her from drowning in the pool, or if it was just one of those clutzy moments we're all prone to when we need to be at our most dignified.
Freud has something to say about that, I think.
At any rate, the brilliant connections I was going to make between that episode and Denby's review of The Devil Wears Prada were based on a mistake. I thought the director of "The Real Me," who was one of the executive producers of the series, Michael Patrick King, also directed the movie.
But The Devil Wears Prada was directed by David Frankel, who also worked on episodes of Sex and the City.
Still, there is a connection. And I'll make it.
Runway [the fashion magazine edited by Meryl Streep's imperious character Miranda] is the engine of desire—not the desire for sex, which the movie regards as relatively unimportant, but for power and for very beautiful things. The severity of the movie’s good taste is awesome...
When [Anne Hathaway's character, Streep's new assistant] Andy starts at Runway, she doesn’t care about any of this. Her indifference is an affront to the staff, and, early in the movie, [Streep delivers] a brilliant speech in which she explains the structural connection between a sample from a fashion house—a cerulean belt—that Andy laughs at and the frumpy sweater that Andy is wearing. It’s startling to hear the entire fashion world tied together as an economic unit—Adam Smith couldn’t have done better. Nigel (Stanley Tucci), Miranda’s second-in-command, completes Andy’s education. A superlative wit whose acid observations are infallibly correct, Nigel reaches into the magazine’s vast wardrobe room, where the samples are arrayed on racks, and dresses Andy in a Chanel jacket and boots and a Kristina Ti skirt. Narrowing his mouth and rolling his eyes, Tucci ventures into risky territory with this performance; his cackle and little dance when Nigel thinks that, at last, he has broken free of Miranda—whom he adores and loathes—is a classic moment. In scene after scene, Tucci brings out Hathaway’s confidence, both as actor and as character. Under Nigel’s guidance, and with the aid of Runway’s endless closet, Andy becomes a fashion princess. The rest of the movie asks whether she can assume this role without betraying herself.
The old Hollywood trick. Immerse the audience for two hours in a fairy tale world of beautiful people and lovely things and then assure us at the end that the characters, and the actors who play them, want nothing more than to leave the castle and go and live in the same little cottages at the far ends of the kingdom where we live.
Sex and the City never pulled that. It took the dreams and desires of its characters seriously and it expected us to understand why those dreams and desires were good and even admirable and worth realizing, if not for us, at least for the characters themselves.
Carrie’s love of the world of fashion, her desire for pretty clothes, and her wish to be part of the fashion scene are not satirized, criticized, or held in contempt by the writers. The denizens of the fashion world, the designers and models and hangers-on, are gently satirized, but as averagely fallible and silly human beings. What they do for a living is actually presented with a great deal of respect.
Carrie’s temptation is not from the pretty clothes or the glitzy fashion scene or the high-powered and highly creative, if nutty, fashion mavens. Her temptation is from within. She is her own temptress.
Sex and the City was passionately anti-Puritan. It celebrated joy in the form of material and bodily pleasures, of course, but it was also anti-Puritanical in the way he recognized that temptation and corruption were things we did to ourselves.
Puritans believe that the Devil works from the outside, which is why they are always attempting to stamp things out. They want to shut things down, censor them, close them, cover them up, in order to save us from temptation.
The devil wears Prada so Prada is evil.
But the anti-Puritan knows that the devil wears whatever we are wearing, including our own skin. The devil is inside. He, or she, isn’t standing at the tent flap beckoning to us and saying, “Come in, come in, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
The devil is in our heads saying, “Go on. You know you want to. You know you deserve it.”
Denby says in his review that Anne Hathaway's character has to choose between the high life and her sense of honor and her decency, a phony and sentimental choice.
Carrie has to choose between her vanity and her ambition. It's not the thing she wants---the object of desire which the Puritan always sees as the source of corruption---that's bad. It's what she's doing to herself as she sets about to get it.
Which is why the show has no problem, and is not contradicting anything, when it sends Carrie off to work for Vogue a few episodes later.
She gets where she wants to go by being a writer.