The show’s basic value system aligns with Carrie: romantic, second-wave, libertine. But “Sex and the City” ’s real strength was its willingness not to stack the deck: it let every side make a case, so that complexity carried the day. When Carrie and Aidan break up, they are both right. When Miranda and Carrie argue about her move to Paris, they are both right. The show’s style could be brittle, but its substance was flexible, in a way that made the series feel peculiarly broad-ranging, covering so much ground, so fleetly, that it became easy to take it for granted.
Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to glide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.
So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior. Certainly, the show’s formula was strict: usually four plots—two deep, two shallow—linked by Carrie’s voice-over. The B plots generally involved one of the non-Carrie women getting laid; these slapstick sequences were crucial to the show’s rude rhythms, interjecting energy and rupturing anything sentimental. (It’s one reason those bowdlerized reruns on E! are such a crime: with the literal and figurative fucks edited out, the show is a rom-com.)
Western societies are not, even now, the paradise of skepticism and rationalism that they believe themselves to be. The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
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The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And, even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.
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The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.