Liposuction for 'Sex and the City'

Posted: Jun 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The critics are calling it "Safe Sex and the City," or "Censored Sex and the City," sometimes "Subtler Sex and the City," or even "McSex and the City." The wildly popular HBO sitcom has moved from subscription into syndication to basic cable, which has more delicate taste in graphic sexuality, if we concede that television has taste. Syndication depends on advertisers, who depend on a more conservative audience.

The sitcom won't air during the family hour - such as still exists. But, thanks to careful nips and tucks to eliminate the grosser obscenities and full-frontal nudity, the 94 episodes will qualify for a rating of TV-14, instead of X, from the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board. A TV-14 rating, in case you're wondering, means the new "Sex" episodes may still feature, according to the monitoring board's standards, "intense sexual situations, strong coarse language, or intensely suggestive dialogue." The board, after all, isn't a collection of prudes.

Extracting the sex could have brought 94 episodes down to nine, but the editors were not so radical. In our sex-saturated culture, editing is more a cosmetic cover-up to tease an audience into thinking that what they're seeing and hearing is not really what they're seeing and hearing. Not much is missing. Unfortunately, there are no creative changes that might have replaced graphic sex with delicious fadeouts, the tree branches beating against the window or flames crackling in the fireplace as the theme music swells. The romantic movies of a more sophisticated era depended on the imagination of the audience.

For all its sexual abandonment, however, episodes of "Sex and the City" were mini-morality plays of contemporary sexuality. Beneath the bravado of "anything goes" there was a muted desire for something better, the familiar urgent desire to turn Mr. Maybe into Mr. Right, to link mating with monogamy. We watched the four female characters become angry, frustrated and sad at the way their men treated them. Their obsession with stylish shoes turned the Cinderella story upside down as the glass slipper morphed into one Manolo Blanik original after another, unsubsidized by any prince.

While the show was originally hailed as a triumph of the sexual revolution, celebrating equality in the boudoir, it never quite turned out that way. If anatomy was not destiny, feelings were, as the women confronted their biological clocks, the middle-aging process, and the desire to find intimacy where a soulmate would become more important than a sexpot. While the concluding episode smacked of superficiality, the four protagonists exhibited a reach for maturity in marriage, and an awareness of the complex issues they would face as their families expanded with children as well as aging parents.

HBO has 28 million subscribers, small stuff compared to TBS, which can be seen in 88 million homes. Mitsubishi, a sponsor of the edited episodes, says its sponsorship is part of a larger strategy to reach "the more 'young at heart' mindset." Exactly whose hearts they have in mind is not clear. The emptiness of teenage sex, devoid of ritual and romance, and sometimes even a partner, is one of the sadder ironies of our time. "Who needs the hassle of dating when I've got online porn?" one teenage girl asks in a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Another young girl tries to sound like Samantha, the most promiscuous of the women in the sitcom: "I try to set up a situation where I won't get hurt, and I still manage to get hurt."

Many teenage girls today sound remarkably like their counterparts who grew up in more conservative times, feeling rejected when the guy doesn't call again. Liberation was supposed to free women from such feelings.

In a fascinating study of the attitudes and values of today's college women, theIndependent Women's Forum, a Washington think tank for thinking women (and men), a large majority of women told researchers they really wanted to meet their husbands in college. Many thinking women have concluded that it's time to "take back the date," to cultivate courtship where a man and a woman get to know each other before they know each other.

It's Cupid who needs liberation. His arrows have been dulled by the coarseness of our times, and now they merely bounce, not pierce, when he aims them at couples "hooking up." It's impossible to pierce the heart or touch the emotions when an exchange of bodily juices is all there is between hello and goodbye. Fast sex, like fast food, is cheap, but it doesn't nourish the body - or the soul.