Stereotypes and the City

By Emily Fox

Published March 03, 2006, issue of March 03, 2006.
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Describing someone as “New York,” Nora Ephron once observed, is really just a euphemism for Jewish, and since “Sex and the City” epitomized New York, one could easily understand why Darren Star, the show’s creator, has said he considers the denizens of his hit show — particularly Carrie Bradshaw, the main character, played by Sarah Jessica Parker — to be Jews at heart. But though it is fun to play with these subtle cultural messages, the real discussion for us here must revolve around the overt: one Mr. Harry Goldenblatt, the Jewish suitor who warmed the WASPy heart of Charlotte York.

With this character, played by the magnificently bald yet otherwise hirsute Evan Handler, “Sex and the City” brought us a modern interpretation of the classic pairing of Woody Allen’s extravagantly neurotic Alvy Singer and spacey shiksa goddess Annie Hall. Harry, introduced in the fourth season as a nebbishy yet successful divorce lawyer, meets Charlotte in her moment of greatest despair: Her picture-perfect marriage to a fine Episcopalian specimen named Trey MacDougal (Kyle MacLachlan) is in tatters. Despite outward appearances, gorgeous doctor Trey turned out to be a dismal failure in the sack; after years of propping him up and suffering the painful indignities of trying unsuccessfully to conceive a child, all Charlotte wants is a divorce and her pristine Park Avenue apartment. Harry helps her secure this piece of property, as well as everything that comes with it: a room (or, in this case, six classic ones) of her own, and a sense of justice. As an advocate, he is peerless.

When the two finally sleep together, he is overjoyed and she is appalled. This woman, who has spent her life in pursuit of that which is beautiful and refined, had, in her view, stooped to a new low. She admits to her friends, however, that it was the best sex she’s ever had. We are led to assume that he is voracious and attentive, and that these traits are part and parcel of his cultural heritage. But the fact that the sex is great is only partially attributed to Harry’s prowess. The implication is that Charlotte lets go of her inhibitions because she has no reason to impress Harry; she finds him so unappealing that she sleeps with him only because she is too polite to say no to his ham-handed advances. The Jew is morally superior, but what a price to pay.

And so it seems, once again, that pop culture giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other.

But after mopping my brow clean of the sweat of self-righteousness, I realized that the stereotypes in this comedy of manners were pretty evenly distributed: The Jews may have been pigeonholed as nerdy and hairy and desperate for love and affection, but the WASPs fared no better, with their affected lockjaw and facial tics and, most significantly, Trey’s impotence. And, perhaps most interestingly, the Harry table turns in a most delicious way: Just as Charlotte is really falling for Harry, he reveals that he won’t marry her. His faith means more to him than looks or breeding or even great sex. It means more to him than she does. After a courtship in which Charlotte seems to have the upper hand, now he’s in the driver’s seat. It’s not vengeful, or even deliberate. It just is.

Indeed, the thing that makes Harry so extraordinary, in the end, and the thing that makes him worthy not just of Charlotte’s love but of her respect, too, is his unwavering sense of who he is and what his priorities are. I suppose I’d feel more resentful if the Jew weren’t the big winner in the end, occupying the moral high ground as well as the throne next to his queen (who converted to Judaism, after all, and embraced her new faith with tremendous enthusiasm). But why waste time feeling resentful? Charlotte and Harry’s story is a new spin on the old fairy tale. Would the fairy tale have such a happy ending if Harry hadn’t had to overcome such physical liabilities as a hairy back and beady eyes? It’s a victory, in my view, that when Charlotte kissed her frog, he didn’t turn into a prince but instead remained exactly as he was and earned her love anyway.

If “Sex and the City” was indeed a valentine to New York, and if New York is really a synonym for everything Jewish, then Charlotte falling for Harry is really just an extension of the show’s central theme: Nebbishy, intellectual, balding and hairy, New York makes no excuses for what it is and makes no empty offers to change in order to suit someone else’s ideal.

Emily Fox is a television writer and columnist in Los Angeles.

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