I noticed the "Sex and the City" trailer playing on a continuous loop at the aptly named Vogue Café in the Tokyo National Art Center the other day. Taking a peek inside, I saw a table of well-dressed 30-something Japanese women. They were all chatting away, sipping from martini glasses like it was their job, and staring wide-eyed up at the SATC girls above them — the Japanese equivalent of Carrie and the gang, doing their thing in Tokyo.
With the immense popularity of the TV show and now the blockbuster movie, the NYC gals have dug their high heels deep into the female psyche all over the globe. The effect they’ve had on Japan, and in particular the mindset of women here, is particularly striking. Not known for its progressive position in terms of women’s rights, Japan seems the perfect place for the fabulous and feisty cast to work their magic.
I’ve noticed that my single Japanese female friends (mostly in their 30s) are all smitten with the show, and the lifestyle it conveys. What first attracts them is the glamour of it all. They, too, yearn to swan around town with Fendi bags and Manolo Blahniks, downing coffee and cocktails in the trendiest places, chatting about boys, clothes, sex and love.
The SATC gals seem to have a lot of free time — and a constantly bulging Louis Vuitton wallet. It’s a way of life that’s extremely appealing to the working women of Japan, who are struggling to forge a modern and progressive identity in a culture that often has a traditional and dismissive view of them.
Aside from the surface extravagances, the "Sex and the City" women are unique, complex and independent. They have interesting jobs, don’t rely on men to support them, and generally play by their own rules. These qualities seem to fascinate the women of Japan, who are still burdened with the pressure of having to act like meek and fragile dolls, willing to bow politely (and give up seats graciously) to men who will one day “honor” them with marriage.
And it is the romance between Carrie and Mr Big, as well as the love lives of the other girls, which really hits home. Constantly pressured by parents and society to find a husband lest they bear the shame of becoming a "make-inu" (loser dog), Japanese women connect with the relationship struggles on the show. They are fixated on finding their own Mr Big, which in the end seems as difficult in Tokyo as it is in Manhattan.
So, as women here grapple with traditional ideas about their role in society, the show may be helping them realize that they can express themselves about everything from sexuality to bodily issues to heartbreak, and that they are entitled to love on their own terms. If you don’t believe me, check out the revealing and uninhibited posts on the SATC Mixi fan site.
Yet, despite the galvanizing effect that the show has had, it shouldn’t be forgotten that SATC is a work of fiction. Obviously, not everyone can afford to buy $400 shoes or live in a luxury apartment, and working Tokyo women have far less time to sip cocktails with their gal pals. And sometimes, the disconnect between the show’s fantasy world and the real lives of Japanese women takes on a darker aspect.
I am reminded of an ex-student of mine who was absolutely obsessed with the program, especially the character of Charlotte. She was always impeccably dressed and coiffed, her husband was an investment banker, and she lived in a luxury flat in Roppongi Hills. On the surface, she seemed to be living the fantasy. But one day I caught her discreetly blotting away tears along with the remnants of her Chanel eyeliner. She had just had a fight with her husband, whom she claimed had been beating her.
“Why don’t you call the police? Or get a divorce?” I asked. “Women in Japan just have to accept it,” she replied. “The police don’t care about it, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything if I was alone.”
Charlotte wouldn’t tolerate this, I thought. And then it dawned on me how little my student had actually learned from her idol.
If women in Japan are to be empowered by the example of Carrie and her mates, they must embrace what these ladies stand for, not just what’s on the surface. They have to be aggressive, thoughtful, and not afraid to pursue what they truly want in life. They must rise up in their Jimmy Choos, wave their martinis in the air, and shout to the rafters, “We are geisha no more!” Only then will their Mr Big appear. Surely, Japan needs to take a lot more serious action than this in terms of women’s rights. It can’t hurt to dream, though.
Trenton Truitt is a Tokyo-based freelance writer and editor (Ia-forum.org). This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today