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Sex and the City of God’ stirs talk within Catholic context at University

Sonia Rao | Thursday, March 1, 2007

A question posed by Sex and the City character Carrie Bradshaw – “Is it possible to be both Catholic and cosmopolitan?” – extended beyond the television screen to Notre Dame Wednesday night.

Faith confronted culture in a “Sex and the City of God” presentation, which was held in DeBartolo Hall. The event grew out of an ad hoc committee on gender relations University President Father John Jenkins created last spring, intended to stimulate discussion on issues raised by “The Vagina Monologues” with a focus on Catholic context.

“The goal is to bring the insights of the Catholic tradition into a frank conversation of contemporary topics … at the cusp of the 21st century,” said M. Cathleen Kaveny, law professor and panel moderator.

The presentation began with the showing of a Sex and the City episode entitled “The Domino Effect,” then went to a panel of four faculty members and two students. The title “Sex and the City of God” is “an amalgam of sex and St. Augustine’s famous work The City of God,” Kaveny said.

“The Domino Effect,” described by Kaveny as featuring “characters [dealing] with complex issues of love, sexuality, commitment and motherhood,” served as a sounding board in comparing contemporary issues with faith-based concerns.

“We don’t expect this event to answer all questions, but we hope it will start a discussion and if we do that we’ll be very successful,” Kaveny said before the episode began.

Panelists included Vice President for Student Affairs Father Mark Poorman, Director of the Gender Studies Program Eileen Hunt Botting, Theology Department chair John Cavadini, Law School professor Margaret Brinig, “Loyal Daughters” author Emily Weisbecker and Jennie Bradley, a 2004 Notre Dame graduate currently attending Harvard Law School.

Each panelist took 10 minutes to address a specific question dealing with a certain aspect of Sex and the City within the context of a Catholic faith.

Poorman was asked what he would say to the show’s characters if he were stuck in a cab with them on the way to the airport. Assuming they asked for his advice, Poorman said he would tell them he “detect[ed] a profound sadness in all of you.”

“The constant frustration of seeming to have it all and not having what you really want is enough to depress even the most buoyant spirit. … It’s time to discover a deeper meaning in [their] lives than living in a rent-controlled apartment, finding the best sushi, and getting a fifteen percent discount on gallery art,” he said.

Poorman said the show’s characters could alleviate the sadness brought on by relationship instabilities and “the pathetic objects of attraction that [they’re] associated with” by becoming engaged in activities that go beyond themselves.

“[The characters need to] reconnect with the God who gave [them] such privileged lives in the first place and spend [their] talents on people who hunger for the benefits of [their] gifts,” he said.

Botting discussed issues of feminism within the show, addressing whether or not Carrie and her friends were actually feminists or just overly affectionate about shoes.

“I do think that it is possible to appreciate the beauty of a pair of shoes or a beautiful piece of clothing and espouse feminist ideals,” Botting said.

Though she would not classify any of the characters as fitting a particular school of thought or “a particular brand of feminism,” Botting said the show is able to “set forth a variety of viewpoints on different subjects and forces us to ask tough questions.”

Some of the tough questions, Brinig said, were what consequences real women would face if they lived like the show’s characters.

“When you do things they have consequences and these women are headed for a number of them,” she said.

Though “these women seem empowered women because they have jobs … because they’re beautiful and because they’re free,” they “aren’t free to be vulnerable about very much,” Brinig said. “They’re not free to put sex together with affection.”

Cavadini also said he was concerned by how the show portrayed the role of sex in relationships.

“It is only when they can’t have sex that Carrie and Big [Carrie’s love interest] have a real discussion,” he said. “Only when they feel vulnerable in the face of sickness and death [do] they consider marriage as a likely possibility in the here and now.”

Weisbecker brought a Notre Dame student perspective to the discussion.

“Students recognize that the show represents a romanticized version of life in the city,” she said. “It’s pretty obvious to everyone that these characters and lifestyles are not realistic.”

Although Weisbecker said Notre Dame students realize that lives of promiscuous sex and exorbitant spending are unrealistic, she said Notre Dame has fallen victim in some ways to a “hookup culture.”

“Even though we crave intimacy and closeness with people, we don’t necessarily have the time to cultivate it,” she said. “Hookup culture is the easy way out.”

Bradley shared her experiences on life beyond Notre Dame – out from under the influence of what Weisbecker called “the whole Catholic sexual teaching thing” – and how students can remain true to values in environments that do not cater to them.

Many of her friends who engaged in promiscuous sex had feelings of regret that they felt uncomfortable admitting to, Bradley said, since they were inconsistent with Sex and the City’s message that says “yes, women can have sex like men,” she said.

Bradley said her Catholic identity hasn’t caused problems for her in urban environments, and has actually been considered refreshing.

I think people find me “strangely fascinating, or maybe fascinatingly strange,” she said.