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'Sex and the City' to be catalyst for study of Caribbean culture, literature

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — First there was "Sex and the City," the television show – a hit and hip cable comedy celebrating women’s sexuality and the urban experience.
And soon there will be "Sex and the City," the college course – arguably a more cerebral incarnation of the racy and controversial show.

However, the course – a graduate-level seminar that starts in January and runs parallel to the last eight episodes of the show – is shifting locales and emphasis.

Rather than pivoting on four gal-pals in New York City, Dara Goldman and her graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will focus on "the space of the city and how it intersects with issues of sex and sexuality in Hispanic Caribbean cultures."

More specifically, students in the Spanish 442 class, titled "Urban Desires: Sex & the City in Caribbean Cultures," will consider "significant texts and critical debates in contemporary Hispanic Caribbean literary and cultural production."

Along the way, Goldman, a professor of Latin American and Caribbean literatures and cultures at Illinois, plans to engage her students in a "rigorous exploration" of some of the principal questions that guide her current research projects on space and spatiality in Hispanic Caribbean discourse. One of those projects is a book manuscript she is finishing titled "Out of Bounds: Charting the Rhetoric of Hispanic Caribbean Insularity."

Goldman sees the TV show, which will end in mid-2004 after six seasons, as a springboard for considering a host of issues, literary and cultural in nature. In academic terms, "the idea of the show and the critical/popular debates that have emerged in response to it serve as a framing device for the course," Goldman said.

The intersection of "sex" and "the city" in the TV show not only provides a common focus for the storylines, but also sets up a structure of "pairing" opposites – of people, mentalities, lifestyles, Goldman said.

"This dichotomy has often been the focus of critical analyses of the show and its depiction of feminine sexuality."
Critics have spent gallons of ink and spread miles of pixels "expounding on the representation of four young women who freely explore and express their sexual desires," Goldman said. "In this sense, the four principal characters embody – literally and figuratively – the type of sexuality that has traditionally been restricted to male characters."

Yet many other critics have argued that the show is "anything but feminist." More than one has pointed out that the women of "Sex and the City" seem to be increasingly focused on fashion, beauty, and the need to find/keep a man and on motherhood.

"So, the course plays off the question – as portrayed in the show and also debated by the critics – of whether or not the city creates the opportunity for new paradigms of sexuality," Goldman said.

The professor also notes that in Hispanic Caribbean literature and popular culture, "the city" has often been portrayed as "the space of opportunity and as a gateway to the opportunities that were not readily available at ‘home’ – either in rural spaces or in the Caribbean itself in the case of migration from the Antilles to a U.S. urban center."

Even more broadly, "Major metropolitan centers throughout the hemisphere are often studied as sites of development – whether productive, excessive or insufficient – and of hybridity, transgression and transnationalism," Goldman said.

"Conversely, the freedom and access to transnational movement is often viewed negatively – seen as something that is only achieved through the loss of traditional cultural practices and values," she said, adding that "since sexuality often constitutes a useful barometer of cultural values and norms, it can help us to evaluate the impact of urban development on these values and norms and to assess how subjectivity is reconfigured by and through Hispanic Caribbean culture in major metropolitan centers."

In examining how the city and sexuality interact in contemporary Hispanic Caribbean cultures, the professor and her students will ask a variety of questions: Is sexuality fundamentally different in the urban context? If so, to what extent do the urban landscapes of San Juan, Santo Domingo, Havana, New York, Miami and Chicago engender new and/or more liberated forms of sexuality? And how are the space and ethos of these cities affected by the expression and exploration of Hispanic Caribbean sexualities and/or desires?

The students will begin their exploration by looking at theoretical readings that analyze urban spaces and their impact on culture – both within and beyond the Hispanic Caribbean context.

Next, the class will examine texts that "explore – whether with anxiety or enthusiasm – the new sexualities that emerge from urban development and migration," Goldman said. Texts will include René Marqués’ "The Oxcart," Luis Rafael Sánchez’s "Macho Camacho’s Beat" and Goldman’s own article, "The Limits of the Flesh."

The last three sections of the course are to be devoted to an in-depth examination of what Goldman describes as "queer subjectivity, migration and globalization and the melancholic relationship with urban excess – that is, the overpopulation and over-stimulation of the city that leads to a sense of less, rather than more, satisfaction." Mayra Santos Febres’ "Sirena Selena" will be read, as will Achy Obejas’ "Days of Awe." Goldman has assigned six books and dozens of shorter readings. Some readings will be Spanish, others in English, but class discussions will be conducted entirely in Spanish.

The class also will watch films such as "Brincando El Charco" and "Suite Habana." But will they watch episodes of the TV show that spawned the course?

The professor has no plans for that, alas, except to show a few minutes of an episode at the beginning of the semester as part of an introduction to the course.

Also in the spring semester, Goldman will teach a freshman seminar on "Globalization and Its Discontents: The Case of Cuba" as part of Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s Cross-Campus Initiative on the Humanities in a Globalizing World.