Mr Big, the biggest of all love affairsFlickr: Rita M.

Last Thursday, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg came to speak at the Cambridge Union. The previous day Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker was awarded a Pulitzer Prize by Columbia University. The Pulitzer is widely regarded as the most prestigious prize in journalism. Other than the facts that DVF lives in New York and Nussbaum writes for a magazine that is based there, and both rely on the cultural zeitgeist for their bread and butter, the two events might seem to be unconnected. But in what they bring to the world, DVF and Emily Nussbaum have something very important in common.

The main purpose of von Furstenberg’s Cambridge visit was to talk about her 2014 book, The Woman I Wanted To Be. I have not read it. (My fashion reading lately has been dominated by Garance Doré’s 2015 opus, Love x Style x Life.) The book and message are part of DVF’s mission to make the world a better place. She regards this as her duty now that she has money. (Full disclosure: I was a steward at the event.) She shared tales of women – including Anne Hathaway’s mother - who had seduced their husbands and conceived their children in her iconic wrap dress. (‘I think it’s because it opens,’ the designer explained.) The message with which she left us was that your most important relationship of all is ‘with yourself’.

This idea echoes one of Emily Nussbaum’s muses’ parting words. A few hours after she was awarded the Pulitzer, the New Yorker’s Facebook account reposted one of Nussbaum’s bravest articles, a July 2013 piece called “Difficult Women”, arguing that Sex and the City was just as vital to the history of TV and HBO as The Sopranos, explaining that Carrie Bradshaw and friends Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha were important and unusual TV characters. SATC exploded facile presumptions about the roles of female TV characters, Nussbaum says - and it was vital it did so.

She is brave to argue this at all. SATC is often derided for its superficiality by ingénues. Carrie values her Manolos over her friends’ children. (She also probably wore many DVF creations.) Samantha demanded physical pleasure without emotional entanglement. Charlotte wants the perfect apartment on Park Avenue above all; suitable spouse optional. Nussbaum valiantly makes the case for the show as a whole, while disowning its finale, when Carrie finally winds up back with her erstwhile boyfriend ‘Mr Big’. Carrie’s last words: ‘the most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself - and if you find someone to love the you you love, well, that’s just fabulous’.

Carrie’s and DVF’s mantra assumes that you actually know the ‘you’ whom you love. The culture hasn’t quite told us how to find this person. This is sad. Self-love is difficult. (Here I resist the urge to talk about masturbation. It is hard.) It’s also sad because we need to think about it more now than ever before. Society and science are rightly increasingly aware of mental health and the myriad effects of depression, trauma, and low self-esteem. At Cambridge, it seems especially important that around exams and dissertation submission deadlines we figure out how to get to a state of acceptable mental equilibrium.

Neither DVF nor SATC really offers solid prescriptions. Ms von Furstenberg’s allusions to the seductiveness of the wrap dress and the allure of her t-shirts sell a life where all is perfect in her clothes. Wear the dress, meet the right man, have an Oscar-winning daughter. (Or, in my case, be the sort of person a woman might wear a wrap dress to seduce.) Ignore the price tags or the struggles with body image you might have if you want to fit into it.

In the SATC universe, the man who loved the Carrie whom she loved made compelling viewing precisely for his mistreatment of her. Between the voiceovers and her friends’ midnight trysts in swimming pools with Sadé’s soundtrack, the show’s connective tissue was portraying two people who treated each other terribly but couldn’t stay apart. Big’s limousines and champagne took Carrie’s breath away from the first time they met. His subsequent actions – grudgingly calling to say ‘I fucking love you’ after infuriating her into a one-night stand; compelling her to cheat on a guy who was all that Big himself was not – eviscerated her dignity. How could this be the version of Carrie that she loved? Is it terrible that I was so frustrated by a show that I adored?

Sadly pop culture 12 years after Carrie left our screens continues to provide very few clues to finding that elusive you whom you like. In Game of Thrones, life is brutish and short; we feel cheated without regular orgies of murder. Breaking Bad was about a meth dealer who wanted to look after his family so turned to a life of crime. Mad Men’s protagonist was slick, self-absorbed, and didn’t care whom he hurt.

In music, the lyrics in Adele’s 25 tell of longing, loss and remembrance. ‘Hello’ begs an old flame to recognise her. In the soaring ‘When We Were Young’, she appears unable to put the past behind her. Then in Bieber’s seminal ‘Love Yourself’, ‘my Mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone,’ he tells us in a logical inconsistency, so ‘baby you should go and love yourself.’ The Bieber/Sheeran imperative is a curse in contrast with Carrie’s message of empowerment: ‘love’ might easily be replaced with a different four-letter-word entirely. (The mix-up is unsurprising from someone so confused that he spends the rest of the album asking ‘What do you mean?’ and ‘Where are you now?’)

Much of what I say is in jest. We cannot expect self-improvement fixes from TV or music. Other than five minutes of Bridget Jones’s Diary where Renée Zellweger dons spandex to exercise to Chaka Khan, working on yourself and figuring out happiness isn’t particularly sexy or interesting. And of course, Hollywood’s version of self-improvement for women is almost always some combination of self-denial, exercise, and weight loss. The reality of meditation, mindfulness, learning to cope cheerfully with disappointment and another banishment to the friend zone, and generally dealing with the stuff that life throws at you do not make for Hollywood blockbusters. Being serious, there is a lot available to assist when things might feel overbearing. The right music and TV shows might help with a bad mood. They’re no substitute for the many available resources when really needed.

Still, a redemptive post-script. When SATC ended, leaving a void in my life (and in my contact with women, almost entirely fictional in those days), I was distraught. I vowed never to care about a show again. But when How I Met Your Mother entered my life, its adventures, pineapples, pumpkins and puzzles were an unexpectedly pleasant jolt. There were dark moments for its main character, too, but Ted seemed to move beyond repeated self-harm in the Carrie mould. Maybe it’s because HIMYM’s motto – ‘whatever happens in this life, it's not legendary unless your friends are there to see it’ – is easier to put in practice than Carrie’s. Josh Radnor (who played Ted) came to the Union in Michaelmas, clearly having a good time, grateful for the people who made his life better. He encouraged us to do and be the same.

Sadly, then, pop culture offers no road map to finding that elusive version of yourself whom you love. Like Ted and his friends (and Carrie and hers), I seem to have a much better time searching for for that person when surrounded by good friends. Focusing on self-love in the solitude of your bedroom for too long can be rather draining after a while.

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