Deux Ex Post-It
by Henry Giardina
If Carrie Bradshaw is known for anything, it’s for dating fuccbois. It's kind of her thing. Whether she's getting back in the saddle with Mr. Big, her on-again, off-again emotionally unavailable soulmate, or hooking up with a pre-fame Bradley Cooper at some lame magazine party, Carrie really loves guys who will make her hate herself.
This isn’t only because Carrie is supposed to be an “everywoman” figure, despite her implausible apartment and shoe collection. It's because, within the world of urban dating, closure is a bizarrely scarce commodity. Before “ghosting” was a thing, Carrie was dealing with bad first-dates, one-night stands, and a series of on-and-off affairs. In the New York of SATC, old lovers and bad lovers are inescapable.
That's partly why it's so shocking—and, for viewers, so indelible—when Ron Livingston's sad novelist Jack Berger breaks up with Carrie via Post-It in Season Six, Episode Seven: “The Post-It Always Sticks Twice.” “I’m sorry,” he wrote on the sticky yellow slip before disappearing from her life. “I can’t, don’t hate me.”
Many men have broken up with Carrie before, but in words, and with gestures, and without any real finality. But a Post-It, pardon the pun, sticks. There's something so final about Berger’s admission—“I can't.” No wonder Carrie carries that goddamn Post-It around with her for the rest of the episode. She shows it to her friends. She shows it to the cops who try to book her for smoking weed. She shows it to everyone she sees as if to say, “Can you believe it? Did this really happen?”
Carrie's not alone here. Post-Its are a bizarre, often consequential prop throughout the ‘90s and early 2000s pop culture. Though the Post-It only debuted under that name in 1979, by the ‘90s they had already become a near-universal symbol of varying meaning.
In the memorable key art for 1999’s Office Space, a man stands holding a briefcase, his every distinguishing feature obscured by yellow Post-Its. He is literally papered over with the trappings of modern office culture (from which he will extract his excellent revenge by the film’s end).
One year later, in Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Post-Its provide the film’s hero, Leonard Shelby, with all the information he has about himself. As a victim of short-term memory loss, Shelby must avenge a crime he doesn’t remember, using clues that he’ll forget about after 15 minutes. Post-Its, along with polaroids, envelopes, tattoos, and instructions, are his only means of self-identity.
In these two sharply-opposed symbolic uses of the Post-It, we can already see the item’s divergent cultural significance. A Post-It can be a nagging reminder of something. It can also be the key to a hidden memory. It’s a point of convenience or a life-saving plot device.
The Post-It was itself an accidental invention—a scientific collision between researchers at the Minnesota-based multinational conglomerate 3M. In 1968, 3M scientist Spencer Silver was tasked with developing a stronger adhesive for the company. He created the “microsphere,” which allowed for something to adhere to a surface and be easily removed from it. In 1974, Art Fry, another 3M scientist, approached Silver about using microspheres to develop a new kind of bookmark that would stick to the pages. Fry created the first iteration of the Post-It, called the “Press n’ Peel.” In 1979, they changed the name to Post-Its. By 1980, the product, with its “self-advertising” capabilities (“customers would put the notes on documents they sent to others, arousing the recipient's curiosity,” according to 3M lore), was for sale across the United States. The invention had all the hallmarks of a true innovation: There was no precursor for it, and now that it suddenly existed, it solved all kinds of problems people never knew they had.
It certainly plays that role in 1999’s Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion, a core text in the growing field of Bimbo Studies. In this cult classic film, two barely-employed Angelenos feel self-conscious about their impending 10-year high school reunion. Their solution? Pretend to be business women. This is largely achieved through the purchase of two pairs of pantsuits and a lie told by Lisa Kudrow’s Michelle to the “A Group,” who are still somehow thriving 10 years later. To convince the clique that Romy and Michelle have become successful at all costs, she invents a strangely-plausible tale about inventing a special, high-viscosity glue. Beneath that suggestion hides another far more enticing notion: that the specialized knowledge of bimbos can be translated into something ubiquitously useful. As if to say, “Hey, you know that thing you use every day? I invented it.”
Elsewhere, the Post-It represents the liminal space between the finite and the negotiable. In a 2015 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” two beloved characters, Meredith and Derek, are finally ready to tie the knot. But their competing schedules forbid a proper wedding. Instead, they write their vows on Post-Its and sign them. This allows them to be creative with their nuptials, to adapt their marriage to their particular lifestyle rather than the other way around. More than that, the Post-Its pave the way for marital collaboration, connecting the promises of now to their future life together..
“Promise that you’ll love me,” Meredith writes, “even when you hate me.” The Post-Its set the rules of their engagement. Much like Memento does, the show creates a satisfying ending out of fragments. Pieces of the future, memories of the past.
The Post-It has its comic hues, too. The paper product is as much an emblem of office miscommunication and collegial passive-aggression as it is a symbol of connectivity. There’s the famous episode of “The Office,” in which a Post-It enabled game of “Who Am I” backslides into a celebration of racial stereotypes. There’s Mark Corrigan in “Peep Show” who, in an attempt to flirt with his office crush, puts a Post-It of a swastika inside of a heart on her computer, to his immediate regret. The Post-It necessitates pith—increasing opportunities for misunderstanding.
It also has less interesting, but just as noble, uses, too. For as long as I can remember, I’ve written my shopping lists on bright green Post-Its and carried them around in my pocket until they get lost. Every so often I’ll walk down a familiar path and find one of my own crumpled Post-Its. Wrinkled, dirty, and pressed flush to the ground, I recognize my own doodles and shorthand: TP for toilet paper, Avo for avocado, ½ + ½ for creamer. “You have been here before,” they seem to telegraph. “You’ve existed here.”
“I don't think of the breakups, I think of the coming togethers,” Sex and the City writer Liz Tuccillo said about the infamous Post-It episode. But to scheme up a breakup so dastardly implies a fascination with the bizarre, unexplained, and often messy reasons which push people to sever ties. Breakups can be cold, clinical, and heartless. But the worst ones are often encased in bare aesthetics. “Someone broke up with me via Post-It” is a better story than “Someone broke up with me for rifling through their shit when I shouldn’t have.”
Part of Sex and the City’s appeal was that, for ‘90s women fed on a diet of “Men are from Mars, Women are From Venus,” it made sense of the nonsensical. It made legible the ghostings, the weird fetishes, the dates that go nowhere, the out-of-the-blue breakups. It made sense of the often baffling behavior of sexually-active human beings. Who could forget the vignette that opens the Sex and the City pilot? A British reporter meets an American man, falls in love, looks at houses, and is about to meet the parents before being inexcusably ghosted. She expresses her dismay to Carrie, saying, “In England, looking at apartments would have meant something.” But Carrie knows better. “No one had told her,” she explains in voiceover, “about the end of love in Manhattan.”
Carrie, of course, is there to remind her. Her own life is something of a stack of Post-Its, each episode offering a fresh—albeit unoriginal—sheet of romantic notions, partners, and breakups. Carrie is there to remind us, time and again, just how sticky the situations can be, even when we’ve seen it all before. Because above all, a Post-It is a surprise. It's unexpected. It's useful. And it gets the message across.
Art by Mariana Pelaez.
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