Return to a more innocent New York
Candace Bushnell looks back at her groundbreaking Sex and the City columns, with Jake Nevins
It’s been 20 years since the publication of the collected Sex and the City columns. In what ways do you see its cultural and social stamp today?
When I started writing the column, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in the single woman. It was a cultural reality that no one had spent much time thinking about. And people really felt that if a woman was single in her 30s, there was something wrong with her. But there have always been single women, and there certainly have always been single women in the big cities. It just wasn’t something that anybody was going to write about.
Did you get the sense when writing them that there was something radical about approaching sex and dating with such candour?
I don’t know if it was radical, but it was definitely something that hadn’t been written about much except in women’s magazines. I had always been writing for women’s magazines about single women, but people didn’t take them too seriously. So when I started writing for the New York Observer it was a much smaller audience, but also a very sophisticated one, both men and women. Things could be a bit darker and more realistic, whereas in a lot of women’s magazines it was all about happy endings. Men have always had the luxury of there being all different kinds of men, and male writers, whereas there are only a few different kinds of women and you could be pigeonholed into three or four different types. That’s changed so much. So the Observer was willing to take a harder, more outrageous look at the behaviours and the attitudes of men and women. We set out to write about things that we thought could only happen in New York, where for some people, it’s more advantageous to be single than it is to be married. And the interesting thing was that they were actually happening everywhere.
Why do you think the television series has so much staying power?
Human nature. We all grapple with the issues in Sex and the City. And now people grapple with them in a different way, maybe online. But the core of wanting to find someone, a soulmate, or not wanting one, the things that one learns about oneself when one gets into relationships – all that is human nature and that doesn’t really change.
With the changes in the media landscape, how might the column look had it existed today?
I suppose it would be on some kind of blog, and people would be responding with their own stories. But back then the Observer had an audience, a very specific one, and we were just trying to reach that audience. Whereas today, everybody wants to appeal to everybody. The column wasn’t designed that way and yet, ironically, it took off and appealed to a great many people.
Fans and critics have discussed the idea that the show, and the materialism of the films, betrayed its own values in giving us a happy ending.
Well, I think, in real life, Carrie and Big wouldn’t have ended up together. But at that point the TV show had become so big. Viewers got so invested in the storyline of Carrie and Big that it became a bit like Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. They had become an iconic couple and women really related to it; they would say “I found my Mr Big” or “I just broke up with my Mr Big”. It became part of the lexicon. And when people are making a TV show, it’s show business, not show art, so at that point it was for the audience and we weren’t thinking about what the impact would be 10 years later.
You’ve spoken about the frustrations writers have with being compared to their characters. Has that got any easier?
It’s funny, because my life is pretty similar to Carrie’s. I mean, the first two seasons, when I’d be changing the channel and the show was on all the time, I was always laughing because I look back on my life and see directly where that story came from. I get a little kick out of it. Like that one where Carrie is smoking pot with a young guy and she spends the night at his house and there’s no toilet paper. There’s a lot there that wasn’t the same as real life, but certainly plucked from it and embellished.
You wrote a column for the Observer in 1996 about Donald Trump [detailing Bushnell’s experiences with the businessman when her friend, Kate Bohner, was hired to ghost-write his autobiography] that I found quite prescient. How does that read to you now?
I find it, like many New Yorkers, just confounding and astounding. Years ago, a friend of mine was doing some project with him and I happened to meet up with her. He was like: “Hey, I’m going to do a reality show on NBC. What do you think?” I was like: “A reality show? This is never going to happen.” It turned out to be The Apprentice, which put him in everybody’s living rooms. So it’s just confounding. One of the things that strikes me is how ambitious he’s always been. If you read between the lines, you could see him making a bid for president. One of the other things that always struck me is what a polarising character he always was, because there were always a lot of people who didn’t care for him. And other people who thought he was great.
Do you think if the show or column existed now it would have to address politics more overtly?
I actually think the characters would be involved in politics in some way. I think Miranda would probably be marching for human rights and the show would address it in a bigger way. But at the time, in 1998, everything was on a big upturn. The housing market was coming back, the stock market was going up. I think people worried a bit less. Until 9/11, it was a fairly carefree time, at least compared to today.
Do you think there’s now a heightened consciousness about feminism?
When the show started that was really a time when women were starting to say: “Oh, I’m not a feminist.” In the 80s, everybody I knew was a feminist. You had to be to survive. There was no pretending sexism didn’t exist because it was in your office every single day. But it wasn’t like Donald Trump. It was a little more jocular, I suppose. Then you started to get these TV shows, like Say Yes to the Dress or Bridezillas. There was really a proliferation of shows that turned away from feminism and towards the idea, once again, of marriage as the ultimate goal. But I think it’s lessening now, and we’re swimming back in the right direction.
In what ways has the city changed, and dating in the city more specifically, over the last 20 years?
I go out and look around and I’m like: “Hey, the same handful of guys who were in charge of things 20 years ago are still alive and still in charge of things.” But technology’s been the biggest change. I go to a bar and 90% of people are on their phones. It’s easier for people to retreat into themselves, whereas if you lived in the city then, you were interacting with all different kinds of people every day. And I was really shocked by how unromantic Tinder is. When I talk to girls in their early 20s some say: “What’s a date like?” Twenty years ago, you had to go on dates. But Tinder has pushed us up against a very harsh reality and I think younger people see themselves as commodities in the dating world. And I have to say, that never crossed our minds 20 years ago, the idea of having to make myself more attractive on my profile, this whole idea of marketing oneself.
‘There’s a lot there that wasn’t the same as real life, but certainly plucked from it and embellished’
Casting light on a lifestyle … Candace Bushnell