Re­turn to a more in­no­cent New York

Can­dace Bush­nell looks back at her ground­break­ing Sex and the City col­umns, with Jake Nevins

The Guardian Weekly - - Books -

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

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