Meanwhile, 20 years later
The complicated legacy of Sex and the City
As if we needed reminding that the late 1990s was a golden era for TV, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of many much- loved series, among them Dawson’s Creek, That ’ 70s Show and Will & Grace. Yet when Darren Starr’s show about four New York friends aired on June 6th, 1998, few could have predicted, after some initial turbulence, the charmed life Sex and the City would lead on the air for the next six years. Fewer again might have predicted its lasting legacy.
When Lena Dunham’s series Girls premiered on HBO in 2012, she was quick to doff her cap to Starr’s comedy. Comparisons between the two shows were pretty much inevitable, given that both featured a group of four different girls navigating their professional and personal lives in New York City.
In an exchange between Girls’ Shoshanna ( Zosia Mamet) and Jessa ( Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna sums up their personality traits in terms of the characters from Sex and the City. “You’re definitely a Carrie with, like, some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair. That’s like a really good combination. I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes . . . sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. And then, when I’m at school, I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.”
Dunham, no doubt wildly conscious of Sex and the City as an influence, may have been poking fun at the comparison, but there’s a grain of authenticity in the exchange. Almost every woman of a certain age can pinpoint which of the show’s characters they most resemble: whether they’re a solipsistic, pun- loving Carrie, a sexual libertine like Samantha, an incurable romantic like Charlotte or a no- nonsense Miranda.
As the 20th anniversary of Sex and the City looms large, its four characters, and the actresses who played them, are rarely far from view.
Cynthia Nixon, who played cynical lawyer Miranda Hobbes, l ast month announced her intention to run for governor of New York. The Twitter commentary ran a wide gamut, from people blaming Sex and the City for the gentrification of New York, to others observing that Nixon wouldn’t be the first to make the leap from showbiz to public office. Elsewhere, politician Christine Quinn dismissed her as an “unqualified l esbian”. Twitter user @ racheld brilliantly noted: “Miranda for governor is the ending to SATC that we so richly deserved.”
It became clear that many found it hard to separate Nixon, a committed public education and marriage equality activist, from her most famous role.
“On the one hand, her role in the series was as a confident and professional wom- an, and she arrives into the political marketplace with that persona,” notes Diane Negra, professor of film studies and screen culture at UCD.
“On the other hand, she has announced her political ambitions at a time when we’re in a free- for- all with American politics, where the old rules about having to accumulate experience don’t apply anymore. She’s been dismissed as a neophyte, but welcomed mainly as a real New Yorker, and her part in Sex and the City helps to reinforce that identity.”
Co- star Kristin Davis ( Charlotte York) wholeheartedly endorsed Nixon: “I am thrilled to support her and I know that she cares deeply about the issues facing all of us,” she wrote on Instagram.
Earlier in the year, her co- stars Sarah Jessica Parker ( Carrie Bradshaw) and Kim Cattrall ( Samantha Jones), became the subject of press scrutiny for perhaps less edifying reasons. After Parker sent condolences to Cattrall following the death of her brother in February, Cattrall issued a public reply on Instagram.
“My Mum asked me today ‘ When will that @ sarah jessica parker, that hypocrite, leave you alone?’ Your continuous reaching out is a painful reminder of how cruel you really were then and now,” Cattrall wrote. “Let me make this VERY clear. ( If I haven’t already) You are not my family. You are not my friend. So I’m writing to tell you one last time to stop exploiting our tragedy in order to restore your ‘ nice girl’ persona.”
Old rumours about on- set cliques, wildly different paychecks and ongoing tensions between the two promptly resurfaced. Former co- star Chris Noth ( Mr Big) and Jason Lewis ( Smith Jerrod), who played the love interests of Carrie and Samantha respectively, soon wandered into the fray with their own hot takes.
Hollywood feuds are nothing new, yet there’s something about this spat that has undeniably captured the public’s attention. Much of it presumably has to do with the actresses portraying two characters with an unshakeable friendship.
“What stands out about Sex and the City is the romanticisation of female friendship, and how it can heal all wounds,” asserts Negra. “Whether it’s sex problems, lack of male commitment, the bonds of the characters’ friendships are unbreakable, and the commiserations and support can be ballast for just about everything.”
As part of the HBO pay- per- view stable, Sex and the City came to prominence along with a host of other series: The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Collectively, they formed something of a golden age for television. HBO was not beholden to traditional network rules, and this offered each series leeway for innovation, creativity and much naughtiness. The channel, and later,
TV, had evidently hit an artistic apex, allowing it to be Taken Seriously.
Sex and the City was immediately different from HBO’s other shows. Adapted from a 1996 book of columns by Candace Bushnell, who reported from the coalface of Manhattan nightspots and Hampton beach houses, Sex and the City was glossy, undeniably feminine, shamelessly consumerist.
“A less attractive feature of Sex and the City is the glorification of luxury lifestyling, and what’s significant about that is that the TV show came off air before the global [ economic] crash. Perhaps this is why the second movie [ released in 2010] underwent a commercial and critical battering,” says Negra.
Female- led comedies were nothing new – forebears included The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, Cagney & Lacey and Roseanne, all featuring women grappling with what it meant to be a woman – but up until 1998, there had been a drought of some years.
Sex and the City, featuring riffs on anal sex, threesomes, bitchy baby showers, sex toys and faked orgasms, was a truth- teller and palate- cleanser. Rarely before had a comedy drawn attention to the ways in which men and women misunderstand each other. Crucially, the rom- com was reaching something of a critical and commercial apex in cinema. And despite their labels – the slut, the prude – these characters were more rounded, flawed and real than rom- com characters.
In reading Reading Sex and the City, the book that she co- edited with Kim Akass, Janet McCabe – who finished the book while a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College Dublin – acknowledges that some male critics initially responded with condescension and vitriol.
“Male critics were not alone in their dislike,” McCabe wrote in the introduction to the 2004 book. “Charlotte Raven, columnist for the Guardian, told her readers she warned friends not to write about the show, for the ‘ couldn’t bear the idea of anyone believing that this worthless pile of swill was in any sense culturally relevant.’”
Critical opprobrium notwithstanding, the series was an instant hit for HBO, making it the highest- rated comedy series on cable for two consecutive seasons. It featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2000.
Despite initial criticism, many others lauded the show for its honest portrayal of contemporary single womanhood. It became evident that female viewers in particular were devouring the show. As Margo Jefferson wrote in the New York Times, “it gave form, or at least gave stylist credence,
to their quandaries and desires.”
McCabe notes: “Critics who dismissed it as shallow or vacuous weren’t really understanding the cultural work that Sex and the City was doing. It was telling women’s stories in a different way. At a time when feminism was like fluoride in the water, all this promise isn’t quite there. These women had the financial clout to be able to define themselves and know they don’t need a man, yet they’re still pursuing the fairytale.”
A collection of academic readings ostensibly aimed at fans, McCabe and Akass’s book explored discourses relating to fashion, sexuality, modern femininity, female humour and third- wave feminism. The show provided plenty to chew on.
“Sex and the City shouldered a huge burden of representational responsibility,” recalls McCabe.
“So few shows come along like that where they have to do everything. If you think of the ‘ are you a Charlotte or a Carrie’ conversation, you couldn’t have that discussion about The Sopranos. It really tapped into a zeitgeist.”
That Sex and the City was on HBO also set it apart from other comedy fare. “One thing HBO pioneered was the box- set concept where you could pause, get hold of the object and look at it in a way not done before. There was a sense that these shows wanted to capture something of the moment.”
This prompts a burning question: how does Sex and the City hold up, 14 years after its demise?
“One thing about TV that can really be of its time is that you can see it’s outdated,” notes McCabe. “Certain things have moved on, especially in terms of fashion and style. You start to re- read characters and someone like Sam, who was revolutionary at the time, stands up as a character nicely in many ways. It’s interesting to see how much of an inspiration that character was – that sense of liberation and living without guilt.”
When Friends found new life on Netflix, it was assumed that a new wave of millennials, already enamoured of ’ 90s nostalgia, would embrace it. What no one banked on was a younger audience expressing reservations about the sitcom’s storylines, describing them as transphobic, homophobic, size- ist and sexist.
Arguably, the same criticisms could be levelled at Sex and the City; after all, it’s a story of four cisgender white women who are often blind to their own privilege. In one episode, Carrie dumps a bisexual ( or “sexually fluid”) lover, dismissing bisexuality as a “layover on the way to Gay Town”. Samantha also uses transphobic slurs, describing her neighbourhood as “trendy by day and tranny by night”. Charlotte’s mother- in- law Bunny doesn’t enjoy Mandarin Food and won’t “enjoy a Mandarin child”. And the popularity of the # WokeCharlotte meme proves that millennials ( specifically Chelsea Fairless and Lauren Garroni) are clapping back at some of Sex and the City’s outdated conceits. Incidentally, Kristin Davis is a fan of the meme, and often comments on the page. “It’s the highest compliment we could possibly receive,” notes Fairless.
“Some of these new viewers were tiny when it first aired,” acknowledges Negra. “I think millennials would have a problem with some of the gender politics and sexual politics here, mainly because we find ourselves in a different moment in relation to cultural attentiveness.”
In recent years, a new narrative around bad sex has also surfaced. Aziz Ansari was identified by an anonymous poster on Babe. net as an unsatisfactory, selfish and somewhat demanding lover, and the story added another dimension to the # MeToo discussion. Has the movement also reframed the many, many unsatisfactory sexual encounters of Sex and the City?
“Every time you have this conversation, you stray into territory where women are never going to win,” says McCabe. “In a way, Sex and the City’s conversations about good and bad sex makes the issue visible – you’re empowered, but really, you’re not. With the # MeToo campaign, I’m not sure what’s more shocking: the idea that everyone has a # MeToo story or that we’re still being judged by it.”
Girls, which pushed the “bad sex” narrative even further, has a direct bloodline with Sex and the City, but many other shows also doff a cap to the series. In the direct aftermath of SATC came Desperate Housewives, also about a group of four fe- male friends living in bougie splendour ( which also included a gallerista and a high- flying executive).
“Girls is where you see the most conspicuous influence, but if you think of all these shows – 2 Broke Girls, Homeland, Big Little Lies, Jessica Jones – it’s useful to give Sex and the City some credit. Sex and the City sort of reinforced the idea that women talking to each other makes for good television. Because of Sex and the City’s commercial success, studios and people with creative power were more inclined to greenlight female- centred shows.
“In the case of Big Little Lies in particular, there’s a powerful lifestyling ambience in that series that is a significant part of its appeal,” adds Negra. “Series like Jessica Jones would not be on the air had Sex and the City not succeeded, but it’s dark. TV producers have radically revised that sense of optimism.”
Candace Bushnell herself has posited on why Sex and the City has so much staying power, telling the Guardian last year: “Human nature. We all grapple with the issues. 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.”
Sex and the City will likely round back into public view with the publication in June of Sex and the City and Us, a book by US writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.
With interviews with Sarah Jessica Parker, creator Darren Starr, executive producer Michael Patrick King and author Candace Bushnell, the book charts how the team used their own poignant, hilarious and humiliating stories to mine for televisual gold.
“The series was mostly apolitical, choosing to wage its rebellion in a fun, sparkly package,” Armstrong surmised in a recent Washington Post column. “The revolution came from the core of the premise: depicting single, professional women over 30 as having enviable lives, instead of showing them as Cathy cartoons [ a character who struggles with men, food and work] or sad spinsters.”
Of Nixon’s decision to run for governor, she adds astutely: “Given the unique combination of being cultural icons and the habitual lack of respect the Sex and the City women have endured since the show’s premiere 20 years ago, it’s particularly significant that one of them is running for political office. In fact, Nixon’s run encapsulates the trajectory of women’s political power over the past two decades. Sex and the City allowed women to wage war culturally, but only within their “feminine” territory: dating, sex, fashion, food and shopping. Nixon is taking that fight outside the girly stuff.”
Sex and the City sort of reinforced the idea that women talking to each other makes for good television
Sex and the City stars Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristin Davis: the show has been criticised for its glorification of luxury lifestyles