Mean­while, 20 years later

The com­pli­cated legacy of Sex and the City

The Irish Times Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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