Earlier this year there was somewhat of a resurgence of appreciation for the art of Sex… Sex & the City, that is.
In the wake of the death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini and the culmination of decade-defining Breaking Bad, the apparent age of the anti-hero is upon us. The Sopranos was no doubt a watershed moment for cable network HBO, but what about another HBO show that aired six months prior and also elucidated a generation: Sex & the City?
TV critic Emily Nussbaum was thinking along the same lines when she wrote her own defence of the series earlier this year for The New Yorker. A sample:
“But Sex and the City, too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of The Sopranos, albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. Sex and the City, in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, Sex and the City was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.”
Carrie Bradshaw—like the anti-heroine Hannah in the apparent anti-SATC of this generation, Lena Dunham’s Girls—is not someone to look up to. She’s mind-numbingly selfish (“This can’t be the day I was broken up with by a Post-It!” No, Carrie, it was the day your friend Charlotte got engaged. But, by Charlotte’s own admission, it would be her second marriage so it’s not that important, right?); lives in a rent-controlled pre-war brownstone on the “gated island for the wealthy”, as Nussbaum puts it, apparently paid for by a $400-a-week-if-she’s-lucky-freelance-gig; and cheated on Aidan with Big. (In the ill-fated second movie, Carrie then cheats on Big with Aidan.)
While Carrie may not be a wholly identifiable character, the friendships she shares with Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte certainly are. Carrie is obviously everyone’s best friend who is asked to be maid of honour at their weddings and pick them up from the hospital when they’re sick, but the dynamics between the other women are interesting. Samantha and Charlotte can certainly clash over their differing ideologies on sex and relationships—the season three episode, “Frenemies”, perfectly illustrated the virgin-whore dichotomy between the two, but I love the maternal side Samantha shows around Charlotte, supporting her in “The Baby Shower” when she discovers the mum-to-be stole her future daughter’s name. I most strongly identify with Miranda, who often clashes with Carrie due to her whimsical attitude about things like money and men. For example, when Carrie reveals she’s going to lunch with Big after countless heartbreak in the season three finale, Miranda becomes exasperated at Carrie’s masochism and storms out of a vintage store they were shopping at. On the other side of the coin, Carrie disapproves of Miranda unquestioningly cutting ties with Steve for cheating on her in the original movie.
And let’s not forget the ground SATC broke in terms of women and talking about sex and TV. Looking back on it now, some of the attitudes the girls share about gender (Samantha’s treatment of the transgendered sex workers outside her apartment), sexuality (Miranda comments that bisexuality isn’t a valid orientation because the women end up with men and the men end up with men) and sex work (when everyone finds out Stanford’s boyfriend, Marcus, was a sex worker); but, at that time, can you recall many other shows that were so open and frank about sex and how women feel about it?
So while the show might be called Sex & the City—and let’s be clear, there’s a hell of a lot of it!—it’s very much about women and friendships in New York City.
Elsewhere: [The New Yorker] Difficult Women.