I am sure to get ripped a new one by legions of women (and some men) for this, but honestly, I’m done. No more Sex and the City! My former love has seeped from me, my respect has vaporized, all that’s left is contempt, sneers and eye-rolling. A show that began as the kind of tour de force every generation needs, shriveled up and reemerged as a vapid, product-shilling commercial for the self-absorbed, serially materialistic, and those prone to histrionics.
SATC, the television series, ran on HBO from 1998-2004 (98 episodes), produced two movies (Sex and the City in 2008 & Sex and the City 2 in 2010), and is now available on DVD and in syndication. The series was based on the Candice Bushnell book of the same title. The book, so atrociously written as to be utterly unreadable, is a collection of Bushnell’s columns from her tenure at the New York Observer.
So let’s get the positives out of the way first, because despite my eye-rolling there are positives.
The closeness, the bond between the four women in the show is something unseen on TV since the Golden Girls. Doesn’t every woman wish she had sisters she felt that tight a bond with let alone friends? The show depicted four successful women who prioritized their friendships in their life, celebrating each other the way only family or a partner would. They fiercely protected each other, sharing the most intimate moments and details of their lives together while also speaking openly and frankly about the upsides and downsides of modern life and sexuality. Their weekly pow-wows at the coffee shop were an open roundtable not only for the four characters to lay bare their current triumphs and challenges but for American women to pull up a chair and chime in as well. This dialogue, this welcoming of more sexually confident and assertive women who don’t shy away from frank discussion of sex, family life, relationships, sexuality, and body image is SATC‘s greatest contribution.
Aesthetically the show was a masterpiece: high production value, well framed shots of intimate scenes between the characters and of New York itself, and a lush attention to textural details in setting design and costuming. SATC depicted (however unrealistically) four well-coiffed, well-heeled, well-dressed women out and about in a city that has always captured the glory, the imagination, and the fantasy of bon vivant American urbanism. No other city in America can be spoken of with just the words “the city” besides New York City. The city and the clothes were the fifth character in the series. If it weren’t for the styling and the location would the show have made the same impact? Doubtful. Running nearly simultaneously (2000-2005), Showtime’s Queer As Folk was a groundbreaking show of modern gay couples in Pittsburgh. Just as frank, just as ‘modern’ in it’s depiction of gay men and women, Queer As Folk did not make the same kind of broad sweeping splash as SATC. The aesthetics of SATC was as important as the women and the topics presented.
SATC is nothing if not a harbinger of the kind of “city life” all girls aspire to experience (even the women of the show) and a walking, talking lesson in the highs and lows of third wave feminism. The kinds of rapturous applause and equally rapturous contempt that the show drew over its lifespan is a testiment to how deeply it touched the nerves of pro and anti-feminists everywhere. In fact its role as doyenne of feminism is matched only by its role as reinforcer of female stereotypes and parodies.
Tanya Gold of the UK’s The Telegraph put it best when she discussed the double-edged sword of SATC:
“Sex and the City is to feminism what sugar is to dental care. The first clue is in the opening credits of the television show. Carrie is standing in a New York street in a ballet skirt, the sort that toddlers wear. She is dressed, unmistakably, as a child. And, because she is sex columnist on a newspaper, a bus wearing a huge photo of her in a tiny dress trundles past. ‘Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex,’ says the bus. And there, before any dialogue hits your ears, you have the two woeful female archetypes that Sex and the City loves — woman as sex object and woman as child … The fact that Carrie is a journalist is supposed to imply that she is a kind of thinker, and is intellectually engaged with the world she shops in. Each episode of the TV series is about a sex column she is writing. She asks herself a question, spends the episode investigating it and usually comes to the conclusion that she has no conclusion. She is, simply, the worst journalist in the history of the world. Her self-exploration is a joke … In another [episode], Carrie realizes she is homeless because she has spent $40,000 on shoes and does not have a deposit for an apartment. (In this crisis, she cries and borrows the money for the deposit — what child would do anything else?).”
What SATC has done for feminism is to encourage the “girl goes to city to experience life and carve her own path” ideal (while also parodying it, more on that later). When the show opened, all four women were single and independent. They had their own apartments, jobs, were financially capable of supporting themselves. Kim Cattrall’s Samantha Jones owned her own PR firm, Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda Hobbes was a successful lawyer who over the course of the show made partner at her law firm. Both women purchased their own apartments over the course of the show. Then there’s Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw, and Kristen Davis’ Charlotte York. Two women who don’t so much propel themselves towards goals as they cry and wail at why their fantasies haven’t come true. Charlotte busies herself with her search for Prince Charming so that she can marry, have children, and have her perfect New York life in her perfect New York apartment. Fein and Schneider in Lillie Pulitzer.
Carrie, on the other hand, the show’s central character narrates each show as another week’s sex column in the New York Star. Joan Swirsky wrote in 2003 of Carrie:
“… Carrie, the sex columnist, sees her old boyfriend carrying a baby. ‘I had a baby,’ he beams proudly, to which she responds in all of her narcissistic cluelessness: ‘I had a date.’ So there it was — a successful (and, we assume, literate) magazine columnist well into her mid-30s revealing that life has taught her nothing about graciousness, joy in other people’s happiness, grace under pressure, class.”
Carrie shops like a 5th Avenue maven on a minor paper salary. She’s got a closet crammed full of $500 shoes and $1,000 dresses but no savings to purchase her apartment when it goes co-op. Her love life over the arc of the show revolves around older (sometimes much older) men who are more financially stable than her and capable of taking care of her in many ways. Nothing in Carrie’s life is bound by reality. Her wardrobe isn’t so much clothing as costumes, evidence of her ever-evolving sense of dress-up. She plays at being an adult, but seldom ever acts like one. She’s needy, whiny, self-absorbed, clingy and selfish. Her first recourse when she needs a down payment for her apartment? Her wealthy former-boyfriend. She bats her eyelashes and talks in a childish tone as she sits on her hands and asks “how did you make all that money.” She tells him she has to buy her apartment but she has no money. And like a father doling out a child’s allowance, he writes her a check. Ultimately she doesn’t cash it, she borrows the money from a friend and keeps her apartment. But the damage is already done.
For all the freshness and groundbreaking the show did when it premiered 13 years ago, it quickly transitioned from something resembling real and intelligent into something shallow and materialistic. As the seasons ticked by, the clothing and accessories became more and more outlandish and unrealistic, even given the heights of personal and professional success achieved by the characters. It’s no coincidence that Carrie went to work for Vogue in later seasons, the show was as outlandishly over-styled as the magazine’s pages. The movies only made these gaps in realistic ensembles larger and more glaring.
I dislike SATC for the way it forced its central characters into stereotypes. To service those stereotypes for the sake of a storyline. Chris Noth was the tall-dark-and-handsome wealthy man. Kim Cattrall the over-sexed hyper-assertive female who had to stumble over failed romances or personal trauma (breast cancer) to show her sensitivity. Cynthia Nixon is the cynical New York career-woman. Kristen Davis the doe-eyed, Rules playing, sweater-set wearing woman on a mission for the nuclear family and nothing else. Sarah Jessica Parker is the child who plays dress-up, even in her marriage, trying on costumes in the hopes that they’ll make her lifestyle complete. These roles needed to be boldly and sharply drawn in oder to parody or even slay some of the stereotypes of women. For instance, Kim Cattrall’s fiercely assertive sexuality remains if not increases after her struggle with breast cancer and chemotherapy.
But what has SATC accomplished for women? How could it accomplish anything for women when by the end of the show and throughout the movies the women were caricatures of their former selves (even Cattrall’s Samantha became an excuse for tasteless sight gags about menopause)? After all not only did the show not end with the four women walking arm in arm off into the city that had embraced and defined them, but with Carrie beaming and smiling at her wealthy father-figure beau calling her, but the movies ended with Carrie lounging contentedly on her husband’s chest after he colonized her left ring finger with a substantial diamond ring. In the end, SATC became the stereotype it was trying to deconstruct and in doing so demolished its criticality.