Twenty years since the first episode of the iconic series aired, we couldn’t help but wonder… does Sex And The City still stand up in 2018?
I arrived at Carrie Bradshaw’s Manhattan brunch party a little late. I was just 10 years old when the series launched in 1998 (it was broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK that same year), and was deemed by my dad “too young” to watch it. When I argued the point, he spiralled into one of his vehement “Not under my roof!” speeches; and thus, Sex And The City was officially banned from broadcast in the Dray household.
For me, this only served to elevate Carrie Bradshaw, Miranda Hobbes, Charlotte York and Samantha Jones to god-like status. These women weren’t just fashionable, sardonic and fabulous – they were now forbidden.
As the show gathered up Emmys and Golden Globes, my mum’s position on the ban began to weaken. Together, we binge-watched the entire first series in a secret marathon session, the volume so low that we had to rely almost entirely on subtitles. When my dad went abroad for work, we watched it all again. And, in the 14 years since the show’s finale first aired, Sex And The City’s popularity shows no signs of waning: Instagram fan accounts such as Every Outfit On Sex And The City and Sex And The City Quotes have accumulated hundreds of thousands of followers worldwide.
I fought hard and long for Sex And The City (undoubtedly, Samantha would come out with a punchline about “hard and long” here). But the show is very much a creation of the late Nineties and early Noughties: and as such – while it might still be clever, insightful and funny – it is no longer thought of as the feminist tour de force it was considered to be at the time. We’ve come a long way since 1998, and today’s pop-culture climate is much more enlightened. Even SATC fans know this: the #wokecharlotte meme, where Charlotte York responds to the other characters’ more problematic statements in rewrites of the original’s scenes (“Your Madonna-whore complex does not get to dictate how I dress,” runs one example), has gathered thousands of likes and even the praise of actor Kristin Davis, who played Charlotte.
So, 20 years on, have the girls aged gracefully, or is SATC another nostalgic favourite that’s become problematic? I sat down and rewatched all 94 episodes to see how the show fares today on the issues that count.
Like everyone else in the world, I was very self-involved when I was 16 (I have the angst-fuelled poetry to prove it) – but that still doesn’t explain why I never so much as raised an eyebrow at the whiter-than-white world of Sex And The City. Very early into my 2018 streaming marathon, though, both my brows retreated upwards into my hairline.
During the first and second seasons of the show, our wealthy cisgender heroines live and operate within an entirely white bubble. In the third season that all changes, albeit not for the better. For starters, Miranda – smart, liberal, awesome Miranda – charges us to follow the “white guy with a baby” as a way to locate an available apartment in a “nice” (aka super- gentrified) neighbourhood. Carrie waxes lyrical about “ghetto gold jewellery”. Bunny, Charlotte’s mother-in-law, has a lot of not very nice things to say about “Mandarin” culture. Samantha genuinely thinks it’s OK to don an afro wig after she loses her hair to chemo (Sam, we love you, but it isn’t). And actors of colour are forced into roles that are either beyond basic, excruciatingly mean-spirited or exhaustive and reductive stereotypes. Characters you may have blocked out: music exec Chivon with a “big black cock”. His sister Adeena, the “angry black woman” who refuses to let Chivon date a white woman. Sum, the “scheming servant” who ruins Samantha’s relationship with Harvey. Or even Lily, who I’m pretty sure never utters a single world after Charlotte and Harry adopt her from China. (To give the writers the benefit of the doubt, though, that has more to do with child labour laws than racial stereotyping.)
There’s more. When Carrie dates a bisexual man, she completely loses it because she is, it seems, the most sheltered and naive sex columnist in the history of writing about sex. (Her ever-so-enlightened take on it? That bisexuality is just a “layover on the way to Gay Town”.) Samantha drops transphobic slurs (stop, Sam) and is able to charm a group of transgender prostitutes outside her apartment “because, after all, they’re men”.
The first SATC film in 2008 cast Jennifer Hudson as Carrie’s wonderful assistant, Louise, which seemed to recognise that some racial balance was required in the franchise.
One small, paltry sip of a disappointingly watered-down cosmopolitan (to match the whitewashed version of NYC we see on-screen).
I just sat through a whopping 94 episodes of SATC, so I can tell you that it definitely makes a point of extolling a woman’s friends as the true loves of her life. When Samantha is diagnosed with cancer in season six, it is Carrie she turns to in her hour of need, not a lover. Miranda, likewise, leans on her BFF when she’s forced to fly home for her mother’s funeral. Charlotte pawns her diamond engagement ring to loan Carrie the money she needs to buy her apartment. And when Big ruins his and Carrie’s wedding, her friends rally round and whisk her away to Mexico.
However, the season finale (and subsequent movies) folded under the pressure of rom-com’s most tedious convention: it coupled Carrie up with Big. And that, for many people – including Cynthia Nixon, who played Miranda – was unforgivable.
On The Wendy Williams Show, Nixon recalled the first time she saw the original Sex And The City film. Explaining that women around her began cheering after ‘Mr Big’ showed Carrie the closet he had built her, she said: “I was […] devastated, because it seemed to me that the show was so much about female empowerment and about women making their own choices [and] women standing up for what they wanted and supporting themselves.
“To me, to have this be kind of a climax of the film that your very wealthy husband built you a nice closet for your clothes, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s not really what you love about the show, is it?’ That’s not what we were making it for.”
Four-and-a-half cosmopolitans (the sisterhood may be the crux of the show, but it all goes wrong in the final episode – which is why that last half-cosmo is served in a dirty, lipstick-stained glass).
Remember in season three when Carrie dated a politician who wants her to pee on him? I didn’t, so I was intrigued to see what she would do next. After a lot of soul-searching, Carrie declined. However, she did offer up some alternatives: “Maybe you could close your eyes and I could dribble warm tea on you. That might feel good. Or maybe you might think it’s fun to hear the sound of running water when we have sex. And, if things got really serious between us, I could maybe even leave the bathroom door open sometime.”
This was a great example of adults talking about consensual sex – but there are many less-than-stellar examples. Samantha thinks that it’s her job to swallow “funky spunk”. Charlotte swears off dating after a guy “raped” her face. And Carrie quietly, uncomfortably endures sex with Berger that she clearly isn’t into and leaves her physically injured afterwards; it could legitimately qualify as sexual assault.
It’s no wonder, then, that Sarah Jessica Parker has been forced to reconcile herself to the fact that SATC absolutely has not stood the test of time in this area, particularly in light of #MeToo and Time’s Up, and new complaints about the misogynistic and potentially triggering language used in some of the show’s sex scenes.
“I think it would be a different show nowadays,” she acknowledged, speaking at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival in May this year. “I think Carrie Bradshaw is very much a product of her generation and I think her conversations about sexual politics and intimacy spoke to the years.”
A controversial two cosmopolitans. Yes, there are lots of women enjoying sex, but there are plenty of worryingly ‘grey area’ moments around consent, too.
As we know, slut-shaming is rarely directed at men. In fact, in pop culture, plenty of male characters are praised for enjoying all that casual sex has to offer (yes, James Bond, Don Draper, Joey Tribbiani, I’m looking at you). But the women of Sex And The City opened our eyes and minds to a world of women revelling in one-night stands, threesomes, oral sex, masturbation, different penis sizes, orgasms and more.
In season five, Sam returns a vibrator to a store. The (male) sales clerk sneeringly informs her that the phallic-shaped device in her hand is a neck massager – a notion she immediately dismisses before confidently advising other customers which massager they need and which will “burn your clit off […] even with ski pants”. (I have no idea how I sat through this with my mum the first time round, I really don’t.)
She is entirely unapologetic – and this is a theme that runs throughout the show. When Magda swaps Miranda’s vibrator for a statue of the Virgin Mary, our favourite lawyer tells her: “I drink coffee and have sex and buy pies and enjoy battery-operated devices. If you can’t deal with that, I will find another housekeeper who can.”
The SATC gang made sex seem like a glamorous part of a single woman’s life, to be sampled between shopping and cocktails – and that filtered into society. Sales of vibrators skyrocketed when Charlotte became obsessed with her Rabbit. And, in 2015, researchers found that in the Nineties, only 42% of Americans believed premarital sex was “not immoral”. Post-SATC, though, that number jumped by a whopping 16%. So, yes, Carrie referred to herself and her friends as “sluts”, but, in doing so, she reclaimed the word and made it her – and women’s – own.
An entire tray of Insta-perfect cosmopolitans: if there’s one thing the show got right for evermore, it was its portrayal of sexual desire and sex lives that paved the way for the likes of Girls and Fleabag to be even more real and taboo-breaking. Let’s raise a glass to female sexuality.
Yes: Carrie Bradshaw couldn’t possibly exist in 2018. And yet… maybe we couldn’t exist without her. Regardless of its now-apparent shortcomings in terms of sexual, ethnic and class-related relations, SATC still broke countless boundaries – and not just its matter-of-fact depiction of women talking about sex. It showed a miscellany of female experiences on the small screen, carefully weaving illness, infertility, bereavement, ageing, motherhood, domestic abuse, infidelity, sexual discrimination and divorce into its storylines. We learned that we don’t need to have all the answers (Carrie asks a sizeable 92 voiceover questions throughout the series) and that we should start putting ourselves first (“I love you,” as Samantha once told Smith, “but I love me more”).
Above all else, though, we learned that women are more powerful when they stand together. And that is an incredible legacy that will always be in fashion.
Images: Getty, Rex Features