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Can you enjoy watching Sex and the City as a feminist?

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Emma Bullimore
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The iconic show first hit our TV screens 20 years ago. Here, freelance writer Emma Bullimore gives us eight reasons why it’s a fitting tribute to womankind - and a true feminist tour de force.

This year marks 20 years since Carrie Bradshaw first strutted onto our screens in that dubious pink tutu. Sex and the City, still beloved by fans and living on through gifs and repeats, paved the way for Cosmopolitans, vibrators and feminism.

That’s right, feminism. Beware the tribe of telly snobs who pretentiously dismiss the series as vacuous and frothy, often without having ever seen it. The story of four fabulous New York women won six Emmys, eight Golden Globes and a legion of fans who saw their own lives being played out on screen.

And beyond the heels and bad puns it made some incredible strides for women. If you’re a feminist I promise you can be proudly obsessed with all 94 episodes of this genre-defining show. Here’s why…

Sex and the City paved the way for Cosmopolitans, vibrators and feminism

It didn’t lecture us

Let’s get this out of the way – SATC was indisputably glossy, materialistic and, quite frankly, ridiculous in places. Of course Carrie couldn’t afford all of those Manolos, and yes she could be very, very self-involved. But that’s the point. Would the show really have inspired such affection if it was about four women with perfectly progressive opinions and impeccable behaviour? Which of your feminist friends isn’t flawed and a bit hypocritical at times? Who doesn’t fall for the wrong men? We needed to care about these women for them to make an impact – they needed to seem real.

The fashion did serve its purpose

Just because Miranda and Samantha were nailing it in the office, it didn’t mean they were giving up on sex. Anyone who has ever been labeled a ‘career woman’, with all that that entails, will appreciate seeing professional women on screen looking for love as well as a corner office, and wanting a successful career on their own terms, without sacrificing their femininity. SATC set the trend for presenting important subject matter in a glamorous way, and its influence can still be felt in shows like Big Little Lies

Here, spectacular scenery and great fashion go hand in hand with horrendous scenes of domestic violence, and the show is all the richer for it. Intended to air for just a limited run, the phenomenally well-received Big Little Lies immediately found a huge audience in the US (7.1 million rising to 9 million for the finale) and gripped millions more worldwide, pushing HBO to commission a second series – starring none other than the phenomenal Meryl Streep.

Who doesn’t fall for the wrong men?

We’d never seen anything like it

HBO was a male-dominated channel, famed for sport and The Sopranos. Sex and the City was a risk, and it broke new ground – before then, female-led series were few and far between, and those that existed, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, were fun but limited in their scope. Once SATC became a hit, everything changed – would edgy comedy Fleabag, female-centric Desperate Housewives (billed as a SATC replacement) or the recently revived Gilmore Girls really have stood any chance without it?

Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman’s heartfelt Emmys speeches tells us there’s still a long way to go in getting female dramas commissioned, but without SATC we’d be lost. Instantly securing a loyal audience of 7.5 million in the US, rising to a record-breaking 10.6 million for the series six finale, SATC smashed expectations and showed TV types that audiences were hungry for relatable female stories. In the UK, more than a quarter of the people watching TV on the night the final episode aired were tuned into C4 for SATC. The worldwide obsession was palpable enough to secure two huge movie deals and a TV prequel, and you can bet your bottom dollar commissioners are still hunting for ‘a new SATC’. Only when producers understand the power of female dramas do they start taking chances on the likes of the incomparable Handmaid’s Tale.

Sex and the City was a risk, and it broke new ground

Guess what? Women enjoy sex – and SATC showed them talking (and laughing) about it

It’s difficult to imagine now, but this was the first time we had really seen women take ownership of their sexuality on TV, and engage with the awkwardness, hilarity and truth of what goes on between the sheets. The series showed men that women do talk about the dirty deed, and we’re not wallflowers lying back and thinking of England (or NYC). And what’s more, women masturbate too. Sales of vibrators reportedly skyrocketed when Charlotte became obsessed with her Rampant Rabbit (making it the world’s biggest selling female sex toy), and who can forget the hilarious scene when Samantha educates a shop full of women about which ‘massager’ to buy? 

No show had dared to go there before, but SATC was gloriously unapologetic, as ever. The next generation saw Girls take it one step further, but it’s difficult to imagine HBO being willing to take those risks without the success of the SATC experiment.

Shock plot twist: it’s OK to be single

Described by Cattrall as a ‘Valentine to being single’, SATC remains one of the few shows on TV to have really shone a spotlight on single women, without making them tragic or desperate. It also exposed the way in which society tries to alienate them. “Hallmark doesn’t make a ‘Congratulations, you didn’t marry the wrong guy card!’” complains Carrie, as she’s forced to spend more money on wedding presents and christening gifts. It’s frustratingly uncharacteristic that that the show’s otherwise perfect happy ending sees all four of our girls couple up with perfect men, but that’s rectified in the first movie when Samantha picks herself over Smith. It’s difficult to imagine The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri or New Girl’s Jess without Carrie.

Shock plot twist: it’s OK to be single.

Time’s Up… and the clock was ticking back then

Inequality in the workplace is an important, and recurring, theme in SATC. Samantha fights to be respected when Richard Wright won’t work with her because she’s apparently too promiscuous, and Miranda campaigns for better work-life balance at her law firm after giving birth to Brady. 

Charlotte’s choice to give up work is also the subject of intense debate, and when Carrie gives up her column to be with her boyfriend Alexander Petrovsky, Miranda is livid. “I’m going to Paris to live my life,” says Carrie. “You mean his life,” stings Miranda.

Friendship is everything

You can’t escape it – the heart of the show is friendship and female solidarity. Boyfriends come and go, but your friends are your soulmates, and they’re not going anywhere. “Friendships never go out of style,” declares Carrie, and we never doubt the love between our girls. Women supporting other women, come what may – it’s something we very rarely see on screen in a convincing way. What’s not to like? 

The heart of the show is friendship and female solidarity

It’s just one show…

…and unfortunately it can’t achieve everything. Yes, it would have been nice to have more gay, black, fuller-figured, less fashionable, older, poorer, more diverse characters. Even as a fan, I could write an essay on what the series didn’t achieve. But at a time when female-led shows were not en vogue, its influence was seismic, leaving society to re-evaluate women’s roles in the office, on TV and in the bedroom – while still being entertaining, emotional and really great fun. And “I couldn’t help but wonder” if that’s enough for one show’s legacy.

Images: Rex Features