Let’s Not Forget Just How Revolutionary Sex And The City Really Was

Sex and the City

by Vicky Spratt |

The most memorable Tinder date of my life ended with the other person suggesting we drink wine and watch old Sex and The City episodes. Not The Sopranos, not Breaking Bad, not a long tedious conversation about the merits of Ernest Hemingway…back to back episodes of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte talking about the things we all have in common: life and love.

Radical it might not sound, but it was the most at ease I had felt in the company of a relative stranger. It was a relief to realise that I was, finally, after years of searching, in the company of someone who hadn’t bought wholesale into the idea that feminine must equal low brow and, therefore, not worthy of attention at best and the object of legitimate ridicule at worst.

20 years ago, the first episode of Sex and the City aired. I was 11. I began watching school night reruns on Channel 4 after the watershed in my mid-teens, rushing to make sure I was out of the bath in time to see it and strategically drying my hair straight during ad breaks.

This was a time before the ubiquity of hair straighteners or Netflix. It was also a time when women’s lives were even more poorly represented on screens big and small than they are now. Long before GIRLS, Skins or Fleabag, Sex and the City went further than the women’s magazines of the time and gave sex, relationships and fashion mainstream air time.

Thanks to Instagram, the show’s iconic status has been cemented. It lives on through Every Outfit on Sex and The City, Miranda Mondays and the Woke Charlotte meme. However, beyond celebration the show’s visual culture this renaissance has sparked a zillion think pieces which ask the same question: Is Sex and The City woke? Is it OK to call yourself a feminist and watch a show with an all-white cast who love shopping in 2018?

These questions are a trap. A trap which, in my experience, is often set by men who want to sneer at women and haul us over the coals under the dodgy premise of testing our feminism.

Of course, Sex and the City is dated, it’s a TV show which is 20 years old. The characters are not living, breathing people. They cannot move with the times. Although, if Germaine Greer’s recent antics are anything to go by having a pulse doesn’t automatically guarantee this.

There is no doubt that the shows rampant materialism jars today with a generation who are worried about money. There is also no question about the fact that it was not diverse enough and, at times, even peddled problematic stereotypes (we’re looking at you Samantha and also you Bunny). And, nobody is going to argue with you if you point out that there is no way that Carrie could sustain her lifestyle on a freelance writer’s income in 2018.

However, there is also no question that all of this misses the point or that you could level the same criticisms at newer shows like GIRLS. We don’t need Woke Charlotte to fix Sex and the City’s flaws. To get all Carrie about this, I can’t help but wonder…is it ever fair to judge the past by the standards of the present?

The most political Carrie gets in the series is when she dates Bill Kelley (played by Mad Men’s John Slattery), a New York councillor who is campaigning to become the city’s treasurer. It doesn’t work out. Not because Carrie and Bill are on opposite sides of the political spectrum but because Bill, it transpires, is into golden showers and Carrie just can’t bring herself to wee on him. Carrie seeks advice from Miranda who sagely says, ‘I would be very worried if I were you, the peeing could just be the foreplay’.  Carrie then glibly muses ‘I realised that politics had not only entered my bedroom but my bathroom as well’, which is hardly a thoughtful unpacking of consent we expect in the era of #MeToo.

Gloria Steinem Carrie Bradshaw is not. Nonetheless, she and her fictional friends did as much as some real life feminist icons when it comes to changing culture. How many other 90s shows aimed at woman can you name which centred not around a couple or family but a group friends? Ok, there is one obvious answer to that, but Friends did not deal with attraction, periods, sex and love in the granular detail that Sex and the City did. Until the last moment it avoided the hackneyed rom com cliché convention of coupling its protagonist with a problematic man who had spent the last 93 episodes dicking her around. If you discount the final episodes which predictably packaged Big up as Carrie’s saviour and in doing so let us all down, throughout the series the men only ever played supporting roles.

Miranda and Samantha as archetypes were and remain radical. Today we are still trying to figure out how we can get more women on boards, close the gender pay gap, make workplaces more flexible for women with children and finally smash the glass ceiling. Both characters embodied those issues and gave them space within a mainstream sitcom. In early episodes, when the programme was more acerbic than it would later be, Miranda is introduced as ‘Miranda Hobbes ESQ. Corporate Lawyer, Unmarried Woman’. In season 1, episode 3 an entire story line is devoted to her as she tries to figure out how she can quite literally get a seat at her boss’s dinner table (where the real networking is done) despite the fact that they’re all men whose wives are invited by his wife while she is a single woman.

All of this is arguably more ground-breaking than the frank and visceral conversations the group had about sex, but we shouldn’t forget those. In season 1, episode 4 a huge chunk of time is devoted to Charlotte as she worries about whether or not she should have anal sex for both ethical and emotional reasons with Brian, a man she has just met. Where else at that time, or now for that matter, could you find that? ‘The question’ Miranda says, ‘is if he goes up your butt will he respect you more or respect you less?’ which must echo the private thoughts of women the world over.

Even the rampant consumerism that Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha engaged in was, for its time, a step forward. These were female characters who earned their own money and chose how to spend it. Their shopping, in a very 90s pre-financial crash way, was a sort of emancipation through true financial independence. One of the most poignant episodes is the one (season 4, episode 16) in which Carrie realises she has no savings and borrows money from Charlotte so that she can put a deposit on her flat to stop it being sold. Should she have spent all of her money on shoes? No, but that’s precisely the point, sometimes even accomplished adult women make bad decisions and have to ask for help. Sex and the City didn’t shy away from that. Fast forward 15 years to GIRLS, and everyone seems to be living off their parents.

We’ve got a long way to go before we will have dismantled the patriarchy once and for all but to pretend that we aren’t having these conversations along the way is to censor ourselves and deny huge parts of women’s experiences. Sex and the City was bold because it bravely presented the trivial as serious. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, how much money you earn or how many great friends you have, you still want to love and be loved. In one of her much-mocked philosophy moments Carrie wonders ‘are relationships the religions of the nineties?’ The truth is that relationships are all of our personal religions which we follow with hope and devotion in search of salvation which may or may not come.

In that search we all encounter problems and frustrations, they never fail to blow us off course and knock us for six. Carrie is dumped by Berger in season 6 because she is more successful than him and he can’t hack it. His parting post it note which reads ‘I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me’ must be the 00s equivalent of being ghosted. Who hasn’t been in a similar situation, found themselves vulnerable and needed their friends to reassure them that they are lovable?

For every TV show about violent crime (The Sopranos, the Wire) or violent fantasy (Game of Thrones) we need a Sex and the City. It took the conversations women have in real life and gave them a huge platform. 20 years later, it still stands head and shoulders above the rest because nobody has yet to devote 94 episodes to the same stuff.

As Carrie herself wondered ‘maybe the past is like an anchor holding us back. Maybe you have to let go of who you were to become who you will be’. We still expect so much from it because, sadly, there are still so few women-centred narratives to choose from. The speed at which Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker story Cat Person went viral is proof of this. Sex and the City remains a cultural anchor, one that we will only be able to let go of when something more radical and more relevant on the same scale takes its place.

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