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Sex and the City, Maybe The Most Important TV Show Of All Time
Or: In Defense of "Dated" and "Politically Incorrect" Media As Archive
We have very few house rules in my apartment; shoes off when you walk through the door, make sure the cat always has enough water, no Sex and the City before bed or before 10am.
Charles told me that two weeks ago, while attending his first Der Linke meeting (Germany’s democratic-socialist party), most of his introductory small talk consisted of him trying to explain the drama between Kim Catrall and Sarah Jessica Parker that led to Samantha Jones being written out of the SATC reboot. Wasn’t Samantha, like, everyone’s favorite? one person asked him, prompting him to respond Yes! That’s what made SJP hate her!
If I could pick one word to describe Sex and the City, it would be maddening. Everything about the show is frustrating: the characters’ poor decisions, their perpetual selfishness, the immense and unspoken privilege of the show’s leads. The women on Sex and the City (Miranda: lawyer; Charlotte: WASP; Samantha: slut; Carrie: White Girl #4) are glitzy, glamorous, successful, sexy, racist, homophobic, wealthy, well-dressed, liberal, and trendy. They live luxurious lives consisting of shopping and brunches and casual sex with beautiful men.
It is incredibly easy to understand what made the show so successful during its original run. Sex and the City was groundbreaking in its depiction of single women in their 30s and 40s. Sexuality was graphically described—and shown. An episode could follow a self-contained arc or a longer story and could shift between characters to balance comedy and pathos. The four leads made excellent foils for each other (Carrie and Charlotte, the romantics; Miranda and Samantha, the cynics) and their distinct personalities gave audiences the chance to identify as a Charlotte or a Carrie or a Miranda or a Samantha. Even thirty years after its premiere, parts of Sex and the City still feel shocking and refreshing—who can forget the reveal that Charlotte was performing anilingus on Trey McDougal (played perfectly by Kyle MacLachlan in what may well be his most Lynchian role) or John Slattery as the New York City comptroller who likes a golden shower? Personally, I think our nation’s liberal arts colleges would be a lot better off if they made the episode about men unable to perform sexually while on SSRIs required viewing before freshman orientation.
But as long as Sex and the City has been praised, it has also been criticized (and rightly so). For the first several seasons of the show, no people of color appear in speaking roles, unless they play service workers. Out of all the romances on the show, only two are interracial; the mid-series episode in which Samantha dates a Black man ends with Samantha being the victim of anti-white racism. Carrie breaks up with a man for being bisexual and another for having ADHD. The two recurring gay characters, Stanford and Anthony, are walking stereotypes. Almost no Jewish people appear in New York City until the show’s fifth season. The one working-class character, Steve, is constantly berated for his lack of ambition. Carrie is not registered to vote. Two different plot lines involve one of the main characters “getting fat” (going from a size extra-small to a size medium) and their friends expressing their disgust and disappointment. No one ever leaves Manhattan until the end of the series. One episode revolves around Samantha’s feud with a group of Black, trans sex workers. Simply put, the topic was not approached tastefully.
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These transgressions do not make Sex and the City good. But they do make it honest. In what world would these wealthy white women in 1990s not be racist? In what world would they not abuse service workers? Who would want to be friends with them, who would want to date them, that didn’t hold their exact values and backgrounds? Even today, it’s not that uncommon for someone to live in Brooklyn or Manhattan and only operate in a bubble of white and/or rich people. I’m not attempting to defend the bigotry of the original, especially since so much of its cruelty went unexamined by audiences, but rather to say that the bigotry and lack of diversity is an accurate reflection of the people it depicts. There is a different type of damage caused by portraying the Samanthas, Carries, Mirandas, and Charlottes of the world as good, genuine people who are unable to be bigoted and cruel.
Interestingly enough, as the show progresses, its lead characters are also given more intentionally unflattering moments. A key turning point in the show (major spoiler alert) happens when Carrie cheats on sweet, loyal Aidan to be with Big, her now-married ex boyfriend. In this moment, Carrie turns from faulted heroine to a Roberto Cavalli-clad antihero. By the final seasons of the show, the main characters are punished for their shortcomings: Charlotte’s transactional approach to romance leaves her stuck in a loveless marriage, Miranda’s impossibly high standards prevent her from being with the man she loves, Samantha’s commitment to no commitment shuts out the people that care about her. Some of the most genuine, powerful moments of the show occur when characters confront Carrie about her incessant selfishness, refusing to forgive and forget and demanding more of her. When Carrie goes to apologize to Natasha, Big’s ex-wife whom he left following his affair with Carrie, Natasha responds with one of the show’s best monologues:
Yes, I'm sorry about it all. I'm sorry that he moved to Paris and fell in love with me. I'm sorry we ever got married. I'm sorry he cheated on me with you, and I'm sorry that I pretended to ignore it for as long as I did. I'm sorry I found you in my apartment, fell down the stairs, and broke my tooth. I'm very sorry that after much painful dental surgery, this tooth is still a different color than this tooth. Finally, I'm very sorry that you felt the need to come down here. Now not only have you ruined my marriage, you've ruined my lunch.
It’s remarkably easy to compare Sex and the City with Girls, another HBO project centering the sexual and emotional lives of four women in New York City. When this comparison is drawn, people are quick to point out that Girls was less shallow and more complicated than its predecessor, but I don’t think this is true. The overlap between Sex and the City and Girls isn’t just in form, but in function; not only do both shows present young, white characters with an intentional degree of critical self-awareness, but they also both reveal a deeper, more uncomfortable honesty in their faults and political failings.
Sex and the City was followed up by And Just Like That, a reboot that follows Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda as they navigate their 50s. The show is, in part, an obvious attempt to rectify the sins of its source material. Some of it is laughably obvious: characters will go out of their way to thank waiters and busboys while dining out rather than ignore their existence entirely as they did twenty years ago. Some of it is overbearingly Liberal P.C. Woke Inclusive: Charlotte struggles to host a “They-Mitzvah” overseen by Rabbi Hari Nef after her child comes out as nonbinary and names themself Rock.1 Some of the changes feel so progressive they're regressive: Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda are each given a brand new, non-white BFF to diversify the cast. Carrie is invited to a Diwali celebration by Seema, her real estate agent/ designated POC friend, and dons a Sari after getting Seema's permission, literally asking her "Are you sure this isn't cultural appropriation?". With Sarah Jessica Parker serving as executive producer, my first thought was did Sarah Jessica Parker write this scene herself just because she wanted to wear a Sari?
Miranda, the most reasonable and least prejudiced of the original cast, is given a surprising treatment in And Just Like That. In the first episode, she humiliates herself in front of her graduate school class at Columbia after meeting her Black professor, each attempt to prove herself not-racist only making the situation worse.
She is defined by her pervasive white savior complex and her newfound justification that she must “do what she wants”, a clear embrace of the 2010s liberal feminist culture, which leads her to cheat on her husband and abandon her friends and career to pursue a relationship with non-binary comedian Che Diaz. Many viewers felt shocked and let down by this recharacterization, feeling it betrayed the Miranda of the original show. Comments under the video above read “Miranda dated a black guy in SATC and now she can't speak to a black woman? This is so stupid!” and “How is it that Miranda, who has not only lived in NYC for much of her life, but also moved to Brooklyn, now behaves like she's never met a Black or non-White person??”
But Miranda’s sudden shift to an uncomfortable, out-of-touch white liberal isn’t a change, it’s the natural evolution of her character. Commenters point out that it would be strange for someone that lives in New York to act like they rarely interact with people of color, yet the original run of the show depicted Miranda’s life as exactly that. She is in her fifties, she was a partner at a corporate law firm for thirty years…Miranda was never going to be Emma Goldman. As difficult and cringeworthy as it is to watch, it might be the closest to progressive that Sex and the City has ever gotten.
I love Sex and the City. It drives me crazy, it gets me yelling at the TV screen how I imagine Boston dads yell when the Patriots’ game is on. The first time I watched the show, I was genuinely surprised at how sharp and funny the writing can be, and some of the characters (Steve!!!!!!) are endlessly charming. But the real pressing, relevant value of Sex and the City comes from its historiography.
There are two factions of opinion on Sex and the City: the faction that sees the show as aspirational and relatable and the faction that sees it as dated and irredeemable.
It’s truly fascinating to see people who uncritically embrace the show, happily label themselves a Charlotte or a Samantha without a second thought, especially considering how self-critical the show became in its latest seasons. I can’t imagine how one could watch all six seasons and two movies and only see pretty clothes and handsome boyfriends as if wearing some sort of rose-colored media blindfold, but those people existed in the 1990s and still exist today. And of course, there are people who write off the show as unwatchable, even unimportant because of its shitty politics.
Sure, if an individual doesn’t want to watch a show where the main characters say things that are terrible and mean and gauche, they shouldn’t watch it. But to say that something is valueless because it doesn’t align with our current morality is to throw away the most important archives we have. Media that is “politically incorrect” or “dated” is media that is honest, it is media that is made by real people that reflects their real values. Those are the values that are often subconscious or unexamined, things we can only see with the lens of a decade of reflection, but they are also the values that drive politics, elections, and policy. It is exactly because Sex and the City was not made to be read politically that it is so politically valuable, it is rich with the real-life politics that would have otherwise been written out if producers thought they were detectable.
Pop culture is meant to be consumed uncritically and largely apolitically. It is meant to be entertaining and passively enjoyable, never unpacked or closely examined unless consumers are hunting for franchise easter eggs. But what is more political than something that feels apolitical? To feel so passive and universal, something must be made with a keen eye for the sensibilities of a specific audience. And just as taking a stance on controversial issues is political, so is deciding what is controversial in the first place.
Carrie Bradshaw’s New York City is also Rudy Giuliani’s New York City. While Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte were sipping cosmos and brunching at alarming frequencies, the NYPD was practicing its “broken windows” philosophy, leading to policies like Stop-and-Frisk that caused mass arrests and incarceration disproportionally affecting Black and Latino men. What other media so accurately, so honest, so genuinely, reflects the complacency of the idle rich like Sex and the City?
When we talk about art, we use the phrase “product of its time” dismissively, to say that something holds no value to our contemporary sensibilities. But I think that this is because we are uncomfortable with the honesty of what dated media represents—not that the social ills of Sex and the City are “right”, but the revelation that our comfortable, liberal selves are deeply flawed and prejudiced. One of the most valuable aspects of Sex and the City is its reception today, specifically that some people can so easily divorce the show from its obvious racism and classism and choose to only see it as an aspirational, fashionable dramedy. It is not only an archival document but an interactive archive; its public perception alone is telling and important information.
It’s probably no stretch of the imagination to say that the dream of Sex and the City died in 2008 with the Great Recession. The show “couldn’t be made today”, but largely because it would feel overdone and boring. Its legacy is so palpable in later programmes like Girls, Gossip Girl, and Broad City; notably shows that have yielded similar criticisms to their predecessor.
After my most recent rewatch of Sex and the City, I couldn’t help but wonder: what can we learn? We can learn a lot about the unspoken politics of 1990s New York. We can learn a lot about ourselves—when we relate to these characters, we should ask if we also relate to their faults, both personal and political. And of course, we can learn about Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Lang, and Manolo Blahnik.
The term “they mitzvah” is used throughout the show, despite the phrase “b’nai mitzvah” already existing as a gender-neutral alternative, commonly used for twins. This detail drove me crazy.