"Am I Carrie Bradshaw? No. I am Candace Bushnell." So says the real CB, but a London Times interview reveals striking parallels — including, perhaps, the desire to "write a book that would change the world."
Apropos of Bushnell's new young adult novel The Carrie Diaries, Shane Watson sat down with the writer, whose similarities to her heroine go beyond a penchant for "tricky fashion and flirting with the camera." Says Watson,
Despite Bushnell's denials - "There may be similarities, but the reality is, there is nothing that happened to the character that happened to me" - Carrie's background story seems pretty close to her own. She is brought up in a small town in upper-middle-class Connecticut; she has a rocket scientist for a dad (yes, really); her mother dies of cancer (Bushnell's mother died of breast cancer in 2006); she's on the swim team (Bushnell rode competitively); and she works out early on that she has a choice between focusing on boys and marriage or being a contender in her own right.
Framing this as a choice is a little odd, since the way both Carrie and Candy (as Bushnell's friends apparently call her) became contenders was by focusing on men, if not directly on marriage. But Bushnell may not see it that way. The Times includes an excerpt from The Carrie Diaries, in which the young Carrie idolizes author Mary Gordon Howard (seemingly a fictionalized Mary McCarthy). The excerpt ends with Carrie leaving her dying mother's bedside to see Howard speak, and cherishing the following hope:
Mary Gordon Howard was going to see me and know, instinctively, that I, too, was a writer and a feminist, and would some day write a book that would change the world.
Was this also Bushnell's dream? And if so, has she achieved it? It's easy to be dismissive, especially as the glossy age of Sex and the City recedes from view. Says one Times commenter, "The 90s are over" — and as many reviewers of the Sex and the City movie pointed out, the shoes-and-Cosmopolitans veneer of the principals' lives has not worn particularly well. Even the most consistently praised element of the show — its portrayal of enduring female friendship — has recently come under attack, with Broadsheet's Elissa Strauss calling "the soul union" of the four main characters an unrealistic "fairy tale." As Carrie and her friends prepare to take their big-screen trip to Abu Dhabi, it's tempting to say that their lives have been a glitzy spectacle and nothing more.
But Bushnell's writing and the television and film they spawned did help define a certain political stance, one still on view in The Carrie Diaries. In the excerpt, Carrie describes her mother: "even though she wore White Shoulders perfume and thought jeans were for farmers, she also assumed that women should embrace this wonderful way of being called feminism." And, "I never thought you couldn't be a feminist if you wore pantyhose and high heels. I thought being a feminist was about how you conducted your life." This last line is a bit disingenuous — after all, what you wear is part of how you conduct your life. But Sex and the City's political message, if it had one, was that women could be empowered while still buying into ideals of fashion and beauty that would seem to disempower them.
Bushnell didn't invent this message, but she certainly popularized it, and it has endured long after the boom times in which Carrie amassed her Manolos. In some ways, it's a liberating idea, and one which many avowed feminists (myself included) fall back on when we do things like put on makeup or shave our legs. In other ways, it's deeply problematic, discouraging girls and women from examining whether they're enacting their own version of beauty or someone else's (cf. Natasha Walter's critique of pole-dancing). And of course being fashionable the way Carrie was requires several different layers of privilege. Candace Bushnell may not have changed the world, exactly, but she did add her drawling voice to the feminist conversation — for good and for ill.