I unceremoniously dumped Sex and the City after I saw the inaugural movie while studying abroad in Buenos Aires. I had dragged my boyfriend, visiting from California, to the theater without shame — sure, he was only in town for a week, but it had been years since I'd seen those four women whose major life milestones, Achilles' heels, and preferred hairstyles I knew so well. The shame seeped in as I sat there, painfully hyperaware of how Carrie and her crew represented "empowered" American women to the Porteños around me: boastfully materialistic, obsessed with marriage and anti-aging creams, racist. Even Carrie's puns were half-assed and embarrassing. Was this always what Sex and the City was all about?
No!!! The brilliance of the series had nothing to do with the luxe pre-recession ornamentation or even Patricia Field's venerable costume design, which was like fondant finery on a truly substantial cake. Sex and the City was revolutionary because it was so relatable that both teenagers and senior citizens could cringe and cry along, even if they weren't A-list Manhattanites with closets full of Manolos. Ambitious, complicated women saw the best and worst parts of themselves in selfish, enterprising Carrie, brash, nonjudgmental Samantha, prissy, romantic Charlotte, and uptight, authentic Miranda. They were real, and they were unlike any women I had ever seen on TV before.
But the movies and other marketing opportunities (Sex and the City bus tours, fucking cupcakes everywhere, etc.) that prevailed after the show went off the air focused solely on that aspirational brand-name glamour and transformed Sex and the City into a soulless brand so gaudy that Carrie wouldn't have pinned it onto her dress. "Sex and the City is dead to me," I told my boyfriend after we walked out of the theater. The women I had seen on the screen were zombie versions of the real deal (if zombies were super shrill shopaholics). I heard the second movie was so ridiculous it was fun to hate-watch, but I couldn't bring myself to belittle the series like that.
This is all an extremely longwinded way to say that Emily Nussbaum's piece on how the series lost its good name is so perfect I feel like I dreamed it into existence:
But “Sex and the City,” too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of “The Sopranos,” albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. “Sex and the City,” in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, “Sex and the City” was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.
In contrast to the rest of the single girl characters on TV, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte "were odder birds by far, jagged, aggressive, and sometimes frightening figures, like a makeup mirror lit up in neon," Nussbaum writes. "They were simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized." IRL men didn't get their appeal (except nubile Charlotte, every IRL woman's least favorite character), because they weren't Cool Girls — well, Samantha seemed like one at first, but she soon transitioned from self-professed "guy's girl" to fiercely loyal, tender friend.
Here's my favorite part of Nussbaum's piece:
Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to glide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.
Every conversation the friends had, at brunch or out shopping, amounted to a “Crossfire”-like debate. When Carrie sleeps with a dreamy French architect and he leaves a thousand dollars by her bed, she consults her friends. “Money is power. Sex is power,” Samantha argues. “Therefore, getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.” “Don’t listen to the dime-store Camille Paglia,” Miranda shoots back. The most famous such conversation took place four episodes in, after Charlotte’s boyfriend asked her to have anal sex. The friends pile into a cab for a raucous debate about whether her choice is about power-exchange (Miranda) or about finding a fun new hole (Samantha). “I’m not a hole!” Charlotte protests, and they hit a pothole. “What was that?” Charlotte asks. “A preview,” Miranda and Samantha say in unison, and burst out laughing.
This piece is an instant classic, and I intend to bookmark it on my phone so I can use it as ammo at dinner parties when I'm too drunk to eloquently argue with dudes who think Sex and the City is a joke.