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It's outdated, wealthy and white – so why do I still reach for Sex and the City?

As part of our 90s comedy week, we look at why Carrie Bradshaw and her merry band of Manhattanites were the first feminist TV fix. 

Part of the joy of watching TV is that you get to project whatever you want onto the moving picture before you. As the study of culture through a critical lens has grown in recent years, there have been university courses on Game of Thrones and academic papers written about the significance of Star Wars. We can’t help but view society through the lens of what we produce, create and consume. So, one reinvigorated feminist movement later, are Carrie Bradshaw and her merry band of Manhattanites secretly feminist icons? Or would any socially conscious interpretation of their exploits be a waste of time, given the show never claimed to be anything more than a candy floss sitcom? 

Now an iconic part of pop culture, Sex and the City, which aired from 1998-2004, follows Carrie and her tight knit group of three friends, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte (a sex-crazed publicist, a no-nonsense lawyer and housewife-in-training, respectively) as she navigates the tumultuous world of love and relationships to produce a weekly column for the fictional New York Star. As Emily Nussbaum said in her New Yorker ode to SATC, the girls are “simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized”. Despite being over 30 and single, they aren’t miserable spinsters, but women who enjoy sex and alcohol and brunch and wearing inappropriate clothes and making fun of themselves and each other. 

The women’s sometimes bawdy discussions of sex and their sexcapades would not have been possible were it not for second and third wave feminist movements, with their emphasis on egalitarianism and sexual liberation. The sexual and romantic freedom that all "the girls" enjoy is done so mostly without judgement throughout the series  – from Samantha’s irreverent bedhopping to Charlotte's hopeless romanticism. When Miranda wrestles with having an abortion, Carrie admits to having one at 22, and Charlotte rages about her inability to conceive, but the show itself doesn’t cast any one decision or feeling as either right or wrong, just deeply personal. In Season Four, when Charlotte chooses to leave her high-ranking gallery job behind to become a housewife, while invoking a woman's freedom to choose, Miranda rolls her eyes. But Miranda's ambitions to advance at her law firm while raising a child is only possible because she has benefited from the campaigns of working women before her.

There’s a distinct sense throughout the show that while the girls are seeking healthy relationships with men, the relationship which exists between the girls is far more meaningful. This is acknowledged within the show, when a cautious Charlotte suggests that maybe the girls are each other’s soul mates, and men are just things to have fun with. Female friendships are, of course, not particularly revolutionary, but in the Nineties, most TV representations of women barely came close to depicting how the ways in which women were each other’s support networks. Despite the extravagance and unfeasibility of the show, from the apartments to the expensive shoes that often makes it feel like a country girl’s cosmopolitan fantasy, the friendships in SATC are genuine and supportive. Charlotte offers Carrie a loan to buy her apartment, pawning her engagement ring in the process, and giving her financial autonomy in a way that no man would have. When Samantha contracts cancer at the end of season 6, it is Carrie who’s there to feed her medicine and hold her hand, not a lover. 

SATC undercut the portrayal of women as catty and petty that reigned supreme on many TV shows at the time. It helped to pave the way for ensemble shows like Girls, Broad City and Insecure, which portray complex women and their relationships sympathetically – women who struggle to articulate their wants and needs even if they know what they are, women who have bad sex and search for better, women who are a mess by all standards but still consider themselves worthy of respect. 

Despite the show’s empathy, it fails to take into consideration a lot of the other New Yorkers. The girls live in a wealthy, white bubble – for a city as diverse as New York, the main cast was startlingly white - and the men they date are a veritable parade of investment bankers and lawyers. When Samantha dates a black record executive, his overbearing older sister breaks them up by declaring that she doesn’t want her brother to date a white woman, creating an uncomfortable caricature of the angry black woman. I cringed when a voiceover explains that Miranda can charm a group of transgender prostitutes outside her apartment because, “after all, they’re men” or when the girls facilitate Carrie’s casual biphobia by enabling her to dump an otherwise promising romantic prospect because he’s previously been in a relationship with a man. The majority of discussions on the show tend to be about men, whether the prospects of a new one, or frustrations about an old one, despite how complex the women themselves are. Undoubtedly,  modern shows like Broad City and Insecure tend to do a far wittier and funnier job at tackling social issues than Sex and the City, where episodes will be devoted to a fraught issue such as abortion, and then gloss over it. 

Yet, I find myself still drawn to Sex and the City. Many of the women I know (myself included) weren’t able to watch the show in its initial run, but now have fervent debates about whether Big or Aidan was better for Carrie, or which character would be the lead if the show was to be aired now (Miranda, obviously). As someone who is neither white nor straight, and also doesn’t enjoy cocktails or heels, it’s difficult to articulate why I still reach for SATC when there is now more media that shows a greater range of the complicated experience of womanhood. I couldn’t help but wonder: is it really a choice between other, more "feminist" shows and Sex and the City? Or can I just acknowledge there’s many ways to be a woman, and enjoy them all?

This is part of the New Statesman's look back at classic comedies from the 90s. You can find the previous instalment, about Brass Eye, here

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.