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17 December 2021

Louise Perry

Female empowerment? Sex and the City is just empty sex and consumption

For Carrie and her friends, having sex “like men” means behaving like selfish arseholes.

In the first ever episode of Sex and the City, aired in 1998, the Manhattanite columnist, socialite and supposed everywoman Carrie Bradshaw resolves to stop looking for “Mr Perfect” and start enjoying herself. In that effort, she hooks up with an ex-boyfriend, “a self-centred, withholding creep” to whom she no longer feels any emotional attachment. 

She drops round at his place mid-afternoon, enjoys his offer of oral sex and then leaves before he’s had the chance to orgasm himself. Ignoring her disgruntled ex, Carrie tells us of her delight: “After I began to get dressed, I realised that I’d done it. I’d just had sex like a man. I left feeling powerful, potent and incredibly alive. I felt like I owned this city. Nothing and no one could get in my way.”

Sex and the City has returned to our screens with a new series titled And Just Like That. The protagonists are now in their mid-50s not their mid-30s, but the sexual politics of this latest iteration of the franchise are still in keeping with the first episode: having sex “like a man” remains the aspiration. 

The politics of the show are now being scrutinised, with the creators scrambling to diversify a cast that was originally almost exclusively white (hardly surprising, given that the show is about rich New Yorkers). And the new series includes some excruciating scenes in which the leading ladies are reprimanded for their lack of political sensitivity. 

It seems that the creators are aware that, in some ways, Sex and the City has not aged well. Watching the early episodes will induce regular teeth sucking in many viewers, since there are plenty of lines that would never be permitted on screen now (“after all, they’re men,” says one character, Samantha, explaining her ability to charm a group of trans women who have congregated outside her building). 

But few of the present day critics of Sex and the City seem to have a problem with the show’s central feature: its particular conception of female sexuality. In fact, according to one article about the new series, this is the feature that stands up best today: “If there’s one thing the show got right for evermore, it was its portrayal of sexual desire.” 

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To be clear, I do actually like Sex and the City. I’ve watched every episode and have even (for my sins) seen the films, which were almost unanimously panned by critics. The franchise is rightly loved by fans for its humour and its often touching portrayal of female friendship. 

[see also: Sex and the City might seem dated now – but for a Nineties teen, it was radical]

But its depiction of sexual desire is a far from “right”, as the article put it. In Sex and the City, the female characters regularly demonstrate their sexual agency by having loveless, brusque sex with men they don’t like. They show no regard for their partners’ intimate lives, treating them as means not ends in the pursuit of personal pleasure. So it seems that what the phrase having sex “like a man” really means is having sex “like a selfish arsehole“. 

But then, the whole show is a celebration of women behaving like selfish arseholes. The American writer Katherine Dee has suggested that Sex and the City ought really to be read as satire: “To a New Yorker watching Sex and the City, especially a New York woman of a particular age and class, the joke is understood. It’s saying, ‘Yes, we are materialistic, we are shallow, we settle down too late, and it hurts us.’”

The problem is that the satirical edge is lost on anyone outside of this social niche. There’s a scene in the second series of the British comedy Peep Show that pokes fun at the disconnect between the show’s glamorous setting and the less-than-glamorous lives of many of its fans. 

One of the Peep Show characters, Sophie (Olivia Colman), does a dull office job, lives in Croydon, has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and dates some extremely lacklustre men. Nevertheless, her email password is (misnamed) “sex in the city” – her favourite TV show. 

Like the Sex and the City characters, Sophie sleeps with some dodgy men and delays having children until later in life; unlike these characters, this leads her to make some hasty and unwise decisions. By the end of the series, she’s an alcoholic single mother (Peep Show is very funny, but it’s not exactly uplifting). Intentionally or not, Sophie’s character arc highlights the problems with imitating the Sex and the City lifestyle if you’re not fabulously wealthy and able to cushion bad decision-making with money. 

Occasionally, even the richest Sex and the City characters are punished by the show’s writers. In the second movie, for instance – the one widely decried by critics as Islamophobic – 52-year-old Samantha boasts of the potency of her cocktail of hormonal supplements: “I’ve tricked my body into thinking it’s younger!” But when her pills are confiscated on arrival in Abu Dhabi airport and she’s forced to suffer a very sudden return of menopause symptoms, including a loss of libido, she’s driven mad. Without the libido of a much younger woman, she loses her sense of self. 

It’s all played for laughs, of course. But cut out the jokes and the fancy clothes, and Sex and the City is more like a Michel Houellebecq novel than a cheerful sitcom – all materialism, desacralisation, urban anomie and grotty sex scenes. In Houellebecq’s novels, middle-aged Frenchmen try to fill the emotional void with empty sex and empty consumption. In Sex and the City, middle-aged American women do the same thing, and then discuss their exploits over brunch.

[see also: The new Sex and the City series is surprisingly sad – and surprisingly good]

In the first ever episode of Sex and the City, aired in 1998, the Manhattanite columnist, socialite and supposed everywoman Carrie Bradshaw resolves to stop looking for “Mr Perfect” and start enjoying herself. In that effort, she hooks up with an ex-boyfriend, “a self-centred, withholding creep” to whom she no longer feels any emotional attachment. 

She drops round at his place mid-afternoon, enjoys his offer of oral sex and then leaves before he’s had the chance to orgasm himself. Ignoring her disgruntled ex, Carrie tells us of her delight: “After I began to get dressed, I realised that I’d done it. I’d just had sex like a man. I left feeling powerful, potent and incredibly alive. I felt like I owned this city. Nothing and no one could get in my way.”

Sex and the City has returned to our screens with a new series titled And Just Like That. The protagonists are now in their mid-50s not their mid-30s, but the sexual politics of this latest iteration of the franchise are still in keeping with the first episode: having sex “like a man” remains the aspiration. 

The politics of the show are now being scrutinised, with the creators scrambling to diversify a cast that was originally almost exclusively white (hardly surprising, given that the show is about rich New Yorkers). And the new series includes some excruciating scenes in which the leading ladies are reprimanded for their lack of political sensitivity. 

It seems that the creators are aware that, in some ways, Sex and the City has not aged well. Watching the early episodes will induce regular teeth sucking in many viewers, since there are plenty of lines that would never be permitted on screen now (“after all, they’re men,” says one character, Samantha, explaining her ability to charm a group of trans women who have congregated outside her building). 

But few of the present day critics of Sex and the City seem to have a problem with the show’s central feature: its particular conception of female sexuality. In fact, according to one article about the new series, this is the feature that stands up best today: “If there’s one thing the show got right for evermore, it was its portrayal of sexual desire.” 

To be clear, I do actually like Sex and the City. I’ve watched every episode and have even (for my sins) seen the films, which were almost unanimously panned by critics. The franchise is rightly loved by fans for its humour and its often touching portrayal of female friendship. 

[see also: Sex and the City might seem dated now – but for a Nineties teen, it was radical]

But its depiction of sexual desire is a far from “right”, as the article put it. In Sex and the City, the female characters regularly demonstrate their sexual agency by having loveless, brusque sex with men they don’t like. They show no regard for their partners’ intimate lives, treating them as means not ends in the pursuit of personal pleasure. So it seems that what the phrase having sex “like a man” really means is having sex “like a selfish arsehole“. 

But then, the whole show is a celebration of women behaving like selfish arseholes. The American writer Katherine Dee has suggested that Sex and the City ought really to be read as satire: “To a New Yorker watching Sex and the City, especially a New York woman of a particular age and class, the joke is understood. It’s saying, ‘Yes, we are materialistic, we are shallow, we settle down too late, and it hurts us.’”

The problem is that the satirical edge is lost on anyone outside of this social niche. There’s a scene in the second series of the British comedy Peep Show that pokes fun at the disconnect between the show’s glamorous setting and the less-than-glamorous lives of many of its fans. 

One of the Peep Show characters, Sophie (Olivia Colman), does a dull office job, lives in Croydon, has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and dates some extremely lacklustre men. Nevertheless, her email password is (misnamed) “sex in the city” – her favourite TV show. 

Like the Sex and the City characters, Sophie sleeps with some dodgy men and delays having children until later in life; unlike these characters, this leads her to make some hasty and unwise decisions. By the end of the series, she’s an alcoholic single mother (Peep Show is very funny, but it’s not exactly uplifting). Intentionally or not, Sophie’s character arc highlights the problems with imitating the Sex and the City lifestyle if you’re not fabulously wealthy and able to cushion bad decision-making with money. 

Occasionally, even the richest Sex and the City characters are punished by the show’s writers. In the second movie, for instance – the one widely decried by critics as Islamophobic – 52-year-old Samantha boasts of the potency of her cocktail of hormonal supplements: “I’ve tricked my body into thinking it’s younger!” But when her pills are confiscated on arrival in Abu Dhabi airport and she’s forced to suffer a very sudden return of menopause symptoms, including a loss of libido, she’s driven mad. Without the libido of a much younger woman, she loses her sense of self. 

It’s all played for laughs, of course. But cut out the jokes and the fancy clothes, and Sex and the City is more like a Michel Houellebecq novel than a cheerful sitcom – all materialism, desacralisation, urban anomie and sex scenes. In Houellebecq’s novels, middle-aged Frenchmen try to fill the emotional void with empty sex and empty consumption. In Sex and the City, middle-aged American women do the same thing, and then discuss their exploits over brunch.

[see also: The new Sex and the City series is surprisingly sad – and surprisingly good]

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