It's outdated, wealthy and white – so why do I still reach for Sex and the City?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

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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

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology. 

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