The Evolution of Sex and the City

Carrie Bradshaw’s “progressive” journey ultimately brought her to a very “traditional” destination.

Rory Riley Topping
May 16, 2018 · 5 min read

To this day, my mother is a self-professed liberal. Despite her free-loving and tree-hugging days throughout the 1960s and 70s, the first time she sat down to watch an episode of Sex and the City with me in the early 2000s, her response was, “If people actually lived like this, the whole world would have AIDS.” At the time, that seemed like a pretty parochial statement, particularly coming from an almost 60-year old woman who was married with three children. By contrast, I was a college sophomore in Massachusetts, and I thought I was much more open-minded and enlightened in my thinking than she was, to the dismay of those who knew that I self-identified as a conservative.

As time has gone on, moments like these have taught me that labels such as liberal or conservative, feminist or misogynist, are often just relative constructs. For example, “conservative woman” isn’t an oxymoron and “liberal” is not synonymous with open-mindedness.

My mother’s comment is an important reminder that, regardless of how we label ourselves, our actions don’t always match up with our identity politics. She may say she’s a summer-of-love-era-liberal, but her embrace of a traditional family lifestyle through the years really wasn’t all that radical. And, likewise, as a conservative, I didn’t whole-heartedly subscribe to Phyllis Schlafly’s way of doing things, either.

As Sex and the City, likewise a self-professed liberal and radical show for its time, celebrates its 20th anniversary next month, I couldn’t help but wonder, does the show actually advocate for conservative women’s values more than we first thought? Or, is it just that I’m also 20 years older, and now analyzing the series from a more cynical point of view?

Looking at “Sex and the City” at 20

Although in the series, Carrie never receives direct answers to the hypothetical questions she poses in the show’s voice over, the answer to the question above is — yes, the show concludes with three of the four woman finding happiness in marriage, and two of those three with motherhood. I may have become more cynical in the past 20 years, but, I recognize the irony that a show predicated around promiscuity ultimately elevates traditional values as what women should aspire to. And, ultimately, I think that is a good thing, despite the fact that the show forces us to sort through some smut to get there.

After all, whether you attribute the quotation to Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli or Victor Hugo, there is some truth to the maxim that if you’re not liberal when you’re young you have no heart, and if you’re not conservative when you’re older, you have no brains. Really, what Sex and the City did for society had nothing to do with Sex, or the City, but helped us realize that this transition from youth to maturity is a spectrum, not a hard and fast deadline that accompanies a certain age or milestone.

When the show first premiered in June 1998, Americans were openly obsessed with sex in a way that they had not been previously. The news cycle was dominated by headlines about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Liberal democrats, in a desperate attempt to normalize the President’s behavior, gravitated toward the raunchy conversation of the HBO series, making it an instant hit in otherwise liberal locations — primarily the coasts and big cities, but also an attractive escape fantasy to everyone in between. The hedonistic and consumerist subplots were par for the course with the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, making the women’s life styles seem not so far-fetched as they actually were.

Yet, in a bit of unintentional foreshadowing, in the pilot episode, Samantha refers to Mr. Big, Carrie’s love interest throughout the series as “the next Donald Trump.” Trump himself even makes a cameo at a restaurant in season two. If you were to ask many college-age women today if they would ultimately marry a man like Trump, a majority would say no with disgust, and probably combine their disdain with a #MeToo lecture. But, over the course of six seasons and 94 episodes, that’s exactly what Sex and the City is ultimately about — the fact that no matter how long you may tell yourself that your generation is different, pragmatism — aka traditional values — ultimately wins out.

For those unfamiliar with the show, “Big,” as he is known throughout the series, is about as stereotypically masculine as you can get from an urban guy. He’s tall, handsome, professionally successful and, his nickname implies what kind of deal he is. In the season finale, he and Carrie, the show’s protagonist, finally make things work, and in the blockbuster movie made four years later, they finally tie the knot.

For a show that was supposedly liberal and radical, an inescapably feminine heroine (in the opening credits, she’s even wearing a tutu) marrying a strong and successful financier, really is anything but. To the contrary, the show follows a pretty stereotypical coming of age story arc — to be young, as the women are portrayed in the early seasons — is to still be naïve and idealistic. As the women age, they become more pragmatic and as a result, adhere toward more traditional values. Really, the most revolutionary thing about the show is that it allowed the label “young” to carry over into our 30s, and this is just as much a product of advances in scientific and medical technology (i.e., life expectancy is much longer) than it is feminist empowerment.

In other words, the show’s ultimate take way was that, although we may delay marriage longer than our parents and grandparents, traditional lifestyles, i.e., marriage and/or children, ultimately prevail for most women. We may choose a different path on how we get there, which Sex and the City normalized for many, but ultimately, many of us want to end up in the comfort of familiarity.

Although in 1998, it was difficult to say that a character like Carrie Bradshaw was promoting conservative values, the past twenty years have shown us that being empowered and being conservative are not mutually exclusive traits.

In the age of Trump, it can be somewhat alarming how visceral some find the concept of being a conservative woman to be. However, what shows like Sex and the City can teach us is that there is such thing as a feminist conservative. Although “Female Comradery and the City” is a much less interesting title than “Sex and the City”, the show’s main takeaway is about the four women’s friendship, not their sexual relationships (although, those certainly helped with ratings). Conservative women are about choosing your own values in the sense that they believe all women should have the right to choose their own beliefs, regardless of what others are labeling them.

Twenty years later, Sex and the City reminds us that ideas are more important than labels. This is probably not in any way what the producers of the show intended as the show’s legacy, but it is in fact how it ended up. You can call the show liberal, conservative, or anything in between, but the show’s fairy-tale ending reminds us that traditional values are traditional for a reason.

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