What ‘Sex and the City’ Critics Have Always Gotten Wrong
The show’s message about expectations, relationships, and women still endures
This winter marked the 15th anniversary of the last episode of Sex and the City after a six-year run on HBO that garnered it 54 Emmy nominations and seven wins. In the final episode, which ran February 22, 2004, perennial single gal Carrie Bradshaw fled her handsome but abusive artist boyfriend in Paris to return to her old life in Manhattan and an uncertain romantic future.
With each anniversary of the program’s beginning or end, the show’s fans have been treated to a spate of belittling articles about how it inspired high-maintenance women to flock to New York in search of shoes, parties, and the perfect 6-foot-3 real estate developer to marry. As film studies professor Diane Negra was quoted as saying in the Irish Times last year in one of the kinder retrospectives, “A less attractive feature of Sex and the City is the glorification of luxury lifestyling.”
One story last June had former dating columnist Julia Allison telling about how, as a Georgetown University student, she wanted to be just like Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha, so she used the show as a “road map” and “envisioned nonstop brunching and shopping.” She spent years dating the wrong men and, for a while, the wrong woman. Now, in her thirties, she regrets choosing partners who wouldn’t commit. “Perhaps I’d be married with children now” if she hadn’t watched the show, she opined, adding, “It shows too much consumerism and fear of intimacy disguised as empowerment… It did permanent and measurable damage to my psyche.” When the article was published, it went viral internationally and elicited cruel comments on the internet, many from men who seemed gleeful at Allison’s apparent comeuppance.
When they laughed about their failures, we knew we could too.
Anniversary retrospectives like these highlight the luxury lifestyle and consumerism of the show, but they often miss the points it made about relationships. The single friends I knew who endured dating in Manhattan in the 1990s—before internet dating was the norm—gradually learned the same lessons the four women of Sex and the City learned over several years.
When the show premiered in 1998 among a robust economy, I was one of many recent college graduates who came to the Big City seeking an unglamorous career in some low-paying artsy field without stars in our eyes or decent health insurance. Many of us also lacked a college boyfriend or girlfriend and kept our eyes open for Mr. Right-for-Us rather than Mr. Big. There were no role models for dating in this landscape; our parents had met young through church, temple, school, or “at a dance.” Looking for new ways to connect in a large urban area, a single twentysomething friend of mine and I started a weekly bar trivia night in the West Village in the early 2000s. It spawned a few relationships among young, broke nerds like us.
We also met people at parties for bloggers, at friends’ comedy shows, through volunteer work, and at readings by literary websites like BlackTable.com. I never attended a party in the Hamptons like Carrie and Samantha, and my low-paid friends didn’t care if our dates had money—though we kept our eyes open for someone who was kind and perhaps a little creative. Then again, so did Carrie at times; she did date a comic book artist who lived with his mother and an insecure novelist who rode a motorcycle.
In 2000, New York magazine ran a story about an investment banker who claimed he couldn’t afford to date New York women because “First there is the cost of nights out with friends, just to identify a woman you want to date… then you have at least half a dozen dinners at about $150 apiece.” That was followed in August 2001 by a piece called “Gravy Drain” about the economic bust in which an assistant complained about a business dinner held at an Italian restaurant instead of Nobu. I chuckled and knew it was time to stop reading those pieces. There was another type of young, single person in Manhattan who wasn’t being reflected in popular culture, who’d never set foot in Nobu, and who spent under $30 on dates (I generally ordered a $10 quesadilla, and we split the bill because it was fair).
Still, my friends and I—teachers, writers, and social workers—felt our struggles were similar to those of the more glamorous and (likely) taller Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte. They would meet an interesting guy, and something would go terribly wrong. But in the end, they’d emerge with a better idea of what they wanted and who they were. And when they laughed about their failures, we knew we could too.
In the show, Charlotte met an attractive investment banker who, during sex, yelled, “You f***** b****, you f****** whore!” Carrie canoodled with her cute “f*** buddy” who was good in bed but couldn’t carry on a conversation. The implications were clear: You might have to compromise some things in your search for true love, but the trick was figuring out which compromises were okay and which were not.
I used to binge-watch tapes of the show, scooping them up at Hollywood Video on my way home from my newspaper job because I couldn’t afford cable yet. Gradually, I got the impression that the women on the show wanted something beyond Manolo Blahniks: They wanted a partner who cared who they really were and admired, rather than criticized, their quirks. When it took a while to find that person, at least they had loyal friendships to rely on.
In time, my friends and I learned the big lesson the ‘SATC’ foursome learned: There is a difference between lowering your standards and broadening them.
Around season three, when Sex and the City was coming into its own, I went on a date in midtown Manhattan with a man who asserted angrily during our dinner, “That show took all the neuroses in New York and put them in the single women here.” Sometimes there are so many arguments for why a comment is off base that you can’t aggregate them into one simple response. I was dumbfounded that anyone could believe women were so flighty that liking a certain TV show meant we wanted to be just like its characters. But instead of telling him he was wrong, I laughed—since that’s what women do when we’re trying to prove we’re not neurotic. (Incidentally, we split the bill.)
In time, my friends and I learned the big lesson the Sex and the City foursome learned: There is a difference between lowering your standards and broadening them. It’s not okay to lower your standards if they’re fairly reasonable, but you can broaden your list of wants: How much does money matter to you? Do you care if someone lives in your neighborhood? What can you give up, and what do you need?
Charlotte, the optimistic art gallery manager and perhaps the most romantic of the four, married a handsome, wealthy doctor who did everything his mother told him—and their marriage fell apart. She wound up in the throes of passion with her divorce attorney, the funny, hairless (except on his back) Harry. She didn’t find him attractive at first, but he was kind, smart, and treated her well.
Miranda thought her sweet bartender boyfriend Steve was irresponsible (he was) and not up to her level of ambition and education, but she realized, after several false starts, she was in love with him. (The irresponsibility still worried me, though.)
Carrie ended up in Paris with debonair artist Petrovsky, who alternately ignored her, controlled her, and slapped her across the face. In this case, she hadn’t broadened her standards; she’d lowered them. When the twice-divorced Mr. Big finally came to his senses and realized Carrie was “The One,” she took him back despite his baggage. (I much preferred Carrie’s beau Aiden, who was more down-to-earth, but Big probably suited Carrie’s personality. That’s the thing about women: We’re all different.)
And as for Samantha, she wasn’t the commitment type, although she did love boyfriend Smith Jerrod. In the movies, she stayed true to her wants and left Smith to fly solo. Perhaps her compromise was maintaining a lifestyle that flew in the face of societal expectations.
Women should never “settle,” but in time they learn, as the four women did, which qualities are most important to them in a partner. Often, having a similar demeanor or outlook is more important than common interests or a job. Even those who learn those lessons may not meet someone, but they might learn the value of supportive friendships and get a better idea of who they are. When the series ended its six-year run, some of my friends had entered their thirties still single while another few met through trivia and got married, but we all had a clearer picture of who we were and what we wanted out of life.