'Sex and the City' is too annoying for the 'woke' generation

It's 20 years since the first episode of the ground-breaking television show 'Sex and the City', but not everyone is celebrating, writes Rowan Pelling

03 June 2018 - 00:00 By ROWAN PELLING
The cast of 'Sex and the City': Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall.
The cast of 'Sex and the City': Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall.
Image: AFP Photo

Fans of Sex and the City have got a fresh excuse to get out their box sets and pour themselves a cosmopolitan. Next week is the 20th anniversary of the first time TV viewers saw Carrie Bradshaw sashay down a New York street in a tutu before a passing bus splashed water all over her.

Comedy with a self-deprecating edge was the show's hallmark and since that debut, in June 1998, the four female protagonists - Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte - have become part of the zeitgeist, while Manolo Blahnik has become a household name, and the show itself has spawned two big-screen adaptations.

For many of today's feminists, the show is too consumerist, too white and too obsessed with pinning down a man to be worthy of eulogies

Even so, a significant section of the female population - especially those under 35 - won't be celebrating the anniversary. For many of today's feminists, the show is too consumerist, too white and too obsessed with pinning down a man to be worthy of eulogies.

Furthermore, Bradshaw - once praised by the likes of academic Helen Richards for being a rare example of a "visible flaneuse", and Naomi Wolf for her role as "a pop culture philosopher" - is now dismissed as annoying and a poor role model by many young female critics.

There is also an entertaining meme called "Woke Charlotte", which rewrites scenes from the show, re-casting prudish romantic Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) as that very 21st-century creation, an intersectional feminist (a feminist who is conscious of other types of prejudice, such as racism).

So when Carrie wears her ghetto gold jewellery for fun, Woke Charlotte responds: "That statement is deeply classist and displays a complete lack of awareness of your privilege as a white woman."

SETTING THE PACE

I can't help feeling the harsher critiques are missing the point. In the final analysis, Sex and the City is an all-too-rare show about the consolations of female friendship. It was also one of the first popular comedies to properly explore the fact that remaining single in your 30s and 40s was normal for today's career women - and that, therefore, unabashedly seeking sex was an equally unremarkable aspect of modern dating life.

The series may have been inspired by Candace Bushnell's essays about New York dating, but there was a greater sense of female solidarity and wisecracking in the TV version.

It made you realise that before SATC crash-landed on our screens, your best hope of watching a gang of women in a comedy series was The Golden Girls. And there's little doubt the show helped pave the way for other innovative, sexually frank TV series such as the BBC's Pulling and Fleabag and HBO's Girls.

In these shows, drunken one-night stands that end badly and porn-obsessed men who want demeaning forms of sex are commonplace. When you compare Sex and the City with these edgier shows and their self-destructive, borderline-unemployable protagonists, it's easy to become nostalgic for the sharp professionalism of Carrie and Co.

The women [of Sex and the City] may have been unaccountably wealthy and obsessed with shopping, but they were also optimistic and living life on their own terms

The women may have been unaccountably wealthy and obsessed with shopping, but they were also optimistic and living life on their own terms.

They policed their own and each other's sex lives and made sure friends walked away from degrading suggestions, such as the lover who called Charlotte a "filthy whore" at the point of climax. Even Samantha Jones with her upfront sexual appetites and fondness for experimentation (she termed herself "try-sexual") seems wholesome by comparison to today's generation of anti-heroines. She had sex on her own terms rather than any man's.

Whatever the vicissitudes of daily life, the SATC crew seemed to be in charge of their destinies. And if they made a serious mistake - as with Charlotte's long unconsummated marriage to Trey (Kyle MacLachlan) - they remedied it.

Furthermore, the show kept apace of trends (and not just sexual trends) with such a keen, quick eye for New Yorkers' evolving tastes that sometimes it seemed prophetic. The first I heard of the up-and-coming Meatpacking District was its use as a destination for the coffee stops.

Miranda moved to Brooklyn, just as US friends of mine were deserting Manhattan for cheaper, larger homes. Chic women took up cupcakes and the pale pink cosmopolitan became thousands of women's cocktail of choice.

And then there was stylist Patricia Field's contribution to the show. Her eye steered Carrie's wardrobe and introduced viewers to Fendi baguettes, Manolo Blahniks, and a Vivienne Westwood wedding dress worthy of Versailles.

The show also raised important issues, including Charlotte's fertility issues, Miranda's struggle with breastfeeding and Samantha's breast cancer. No one's claiming the drama was up there with Chekhov, but the writers knew they needed grit in the oyster.

The show also raised important issues, including Charlotte's fertility issues, Miranda's struggle with breastfeeding and Samantha's breast cancer

Yes, there were downsides. The rampant consumerism was consistently the least appealing quality. There was an alienating moment when Carrie calculated her shoe collection was worth $40,000. Cynthia Nixon has confessed in recent years she was a bit "devastated" by the ending of the second film when Big (Carrie's on/off businessman lover) revealed he had built her a massive closet. Hardly the emotional climax true intimacy-junkies seek.

It also became ever harder to ignore the fact the show was resolutely white, wealthy and, in terms of sexual orientation, orthodox. The decision to make all four women straight when in real life one of them (Nixon) was gay seems particularly perverse. Yes, Samantha briefly had a female lover, Maria - but you never doubted she would return to men.

WEIRD CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

On top of all that, Carrie's character seemed to become more solipsistic and capricious as the seasons continued. There was a low point when she left her then fiancé, Aidan, just after he'd bought her a flat as a pre-wedding gesture. She appeared outraged when he invoiced her for the cost of the apartment and even extorted a cheque from Big, before realising that wasn't a wise solution.

Instead, she used weepy emotional blackmail on the newly divorced Charlotte, who sold her engagement ring to help. So much for our feisty, independent heroine! As the show went on I began to wish Miranda's kick-ass feminism and whiplash tongue were more centre stage.

Even so, the upsides and whip-smart repartee far outweigh the niggles. Television connoisseurs have tended to think so too. It was one of Time magazine's 100 Best TV Shows of All Time, and over the course of six seasons it won seven Emmy awards and eight Golden Globes. It's also part of popular culture.

Some years back, when I was writing a sex column for GQ, a new acquaintance said: "So you're basically a Brit Carrie Bradshaw?" I didn't demur, although I prefer ballsy Samantha. Half the women I know feel a strong affinity with one of the cast, and there are weeks when some of us can channel all four in swift succession.

Most fans only need to hear a couple of bars of the show's theme tune to cast aside whatever task they're engaged upon, grab a drink and join their TV besties in the boudoir. - The Daily Telegraph, London

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