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The Complicated Feminist Legacy Of “Sex And The City”

by Marisa Crawford

Sex and the City has been widely dismissed and derided, for reasons both valid and deeply misogynistic. When the show first came out in the late ’90s, I rolled my eyes along with the rest of our culture. I was a high school student whose main interests were art club and Ani DiFranco—what could these Gucci bag-carrying, shoes- and men-obsessed women possibly have to do with me? Then I entered my twenties, went through several hard breakups, and moved across the country alone, and slowly this show about four women who are each other’s ride-or-die soulmates became the reliable friend I turned to for comfort. After a brutal breakup that dragged out for months, I was sure I was doomed to spend the rest of my life alone. I popped in a SATC DVD, and when Carrie and her friends started talking, I listened. They were the only model I had for how a woman could take a breakup in stride, buoyed by a community of female friends; for how to move from relationship to relationship, hoping for the best but expecting nothing.

Sex and the City’s depiction of women’s complex lives and sexuality may feel unremarkable today, when shows like Broad City take casual sexuality to new levels with unapologetic inclusion of everything from masturbation to strap-ons to pansexuality, and shows like Girls and Insecure bring us frank depictions of young women navigating dating, friendships and their careers. But when SATC first premiered in 1998, this was largely new territory for TV. There were a few exceptions—like Living Single, which in a 2013 VIBE article Bené Viera argues was a blueprint for SATC, but received less recognition because it was a show about Black women. Sex and the City was almost over-the-top at times in its discussions of sex—take, for example, a scene in the pilot episode wherein Miranda describes a sex scene from The Last Seduction while miming fucking a man against a chain-link fence right in the middle of her birthday dinner at a fancy restaurant. SATC announced to the world: This is a show about S-E-X and relationships from a distinctly female perspective, and we’re not going to apologize.

Debuting 20 years ago this month, SATC’s first season was met with mixed reviews, some of which frowned upon everything from the show’s sexual content to Sarah Jessica Parker’s face being in front of the camera too much. In USA Today in 1998, Robert Bianco writes, “Here’s a thought: Perhaps these whiners can’t find great guys because they’re not so great themselves.” In 1998 review for the Washington Post, Tom Shales complained of Sarah Jessica Parker “looking like a walking flea market and coming across about as subtly as a tsunami.” “She’s in love with the camera,” Shales writes. “Unfortunately, it’s unrequited.” These reviews dismiss the show for its centering of women’s voices, experiences, and, yes, faces, missing that this is the whole point.

So many women were, like me, willing to overlook the parts of the show that they didn’t relate to for the ability to identify with things that had never been portrayed on screen in such depth before: female sexual autonomy, new models for chosen families, and perhaps most importantly, the depiction of women characters navigating lives that are both rich with successes and fraught with insecurities. For a long time, I had a theory that Carrie’s character was presented as a kind of everywoman figure, a depiction of women’s anxieties rarely captured onscreen; and so when men (or women, but especially men) hated Carrie Bradshaw, it was a red flag for their deep-seated misogyny. The years since the show aired have spawned about a zillion sometimes well-deserved but always oh-so-snarky Sex and the City thinkpieces, with names like “16 Things about Carrie Bradshaw That Are the Worst,” “The 7 Most Messed-Up Things About Sex and the City,” and “Even Sarah Jessica Parker Is Annoyed with Carrie Bradshaw.” Pieces like these would have us believing that most people watched Carrie Bradshaw, complete with her anxiety, fits of insecurity, and complex emotional needs, and thought, She’s psycho. I watched her in her worst moments and instead thought, I’m normal.

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The show has justifiably been criticized by feminists as well. Critics have smartly scrutinized its lack of characters of color and its focus on rich, white, consumerist women who adore designer shoes and expensive restaurants. The show’s all-white cast is hardly representative of New York’s diverse population; its focus is on a slice of socioeconomic life that’s overrepresented in all forms of media. It’s notable, however, that other popular shows like Seinfeld—which also followed four friends living in NYC, but wasn’t focused on women’s experiences—weren’t scrutinized in the same way. SATC was also widely criticized for portraying successful women who only seem to talk about sex and men; as Miranda—the character through which all feminist critique of the show flowed—asks her friends in Season 2, “Why do four smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?” In 2003, journalist Joan Swirsky called the show’s popularity “[an] example that feminism is dead.” And Alison Bechdel’s claim that the show doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test further underscores the characters’ singular obsession with men. While it’s certainly a frustrating misrepresentation of women’s lives that the show’s characters talk mainly about men and relationships, sex and dating are, after all, the topic of the show, and Candace Bushnell’s column on which it is based. While on the one hand it feeds into a sexist view of women as men-obsessed, I would also argue that this was a calculated choice on the show’s behalf to remain marketable: pushing the boundaries around depicting women’s complex emotions and desires, while still staying within the socially acceptable realm of romance.

Take for example my longtime favorite episode: Season 6, episode 9, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” a perfect encapsulation of how the show wrapped feminist ideologies up in consumerist values. In the episode, Carrie’s $400 Manolos get stolen at her friend’s no-shoes-allowed apartment baby shower, and her friend refuses to reimburse her once she learns how expensive they are. Carrie is frustrated, reflecting on how she’s dished out hundreds of dollars in gifts for her married friend’s wedding, showers, and so on, but has received no such gift equivalents as a single, childless woman. To underscore this point, Carrie decides to send her friend an invitation inscribed “I’m getting married…to myself,” and a registry containing only the stolen shoes. While the episode’s message that women have the right to spend their money as they see fit tauts an overtly capitalist brand of feminism, the episode is also a critique of how our culture rewards married people, while forming nontraditional familial bonds or relationships goes without similar kinds of cultural recognition. While certainly problematic, this episode makes a powerful political statement.

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In the warm glow of nostalgia, the feminist underpinnings of Sex and the City are finally getting the recognition they deserve. In the past several years, the show has been enjoying a retro appreciation by feminist-minded groups like the popular Instagram account Every Outfit on Sex and the City. The account features posts that blend fashion and political commentary from the loving yet critical perspective of what could only be a deeply devoted fan with encyclopedic knowledge of the series. One of the highlights is #WokeCharlotte, a progressive meme created last year wherein less-than-socially-conscious moments from the show are revised by retroactively attributing woke commentary on the situation to Charlotte. For example, one post features Carrie’s description of her jewelry as “ghetto gold.” In the real scene on SATC, nobody calls out Carrie’s racially problematic language. Twenty years later, #WokeCharlotte responds, “That statement is deeply classist and displays a complete lack of awareness of your privilege as a white woman.”

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By highlighting feminist themes on the show and critiquing racist, heterosexist, and classist moments like this one, Every Outfit on Sex and the City calls us to more deeply reflect on the show’s strengths as well as its flaws. The account’s founders, Lauren Garroni and Chelsea Fairless, also run an online shop that sells tongue-in-cheek products that put SATC in conversation with iconic feminist artists and thinkers. Take for example the “We Should All Be Mirandas” t-shirt that plays off a Spring/Summer 2017 Dior tee quoting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s acclaimed 2014 book We Should All Be Feminists, or a limited-edition tote featuring lines from Carrie’s column arranged in the style of conceptual artist Jenny Holzer’s iconic “Inflammatory Essays.” Perhaps, twenty years later, without as much pressure for it to be everything, we can finally appreciate the show for what it was.

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In thinking about SATC’s legacy, we can look to the 1962 book Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, which some have suspected Candace Bushnell’s column was named after. A year before the release of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, widely credited with kicking off the second-wave feminist movement, Sex and The Single Girl was groundbreaking—and highly scandalous—in its encouraging unmarried women to become financially independent and live sexually fulfilling lives. Brown’s approach was markedly not aligned with the tactics and ideologies of the mainstream feminist movement—her calling women “girls,” for example, and her open descriptions of how to manipulate men to get what you want, and it didn’t get much feminist cred at the time. However, in many ways it was much more accessible than the Feminine Mystique. Like Sex and the City, Helen Gurley Brown’s “Gurley girl” version of female empowerment was influential in its ability to reach a more popular audience of women outside of the more privileged circles interested in and knowledgeable about the feminist movement. For example, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, groundbreaking books like Manifesta and Colonize This! discussed young women’s autonomy with nuance and depth, but most women outside of academic and feminist circles wouldn’t read them. Sex and the City was influential in its ability to bring feminist messages to a popular audience. Like in the case of Sex and the Single Girl, I believe its legacy as a feminist show will become even more clear as more time passes.

Of Sex and the Single Girl’s success, Brown once said, “Well it’s just because nobody ever got off his high horse long enough to write to single women in any form they could associate with. If they had, somebody else would be the arbiter for single women at this point instead of me.” While limited in its focus on white, upper-class, consumerist women’s experiences, Sex and the City took the time to speak to women honestly. Its work as a feminist show was in its relentless capturing of the complexity of women’s feelings, struggles, anxieties, and lives, in a way that felt accessible and relevant to many women, showing women as sexual beings, as ambitious professionals, as deeply cynical and eternally hopeful and everything in between. For six seasons, Sex and the City embarked on this territory unapologetically in a way that few shows had before, and few have done with as much depth and nuance. Imperfect as the series was, it gave women something we sorely needed at the time: a mirror to see ourselves in, regardless of what shoes we were wearing.


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