• Mon, Jul 22 2013

Maybe Sex And The City Was A Great Feminist Show

sex and the city

It’s pretty commonly accepted that we all decry Sex and the City, now. It seems a bit like a relic of an earlier time (she was able to spend that much on clothes while working on one newspaper column? She was a columnist who did not know how to work e-mail?) And, gosh, that second movie was terrible. Really, really terrible. Basically only about buying stuff and making puns. So Emily Nussbaum‘s New Yorker piece on how it was actually a very good, progressive, feminist show is fascinating.

She claims that:

“Sex and the City,” in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, “Sex and the City” was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.

It actually amazes me that, for all the years I’ve been complaining about how I never liked Carrie Bradshaw, it never once occurred to me that might have been the point. It’s probably my own fault. I’ve never watched The Sopranos and thought, “You know, I’m not sure I like that Tony guy.” Nor have I done that with Mad Men, or any of the other shows that feature male anti-heroes. That’s a pretty brilliant point. Nussbaum clarifies that:

Before “Sex and the City,” the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to say, actual role models. (Ally McBeal was a notable and problematic exception.) They were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, and they were also, crucially, adorable to men: vulnerable and plucky and warm. However varied the layers they displayed over time, they flattered a specific pathology: the cultural requirement that women greet other women with the refrain “Oh, me, too! Me, too!”

In contrast, Carrie and her friends—Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte—were odder birds by far, jagged, aggressive, and sometimes frightening figures, like a makeup mirror lit up in neon. They were simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized. Women identified with them—“I’m a Carrie!”—but then became furious when they showed flaws. And, with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), men didn’t find them likable: there were endless cruel jokes about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Carrie as sluts, man-haters, or gold-diggers.

It does seem remarkable that the characters all behaved pretty badly, and behaved badly in a way that was legitimately offensive to people – and not just, say, Mary and Rhoda getting into a fight. Taking that into consideration, maybe it’s worth a re-watch.

I still think that the real estate on the show was ridiculous, though. I am going to hold to that.

Picture via Sex and the City

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  • Eileen

    That’s a good point, but I still thought most of it was just bad – you know, not funny or interesting or well developed.

  • Sabrina

    Ok… I’m going to say something… While it’s easy to make fun of the show “no way she could’ve afforded that lifestyle!”, “she’s so annoying!”, etc. those details weren’t the point of the show. I will admit that I love it and have watched it many times over. I love it because it’s a show about four women who were all vastly different and had all kinds of different troubles, but somehow managed to come together and live a dream where women could get anything they wanted. They all wanted different things out of life and in the end, they all got it. I really couldn’t care less about how unrealistic it was for Carrie to have a nice apartment on only one newspaper column (if you watch that show and think, wow, I can move to New York and live just like she did, you’re an idiot who lives life based on tv shows, sorry for ya). Because it was nice, for once, to watch a show where women knew what they wanted, went after it, and got it.

  • Polly

    How were they bad exactly? Violent? Abusive? Narrow-minded? Bigots? What?

  • Roxanne

    I dislike SATC and refuse to consider it feminist because it was consistently racist and hetero- and cis-sexist. Trans women, women of color, and gay and lesbian characters were 1-dimensional accessories to the four main ladies, vehicles for whatever insecurities they were trying to exorcise that week. I think Nussbaum’s perspective is interesting and her analysis is accurate (although I pretty regularly think about how much I dislike Don Draper/Walter White/etc), but Sex and the City to me still exemplifies a very problematic and exclusive kind of feminism.

    • NYCNanny

      So you literally hate every single show on tv right now? The majority, at least. I’m not ssinh you’re wrong…cause you aren’t at all, but give the show credit where it’s due. It wasn’t a “racist” or bigoted show in the least.