Parts of the Internet this week have been celebrating Sex & The City: The 20th Anniversary, since the show debuted on June 6th 1998. These articles and discussions seem to be based in one of 3 major streams of discussion:
- The show is fantastically dated, in a way that makes it a time capsule of (white, middle-class) Manhattan at the turn of the 21st century. It is from that parallel dimension of existence, modern life without the Internet or smartphones or even widespread email.
- The show was both forward and backwards for its time. Forward in its focus on female relationships and for its lack of judgement of pre-marital sex, backwards in that it only includes LGBTQ+ characters as caricatures and punchlines.
(There is a good post up on Jezebel illustrating the blinding whiteness of the show, btw)
- THE MEN ARE ALL GENUINELY AWFUL. In hindsight, every single one is terrible. Except Harry. And Smith. But it took the show until season six, five minutes before ending, to come up with these grown ass man characters who could be in genuine equal partnerships between a man and woman. (Also, no one should be Team Big because I agree with the Dirtcast podcast that he is likely a Republican BUT THATS OK BECAUSE NONE OF THE GIRLS EVER VOTED LOL WTF)
The show, however, did apparently inspire an entire generation of women to move to New York City and live fabulous, SaTC type lives. This mostly applies to women my age, women who were in our impressionable 20s when the show was at its height, who then went on to use it as a model of sophistication and worse, a model of potential for what life should look like in a big city.
I actually think the portrayal of New York City was limiting to what is possible here. This city is a kaleidoscope of experiences, and is never the same two days in a row, a constantly shifting myriad of possible experiences and storylines told through the eyes of millions of people from thousands of cultural backgrounds. If anything, Sex and the City had blinders on to the majority of experiences possible in the city, limited as they were to their stratum of society, their parties and galas and balls and weekends in the Hamptons and only the most two-dimensional of art. It calls into question how one should define sophistication: should it be familiarity with a conventional white upper-class culture, or should it be the ability to know one’s city from multiple perspectives?
However, I didn’t pick up my drive to live in a big city from SaTC. I’ve wanted to live in a big city since I realized there were big cities to live in. What I did absorb was a lot of modeling for heterosexual relationships with emotionally immature men. This is fine when you are 24 and you are dating a Jack Berger type and you need a framework with which to understand what the hell his problem is. This is not fine when you actually find the love of your life and find yourself actually afraid to express emotion because you have picked up too many bad lessons from a TV show.
It’s this latter point that worries me a bit about Sex and the City. Are there other women my age who use the show’s storylines as one way to map out our experiences with males? By creating characters for a dramedy, could Sex & the City have inadvertently have given us a set of male character references that we’ve internalized by mistake? Did the show contribute to the normalization of emotional immaturity in men by providing us with those models at a vulnerable time in cultural history?
I do not hear my friends actively making statements like, “oh, he’s just being like Big” because a) they’re not idiots and b) that reference is two decades old. Still, could the idea of Carrie and Big’s relationship dynamic, where he is an emotional man-child who sabotages all her other relationships to keep her attached to him, and she still ends up with him as a reward for his bad behavior – has that permeated our culture as acceptable? Could the idea of these insecure men like Steve or Berger, men who couldn’t accept high earning women (and yes, I know Steve got over it) have entered our brains as an acceptable thing that we should just put up with and make excuses for? Has SATC reinforced these behaviors as acceptable or did it just reflect our own inter-gender dynamics back to us?
I am afraid I can’t answer this through my own experience: I’ve been with my husband since I was twenty-seven, when the guys I was dating were also in their late 20s and early 30s, and were all still emotionally immature. My knowledge of male behavior by men over the age of 30 is therefore limited to third-hand insight: pop culture, advice columns, and the tales of my friends. Therefore, the idea of this kind of poor male behavior being normalized may be a pop-culture stereotype. But as we begin to hold men accountable for their immaturity and entitlement , we have to re-evaluate what behavior women have normalized and internalized over the years as part of heteronormative dynamics – and SaTC may be one of the sources we have to question.
Still. Happy birthday to Sex & The City, happy 20th to all of us for having the show, and all its modeling of women, their friendships, their sex-positivity and their ability to pursue vocational callings in the big city. Even if their characters still couldn’t figure out how to use a smartphone (aaaaaaaargh) in 2009, we still should celebrate Miranda having a BlackBerry in 1999, buying her own apartment and being an unapologetic “Esq”. We should still celebrate Charlotte eventually recognizing that Harry’s love and devotion to her was something special. And we should celebrate the merciful death of the movie series thanks to Kim Cattrall, whose Samantha was the best of the characters, not because of her sexual independence, but because she was a business owning badass who loved herself more.
For that, and for silly women everywhere, happy 20th.