How 'Sex and the City' Holds Up...and Doesn't

A realist's guide to re-watching the HBO classic on Amazon Prime.

Trousers, Dress, Coat, Outerwear, Suit, Interaction, Gesture, Pedestrian, Ceremony, Holding hands,
(Image credit: HBO)

Sex and the City premiered 17 years ago, in June 1998, nine months after I moved to New York City. I did not have a television at the time (even if I did, I was never home long enough in those days to do much more than sleep). Subsequently, even though I was certainly aware of the SATC phenomenon—not least because I was waiting tables at the time and there was an epidemic of Cosmo orders—I did not see my first episode of the show until a year and nine months after the last episode had aired in 2004 and my roommate gifted our apartment the DVD set of the series.

Practically speaking, this meant I not only missed nearly all the cultural commentary and debate surrounding the show, but that I'd already experienced the IRL version of the New York they were living in without ever having it reflected back to me via the lives of Carrie et al. By the time I came around to the show I could easily recognize its essential truths, as well as spot the silliness and exaggeration. I never got too caught up in where one stopped and the other started.

And boy did I devour it. I watched the entire thing in one go. And then I watched it again. And I loved it. I still do. No doubt if I'd seen it prior to coming to New York it would have been the reason I moved here. Over the years I've gone back to it again and again. Not regularly, and never in one go like the first time, but medicinally, and mostly to the same handful of episodes, depending on what was going on in my life—bad dating decision; weird sexual encounter; the Hamptons; the time you open Facebook and realize the guy who broke your heart just married the woman he met after you broke up—it was all there. We are, as a rule, so starved for stories starring women that when we do get them we want them to represent ALL OF WOMANKIND (cf. Sheryl Sandberg, Hillary ClintonGirls) and not just the tiny subset whose story they are trying to tell. It's probably inevitable that Carrie was held out as a role model for women and then blasted for falling short. But I loved her for exactly the opposite reason: Underneath all the glitter, these women's lives were mostly a mess to some degree, and when to some degree mine was, too, I took comfort in their stories. Also I won't lie, I loved the clothes. Certain episodes were basically like if someone gave Vogue a storyline.

Shoulder, Dress, Style, Waist, One-piece garment, Street fashion, Day dress, Design, Fashion design, Living room,

(Image credit: Archives)

But I hadn't bothered to watch the series in its entirety again until last week, when Amazon Prime announced it was adding SATC to the offerings. This time around I was shocked to discover what held up—and what did not.

We Are Still Having the Exact Same Conversations

Pretty much every topic discussed in the first season could double as a 2015 Style Section article with very little tweaking. SATC radically changed the conversation about women and sex—arguably as much as Madonna did in her day—and it provided a few new templates for women to see themselves in (you can complain these are restricting, but not as restricting as no templates). But as far as the fundamentals go, we're still struggling with exactly the same issues. Maybe this is to be expected; modern-day womanhood is barely half a century old. But it gives the lie to the idea that recognizing there is a problem is the first step toward fixing it. Recognizing a problem is good for ratings, website traffic, and book sales; fixing it is a whole other matter.

Mr. Big Is a Dick

Mr. Big is, essentially, the guy you spend your twenties chasing, until you figure out how to stop dating assholes who treat you badly. Admittedly in NYC this habit can continue a bit too long simply because this city is so full of power-hungry narcissists—men and women alike. Still: At the end season one, when Carrie turns to Big after having been shut out of nearly every aspect of his life and says, "Tell me I'm the one?" I nearly threw my computer out the window. I mean, C'MON, lady. That said, what's far worse than the fact Carrie keeps going back for more Big is that their relationship is somehow framed as a romance. Also that I used to find this reasonable. 

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(Image credit: Archives)

Here's what you discover as you get older and your friends meet "the one" and then get married: Lots of smart, successful women stay in shitty relationships forever because they never quite figure out how to associate being treated well with healthy love. And that's what Carrie and Big's relationship is: shitty and dysfunctional. If you are over 35, you've attended more than one wedding of this nature, less swept away by the romance than grateful for the free champagne and chance to wear a party dress. When the minister says "Does anyone here have reason…." you stay quiet because watching people make bad decisions about their life is frequently what being an adult is about. As is holding their hand through the divorce, or the not divorce. And letting them do the same for you.

Attack of the Two-Dimensional Men

Sex and the City was radical not just for its explicit sex, but because it provided fleshed-out female characters long in short supply on our screens. Interestingly, what struck me this time around is how badly developed the male characters are. For the most part, they are simply two-dimensional foils against which the women throw their insecurities, hopes, and fears, not full humans afforded insecurities and fears of their own. I get that this was partly intentional (we don't find out Big's real name until the last episode, after all), as well as a narrative device that allowed the audience to fully focus how women think. Also that women have been cast as two-dimensional foils for men since time out of mind. 

The show often operates on the underlying assumption that men always know what they want, do not suffer from doubt, and ultimately are always the deciders.

But the uncomfortable result is that the show often operates on the underlying assumption that men always know what they want, do not suffer from doubt, and ultimately are always the deciders. The truth that you discover as you get older is that men have no idea what they want. They are just as insecure and terrified as women, often more so, and the older they get, the more pronounced this gets, as anyone who's been chased across a party by a "happily married man" can tell you. They are are mess. Watching SATC made me think that maybe the best thing about Girls is that it allows its male characters to be just as fucked up and indecisive as its female ones.

No One Is a Fame Whore

Literally. No one is trying to get famous. Carrie has some local profile, sure, but even she is not gunning for the big time. She's perfectly content with her little weekly column; even her book deal falls in her lap. No one is checking in, counting likes, looking for attention. Sure, all their validation comes from sex, but it does leave them with lots of non-performative free time for IRL conversations over brunch.

For Better or Worse, There Is More to Life Than Marriage

Which is not to say we don't still largely operate in a world where marriage and children remain the only widely recognized paths to success for women. We do. But, by the second season, I was less amazed by the singular (and oftentimes suffocating) focus of the show on this goal than by the fact it was their only worry. Apart from their struggles with men, these women are mostly anxiety free! Career concerns barely factor into any conversation; financial concerns are hardly ever mentioned. And these women are in their thirties. I don't know whether to be jealous or scornful. 

Career concerns barely factor into any conversation; financial concerns are hardly ever mentioned.

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(Image credit: Archives)

This may not be a shortcoming of the show so much, as a shortcoming of the time period. We have only just moved into an age when financial responsibility is something we talk regularly to women about. And thanks in large part to the Internet, women come flying out of college these days with a checklist of must-do's before their ovaries dry up (or so they are warned over and over). The burnout rate among millennials is skyrocketing. Meanwhile, as a woman who is not a millennial, it leaves me deeply sad that Sex and the City remains the standard bearer for stories about grown women.

The Apartment, the Clothes, the Job

There is no shortage of women who moved to the city during the heyday of Sex and the City and its aftermath, assuming it was possible to make a living as a writer, buy Manolos, and live in a junior one-bedroom with a walk-in closet on the Upper East Side, only to bitterly discover the reality was not quite so glossy. In fact, one of my favorite episodes has long been "Ring a Ding Ding," when Carrie also discovers this painful reality. Carrie's legacy is a long one. A quick Google search for "How much money did Carrie Bradshaw make?" is full of reality-induced resentment on the part of fans. Here is the truth, which you should not need to be told: Carrie's wardrobe is a fantasy. I'm not sure even supermodels with closets of free clothes can dress as well, or as expensively, as Carrie did. Her clothes were a visual metaphor for life in New York, and a nod to the fact that you can be outrageous here and will be celebrated for it, not cast out. Think of it as the fashion version of "it gets better."

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(Image credit: Archives)

As for the job, before the Internet, it was in fact possible to make a reasonably good living writing one column a week. I don't know if Candace Bushnell was freelance or on salary at the New York Observer (where the "Sex and the City" column ran from 1994 to 1996), but many New York papers—including the NYO, which was published just once a week—did have weekly columnists on salary, and their job was to pen one column, or story, a week. This is one of the many reasons why people who remember print media complain so long and loudly about its demise. Yes, it was harder to get into the media pre-Internet, but once you were in it provided you with a reasonable living and, importantly, a good lifestyle. That we now consider Carrie's ability to support herself on a weekly column the most unbelievable aspect of the show is simply a measure of how quickly and drastically the Internet changed life in NYC, never more so than for the creative class.

As for the apartment, totally believable. Rent in New York City has always been expensive, yes, but it did not truly skyrocket until the mid-'90s, and even then only in certain neighborhoods. (I paid $350 for a room on the Lower East Side in 1998.) If Carrie snagged her place when she arrived in New York in the late '80s, it's entirely reasonable that she could keep it on her salary.

Related: If you are looking for a more realistic view of what it was like to be a writer in New York in the '90s who shopped too much and got swept away on real estate dreams, read Meghan Daum's classic essay "My Misspent Youth."

It's So White You Will Need Sunglasses

Sex and the City was, and is, far from alone when it comes to lack of diversity. With a very few exceptions, this criticism applies to basically all of modern entertainment, including Girls, which premiered in 2012. Still, the level of painful discomfort I felt while watching what is really a story about Sex and the (Privileged White Woman's) City is a measure of how much the conversation about lack of diversity has permeated our viewing consciousness. And possibly, finally, our viewing reality.

"And now it's nothing but smoking near a fucking open window "This is used to be the most exciting city in the world. And now it's nothing but smoking near a fucking open window. New York is over. O-V-E-R. Over. No one's fun anymore. What ever happened to fun? I'm so bored I could die.'"

I will never tire of watching this scene, not least because it feels like a fitting coda to the famous party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany's. But more importantly, Lexi Featherston's (Kristen Johnston) famous parting party monologue distills one of the great eternal truths about living here: New York is always O-V-E-R for someone. Every generation who comes here believes their version of the city was the best. (Related: I'm sorry for all of you who missed Williamsburg circa 1998; also pay phones, the apartment listings on the back page of the Voice, and just generally life here before the Internet took over.) And every generation believes the real New York ended when their version gives way to what's next. There should be an oral history of New York called "What Ever Happened to Fun," in which a member of every living generation pinpoints the exact moment New York ended and why their party was the best.

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Glynnis MacNicol is a Brooklyn-based writer, and the author of the memoir No One Tells You This.