Candace Bushnell: ‘In New York, the powerful men have each other’s backs’

The author of Sex and the City is back with a call to arms for the post-#MeToo era

Candace Bushnell: 'There are so many conflicting messages on how to behave when you’re in your teens and 20s.' Photograph: Brian Ach/Getty Images

Candace Bushnell: 'There are so many conflicting messages on how to behave when you’re in your teens and 20s.' Photograph: Brian Ach/Getty Images

 

Candace Bushnell is known the world over for many things: as the “real life” Carrie Bradshaw and author of Sex & The City; the natural stylistic successor to fellow writer Nora Ephron; and an authority on all things pertaining to dating, sex and relationships.

What she’s perhaps less known for is being stumped for words.

“I feel like I’m not nailing this for you,” Bushnell laughs softly down the phone from lockdown in the Hamptons with her two dogs. It’s probably the sort of thing a former journalist known for soundbites might say, but the truth is that, even if coronavirus lockdown has blunted her chattiness, she’s a fizzy and engaging conversationalist.

There’s still a lot of pressure on teenage girls. Don’t be a prude, but don’t lead the boys on, and don’t be desperate

After articulating the experiences of 20- and 30-something women in semi-autobiographical novels like Trading Up, Sex & The City and Four Blondes (and later, the midlife quagmire in Is There Still Sex in the City?), Bushnell has turned her attentions to the young adult audience again. A follow-up to her YA debut The Carrie Diaries, Rules For Being A Girl is a post-#MeToo call to arms. It’s the story of 15-year-old Marin, a student who endures an unwanted advance from her older English teacher. When the school’s administration doesn’t believe Marin’s accusation, she is hell bent on calling out the sexism that young girls face everyday.

It’s a battle cry that Bushnell began writing along with YA writer Katie Cotugno three years ago.

“It was definitely inspired by the #MeToo movement – all of these women coming forward and telling their stories,” Bushnell says. “Nothing like this happened to me in high school, but it happened to me in college, a long time ago. It’s something that happens a lot, but we didn’t really talk about it.”

High school, Bushnell observes, is “a pretty sexist place. It’s where teenagers have all kinds of things opening up in their brains, and they really start to fall into gender roles there, because it’s safer. I mean, some teenage girls are very sophisticated – they’re starting businesses on Instagram – but there’s still a lot of pressure on teenage girls. Don’t be a prude, but don’t lead the boys on, and don’t be desperate. So many conflicting messages on how to behave when you’re in your teens and 20s.”

As a journalist at the New York Observer, Bushnell found herself closer to the #MeToo story than most on many occasions.

Bushnell had moved to New York from Connecticut in the 1970s as a teenager and was, she admits, “every parent’s worst nightmare”. A regular at Studio 54, she moved in with Gordon Parks, director of the cult movie Shaft, when she was 18, and he 64. Later on, she had a relationship with publisher Ron Galotti, thought to inspire her own emotionally unavailable bachelor in Sex & The City, Mr Big.

In a place like New York, where every powerful person knows every other powerful person, the powerful men have each other’s backs

In the 1990s, as she climbed the journalistic ranks at the New York Observer, Bushnell investigated rumours that were already circulating about billionaire Jeffrey Epstein. The friend of Prince Andrew was found dead in his jail cell last year after being arrested on federal charges for sex trafficking minors.

So what happened with that story?

“You know, the same things that happen to anyone wanting to do a story on him, you get a call from his lawyer or someone saying, ‘There’s no story. We’re not gonna co-operate,’” Bushnell recalls. “Look, in a place like New York, where every powerful person knows every other powerful person, the powerful men have each other’s backs. I remember hearing that Harvey Weinstein beat up a couple of journalists. That was really hushed.”

A figure on New York’s society scene, Bushnell was acquainted with the film mogul, recently convicted of rape.

“I was never of interest or use to him,” Bushnell laughs drily. “I was in his radar as someone in the room, but I never went to dinner or anything with him.”

Still, she has found the #MeToo fallout intriguing from her relatively close vantage point.

Candace Bushnell: the real Carrie Bradshaw. Photograph: Anna Maguire
Candace Bushnell: the real Carrie Bradshaw. Photograph: Anna Maguire

“There are a lot of badly behaved men out there. We’re only scratching the surface,” she says, with an ominous note. “There are a lot of very successful psychopaths and sociopaths out there.

“The thing about Epstein is that I really feel like I’d heard stories about him flying models around [for years],” she continues. “I used to book the female models for a spinoff [magazine] of Cosmo, and they’d come in and tell me stories about a lot of the stuff that went on in Europe. These are not clean businesses. Anywhere where there’s beauty, sex, money . . .”

Of course, as stories of sexual misconduct allegations gathered pace, several celebrities were also called out for their lousy dating behaviour. In recent years, a new narrative around bad sex has surfaced. Aziz Ansari was identified by an anonymous poster on Babe.net as an unsatisfactory, selfish and somewhat demanding lover, and the story added an intriguing offshoot to the #MeToo discussion.

That was one of my goals with Sex & The City, to rip away the romance blinders that society puts on women

One of the cornerstones of Sex & The City was bad sex. Some 25 years ago, Bushnell was determined to articulate the many times she and her friends had found themselves in unsatisfactory sexual encounters.

“That was one of my goals with Sex & The City, to rip away the romance blinders that society puts on women,” she says. “Honestly, I’ve set out to do that since I was eight years old.”

At eight years old, you wanted to show single women in a different way?

“At eight years old I realised there was a huge amount of sexism and I felt I needed to do something about it,” Bushnell says.

“I used to say that bad sex was more interesting to write about. I’d heard that Aziz Ansari story, but I’ve heard it so many times before. The world is full of weird, bad sex.

“Can you imagine what it was like 50 years ago, when you had to be married to one of these guys?” she laughs.

While writing Is There Still Sex In The City? (published last year), Bushnell’s research saw her try the dating app Tinder for the first time.

“I interviewed a group of young women, and I was really struck by how many of them talked about how bad sex was, it was like 10 minutes for the whole thing,” Bushnell recalls. “They just felt they were a vessel, in a sense. There’s a huge amount of disrespect.”

Lena Dunham’s Girls, described routinely as one of Sex & The City’s direct descendants, further explored this curious sexual dynamic. I posit to Bushnell that after Sex & The City, many young women found themselves having dreadful sex but, like her four characters, filed it in their minds as a downside of being a sexual libertine.

Similarly, Girls contains instances of men making off-colour sexual demands on young women, and the women uneasily going along with it.

“That was an interesting thing, and [Dunham] really nailed the self-hatred you feel after you did that,” reasons Bushnell. “Women are so encouraged to go along with what guys want, it’s practically in the codes of sexual behaviour. If you don’t do it, another woman will. If you stand up for yourself, you lose, but if you go along with it, you lose too.”

In the post #MeToo climate, Sex & The City is being consumed by a new wave of TV watchers, and some of the scripts have, according to this new audience, withered slightly on the vine.

In one episode, Carrie dumps a bisexual (or “sexually fluid”) lover, dismissing bisexuality as a “layover on the way to Gay Town”. Samantha also uses transphobic slurs, describing her neighbourhood as “trendy by day and tranny by night” (Season 3). And the popularity of the #WokeCharlotte meme proves that millennials (specifically Chelsea Fiarnless and Lauren Garroni) are clapping back at some of Sex & The City’s more outdated conceits.

On which, Bushnell notes: “It’s great they’re still watching the show 20 years later. As a TV show it really works, and that in itself is very, very hard to achieve. Also, when I watch it now, the [actors] are so young I can’t believe it.”

Having mined much of her own colourful personal life for her work, I wonder if being asked constantly about dating, and her own romantic life, is simply an occupational hazard for her by now.

As it happens, dating has much less importance in 61-year-old Bushnell’s life than it once did.

‘Dating used to interest me, now it doesn’t interest me at all,’ says Candace Bushnell. Photograph: Anna Maguire
Candice Bushnell: Dating used to interest me, now it doesn’t interest me at all. Photograph: Anna Maguire

After cutting a swathe through New York’s single scene in her 20s and 30s, she married ballet dancer Charles Askegard, 11 years her junior, when she was 44. They divorced in 2012 when Bushnell was 53, allegedly by dint of a love rival who was “very, very determined and beautiful” and caught Askegard’s attentions.

After the separation, Bushnell reportedly remained celibate for five years. A three-year relationship with property developer Jim Coleman, who had been introduced to her by Chris Noth (Sex & The City’s Mr Big), recently came to an end.

“The reality is, [dating] used to interest me, now it doesn’t interest me at all,” she says. “I think the mistake is to try to keep doing the same behaviour you were doing in your 30s. I’m not gonna go on a bunch of dates, and that’s the way it should be. One does this thing called ‘maturing’. You just don’t have the same interests and desires.

“I mean, if I met someone and somehow it worked, great, I’m up for it. But I don’t want to spend time on it. I’ve had some many ups and downs in relationships, the whole dating thing, someone not calling, all of that . . . ugh, I just don’t have the bandwidth now.”

Rules For Being A Girl is out now via Macmillan Children’s Books

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