20 years on: the complicated legacy of Sex and the City

Soon celebrating its 20th anniversary, the hit TV show rewrote the playbook for women. But how has it aged?

As if we needed reminding that the late 1990s was a golden era for TV, 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of many much-loved series, among them Dawson's Creek, That '70s Show and Will & Grace. Yet when Darren Starr's show about four New York friends aired on June 6th, 1998, few could have predicted, after some initial turbulence, the charmed life Sex and the City would lead on the air for the next six years. Fewer again might have predicted its lasting legacy.

When Lena Dunham's series Girls premiered on HBO in 2012, she was quick to doff her cap to Starr's comedy. Comparisons between the two shows were pretty much inevitable, given that both featured a group of four different girls navigating their professional and personal lives in New York City.

In an exchange between Girls' Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke), Shoshanna sums up their personality traits in terms of the characters from Sex and the City. "You're definitely a Carrie with, like, some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair. That's like a really good combination. I think I'm definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes . . . sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. And then, when I'm at school, I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat."

Almost every woman can pinpoint they're a solipsistic, pun-loving Carrie, a sexual libertine like Samantha, an incurable romantic like Charlotte or a no-nonsense Miranda

Dunham, no doubt wildly conscious of Sex and the City as an influence, may have been poking fun at the comparison, but there's a grain of authenticity in the exchange. Almost every woman of a certain age can pinpoint which of the show's characters they most resemble: whether they're a solipsistic, pun-loving Carrie, a sexual libertine like Samantha, an incurable romantic like Charlotte or a no-nonsense Miranda.

As the 20th anniversary of Sex and the City looms large, its four characters, and the actresses who played them, are rarely far from view.

Cynthia Nixon, who played cynical lawyer Miranda Hobbes, last month announced her intention to run for governor of New York. The Twitter commentary ran a wide gamut, from people blaming Sex and the City for the gentrification of New York, to others observing that Nixon wouldn't be the first to make the leap from showbiz to public office. Elsewhere, politician Christine Quinn dismissed her as an "unqualified lesbian". Twitter user @racheld brilliantly noted: "Miranda for governor is the ending to SATC that we so richly deserved."

It became clear that many found it hard to separate Nixon, a committed public education and marriage equality activist, from her most famous role.

"On the one hand, her role in the series was as a confident and professional woman, and she arrives into the political marketplace with that persona," notes Diane Negra, professor of film studies and screen culture at UCD.

"On the other hand, she has announced her political ambitions at a time when we're in a free-for-all with American politics, where the old rules about having to accumulate experience don't apply anymore. She's been dismissed as a neophyte, but welcomed mainly as a real New Yorker, and her part in Sex and the City helps to reinforce that identity."

Press scrutiny

Earlier in the year, her co-stars Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie Bradshaw) and Kim Cattrall (Samantha Jones), became the subject of press scrutiny for perhaps less edifying reasons. After Parker sent condolences to Cattrall following the death of her brother in February, Cattrall issued a public reply on Instagram.

“My Mum asked me today ‘When will that @sarahjessicaparker, that hypocrite, leave you alone?’ Your continuous reaching out is a painful reminder of how cruel you really were then and now,” Cattrall wrote. “Let me make this VERY clear. (If I haven’t already) You are not my family. You are not my friend. So I’m writing to tell you one last time to stop exploiting our tragedy in order to restore your ‘nice girl’ persona.”

Old rumours about on-set cliques, wildly different paychecks and ongoing tensions between the two promptly resurfaced. Former co-star Chris Noth (Mr Big) and Jason Lewis (Smith Jerrod), who played the love interests of Carrie and Samantha respectively, soon wandered into the fray with their own hot takes.

Hollywood feuds are nothing new, yet there’s something about this spat in particular that has undeniably captured the public’s attention.

Much of it presumably has to do with the actresses portraying two characters with an unshakeable friendship.

"What stands out about Sex and the City is the romanticisation of female friendship, and how it can heal all wounds," asserts Negra. "Whether it's sex problems, lack of male commitment, the bonds of the characters' friendships are unbreakable, and the commiserations and support can be ballast for just about everything.

“It’s dismaying to see the appetite for that kind of stuff, although I think it speaks to how much public interest for this pop culture property remains.”

As part of the HBO pay-per-view stable, Sex and the City came to prominence along with a host of other series: The Wire, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos. Collectively, they formed something of a golden age for television. HBO was not beholden to traditional network rules, and this offered each series leeway for innovation, creativity and much naughtiness. The channel, and later, TV, had evidently hit an artistic apex, allowing it to be Taken Seriously.

Sex and the City was immediately different from HBO's other shows. Adapted from a 1996 book of columns by Candace Bushnell, who reported from the coalface of Manhattan nightspots and Hampton beach houses, Sex and the City was glossy, undeniably feminine, shamelessly consumerist.

"A less attractive feature of Sex and the City is the glorification of luxury lifestyling, and what's significant about that is that the TV show came off air before the global [economic] crash. Perhaps this is why the second movie [released in 2010] underwent a commercial and critical battering," says Negra.

Nothing new

Female-led comedies were nothing new – forebears included The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, Cagney & Lacey and Roseanne, all featuring women grappling with what it meant to be a woman – but up until 1998, there had been a drought of some years.

Sex and the City, featuring riffs on anal sex, threesomes, bitchy baby showers, sex toys and faked orgasms, was a truth-teller and palate-cleanser. Rarely before had a comedy drawn attention to the ways in which men and women misunderstand each other. Crucially, the rom-com was reaching something of a critical and commercial apex in cinema. And despite their labels – the slut, the prude – these characters were more rounded, flawed and real than rom-com characters.

In reading Reading Sex and the City, the book that she co-edited with Kim Akass, Janet McCabe – who finished the book while a lecturer in film studies at Trinity College Dublin – acknowledges that some male critics initially responded with condescension and vitriol.

"Male critics were not alone in their dislike," McCabe wrote in the introduction to the 2004 book. "Charlotte Raven, columnist for the Guardian, told her readers she warned friends not to write about the show, for the 'couldn't bear the idea of anyone believing that this worthless pile of swill was in any sense culturally relevant'."

Critical opprobrium notwithstanding, the series was an instant hit for HBO, making it the highest-rated comedy series on cable for two consecutive seasons. It featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2000.

Despite initial criticism, many others lauded the show for its honest portrayal of contemporary single womanhood. It became evident that female viewers in particular were devouring the show. As Margo Jefferson wrote in the New York Times, "it gave form, or at least gave stylist credence, to their quandaries and desires."

McCabe notes: "Critics who dismissed it as shallow or vacuous weren't really understanding the cultural work that Sex and the City was doing. It was telling women's stories in a different way. At a time when feminism was like fluoride in the water, all this promise isn't quite there. These women had the financial clout to be able to define themselves and know they don't need a man, yet they're still pursuing the fairytale."

A collection of academic readings ostensibly aimed at fans, McCabe and Akass’s book explored discourses relating to fashion, sexuality, modern femininity, female humour and third-wave feminism. The show provided plenty to chew on.

"Sex and the City shouldered a huge burden of representational responsibility," recalls McCabe.

"So few shows come along like that where they have to do everything. If you think of the 'are you a Charlotte or a Carrie' conversation, you couldn't have that discussion about The Sopranos. It really tapped into a zeitgeist."

‘Box-set concept’

That Sex and the City was on HBO also set it apart from other comedy fare. "One thing HBO pioneered was the box-set concept where you could pause, get hold of the object and look at it in a way not done before. There was a sense that these shows wanted to capture something of the moment."

This prompts a burning question: how does Sex and the City hold up, 14 years after its demise?

“One thing about TV that can really be of its time is that you can see it’s outdated,” notes McCabe. “Certain things have moved on, especially in terms of fashion and style. You start to re-read characters and someone like Sam, who was revolutionary at the time, stands up as a character nicely in many ways. It’s interesting to see how much of an inspiration that character was – that sense of liberation and living without guilt.”

I think millennials would have a problem with some of the gender politics and sexual politics here

When Friends found new life on Netflix, it was assumed that a new wave of millennials, already enamoured of '90s nostalgia, would embrace it. What no one banked on was a younger audience expressing reservations about the sitcom's storylines, describing them as transphobic, homophobic, size-ist and sexist.

Arguably, the same criticisms could be levelled at Sex and the City; after all, it's a story of four cisgender white women who are often blind to their own privilege. 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). Charlotte's mother-in-law Bunny doesn't enjoy Mandarin Food and won't "enjoy a Mandarin child". And the popularity of the #WokeCharlotte meme proves that millennials (specifically Chelsea Fiarless and Lauren Garroni) are clapping back at some of Sex and the City's outdated conceits.

“Some of these new viewers were tiny when it first aired,” acknowledges Negra. “I think millennials would have a problem with some of the gender politics and sexual politics here, mainly because we find ourselves in a different moment in relation to cultural attentiveness.”

In recent years, a new narrative around bad sex has also surfaced. Aziz Ansari was identified by an anonymous poster on Babe.net as an unsatisfactory, selfish and somewhat demanding lover, and the story added another dimension to the #MeToo discussion. Has the movement also reframed the many, many unsatisfactory sexual encounters of Sex and the City?

Because of Sex and the City's commercial success, studios and people with creative power were more inclined to greenlight female-centred shows

"Every time you have this conversation, you stray into territory where women are never going to win," says McCabe. "In a way, Sex and the City's conversations about good and bad sex makes the issue visible – you're empowered, but really, you're not. With the #MeToo campaign, I'm not sure what's more shocking: the idea that everyone has a #MeToo story or that we're still being judged by it."

Direct bloodline

Girls, which pushed the "bad sex" narrative even further, has a direct bloodline with Sex and the City, but many other shows also doff a cap to the series. In the direct aftermath of SATC came Desperate Housewives, also about a group of four female friends living in bougie splendour (which also included a gallerista and a high-flying executive).

"Girls is where you see the most conspicuous influence, but if you think of all these shows – 2 Broke Girls, Homeland, Big Little Lies, Jessica Jones – it's useful to give Sex and the City some credit. Sex and the City sort of reinforced the idea that women talking to each other makes for good television. Because of Sex and the City's commercial success, studios and people with creative power were more inclined to greenlight female-centred shows.

"In the case of Big Little Lies in particular, there's a powerful lifestyling ambience in that series that is a significant part of its appeal," adds Negra. "Series like Jessica Jones would not be on the air had Sex and the City not succeeded, but it's dark. TV producers have radically revised that sense of optimism."

Candace Bushnell herself has posited on why Sex and the City has so much staying power, telling the Guardian last year: "Human nature. We all grapple with the issues. And now people grapple with them in a different way, maybe online. But the core of wanting to find someone, a soulmate, or not wanting one, the things that one learns about oneself when one gets into relationships, all that is human nature and that doesn't really change."

Sex and the City will likely round back into public view with the publication in June of Sex and the City and Us, a book authored by US writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong.

With interviews with Sarah Jessica Parker, creator Darren Starr, executive producer Michael Patrick King and author Candace Bushnell, the book charts how the team used their own poignant, hilarious and humiliating stories to mine for televisual gold.

"The series was mostly apolitical, choosing to wage its rebellion in a fun, sparkly package," Armstrong surmised in a recent Washington Post column. "The revolution came from the core of the premise: depicting single, professional women over 30 as having enviable lives, instead of showing them as Cathy cartoons [a character who struggles with men, food and work] or sad spinsters."

Of Nixon's decision to run for governor, she adds astutely: "Given the unique combination of being cultural icons and the habitual lack of respect the Sex and the City women have endured since the show's premiere 20 years ago, it's particularly significant that one of them is running for political office. In fact, Nixon's run encapsulates the trajectory of women's political power over the past two decades. Sex and the City allowed women to wage war culturally, but only within their "feminine" territory: dating, sex, fashion, food and shopping. Nixon is taking that fight outside the girly stuff."

Sex and the City, where are they now?

Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie Bradshaw)
Though it seemed SJP would barely escape the shadow of her famous character, she found critical acclaim in the Sharon Horgan-penned HBO series Divorce. She lives in New York with her husband Matthew Broderick and children, James (15), and seven-year-old twins Marion and Tabitha (7).

Cynthia Nixon (Miranda Hobbes)
In addition to her political activism, Nixon has been a near-constant presence on the Broadway stage. She did recently thrill TV fans with cameos in Broad City and The Affair. She lives in New York with her wife Christine Marinoni and has three children: Samantha (21), Charles (15) and Max (7).

Kim Cattrall (Samantha Jones)
Cattrall turned in a stellar performance as the menopausal Davina Jackson in the acclaimed TV series Sensitive Skin, winning an Emmy for the role in 2015. Last year, Cattrall reportedly claimed that the gruelling schedule on Sex and the City impacted on her decision not to start a family in her 40s.

Kristin Davis (Charlotte York)
Davis, too, has shone on the stage, playing Beth Gallagher in the West End production of Fatal Attraction in 2014. That same year, she appeared in the ill-fated TV series Bad Teacher. In 2011, she adopted a daughter, Gemma Rose, and they live in Los Angeles.

Chris Noth (Mr Big)
Chris Noth followed up his Golden Globe-nominated turn as Big with another star turn in The Good Wife. More recently, he appeared as an FBI agent in the series Gone. He is also owner of the Cutting Room, a music venue in New York. It was here that he met his wife, Tara Lynn Wilson. Their son, Orion Christopher, was born in 2008.

Jason Lewis (Smith Jerrod)
Former model Lewis has enjoyed a consistent TV career. His post-SATC credits include CSI, How I Met Your Mother, Charmed and Brothers & Sisters. He has reportedly been in a relationship with actress Satsuki Mitchell since 2012.

David Eigenberg (Steve Brady)
Eigenberg spent his post-SATC years on the small screen in Criminal Minds, Castle and Law & Order. He was cast as fireman Christopher Herrmann in Chicago Fire in 2012. He and his wife Chrysti have two children.

Evan Handler (Harry Goldenblatt)
Last seen as a legal eagle in American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, Handler is now a noted writer. His second book, 2008's It's Only Temporary, was widely acclaimed. He contributes regularly to magazines and news sites including Oprah, Elle and the Huffington Post.

Kyle McLachlan (Trey McDougal)
The normally intense McLachlan turned in a stellar comedic performance as dweeby Trey. His career has flourished down the years, and his more recent projects have seen him excel in voice work, as Riley's dad in the Oscar-winning Inside Out and as Del in American Dad! He married publicist Desiree Gruber and the two split their time between LA and New York.

John Corbett (Aidan Shaw)
To some viewers, the kind and dependable Aidan was the one that got away from Carrie. In real life, he has been seeing actress Bo Derek since they met on a blind date in 2002. The two live in Santa Ynez in California, with their four horses and two German Shepherd dogs. He recently appeared in the final series of the brilliant comedy Portlandia.

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