Sex and the City laid the groundwork for female representation in TV, but the HBO series hasn't aged well
Two decades down the line, Sex and the City's standing in pop culture remains unparalleled.
In our new column, Through Her Looking Glass, we try to decode iconic films and shows from a female perspective. The series will attempt to understand the agency each female character holds in the film's narrative (mostly, from a contemporary standpoint) and whether the purported meaning of the film alters under such a viewing.
One fine evening I decided to watch Sex and the City (SATC) to beat the lockdown blues. I had already exhausted all my TV show options, and it didn't seem like a bad idea to finally indulge in some binge-watching. Having consumed every other SATC-associated content before the HBO series — the original book by Candace Bushnell, it's prequels Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City, and the two feature films — my viewing chronology was way off.
For the uninitiated, the show follows the romantic and sex lives of four women in their 30s and 40s living in New York City, as narrated by Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker). The characters are easy to identify with and their colourful lives aspirational, the show instantly clicked with its audience. SATC's candid approach to female desire and economic independence, as well as readiness to portray layered, imperfect characters heralded a new era of content. SATC emboldened many to create more relatable female-centric stories where men are in the periphery, such as Mindy Kaling's The Mindy Project, Lena Dunham's Girls, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson-starrer Broad City, and Issa Rae's Emmy-nominated Insecure. The recent Amazon Prime series Four More Shots Please! is also often dubbed as the Indian counterpart of SATC.
Two decades down the line, SATC's standing in pop culture remains unparalleled. The show has gained a new generation of fans, who have created political memes (#WokeCharlotte), curated online fashion lookbooks, and dedicated one too many social media accounts to the characters' snarky one-liners. Its influence even percolated into the tourism domain; a 2010 Vanity Fair article says the show "deeply affected the social and cultural landscape" of New York.
But there's always a catch. As I fell further into the rabbit hole that was Carrie, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Samantha (Kim Cattral) and Charlotte's (Kristin Davis) lives, it was hard to deny the series' countless, infuriating problematic moments. The four characters were deemed progressive in the late '90s and early aughts, but they are no idols by 2020 standards.
Let's start with Carrie's luxury lifestyle and her cute Manhattan apartment with a walk-in closet stuffed with her shopping loot from designer brands - all of which she makes happen with the salary of a local newspaper's columnist. Her unworried attitude toward her measly bank balance, a fact that remained unchanged even after she became an established writer ("When I first moved to New York and I was totally broke, sometimes I would buy Vogue instead of dinner. I felt it fed me more.") worried me. The show promotes a consumerist way of life that only a privileged few can attain. The characters assert their financial independence, align their status to materialistic goods — bags, shoes and jewellery — making them seem superficial and vain.
The women are successful in their jobs, but their brunch/dinner/drinks conversations always circle back to the men they want or the men they think they need. Miranda had once huffed, "Why do four smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?" Alison Bechdel had once said the show would never pass the Bechdel test, but she was still its number one fan.
SATC has been credited for female representation, diversity is not really its forte, as seen in its all-white cast. Nixon acknowledged this glaring flaw in an interview, stating that had the show been made in recent times, the casting would have been different. New York, like Mumbai, is a multicultural city, yet the characters' never seem to encounter anyone who was not Caucasian. The list of people of colour who make an appearance in the show is alarmingly short; Vice notes that out of 100 odd men the women dated, only three were people of colour.
For someone who writes a sex column, Carrie displays a myopic understanding of sexual identity, adhering to a strict heteronormative code. When she dates a younger man Sean, who is bisexual, it appears to be a dealbreaker for her (in spite of him being cute and a good kisser). She and her friends dismiss the existence of bisexuality, with her calling it "just a layover on the way to Gaytown." They exhibit tone deafness once again when Samantha, the most sexually liberated of the four, enters into a relationship with Maria Diega Reyes, an artist. The friends are uncomfortable and brush it off as one of Samantha's phases. Most notable, however, is the feature of an age-old romantic-comedy trope – the Gay Best Friend. Carrie and Charlotte's gay best friends Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson) and Anthony Marentino (Mario Cantone) are shown as catty, gossip and fashion-obsessed. It's representation, sure, that only perpetuates stereotypes.
Despite being a show about sisterhood, the characters being each other's "soulmates", like Charlotte says, it does pit them against other women. Season 1's "Models and Mortals", divides women into two categories. This episode discusses body image issues among women in the most twisted way possible. Miranda blames models (and their physical appearance) for diluting the dating pool in New York. In another Season 2's episode "Twenty-Something Girls vs Thirty-Something Women" they feel like the younger lot is attempting to eclipse them.
In between all the triviality, the show briefly explored themes of terminal illness (Samantha's breast cancer diagnosis), single motherhood (that Miranda juggles with her high-stress law career), infertility, adoption, and ageism. SATC may be tainted for some fans now, but it did bring a tectonic shift in the entertainment industry. Moreover, we must not forget that content we laud today may also seem dated 20 years down the line.
(All images from Twitter)
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