What I Loathed
The show's depiction of bisexuality
I am not the first person to point this out, but it bears repeating: Sex and the City's depiction of bisexuality (and LGBTQIA identities in general) is abhorrent; and for a sex columnist, Carrie is unbelievably close-minded.
For instance, in the season three episode "Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl," Carrie dates a younger man named Sean, whom she praises as sweet, cute, and practically perfect, until he reveals that he's bi. Sean previously dated a man. Carrie—who considers bisexuality a mere "layover to Gaytown"—believes this to be a potential dealbreaker. She says bisexuals of all genders "always end up with men," which A. is incredibly biphobic, and B. is misogynistic in that it presents men as everyone's default desire. Carrie ends things with Sean by abandoning him at a party. Frankly, I think Sean was well rid of her.
The show’s toxic attitude towards bisexuality is also evident in the season 4 episode "Defining Moments," when Samantha begins dating an artist named Maria. Samantha falls uncharacteristically fast and hard for her new lover, but the girls refuse to admit that the feelings Samantha has are valid, comparing her decision to ‘suddenly’ be with a woman to suddenly turning into a shoe, or a fire hydrant. Never is bisexuality, or the fact that Samantha may be discovering new aspects of her identity, ever mentioned. It was befuddling to watch a show whose thesis statement could probably be summed up as 'the sexuality of women over thirty deserves respect' be so dismissive of people who discover in adulthood that they might be queer.
Thankfully, I'm happy to report that many of the currently running Liberated Single Lady shows have a far more inclusive representation of bisexuality. For instance, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Insecure both explore the realities of biphobia while also confirming bisexuality as a legitimate identity and showing that it’s possible to be bi and happy. Take that, Carrie!
Love in the time of late capitalism
Much has been made of the discrepancy between Carrie’s probable income as a columnist for the fictional New York Star and her lifestyle. I can confirm as someone who lives in New York that Carrie’s apartment, wardrobe, and dining habits are indeed unrealistic, but you didn't need me to tell you that. Granted, part of the series' appeal for me as a New Yorker is that I can live vicariously through the ladies' decadence; but it's a bummer that the show often depicts a fantastic apartment (with no roommates!), an unattainable wardrobe, and the money to dine and drink out most nights as a necessity to be happily single in New York.
However, later seasons do begin to at least nod to the economic reality of someone with Carrie's job and addiction to shopping.
The show's representation of trans women
Sex and the City's depiction of trans women is just ... whew. Horrible. Basically, I recommend skipping all of season 3, episode 18. I'm not surprised that a show from the late 90s and early aughts reinforced some of the most harmful stereotypes about trans women. But it's particularly disappointing that a series all about women writing their own narrative only allows certain (cis, white, straight) women that privilege. Again, I'm certainly not the first person to bring that up, but I hope any future iterations of the franchise can improve on the series' legacy in that regard.
The series' whiteness
This is also hardly an original statement, but my gosh this is a white show. The few people of color on the series, like Chivon, a black man Samantha briefly dates, or Samantha’s girlfriend Maria, are exoticized and fetishized. Sex and the City celebrates New York, but its version of New York is far more homogenous than the one I see every day. The only named characters of color are there just as stereotypical foils for the show's white leads, and I'm not going to even get into the mess that was Sex and the City 2. I think it's representative of the entire franchise's racism to say that when Samantha fights with Chivon's sister, she does so by saying "get your big black ass out of my face ... and your okra wasn't all that."
What I Loved
The abortion episode
In the season 4 episode “Could Would Shoulda,” Miranda considers getting an abortion after she becomes pregnant from a tryst with her ex, Steve. As Miranda faces a difficult decision, Carrie remembers her own abortion, and lies to her live-in boyfriend Aidan about having had one. As Carrie supports Miranda through a difficult time, she wonders what would have happened had she had the baby, and why she feels uncomfortable sharing this part of her past with Aidan. I personally felt this episode did a great job of showing how, when it comes to abortion and reproductive rights in general, the personal is political. Everyone deserves to make their own decision about their bodies, and the girls' arcs during the episode explore how there's no 'right' way to feel after an abortion.
Samantha and Smith
I fucking adore the relationship between Samantha and Smith Jerrod. It’s incredibly refreshing to see an objectively sexy relationship on screen that flips the gendered age divide (older man, much younger woman) we’re conditioned to see as the default. Samantha is much older than Smith, and neither of them could care less! And when Samantha gets cancer, the moment where Smith shaves his head—a symbolic gesture to say that although there’s no way he can truly understand what she’s going through, he wants to offer her as much support as he possibly can—I bawled.
The show let women be unlikable
That's not intended as a backhanded compliment; Sex and the City's flawed women were genuinely groundbreaking. As The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2013, Sex and the City was one of the first shows to feature a female antihero. There's an immense, important difference between the women of Sex and the City, and the women of earlier, female-led series like That Girl and The Mary Tyler Moore show:
They [the female characters in Sex and the City's predecessors] were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, and they were also, crucially, adorable to men: vulnerable and plucky and warm. However varied the layers they displayed over time, they flattered a specific pathology: the cultural requirement that women greet other women with the refrain “Oh, me, too! Me, too!
In contrast, Carrie and her friends—Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte—were odder birds by far, jagged, aggressive, and sometimes frightening figures, like a makeup mirror lit up in neon.
It's rare for a female lead to be as unsympathetic as Carrie sometimes was. It infuriated me to see her return to Big repeatedly, or cheat on Aidan with him, or spend untold sums on ballerina skirts and bedazzled bralettes, but her flaws are part of what makes the show so compelling.
Men are constantly presented realistically and uncompromisingly on critically acclaimed, popular TV. After all, I'm sure the reason men are always telling me to watch The Wire isn't because all of its male characters are super likable! But for women, a decade after Sex and the City, it's still rare and thrilling to see female characters that aren't sanitized.
Taken at a critical distance, the women of Sex and the City represent a lot of what I want from my friendships as a LSL (Liberated Single Lady). When Miranda's mother dies, it is Carrie who stands by her side throughout the funeral. When Carrie's heart is broken after seeing Big with a new woman, the girls are there to hold her hand and her hair back. When Samantha has cancer, it is her friends who join her for chemo. I'm striving to build friendships that, like the love between the women of Sex and the City, can be just as supportive and beautiful as romantic relationships. In many ways, that seems like an impossible goal, but one I can find joy in striving for. Sex and the City captures that joy.
So too do more recent LSL shows like Insecure or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which also represent the marginalized communities that Sex and the City didn't. It's increasingly easy to find inclusive TV shows that celebrate the friendships between flawed, fascinating women. And as a liberated single lady with some flaws of her own, I'm delighted.
Featured still from "Sex and the City" via HBO
This article was originally published on October 13th, 2017. It has been updated to celebrate the series' 20th anniversary.