Read of the Day: “Difficult Women: How Sex and the City Lost Its Good Name”
6:00 pm, July 24th | by Grace Rasmus
Today’s read is about the undeserved downfall of Sex and the City, the iconic TV show that everyone loves to rag on. In the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum responds to Brett Martin’s denouncement of the show, arguing that Sex and the City shouldn’t be dismissed as a lowly “guilty pleasure.” While HBO’s The Sopranos may have sparked the bad-boy revolution of cable TV (think Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, etc.), Nussbaum posits that Carrie Bradshaw was the first female anti-hero; according to her, the show’s legacy deserves more respect.
So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior. Certainly, the show’s formula was strict: usually four plots—two deep, two shallow—linked by Carrie’s voice-over. The B plots generally involved one of the non-Carrie women getting laid; these slapstick sequences were crucial to the show’s rude rhythms, interjecting energy and rupturing anything sentimental. (It’s one reason those bowdlerized reruns on E! are such a crime: with the literal and figurative fucks edited out, the show is a rom-com.)
Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to glide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.
Every conversation the friends had, at brunch or out shopping, amounted to a “Crossfire”-like debate. When Carrie sleeps with a dreamy French architect and he leaves a thousand dollars by her bed, she consults her friends. “Money is power. Sex is power,” Samantha argues. “Therefore, getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.” “Don’t listen to the dime-store Camille Paglia,” Miranda shoots back. The most famous such conversation took place four episodes in, after Charlotte’s boyfriend asked her to have anal sex. The friends pile into a cab for a raucous debate about whether her choice is about power-exchange (Miranda) or about finding a fun new hole (Samantha). “I’m not a hole!” Charlotte protests, and they hit a pothole. “What was that?” Charlotte asks. “A preview,” Miranda and Samantha say in unison, and burst out laughing.
The show’s basic value system aligns with Carrie: romantic, second-wave, libertine. But “Sex and the City” ’s real strength was its willingness not to stack the deck: it let every side make a case, so that complexity carried the day. When Carrie and Aidan break up, they are both right. When Miranda and Carrie argue about her move to Paris, they are both right. The show’s style could be brittle, but its substance was flexible, in a way that made the series feel peculiarly broad-ranging, covering so much ground, so fleetly, that it became easy to take it for granted.
To read the rest of Nussbaum’s essay, click here.