Does Sex and the City still hold up after 20 years?
Unpacking a cultural phenomenon
Okay, you found me: the one person who hasn’t ever seen an episode of Sex and the City. I’m sorry; I couldn’t; don’t hate me. I was a high school student with no cable when the seminal series premiered on HBO 20 years ago this June. Years later, I tried, on occasion, to watch the syndicated version of the series, highly edited for network television, but it was missing a certain je ne sais quoi. Actually, I can sais quoi: there was no profanity and abrupt cuts in the sex scenes. What is Sex and the City without sex and that harbinger of city life: frequent expletives?
Of course, the cultural zeitgeist wasn’t lost on me. Through that osmosis that the most indelible shows achieve, I was well-versed in the personality differences between Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda. Before the advent of Buzzfeed quizzes that would tell me the answers, I spent many hours puzzling over which SATC character I was. (Carrie. Obviously. Please hold you applause.) I picked up pieces of show lore, like the Berger debate. And, of course, formed a very strong opinion about Big, which can best be expressed by the below GIF:
Inexplicably, I saw both Sex and the City movies in the theatres on opening weekend. Yes, I witnessed Liza Minelli performing ‘Single Ladies’ from the front row of a multiplex; so, when I set about to watch the first season of the show for the first time, I figured if nothing else, it might explain how we got here.
In a larger sense, I was wondering if the show’s inaugural season would, with the distance of 20 years and a very different cultural landscape, still have the same magic, still inspire the same loyal devotion to the plights of the central foursome, and still be relevant to any part of the way we live. I couldn’t help but wonder: has SATC changed over the last two decades?
Episode 1, “Sex and the City”
“Welcome to the age of un-innocence,” Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie declares. “We’ll see about that,” I say from my couch in the 2018 where the president has just nonchalantly admitted that he lied about paying a porn star to keep quiet about their “non-affair” and everyone on Westworld is constantly naked and shooting each other. Un-innocences has come a long way, baby.
I knew that in early episodes of the show, Carrie smoked constantly and talked to the camera but I didn’t anticipate how jarring it would be. I’m hard-pressed to think of a modern television or movie heroine whose nicotine habit is so pervasive and so unabashed. Though the two devices would fade away as the series went on, I was struck by the boldness of the vision. Even now, our lead character, a woman, speaking to us directly and smoking wherever she pleases, feels political.
Speaking of politics, Big (Chris Noth) is described as the next Donald Trump in the first couple of minutes and I’m immediately concerned that everything about the series is going to feel simultaneously “too soon” and too late. Also, Carrie describes Samantha (Kim Catrall) thusly, “Samantha had the kind of deluded self-confidence that caused men like Ross Perot to run for president,” and I wish I lived in a world where Samanthas ran for president and Ross and Don were fictional.
So… I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole series was going to feel like a referendum on the forces that brought us Trump. The episode focuses on what to do with toxic bachelors and features the women trying to “have sex like men.” But it’s not just the reflection of how little has changed in the area of toxic masculinity that stands out. There’s the oft-noted money thing. Carrie wears a fur coat everywhere which is, frankly, insane. She’ll later experience momentary money troubles, but for all intents and purposes, her life is a fantasy of aspiration and inspiration. She has so much and yet she wants more.
Also, she goes out to lunch with Stanford (Willie Garson), runs into an old “mistake” and goes over to his place at 3 pm on a work day to get laid. She calls it “research.” Question: how does one list this on their reimbursement forms?
Episode 2, “Models and Mortals”
Miranda is dating a man named Nick, who is a “Modelizer.” There’s a fascinating obsession with models and model culture that dovetails with the high society adoration that Sex and the City treats as a given. I wonder if it has carried over into the present or whether Instagrammer and Influencer cultures have made the lines between models and mortals blurrier.
I am also obsessed with Carrie’s writing process. She gets an idea and then investigates it by conducting Law & Order-style interviews with mildly eccentric New Yorkers who monologue openly while doing their jobs. It’s actually amazing. Instead of giving a detailed recap of a suspect’s last known whereabouts while stacking produce in a grocery store, they’re musing on their sex habits while painting in a SoHo loft. The thing to take away from this is that everyone in the city is otherwise engaged but has an intense inner life and a photographic memory.
Episode 3, “Bay of Married Pigs”
Carrie is asked to be an egg donor for a gay couple as she contemplates whether there’s a cold war between singles and marrieds. Meanwhile, one of Miranda’s coworkers sets her up with another woman and then plays along because being a part of a couple seems to have a professional advantage. The latter plot-line probably wouldn’t play today but it’s fascinating that in this third episode, two of the show’s entry points in the exploration of long-term commitment are same-sex couples.
Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and her “date,” Syd (Joanna Adler)
The gay couple who ask Carrie to have their baby talk about flying to Hawaii, the only place same-sex civil unions were legal at the time, to have a ceremony. Interestingly, 1998—the year this episode first aired—was also the same year Hawaiians voted to restrict the specific institution of marriage to mixed-sex couples. It’s no surprise that SATC is presenting lightly nuanced, progressive ideas about all manners of couplings but the contexts in which those ideas were presented is a pleasant discovery.
Just something to ponder. Also, I love how much time Carrie has to ponder things. She lives the busiest life of anyone I’ve ever met, regularly sees more people than I currently know, and eats, drinks, and smokes constantly but still has time to develop constant theories about literally everything. Carrie is the original galaxy brain.
On Age and Power
Episode 4, “Valley of the Twenty-Something Guys”
It’s hard to parse the differences in ages between the characters but it’s a major point of contention. Mr. Big is in his 40s, an age of men Carrie describes as “like the New York Times crossword puzzle: tricky, complicated, and you’re never sure you’ve got the right answer.” Meanwhile, Carrie, who is in her mid-30s, finds herself drawn to a guy in his 20s.
“Are men in their 20s the new designer drug?” she asks. “What does that mean?!” I ask.
On one hand, I totally understand what a dramatic difference a couple of years can make, but I wonder if twenty years later it has more to do with what you can accomplish academically and professionally than simple empirical differences in ages. While the 20-something dude (a very hot Timothy Olyphant, looking like a vampire in the best way) lives in a typical 20-something trash heap apartment, everyone, it seems, is able to eat, drink, and live their best lives.
Also, 90s fashion and hair made everyone look like a 39-year-old who was having trouble adjusting.
Episode 5, “The Power of the Female Sex”
Carrie meets a French architect and wears a baby blue boa. In public! That’s not important, per se, but I needed to tell you that.
This episode finds the women negotiating the relationship between money and power. The politics are a little creaky for the first time, particularly around sex work, and I’m surprised that their relative ages aren’t given more weight in the discussion. Sex and the City is very good at talking about intersecting identities—though, glaringly, not intersectionality; I have seen maybe two people of color so far—but this episode has some blind spots.
“Money is power, sex is power,” Samantha says, “Therefore getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.” In 2018, Janelle Monáe’s “Screwed” would laid down the truth that “Everything equals sex, except sex which is power. You know power is just sex. So ask yourself who’s screwing you.” Suddenly, I need a SATC reboot with a Monáe sensibility.
Another plot point in this episode: Carrie has a “Eurotrash” friend, a professional socialite, whom she thinks might be a “high class hooker.” I’m reminded of the recent Vanity Fair article about the fake European heiress who cost a friend tens of thousands of dollars. Both Carrie’s friend and the fake heiress traffic in the push/pull of aspirational desire, but whereas Carrie’s friend’s “targets” were male benefactors, the heiress’ grift was reliant on a relative naïveté and rooted in female friendship. I couldn’t help but wonder if a new dynamic has emerged in the last 20 years, perhaps aided in no small part by this show, in which female friendship is the most powerful currency.
Episode 6, “Secret Sex”
Carrie never looks like herself in that side of the bus photo. She looks like Julianna Marguiles in yet another expensive wig. Anyway, this is the episode in which Carrie takes that photo. Julianna is nowhere to be seen, but I still have my doubts.
At her “bus ad viewing party,” Carrie is mortified to find that someone has graffiti’d a penis on to her picture. This is understandable, I guess, but I’m not sure there’s a pasteboard ad in New York that doesn’t have some kind of genitalia on it. It’s a rite of passage. Also, they are wearing party hats and drinking champagne in a bus shelter; at least one of those things should warrant a citation from a copy, especially in Giuliani’s New York.
The women debate how early to have sex. Obviously, Samantha is not here for waiting. She posits that the women who created this theory about waiting to have sex only did it because they couldn’t get laid. I’m not sure this theory holds up to the scrutiny of time and enlightened gender politics but maybe it seemed progressive back then. Charlotte obviously believes in waiting, in the interest of fostering an emotional connection. Miranda falls somewhere in the middle, positing that sex is essential to creating said intimacy. Miranda is a woman of the now.
That said… Miranda is a real problem in this episode. Miranda meets 32-year-old sports medicine doctor Ted, whose head she accidentally kicks in gym class. After they have sex, she rummages through his drawers and finds a spanking porn. When she tries to initiate spanking with him, he turns cold and never speaks to her again. It’s an interesting plot development that is never picked up again. Perhaps the point is made: what one fantasizes about isn’t necessarily the thing one wants to be presented with in real life. But is that all? Miranda clearly violated Ted’s privacy; how much of his rejection was a reaction to her prior act and how much of it was a reaction to her slap on his butt? Obviously, this is not the point of the story and doesn’t really relate to Miranda save for highlighting how her hunger for knowledge can trip her up, but it’s the thing that stuck out to me the most.
Episode 7, “The Monogamists”
Carrie forsakes her friends for her new infatuation with Big. “I’ve become one of those women we hate,” she says. “CRINGE,” I say. In my notes, I write “I get Big but I don’t really get Big.” I don’t know what that means. Anyway, I feel like you’re either into Big’s strong and silent thing or you’re not. It’s not particularly ’90s but it definitely feels anachronistic now. You know what I do get? How Chris Noth went from cop on Law & Order, to romantic ideal on Sex and the City, to sexy problem on The Good Wife. I feel like the complicated story of late-20th century masculinity can be told by Chris Noth’s on-screen presence.
In other news, Stanford muses about monogamy, everyone’s keeping their options open. Just then Justin Theroux sidles up to Carrie looking like a barely legal snack and wearing an epic puka shell-esque necklace.
He hits on her but she’s oddly disinterested. She’s dead to me.
On Charlotte and Cigarettes
Episode 8, “Three’s a Crowd”
Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has a new boyfriend who wants her to have a threesome. Carrie posits that threesomes are the relationship of the future based on, well, absolutely nothing. “Are threesomes the new sexual frontier?” she asks.
As Charlotte and her boyfriend search for a woman to have sex with, I couldn’t help but wonder who has time to be constantly looking for a third? I can buy that all of these powerful, successful women are able to drink, lunch, and have sex constantly, but to also keep themselves on the market? It’s just too much. Did time work differently in the 90s? I guess this is what happens when people don’t have Twitter.
At this point, the series has come more into itself. Carrie’s cigarettes and direct addresses recede and Charlotte’s plot lines become more prominent. She started the series as the prudish innocent who served as a punchline counterpoint to Samantha’s voraciousness. But three-quarters of the way through, her own reserved sexual mores get equal time and equal respect. Perhaps Carrie puts it best: “That was the thing about Charlotte, just as you were about to write her off as a Park Avenue Pollyanna, she’d say something so right on you’d think she was the Dalai Lama.”
Episode 9, “The Turtle and the Hare”
For a series that is perpetually concerned with relationships and sex, it’s remarkable that marriage doesn’t come up until nine episodes in. This is a show that isn’t constructed to solve the heroine’s problems by hooking her up with a man, at least at first. It’s a trap we haven’t yet escaped. Maybe in another 20 years.
In any case, this episode and the three that conclude the season, begin to formally wrestle with the idea and the institution of marriage. The gang ends up at a bad singles table at a wedding. Carrie calls Big to get his take on why people get married if they’re not in love. Big says he never plans to get married again. Carrie = shewk.
Meanwhile, Stanford proposes that he and Carrie get married so that he can collect an inheritance. It appeals to Carrie as a possible solution to Big’s decision to never re-marry.
Miranda and Charlotte get vibrators, with whom they become very attached. Miranda announces that men will be obsolete in 50 years. She’s not totally serious (though we’ve got 30 years to go and, tbh, please toss all men in the sea) but it’s delightful that the episode, and the series in general, are constantly introducing alternatives and variations on coupling.
Episode 10, “The Baby Shower”
So, what comes after ruminating on marriage? Babies, of course. The gang gets invited to Lainey’s baby shower, a former wild party girl with whom Samantha has a long-standing rivalry. She’s met an investment banker and moved to Connecticut and now, apparently, she is pregnant. The women are total jerks about how little they want to go to this shower, which I initially judged until I remembered that I literally never want to go to a baby shower, including my own.
Turns out, Lainey has chosen to name her baby Shayla, which Charlotte contends is the baby name she made up and has been saving. She accuses Lainey of stealing her baby name and storms out. Is stealing someone else’s baby name really all that bad? I honestly don’t know.
Episode 11, “The Drought”
Carrie farts in front of Big for the first time and then runs out of the apartment, mortified, covered in a blanket like Casey Affleck in A Ghost Story. It is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. SJP is a treasure.
She worries that it’s made the relationship too casual, something that’s exacerbated by the fact that she and Big stop having sex as regularly. She asks “How often is normal?” This concerns gives way to a deeper concern about having to appear perfect for Big. If anything, this is something that has only been exacerbated in the last twenty years, although the way we define perfection and the way we achieve it, have drastically changed.
Episode 12, “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful”
Miranda dates a recovering Catholic, while Carrie spies Big coming out of church. She wonders “are relationships the religion of the 90s?” Admittedly not her most astute query, but an interesting entry point into the way that one’s spiritual life and one’s love life can come into conflict
Big goes to church every week with his mother; when Carrie asks to join them he tells her it’s a private thing between them. I couldn’t help but wonder, with regard to a relationship, what belongs to one person and what belongs to the unit?
Carrie and Big end the season on a break, prompted by his refusal to let her in to all the areas of her life. Irrespective of what ends up happening between them, it feels like a particularly resonant note to end this show’s first season. The theme that lingers is the needs of the group or the unit in opposition and in cooperation with the needs of the individual. It’s easy to make a connection to our current political moment, as well as our moment in gender politics. And it’s surprising, at least to this novice viewer, that there aren’t more aspects of this show that seem outdated or regressive. It presents interesting ideas about sex and power, of course, but the primary area of interest is in relationships.
From: ELLE USA