The Sex and the City Phenomenon
Sex and the City became an iconic television programme from the first day of its release in 1998. Even those who scorn it are familiar with the four central woman characters: Carrie (the protagonist), Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. This popular show aired until 2004, with two spinoff films following it and even a prequel television show named ‘The Carrie Diaries’. ‘Sex and the City’ remains the yardstick to which every show with central female characters is compared to, whether they like it or not. Lena Dunham’s hit sitcom ‘Girls’, which premiered in 2012, could not escape the comparison to ‘Sex and the City’ in the majority of its reviews from (to name but a few) the LA Times, New York Times and Huffington Post, both shows involving four female leads navigating their way through adulthood and New York City. In reality, the shows are entirely different.
So what is the power of ‘Sex and the City’? How did it earn its iconic status and what forms is it taking in the present? With Sarah Jessica Parker, who played Carrie, SATC’s journalist protagonist, moving onto a new sitcom ‘Divorce’, set to air on HBO, the message is clear: SATC is over – if Carrie is caput, then we better follow suite.
Many journalists and producers have examined the magic of SATC, a show which has impacted women far beyond it’s years. Its lure lies, it seems, in three main attributes (listed below in no particular order):
The central relationships are between four girlfriends, whose friendship the most consistent ‘love’ throughout the show, thus it has an unapologetic feminist theme.
The show talks openly about sex, which at the time of airing, was a novel occurrence, especially when discussed in such technicolour detail.
The New York setting (all the show was filmed within the actual city, not on a set) and exploration into the lives of successful Manhattanites.
While women identified with each woman character — and who hasn’t considered their friendship group the SATC lens — men were less enamoured, with male viewers falling only for Charlotte, the most conservative member of the group, despite enjoying her fair share of male suitors. Moreover, particularly with Carrie’s decision to cheat on boyfriend Aiden, i.e., the ‘perfect partner,’ with her longstanding weakness Mr. Big, female viewers found it difficult to accept the flaws of each character. Thus SATC faced all the challenged of a show braving a new world — its message was one of friendship, its characters were feminist icons, yet they also displayed the complexity and inconsistency of femininity and of real life, an element which viewers struggled with and which was acclaimed by many an institution; In 2009, The Guardian named Carrie Bradshaw “Icon of the Decade,” claiming that she “did as much to shift the culture around certain women’s issues as real-life female groundbreakers.”
SATC discussed all elements of intercourse: from orgasms to anal to STIs. Whilst, admittedly, the sex was often represented through an idealistic gaze of moans and sexy underwear, the grit was confronted head on. When Carrie mistakenly farts whilst in bed with Mr. Big, she bemoans the effect it has on her sex life, which pauses a little. We see Samantha lecturing women of various ages as to the benefits of certain neck massagers when used as vibrators, which opened the public up to the discussion of masturbation as a recreational activity. In that sense, the show was new and groundbreaking.
The city of ‘Sex and the City’ truly does deserve its place as a central character, with all elements of New York exposed and revered. From the up and coming Meatpacking District which Samantha moves in to, and her following horror when a Pottery Barn arrives in the neighbourhood alongside the S&M stores, to the idyllic Central Park setting in which Charlotte and Harry are photographed for their wedding announcement in a prominent newspaper.
Sex and the City was true glamour and consequently, fantasy. The Manhattan backdrop, the fabulously trendy restaurants, bars and clubs the women frequented, always with a stylish cocktail in hand, their successful careers – from Carrie’s column, which paid for her studio apartment overlooking the park yet always ensured that she had hours of leisure time, to Samantha summoning the glitterati of New York which she had complete access to due to her job in PR, to Charlotte running one of the city’s most prominent galleries and Miranda becoming partner in a renowned law firm. Patricia Fields, who was in charge of wardrobe during the show, recounts that Carrie never repeated an outfit, accepting that for a women of her profession and spending habits was totally unrealistic. But the point of SATC, she continues, was not to be realistic but to provide escapism and romance.
And indeed, the escapism lives on, most currently in the hit web series ‘An African City’, which centres around five female leads who move back to their home towns in Africa, after being educated in the Western World. Think SATC but with unique moans about lack of electricity and a banging soundtrack.