A (critical) look back at SATC

DIFFICULT WOMEN: How “Sex and the City” lost its good name

BY EMILY NUSSBAUM, New Yorker, July 29, 2013

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When people talk about the rise of great TV, they inevitably credit one show, “The Sopranos.” Even before James Gandolfini’s death, the HBO drama’s mystique was secure: novelistic and cinematic, David Chase’s auteurist masterpiece cracked open the gangster genre like a rib cage, releasing the latent ambition of television, and launching us all into a golden age.

“The Sopranos” deserves the hype. Yet there’s something screwy about the way that the show and its cable-drama blood brothers have come to dominate the conversation, elbowing other forms of greatness out of the frame. It’s a bias that bubbles up early in Brett Martin’s otherwise excellent new book, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘The Wire’ to ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” a deeply reported and dishy account of just how your prestige-cable sausage is made. I tore through the book, yet when I reached Martin’s chronicle of the rise of HBO I felt a jolt. “It might as well have been a tourism campaign for a post-Rudolph Giuliani, de-ethnicized Gotham awash in money,” Martin writes of one of my favorite shows. “Its characters were types as familiar as those in ‘The Golden Girls’: the Slut, the Prude, the Career Woman, the Heroine. But they talked more explicitly, certainly about their bodies, but also about their desires and discontents outside the bedroom, than women on TV ever had before.”

Martin gives “Sex and the City” credit for jump-starting HBO, but the condescension is palpable, and the grudging praise is reserved for only one aspect of the series—the rawness of its subject matter. Martin hardly invented this attitude: he is simply reiterating what has become the reflexive consensus on the show, right down to the hackneyed “Golden Girls” gag. Even as “The Sopranos” has ascended to TV’s Mt. Olympus, the reputation of “Sex and the City” has shrunk and faded, like some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decade-long hot cycle. By the show’s fifteen-year anniversary, this year, we fans had trained ourselves to downgrade the show to a “guilty pleasure,” to mock its puns, to get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered and blinged-out movies. Whenever a new chick-centric series débuts, there are invidious comparisons: don’t worry, it’s no “Sex and the City,” they say. As if that were a good thing.

But “Sex and the City,” too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of “The Sopranos,” albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. “Sex and the City,” in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, “Sex and the City” was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.

Please, people, I can hear your objections from here. But first think back. Before “Sex and the City,” the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to say, actual role models. (Ally McBeal was a notable and problematic exception.) They 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. They were simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized. Women identified with them—“I’m a Carrie!”—but then became furious when they showed flaws. And, with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), men didn’t find them likable: there were endless cruel jokes about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Carrie as sluts, man-haters, or gold-diggers. To me, as a single woman, it felt like a definite sign of progress: since the elemental representation of single life at the time was the comic strip “Cathy” (ack! chocolate!), better that one’s life should be viewed as glamorously threatening than as sad and lonely.

Carrie Bradshaw herself began as a mirror for another woman: she was the avatar of the New York Observer columnist Candace Bushnell, a steely “sexual anthropologist” on the prowl for blind items. When the initial showrunner, Darren Star, and his mostly female writing staff adapted Bushnell’s columns, they transformed that icy Carrie, pouring her into the warm body of Sarah Jessica Parker. Out popped a chatterbox with a schnoz, whose advanced fashion sense was not intended to lure men into matrimony. For a half dozen episodes, Carrie was a happy, curious explorer, out companionably smoking with modellizers. If she’d stayed that way, the show might have been another “Mary Tyler Moore”: a playful, empowering comedy about one woman’s adventures in the big city.

Instead, Carrie fell under the thrall of Mr. Big, the sexy, emotionally withholding forty-three-year-old financier played by Chris Noth. From then on, pleasurable as “Sex and the City” remained, it also felt designed to push back at its audience’s wish for identification, triggering as much anxiety as relief. It switched the romantic comedy’s primal scene, from “Me, too!” to “Am I like her?” A man practically woven out of red flags, Big wasn’t there to rescue Carrie; instead, his “great love” was a slow poisoning. She spun out, becoming anxious, obsessive, and, despite her charm, wildly self-centered—in her own words, “the frightening woman whose fear ate her sanity.” Their relationship was viewed with concern by her friends, who were not, as Martin suggests, mere “types” but portrayals of a narrow slice of wealthy white thirty-something Manhattanites: the Waspy gallerina, the liberal-feminist lawyer, the decadent power publicist.

Although the show’s first season is its slightest, it swiftly establishes a bold mixture of moods—fizzy and sour, blunt and arch—and shifts between satirical and sincere modes of storytelling. (It’s not even especially dated: though the show has gained a reputation for over-the-top absurdity, I can tell you that these night clubs and fashion shows do exist—maybe even more so now that Manhattan has become a gated island for the wealthy.) There is already a melancholic undertow, full of foreshadowing. “What if he never calls and three weeks from now I pick up the New York Times and I read that he’s married some perfect little woman who never passes gas under his five-hundred-dollar sheets?” Carrie frets in Episode 11. In a moment of clarity, she tells Miranda that, when she’s around Big, “I’m not like me. I’m, like, Together Carrie. I wear little outfits: Sexy Carrie and Casual Carrie. Sometimes I catch myself actually posing. It’s just—it’s exhausting.”

That was the conundrum Carrie faced for the entire series: true love turned her into a fake. The Season 1 neurotic Carrie didn’t stick, though. She and Big fixed things, then they broke up again, harder. He moved to Paris. She met Aidan (John Corbett), the marrying type. In Season 3, the writers upped the ante, having Carrie do something overtly anti-heroic: she cheated on a decent man with a bad one (Big, of course), now married to that “perfect little woman,” Natasha. They didn’t paper over the repercussions: Natasha’s humiliation, and the way Carrie’s betrayal hardened Aidan, even once he took her back. During six seasons, Carrie changed, as anyone might from thirty-two to thirty-eight, and not always in positive ways. She got more honest and more responsible; she became a saner girlfriend. But she also became scarred, prissier, strikingly gun-shy—and, finally, she panicked at the question of what it would mean to be an older single woman.

Her friends went through changes, too, often upon being confronted with their worst flaws—Charlotte’s superficiality, Miranda’s caustic tongue, Samantha’s refusal to be vulnerable. In a departure from nearly all earlier half-hour comedies, the writers fully embraced the richness of serial storytelling. In a movie we go from glare to kiss in two hours. “Sex and the City” was liberated from closure, turning “once upon a time” into a wry mantra, treating its characters’ struggles with a rare mixture of bluntness and compassion. It was one of the first television comedies to let its characters change in serious ways, several years before other half-hour comedies, like “The Office,” went and stole all the credit.

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.

Endings count in television, maybe too much. “The Sopranos” concluded with a black screen: it rejected easy satisfaction and pissed off its most devoted fans. (David Chase fled to the South of France.)

Three years earlier, in 2004, “Sex and the City” had other pressures to contend with: while a mob film ends in murder, we all know where a romantic comedy ends. I’ll defend until my dying day the sixth-season plot in which Carrie seeks respite with a celebrity like her, the Russian artist Aleksandr (Mikhail Baryshnikov), a chilly genius she doesn’t love but who offers her a dreamlike fairy tale, the one she has always longed for: Paris, safety, money, pleasure. It felt ugly, and sad, in a realistic way. In one of the season’s, and the show’s, best episodes, she saw other older women settling (Candice Bergen) or falling out of windows (the hilarious Kristen Johnston, who delivered one of “Sex and the City” ’s best monologues: “When did everybody stop smoking? When did everybody pair off? . . . I’m so bored I could die”). The show always had a realpolitik directness about such social pressures; as another HBO series put it recently, winter was coming.

And then, in the final round, “Sex and the City” pulled its punches, and let Big rescue Carrie. It honored the wishes of its heroine, and at least half of the audience, and it gave us a very memorable dress, too. But it also showed a failure of nerve, an inability of the writers to imagine, or to trust themselves to portray, any other kind of ending—happy or not. And I can’t help but wonder: What would the show look like without that finale? What if it were the story of a woman who lost herself in her thirties, who was changed by a poisonous, powerful love affair, and who emerged, finally, surrounded by her friends? Who would Carrie be then? It’s an interesting question, one that shouldn’t erase the show’s powerful legacy. We’ll just have to wait for another show to answer it.

*

What I learned from my “Sex and the City” parody account
After some time tweeting puns in her voice, I realized: Carrie was a nightmare!

by DANIEL D’ADDARIO, Salon, November 3, 2013

I’d had a love/love-to-hate relationship with “Sex and the City” since I first watched it all the way through in college. (I never had HBO growing up!) Unlike classically-crafted sitcoms like “Friends” or “Frasier,” the series isn’t pleasingly formulaic in a way that comforts the viewer before bed; it’s jagged and arch and withholds the sorts of pleasures that TV can provide. Characters spend long periods miserable and alone; episodes just end at the 30-minute mark without any resolution and without any lessons learned. Protagonist Carrie, obsessed with her one true love, the callous Big, makes the same mistakes over and over; her best friends are each, for some time, trapped by their own unbending personality types (respectively: status obsession, obsession with work, refusal to commit). On the occasion that there is any sense of closure, it’s only temporary — episodes will end, say, with Carrie meeting her three best friends at a café and saying some folderol about how friends are the only thing one can count on in this crazy city, but her loneliness and emptiness hasn’t magically lifted. For all that “Sex and the City” is stereotyped as a comfort-watch for Moscato-drinking sorority girls, there’s something edgy and chilling about it, as noted in a recent reappraisal by Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker.

The only constant over six years was itself alienating: the show’s reliance on Carrie’s narration, full of elliptical, strange puns compounding upon themselves. (This provides a healthy sampling: rhyming “vasectomy” with “the man next to me,” a former couple “needling” one another segues into a character’s acupuncture appointment.) The narration was, at times, the only explicitly comic element of the show.

A year ago, a writer friend and I began summarizing our problems of the moment in emails to one another using the language of the narration — an argot in which actual logic takes a backseat to quick segue and to cringing wordplay. Carrie found solace in punning on her problems even when the problems were very real. Writing like her seemed like a good way to get at the Big and the little dramas of our lives; a way to glide over the surface of things that were complicated and upsetting using a coded language and then moving on to the next plotline.

I don’t know where the idea came from to create what I have to acknowledge up front was an extremely stupid novelty Twitter. I was watching the show on my iPod at the gym one morning, having exhausted all recent podcasts, when it floated into my head vaguely. What if the characters still existed and took into account recent news developments — just as the show, which ran from 1998 to 2004, would pun on the rise of “Survivor” and the growing indispensability of cell phones? The first two “Sex and the City” movies had entirely abandoned the show’s awareness of contemporary New York in favor of fairy tales for an audience that had misread the show as optimistic. What if a third movie kept the strange puns in service of a story about the way we live now?

And just like that, a novelty Twitter account was born.

I followed a few friends and started writing tweets putting the characters into conversation with current events as well as a half-dystopian vision of the present day. As I write this, I am just as aware as you are, reader, of just how frivolous this is, but it was an opportunity to play with words according to a very proscribed format — the Carrie monologue — and to burn off extra creative energy and the frustration of any true “Sex and the City” fan with that show’s tics: Carrie’s puns as vehicle for delivering solipsistic wisdom about herself. The account was an homage to the show and probably the meanest thing I could have done to it.

I kept it up for a while — but, over time, there was only so much even the most elastic “Sex and the City” reality could tolerate. I’d already made jokes about Carrie getting jobs at Gawker and at Vice; was an offhand joke about the Huffington Post’s pay policy worth giving her a third new-media gig? And esoteric humor about Arianna Huffington and Nintendo fans’ so-called “Year of Luigi” wasn’t exactly the sort of stuff Carrie would be concerned with, because I’d so quickly burned through all of the actual facts about what 2013 was like.

Not that it really mattered; the account was growing rapidly (peaking at around 13,000 followers). I got covered on Jezebel and got the opportunity to make a longer version of my script for Vulture. I was incredibly flattered by the attention — who wouldn’t be? But Carrie’s voice was speaking a little too loudly in my head, spinning every headline I read in the newspaper into a pun. To my mind, the most emblematic moment of the series is when her desperate friend Miranda, a harried new mother, admits she doesn’t have a vague idea of what to do; Carrie cuts her off and says she doesn’t have “a Vogue idea” how to fix her piece for a fashion magazine. Imagine actually trying to inhabit a voice that hyperaware of every word around you and simultaneously that eager to drown out the conversation with a new pun so as to avoid acknowledging anything serious.

Carrie, a character who’d always charmed me even as I acknowledged her flaws, was a nightmare!

I’d done a radio interview about the account where they asked me to read a few tweets aloud, and they sounded so inane coming out of my mouth; I was grasping at turning just about anything into a pun about sex — just as Carrie did. This had been fun, but there’s a reason “Sex and the City” took the rest of the year off after each season.

And I couldn’t help but wonder — when does a novelty Twitter go from novel to twaddle? That’s when it hit me: It was time for a breakup.

I decided impulsively to end the whole thing. It seemed a little too esoteric (not to mention too tied up in other people’s intellectual property) to get me a book deal, and besides, spending more time working on self-consciously laborious puns wasn’t what I most desperately wanted to do. I wound the whole thing down with a stream of tweets giving each character some sense of closure: Charlotte was about to discover the art of Lena Dunham, Samantha to act out the plot of “Contagion,” Miranda died (she was always the writers’ least favorite character — remember when they made her eat cake out of the garbage?). And Carrie finally got back together with Big, who was now a bitcoin miner.

I don’t know that I necessarily learned anything from this other than quite how much more I could be doing with what I’ve always thought of as a very busy schedule. But when, in a few months or years, I finally feel down to watch “Sex and the City” again, I’ll be sympathetic with Carrie’s puns, knowing as I do that she, more than anything, wants attention. She may be comically out of touch, from a 2013 perspective, with modern technology, but she’s no different from anyone on social media.

*

A warning to a new generation of women — don’t let ‘Sex and the City’ ruin your life

Julia Price and Julia Allison, nypost.com, March 11, 2012

Martinis. Manolo Blahniks. Fabulous Park Avenue apartments and, of course, the word “fabulous” itself. HBO’s six-season run of “Sex and the City” had women moving to Manhattan with visions of finding their own Mr. Big, a brunch-happy power foursome of girlfriends, a career that lands them on the VIP list of every hot event and, of course, a closet full of designer accessories.

Now a new generation is ready for brainwashing, as the CW Network is filming a prequel called “The Carrie Diaries,” starring 18-year-old AnnaSophia Robb as female fantasy action hero Carrie Bradshaw.

But I wonder if fans know that rent-controlled apartments like Carrie’s are as hard to come by as a good-looking, well-adjusted single guy over the age of 35. That “Sex” can be read as much a tragedy as a comedy? Will they be OK using their Prada stilettos to kill the cockroaches that might scuttle across the kitchen in their fourth-floor walkup?

They might be . . . at first. Both of us moved to New York City at age 22 and trust me, we were “sooooo Carrie Bradshaw!” We had all the energy in the world to network, hustle, apartment search on Craigslist again and again and again, and of course there’s dating; the patience to go out with guys who brag about getting a table next to John Mayer at Pink Elephant and expensing their thousand-dollar liquor tab on their JP Morgan accounts (hey, it was 2006).

We would tolerate these guys because of the free group-dinner invites where we shared a meal with young wannabee Tory Burches, Noah Tepperburgs and, of course, five Ford models. Why? We were so eager to learn this world; anxious to suck it all in. It was NEW York and OMG we were like totally “Sex and the City”!

The parties were fabulous and walking up to entrance of the hottest club to find the velvet rope pulled back as soon as the bouncer’s facial recognition associated you as an important person, well, that was power! And feeling special in a city of 8 million people is pretty badass.

But this power high becomes like a drug. If you want to be in the scene, you’ve got to stay in the scene. We had to go out nearly every night just to maintain being considered for these invites. The drinks, the cabs, the clothes — pretty soon you’ve maxed out your credit cards.

Want four friends that get together every week for brunch? Dream on. Every woman comes to New York to be Carrie. No one wants to be Charlotte, Miranda or Samantha. You do the math: Clubs full of Carries, all hanging out with each other, all holding forth, no one really listening. Often the biggest fantasy of “Sex and the City” wasn’t the apartments or the lovers — it was the friendships.

Once the initial excitement of living in the Big Apple dies down, it suddenly becomes clear how hard it is to purely exist, let alone thrive.

There are the tangibles that are fairly obvious. Carrying groceries up four flights of stairs, dealing with hellish landlords, watching a neighbor throw a mousetrap (dead mouse included) right out the window.

Less talked about is the way the city eats at your soul. At 22, the world is your oyster. At 25, the 40-year-old investment banker is looking over your shoulder at the next 22-year-old. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, but how many really do? And even if you’ve “made it,” you’re met not with accolades but glares. A city with “new” thrives on impatience and jealousy; sometimes you feel like everyone’s an intern or a has-been.

And guess what — Mr. Big doesn’t leave his wife.

New York City is f – – – ing exhausting. Sounds obvious, but we wonder how many women who moved here in the last 15 years learned that lesson the hard way, who have ended their “Sex” fantasy not in syndication but one step away from the sanatorium? Probably more than would care to admit it.

“Sex and the City” may have been responsible for our move to NYC at 22, but long before we hit 30, we were ready to get out. We made the move to Los Angeles this past October, and it’s been positive in every way.

We used to get stressed about how everyone seems so much more relaxed out here, but now we’ve become those same chill West Coast people. Why? Because it’s easier. Turns out you can get the same amount of work done, but people know how to switch off. They know how to get outside, take hiking meetings, dedicate time to people. There’s a creative energy flourishing that seemed to be stifled in New York.

So a warning to the next generation of Carrie acolytes. Treat “Sex and the City” like “Star Trek.” A strange new world you will never visit except on TV.

It’s safe to say that we’re settled comfortably in the less-fabulous city of Los Angeles. Well, for now anyway. If you know of any apartments . . .

 

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