How Sex and the City changed television 20 years ago, making smart, risky original series not only possible but the norm
They may have been materialistic, man-crazy, and too white, but the lives of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda were not all about swilling martinis in designer dresses – they broke down barriers and gave women a voice
When Sex and the City arrived on HBO in June 1998, sopranos were still singers with high voices, Larry David was the guy who wrote Seinfeld, and it would be years before Six Feet Under, Deadwood and The Wire started a revolution of original cable television series programming.
Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) ushered in change on US$900 Jimmy Choo stilettos, loosening up TV conventions as they swilled martinis in designer dresses some of them shouldn’t have been able to afford on their respective salaries.
Free of the constraints of network television, they cursed like R-rated film heroes, discussed sex in graphic detail, had lots of graphic sex and strove to be fabulous rather than likeable.
“It’s slim pickings out there,” said Samantha during one of many episodes where the women were lamenting their dating prospects. “You can’t swing a Fendi purse without knocking over five losers.”
It was the cynicism of Gen X, coupled with a sexual awakening following the HIV/Aids crisis, in an era when New York was moving up from grungy to moneyed.
Sex and the City became must-watch Sunday night viewing for young(ish) women, gay men and anyone else who finally saw their embarrassing drunken confessionals with friends, and disastrous/scandalous dating moments, dramatised on screen.
Each episode walked the line between fantasy and reality, sentimentality and raunch, and dressed it all to the nines.
In Carrie’s world, walking 10 blocks in six-inch heels was a glamorous act of independence, not a painful, crippling slog that ended in Duane Reade’s bandages and plastic flip-flop aisle. And all those high-end dinners and high-calorie drinks never resulted in Miranda bursting the seams of that tiny Patricia Field mini-dress.
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I remember watching the premiere of Sex and the City in New York, where I lived at the time, prepared to hate the show for making their female characters so materialistic and man-crazy.
Yet I loved it. Bad behaviour, objectifying the other sex – we didn’t even know the real name of Carrie’s great love Mr. Big (Chris Noth) until the final episode – and seeking power in the workplace were equal-opportunity ventures in their version of Manhattan.
But the show wasn’t meant to represent the real lives of city women. It was there to entertain those who hadn’t been represented.
Sex and the City has since been maligned for being unrealistic, for being too white and for setting feminism back with vain characters obsessed with shopping and sex. But Carrie and company weren’t meant to carry the feminist mantle from Murphy Brown to Girls, HBO’s millennial version of Sex and the City. They simply levelled the playing field.
They were the primary focus, and male characters were peripheral. It was their conversations we finally got to hear, not men talking about them.
Successful TV series with female-driven narratives were rare back then, and those that did survive past one season were often centred on motherhood or marriage. Buffy had been slaying for only a little over a year, and The Powerpuff Girls were busy empowering, well, girls, not women.
The Sex and the City foursome were equalisers. They weren’t acting like men, they were reflecting the changing values and roles of women from one generation to the next, which in Miranda’s case meant choosing to have a baby out of wedlock and, in Samantha’s, sleeping with as many young men as possible.
Was the cast super white in a city that was not? Absolutely. Did the show miss about a billion opportunities to portray single, working women as more than the composite characters they sometimes were in Sex and the City? Yes.
Perhaps if it was rebooted for the #MeToo era, it would tackle issues of representation, harassment in the workplace, or even the workplace. (We rarely saw them at work, except when Carrie the sex columnist was writing at home, in her way-too-nice-for-casual-lounging underwear.)
Without the show, however, we may not have had the conversations that inspired more female-led narratives by female writers, like Big Little Lies or The Handmaid’s Tale . And HBO might still be the home box office you watched only when you were too tired to change the channel.
Sex and the City, along with the uber-masculine 1997 prison drama Oz, was the first drama to make HBO a destination for smart, risky original series programming that bent rules and the ratings game.
The series, which pre-dated Tinder, streaming, Facebook and smartphones, has influenced the modern TV viewing experience far more than Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte could have ever imagined when they were still making booty calls from pay phones.
So don’t diminish the influence these women from a less politicised TV era still have on the shows we watch. They broke down barriers, even if it was with the swing of an absurdly priced Fendi handbag.