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Sex and the City is embarrassing now, but it was everything then

As the show turns 20, Shon Faye reflects on what we can leave behind from the original series, and what is worth celebrating

I was 14 when we got a second cable television box. It was decided it would go in my bedroom – characteristic of the naivety that parents of millennials had about domestic technology, from late night television to unsupervised internet access. Naturally, within a week, I was up watching late night cable on school nights after having supposedly gone to sleep. I remember the first time I watched Sex and the City vividly, right down to the episode (Season 2 Episode 10, “The Caste System”). Since then. I’ve seen the same episode at least 20 times, but I still remember how I was first captivated by the show’s lewdness.

At school, lewdness was the sole preserve of my male classmates, who spoke about sex in the ways that teenage straight boys are primed to discuss sex by pop culture, porn, older brothers, or each other: with bravado, casual sexism, and an infantile disregard for what women themselves might actually want. I was made uncomfortable, daily, by the ways in which femininity was supposed to be consumed by men – it was in this context that I gasped at the unabashed vulgarity of Samantha Jones. I never looked back.

Sex and the City is not a ‘feminist’ show, and there is almost nothing I find liberating about its world as an adult. “The Caste System”, which seemed revelatory as a dysphoric gay teenager, is embarrassing to me as a 30-year-old woman. In one memorable scene, Samantha is turfed out of her lover’s apartment by his possessive east Asian servant, Sum. Carrie’s voiceover smugly pronounces, “she wasn’t so dim, that Sum”. The pun is as woeful as it is racist, and typifies many examples of the ways in which the show uncritically rejoiced in the prejudices of the affluent straight white women at its core. Samantha experiences “reverse racism” from the sister of a black man she is dating; Carrie dismisses bisexual people as sexually incontinent and undateable; trans sex workers appear as a garish nuisance, and the show’s portrayal of gay men is often patronising (though it is worth saying that behind the camera gay men were also in positions of power, and have been charged with pushing the show’s relationship with hollow consumerism).

All of this rightly deserves skepticism or derision – yet Sex and the City, for better or worse, entered the psyche of many women and gay men I know as a crude building block of our own discovery of how to understand ourselves and our experience of sex and relationships. It is still common for me to tie a real life friend’s experience back to a scene or storyline in the show. Carrie’s navigation of the relationship between men and women, with ropey puns and ludicrous analogies (she once compared the gender divide to the Troubles in Northern Ireland), often makes Sex and the City seem as two-dimensional and illusory as the pornographic stereotypes that my straight male classmates embraced in first understanding how they were supposed to approach sex.

In its heyday, the show was often referenced as a celebratory byword for the joys of female friendship – notably, Destiny’s Child paid homage to it in their 2005 music video for “Girl”. But by the 2010s, the relationship many of us had once had with the show was becoming less earnest and more critical. Lena Dunham’s series Girls attempted to address the chasm between nostalgia and reality that Sex and the City presents for millennial fans.

In the first episode of Girls, gauche virgin Shoshanna compares herself to Carrie in a way that only highlights her immaturity. Dunham’s series is arguably about spoilt young white women who move to New York in the hope of emulating the spoilt white women of Sex and the City – only to find that a recession makes such a desire ludicrous and impossible. Dunham found herself the vessel of savage online commentary about her show’s perceived political failings. Where Sex and the City could claim to set the agenda for representations of women in 1998, now, online cultural criticism has provided a greater diversity of women with their own voices; we now live in a climate where it’s impossible for anything from video games to Beyoncé videos to escape feminist analysis. It safe to say that there’s no way a line like “she wasn’t so dim, that Sum” would fly on TV today.

In the past decade, through my own exposure to social media and online discourse more generally has forced a re-analysis of my own perspective on the world. I am a middle class white woman, too, and shows like Sex and the City have taken on a new role: reflecting back at me the unthinking privileges people who look and speak like me can thoughtlessly display (and which are now robustly challenged in online discourse).  I still watch Sex and the City, but like most people, I understand it now through a veil of humour and irony. The @everyoutfitonsatc Instagram account has managed to balance enduring warmth for the show with sharp-witted lampooning of its obvious flaws. The Woke Charlotte meme, in which Charlotte York – the show’s most unbearable character – schools the other ladies in modern social justice discourse, has gone viral because it allows people like me to maintain both our guilty fondness for Sex and the City while providing a way for us to feel superior about our own evolution into a more enlightened way of navigating the world.

In that sense, Sex and the City is still able to teach me new things, and open up new conversations – just as it did when I was 14, and I first saw Samantha loudly order a man to fuck her. In many ways, Sex and the City has turned into a comfort blanket, but it has also become something else: a troubleshoot for my own womanhood, or, at least, a joyous examination of what not to do and how not to behave. In 2018, I still love Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte precisely because I can sit back and recognise that they can be selfish, clumsy, and petulant (Samantha and Miranda are the only members of the lineup who you’d actually want as friends). I get to observe them as they make all my mistakes for me. Sex and the City, in its day, was aspirational – now, in embracing its silliness and its flaws, it’s become a nostalgic reminder of how far me and my own friends have come.