When Women Dared to Talk About Sex
By Heather Wood RudulphAugust 1, 2018
Instead, I spent most of my disposable income on sugary cocktails and impractical footwear, failed miserably at dating, and wondered at every turn if I was making the right choice. My life, like scores of young women at that time, was so influenced by the show, but was nothing like the fabricated fantasyland inhabited by Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte. The journey was essential all the same.
Author Jennifer Keishin Armstrong taps into this connection in her new book, Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love.
She, too, has a SATC story.
For Armstrong, the show gave her the courage to leave a relationship months before the scheduled wedding — very Carrie-like — go after her dream job and indulge in young adulthood. She and I met during this time, I the naïve Samantha to her Carrie. We floundered through our early 20s, leaning on our friendship through heartbreak, job loss, and an ever-changing post-9/11 world. We figured ourselves out, and our feminism, and started a web magazine to help other women do the same. We eventually co-authored a book, Sexy Feminism, that changed the trajectory of our careers, albeit in different directions.
As I think about Sex and the City now, I can’t help but think of Jen and I then, with equal parts nostalgia and embarrassment.
Among the show’s glaring flaws, made more vivid over the years, is its near exclusion of characters of color; inaccurate, and sometimes awkward, conversations about non-cisgendered, anything-other-than-straight sexuality; and its contribution to the Hollywood archetype of white affluence as the aspirational beauty and life ideal. And yet, without a doubt, the impact of Sex and the City, both in the TV landscape and for those of us who watched it, is indelible.
HEATHER WOOD RUDULPH: Given the media dissection on everything involving Carrie and the gang since the series premiered 20 years ago, what did you hope to uncover with this book?
JENNIFER KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: I wanted to explain why Sex and the City should be taken seriously as a cultural artifact. The best comparison is The Sopranos, which I love. But I feel like it came out of the gate and immediately people were worshipping it, saying It’s brilliant! and, OMG, white men with problems who kill people are so amazing! Yet this show, because it was fun to watch, because it was about women, and because it was about sex, ended up getting the short shrift in that long-term conversation.
The Sopranos has always been taken seriously and Sex and the City has had just as much effect on what we see on TV, and probably more effect on actual lives. No one was going around breaking off engagements and otherwise screwing up their lives because of The Sopranos. So in a lot of ways Sex and the City had a bigger and more important impact. But we have ideas about what we should take seriously and they usually start with men.
The show is often criticized for its depiction of unrealistic indulgence — the shoes, the cocktails, the spacious New York apartments. It was this big, glossy play space for women’s imaginations. Was there a danger to holding on so tightly to that fantasy?
I make arguments for the indulgent sides of it, but there’s also a class situation happening that’s kind of gross. There’s also a weird danger in associating that with feminism; that feminism means women getting to buy as many shoes as they want. That is not quite right. I’m not saying the Sex and the City people set out with that message, but it does come off that way at times, so there’s a problem there. However, my other argument is that this indulgent side, to some point, was about showing single women as an enviable class.
Sex and the City so often gets credit for being the first of its kind, for setting the template for shows about young single women. But Living Single did the same thing, at around the same time. Girlfriends followed suit. These are beloved shows that happen to star all black women, and yet they're largely left out of the conversation.
I mean, yes! Living Single is like a proto–Friends/Sex and the City hybrid, and look at how much we still talk about both of those shows versus Living Single. As I talk about in the book, they came at a time when TV networks segregated their marketing hard. These were shows that were at the top of the charts when you looked at African-American viewing numbers, and way down at the bottom of the overall numbers. So something extreme was going on: they were being sold only to black people, and they were hugely popular and formative for many. But very few white people watched them. And “mainstream” and “mass” have long meant “white,” which means those shows simply don’t get the credit others do.
Does Sex and the City belong in the #MeToo conversation? The series treaded lightly on subjects like street harassment, and more on these four women against whatever the world threw at them.
To me, it’s about their friendship beyond anything else. When we talk about the finale, the split is usually those who like it and those who don’t. I’m on the side of those who don’t simply because I wish Carrie would have chosen to go back to New York because of her friends. Because to me, that’s what the show is about. I get that it’s also a romantic comedy, but I don’t care about Big. Honestly, if I cared, I’d wish she weren’t with him. But I do care whether she and Miranda are still friends.
#MeToo comes up a lot in the context of me talking about this and for good reason. While they didn’t have a #MeToo conversation on the show, they had a lot of conversations about a lot of shit that happened to them in the past and what was happening to them in the present. It was women telling their true stories, and that’s similar to what we’re all doing with #MeToo.
But did the show miss opportunities to delve deeper into the negative aspects of living in a woman’s skin? I’m surprised there wasn’t an episode where Miranda is harassed at work, or Samantha is assaulted. It would seem that those would be natural talking points in a show about women and sex today.
I think there’s a reason the show had to be so opulent. If you’re going to do a show about how women should have sexual freedom, the last thing you want to come in with is, “And it’s very dangerous!”
Every single show that broke barriers into a mass audience, which is what we have historically considered a white, privileged audience, has done so while making massive compromises. I don't think that's a coincidence.
Sex and the City was super-white, super-privileged, and super-apolitical; it also broke major barriers when it came to depictions of women and sex on television. If you look at early reviews for the show, they were mainly by white men, and those men were terrified. They were very, very mean and personal about their criticisms, going after the main actresses in terms of their looks, while also sexualizing and slut-shaming them. It probably felt as if the only way this show could survive is by being otherwise apolitical. That may or may not be correct, but the creative team’s instincts led them to be like, “Don’t be scared, we’ll just be shopping over here!”
It was a different time. The first half was even before 9/11. It was that happy and innocent time in culture, too, when we could concern ourselves with third-wave feminist ideas like sexual freedom and lipstick feminism. It’s why so many women loved the show.
We now know, of course, it’s only part of the story. Now we’re in The Handmaid’s Tale brand of dystopian feminism, which is necessary. In the late ’90s and early 2000s of Sex and the City, I feel like they could only be so scary. The sex-positive stuff was scary enough to mainstream culture already. I believe they could only push things so far, which is why they are distressingly apolitical at times.
The show unmistakably excluded women of color, even people of color in the background scenes, which for a show based in New York City is not only offensive, but inaccurate.
Whatever I say it sounds like I’m making excuses for them and I don’t want to. But the point is that Sex and the City was not alone in this.
To me, a huge part of this is a story of the importance of diversity behind the scenes. That it was an overwhelmingly female writing staff and two gay men running it, there’s a lot to be said for that. But these were all straight, white women. So it’s not a huge shock when they try to address race or other kinds of sexuality that they did not measure up.
In your book, you write about how the producers brought in Greg Barrett as a straight-guy ringer to consult on creating the character Steve. Were there really never any conversations about bringing in writers of color?
No. I don’t think so. If there were, I don’t know about them. And it shows. So Greg Barrett is there, and we get Steve, we get Harry, we get Berger, who is a jerk, but probably the most finely drawn man that Carrie dates. They are so specific and good.
It would have been nice to have the same equivalent when we have the unfortunate episode when Samantha dates a black man (played by Asio Highsmith). There’s a number of problems with that episode in particular. But as you bring up, I wonder how that would be fixed just by having a black person on the staff, who would say, No, Yes, Maybe, on certain issues. And maybe it shouldn’t just be one story line in six seasons that we address race.
Media critics and journalists of color have written about this extensively since the show aired, and while you bring it up to the writers you spoke with in the book, they don’t get at the heart of it with you either. Are they avoiding the topic?
I think they just don’t know what to say. Sarah Jessica [Parker] would say, “Yeah, we didn’t do that right.” They’re not trying to say they did a great job in this area.
The thing about all of these problematic episodes — Samantha tries to date a black guy, the bisexual episode, the depiction of the trans hookers — I would just say all of these episodes do not reflect how most of us would speak of these issues now. It’s only through retrospect or through the eventual writings of people who were offended or confused by those episodes that we [cisgendered white people] see things clearly.
Of course, there were women of color and members of the LGBTQ community who were devoted fans of the show, even though they felt invisible in it.
I think it really is interesting and shows us all that there’s no reason why it can’t work the other way. I watched one episode of Insecure and I couldn’t wait for the next one. It just shows that they were having the same reaction to Sex and the City, but a more informed one. That was interesting to me. They could do what white people are trying to learn to do now, which is hold two ideas in their head at once. One is: This is not perfect; and two: I am taking parts of this and relating to it and enjoying it.
For my book, I talked to a black woman in Atlanta who told me, “This is my life, everything about it, except these characters are white instead of black.” But the social situations, the friendships, the dating, the fashion, it matched her life. So she could see herself in the characters in a way.
We often excuse classic shows for the constraints of the era into which they were born. For example, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which you also wrote a book about, will forever be held up as a feminist groundbreaker, despite the fact that there were no women of color in that either. I feel that the viewing public is no longer allowing for such oversights. You can see it in the backlash against Girls and its problem with inclusivity, and the damage Amy Schumer’s tone-deaf movie choices have had on her career.
Any show is a product of its time. We’ve seen the limits on a number of things due to the reboots. It’s funny how we keep acting shocked like, why is Gilmore Girls so white? Because it was always. Why is Roseanne a racist? Because she was always. It’s just that TV networks and mainstream white audiences didn’t care back then. And then when they revive these shows, we all see the shortcomings in them.
Thank goodness we’ve really changed pretty quickly. I’d say it’s more like in the past 10 years that this cultural shift has happened — and let us all take a moment to praise our lord and savior Shonda Rhimes!
Really, I hope we would’ve gotten there one way or another, but Grey’s Anatomy was a huge step along the way to show you could have a diverse cast and writers’ room [on a mainstream, network show] and people will watch. Shonda has talked about the fact that she's been repeatedly praised for something everyone should have been doing the whole time, which is true. But she did it, and that makes all the difference.
Last summer there was a hugely popular show called The Bold Type, which was essentially the exact format of Sex and the City and, of course, it’s diverse — with different races, sexual orientations, and nationalities represented. Of course it was. There is no other option today.
Heather Wood Rudulph is an author, journalist, and professor living in Sacramento. Her work on feminism and culture has appeared in Cosmopolian.com, Elle, Refinery29, DAME Magazine, the Guardian, The Daily Beast, and others. Follow her on Twitter @hwrudulph.
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