“In real life, Carrie and Big wouldn’t have ended up together,” Candace Bushnell, author of the now-20-year-old Sex And The City book, has told The Guardian. “Viewers got so invested in the storyline of Carrie and Big that it became a bit like Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet… It became part of the lexicon. And when people are making a TV show, it’s show business, not show art.”
“Show business, not show art” is an interesting way of describing it. But if the show truly was all business, then how does that explain the ongoing fascination with these fictional characters? Sex And The City is often criticised for its fashion-obsessed decadence, but if that were the only thing the show had going for it, would we still care about Carrie and Big, 20 years on?
Last week, while having a night in with two friends, the internet went down. Our Netflix plans went out the window and suddenly we were left with two options: conversation or the DVD collection. We went for the DVD collection. And, for the first time in years, we watched season six of Sex And The City.
We cackled, putting the discs in, preparing to laugh at Carrie’s clunky writing (“I couldn’t help but wonder…”); Samantha’s unending punning (“I’m a try-sexual – I’ll try anything once!”); Charlotte’s non-problems (Harry leaving tea bags on your coffee table is SERIOUSLY your story arc in this episode?); and Miranda’s Eeyore-like pragmatism (Get with Steve! Don’t get with Steve! Jesus!). But by the time 10 minutes of New York-fetishising, fashion-cooing, brunch-eating, man-chasing footage had passed before us, we were quiet. The cackling had stopped. We were watching, rapt, silent.
Carrie Bradshaw steps out of her house in a new Prada dress, a dress bought with the money she made selling her book rights in Europe. Her boyfriend, crabby failed writer Jack Berger, arrives to pick her up on a motorcycle, wild-eyed and telling her how “fun” it will be to go over the Brooklyn Bridge, uninterested in how she feels. After some snarling disagreements (NEW PRADA!), she gingerly hops on, knowing that the real disagreement isn’t about the bike, but about being a woman who makes more money than her sensitive male partner.
The core of wanting to find someone, a soulmate, or not wanting one, the things that one learns about oneself when one gets into relationships – all that is human nature and that doesn’t really change
“I’m sorry,” says my friend, pausing the decade-old DVD player. “But that is fucking brilliant. I don’t care how much fun it is taking the piss out of this show. But that is exactly how it feels when you have to pretend to a man that you aren’t more successful than him.”
We inhaled series six in a night, forgetting the obvious problems of Sex And The City – the obsessive materialism, the shonky metaphors, the teeth-grinding selfishness of some of its lead characters – and instead just pointed and yelped every time we related to something. It felt amazing that this show that is so easily parodied, so used to having people roll their eyes at it, could stay so fresh, 20 years after the original book debuted.
Bushnell seems unfazed by the continued popularity of her creation. “Human nature,” she explains briskly. “We all grapple with the issues in Sex And The City. And now people grapple with them in a different way, maybe online. But the core of wanting to find someone, a soulmate, or not wanting one, the things that one learns about oneself when one gets into relationships – all that is human nature and that doesn’t really change.”
The sheer length of Sex And The City (94 episodes, two movies, one of them terrible) meant that it engulfed an enormous amount of topics, and therefore a huge amount of things to point to and say, “See, that’s what I mean.” And while some of the show’s stories were incredibly specific to being a rich white woman in New York City, the majority could be translated to any woman’s life. Miranda’s battle to juggle single motherhood with a demanding career, while her boss confusedly asks why her performance is “slipping” (“I will remind you that after my mother died I was back at work on Monday”) could slot in alongside a story about Charlotte’s bad date, and it all added to Sex And The City’s Bayeux Tapestry of what it meant to be a woman at the end of the 20th century. Even the episodes that are hard to relate to – take “A Woman’s Right To Shoes”, in which Carrie loses her Manolos at a baby shower, and then argues with the mother over who should pay for them – brought up some uncomfortably relevant questions about the way we reward coupled people (parties, presents, baby gifts) while single people “get squat”.
There’s an urge, with every new generation, to burn down the temples our parents built for us, and the current generation of female-focused entertainment is no different. Now, as the Sex And The City book becomes 20, and the show becomes “old”, our TV women are earthier, scruffier, “more real” than the original gang could have dreamed of. Shows like Broad City and Girls exist in direct contrast to Carrie Bradshaw, with characters milling around the city in ill-fitting clothes, flip-flops and perpetual confusion.
You could argue that female art has to be this way – every time a Working Girl or an Erica Jong or a Candace Bushnell breaks a barrier, a younger woman grabs the hammer and runs a little further, often sticking two fingers up to the women who came before her. But as long as the struggles of being female exist – as long as there are debates over pay and motherhood and sex – this art (or showbusiness) never truly dates. And while the surface silliness of SATC might make it an easy target, the way in which it took women’s lives seriously still makes it a triumph.