When the very first episode of Sex And The City aired 20 years ago, in 1998, the landscape of television appeared to change. Widely regarded as radical, both in terms of the way it portrayed sex and women’s attitude towards it, it was, whichever way you looked at it, an entirely new approach. To watch the show today is to do so in an entirely different context and it is difficult to ignore the often problematic approach it takes towards, say, race, to name just one example. But in terms of the conversation generated by the show back in the late 90s (largely pertaining to representations of women), it seems that not a lot has changed.
In a recent interview with the Daily Beast to promote her new film, Here And Now, Sarah Jessica Parker addressed the fact that, often, the conversations she has around the characters she’s played betray an inherent prejudice towards female characters, generally, and their behaviour. “I’m not sure how seriously women are taken, period,” she said. “It’s not just the characters, it’s how mature are the conversations people want to have with an actor? I’m like, yeah [playing Carrie Bradshaw] was fun…but it’s also really hard! Like, that was an acting job. She was a deeply emotional person. She made tons of mistakes. She was raw and exposed. She was flawed. She was ridiculous. She was silly. She was funny, she was smart… But people thought, you know, they didn’t think it was work for me. I’m like, no, actually, look at all of it. Take your time and look at all of it! And then ask me if it was fun – or do you want to have a serious conversation about the fact that I’m an actor?”
If we see more female characters who are as multi-faceted, complex and, essentially, human, as the men on our screens, the entrenched attitudes towards women and femininity have a decent shot at changing
As the Daily Beast points out, this exact point is only reinforced by some of the criticism of the show. Highlighted by The Cut to celebrate Sex And The City’s 20th anniversary, there was a wealth of SATC reviews published in the late 90s that are almost laughably sexist. Needless to say, all of them were written by men. One, which originally appeared in The Washington Post, took time to discuss Carrie and her friends Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte: “Unfortunately, they are all fatuous to some degree, spending their time eating, gabbing, shopping, gabbing, having sex and then gabbing again.” That’s right: eating, talking, shopping and having sex all make you “fatuous”. I wonder if the same reviewer bothered to repurpose this piece on the birth of Entourage?
While perceptions and ideas of gender are changing in society, binary notions of masculinity and femininity are still difficult to avoid. Even now, in 2018, that which is “feminine” is dismissed and ridiculed far more readily than “masculine” interests or pursuits. This is hardly a hot take – things have been this way since the birth of humanity. But change is slow; these ideas are embedded in the very fabric of our society. That women aren’t often permitted to be complex, multi-faceted characters on screen contributes to this. Unlike their male counterparts, women are required to conform to a very limited set of ideals – the main one being that female characters have to be “likeable”. This is something SJP also addressed in her interview with the Daily Beast. Discussing the politics of playing an “unlikeable” character, not just in terms of Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw but also in reference to Frances, her character in HBO’s show Divorce, Parker said, “I always hear her described as ‘unlikeable’, I guess because she had an affair. There are millions of different kinds of women and I feel like they all have a story that is worthy of our time – if we are decent storytellers. I always say, well, you know, Tony Soprano was a murderer and people didn’t say he was unlikeable, but a woman can’t have an affair without being called unlikeable?”
She’s right. Anthony Soprano committed unspeakable acts and yet still elicited sympathy from the viewer. Divorce’s Frances, by contrast, didn’t kill anyone; she had an affair. And yet she is not treated with the same intellectual regard. She is not an anti-hero – simply “unlikeable”. Similarly, Carrie Bradshaw was condescended and dismissed by critics who failed – or simply refused – to realise something Emily Nussbaum identified in The New Yorker in 2013: “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.”
SJP is not the only actor to speak candidly about this topic. In the same week Parker spoke to the Daily Beast, Carey Mulligan was articulating a similar frustration as she promoted her own new release, Wildlife. Responding to criticism that her character is “unsympathetic” or “unlikeable”, Mulligan said: “We’re so tough on women and I think we have such crazy expectations of what is possible and what people can be capable and I think women are capable of extraordinary things, but I think we’re fallible and we make mistakes. I think we’re just not used to seeing that reflected onscreen because we are brought up with fairy tale princess stories.”
As the #MeToo movement has proven, systemic change in the film and TV industry can help enact wider change in society. We are all so affected by the representations of human behaviour that we’re subjected to – it has a profound effect on the way we perceive society. If we see more female characters who are as multi-faceted, complex and, essentially, human, as the men on our screens, the entrenched attitudes towards women and femininity have a decent shot at changing. It can happen – whether it does or not is in the hands of us all.