At least once a week, Cai Manli, a 30-year-old project manager living in Beijing meets her best friend at one of the trendy bars in the city’s historic Dongcheng district. There, they sip expensive cocktails while discussing life and men. On these nights, Manli said, “there’s always a moment that we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re so Sex and the City.’”
Since first watching the iconic HBO series as a teen accessing English-language television from nearby Hong Kong, the Guangdong native has considered herself a Sex and the City superfan. She calls it an “educational…[and] important show about liberating women’s sexual desires,” and credits it with expanding her ambitions in a country still deeply entrenched in patriarchal norms.
Sex and the City premiered in the United States in 1998 and quickly became a pop culture phenomenon for its candid and comedic take on life as a working woman in New York. At the centre is Carrie Bradshaw, a fashion-obsessed sex columnist and the show’s resident “cool girl.” Then there are her friends: Charlotte York, the WASPy “good girl;” Samantha Jones, the sexually liberated “bad girl;” and Miranda Hobbes, the cynical “career woman.”
As the show’s narrator, Carrie was written to be the most relatable. Episodes are seen from her point of view and we learn, in detail, how her insecurities threaten one romantic relationship after another. In the 90s and early aughts, Carrie epitomized what it meant to be a liberal, independent single woman. Even her shopaholic nature and aversion to technology were seen as quirks rather than weaknesses. Many women wanted to be her. In 2020, however, more people see Carrie as an anti-hero who’s selfish, close-minded, and dependent on men. For Chinese millennials who started watching the show just after its original six-season run in the U.S., it’s all about being “a Miranda.”
“[I learned] that being single can be nice for a woman,” Manli said.
“[If I] only watched Chinese TV shows, I would never have known that a woman can be a lawyer.”
Of the four, Miranda’s identity is the most closely tied to work. For Manli and other Chinese fans of the show, she is the embodiment of success and independence. Unlike Carrie, Miranda is seen as completely self-sufficient. She is able to purchase pricey Manhattan real estate, embraces single motherhood, and in later seasons, balances long work hours with having a family. Fans view Miranda’s struggles as more true to life than the other characters’.
For Manli, a storyline that stands out is one where Miranda’s attempts to get ahead at work are derailed as she multi-tasks and cares for her baby.
“It [let me] know that if you want a successful career and you want to take care of a family, it is just so much more difficult…it will be more difficult than it would be for a man,” she said.
Concurrent with a global trend, women in China are delaying marriage to focus on their education and careers. At the same time, as a result of its infamous one-child policy, China now has 33 million more men than women. A cultural preference for boys led to millions of female infanticides, sex-selected abortions, and newborn abandonments. With China’s population now in decline, women face state-propagated pressure to marry young and reproduce. Those over the age of 27 and still unmarried are called “sheng nu” or “leftover women.”
Sex and the City is currently available on the Chinese streaming site IQIYI and, despite being highly-censored, continues to have a cult following among Chinese women for its celebratory take on singledom. Fans leave lengthy analyses and comments about the show on Chinese social media platforms Zhihu and Douban, philosophizing on the nature of love, the difficulty of relationships, the pressure on Chinese women to marry, and the role of contemporary women in society.
“For girls with overseas backgrounds in first-tier [Chinese] cities, if they are close to or over 30 years old, it is basically the life of the women in the show,” one commenter wrote.
Most of the women — urban, educated, and upper-class — discovered the show during early adulthood and sought courage and inspiration from the four frank-talking heroines who worry less about marriage than love and sex, and find gratification in their lucrative, high-powered careers.
Feng Xin, a 33-year-old tech company employee living in Beijing with her long-term boyfriend, grew up in the outskirts of Harbin in a town she described as “very conservative.” When she left at 18 to attend a university in the capital, she knew she didn’t want the life of her mother, which revolved around family, nor those of her peers who would likely marry in a few years’ time. Yet, she had difficulty imagining an alternative life.
“I knew how to be a woman from my mum, my classmates, the people around me; I didn’t know anything more,” she said.
After watching pirated episodes of Sex and the City online, Xin began to realize that “there are many different ways of living.”
Like most Chinese fans, Xin sees herself in Miranda, the career-focused, Ivy-league-educated lawyer. “I chose to be like her, [someone who] is very independent, especially financially,” she said, respecting that Miranda “doesn’t have to marry for money.”
As sociologist Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother, has explored at length, married Chinese women often have little economic power. For the Miranda-enthusiasts, the character’s complete financial independence is the most admirable thing about her; her marriage to working-class Steve is seen as an act of freedom. Chinese fans commonly interpret this to be among the series’ most crucial lessons.
Fincher told VICE that there is now “a critical mass of educated young women in their 20s, in their early 30s, who have become more and more progressive in their views, [and] more and more open about how they don’t even want to have children at all, let alone get married.”
While Miranda ultimately decides to have a child and get married, what matters to Chinese fans is that she chooses this path, and ends up as the family’s breadwinner. She shatters the traditional role of a woman, unlike Charlotte, a character one social media commenter described as representing “the past.”
Still, Fincher pointed out that these fans of Sex and the City only represent a small percentage of Chinese society.
“If you're looking at sources of what affects changes in popular opinion among women, a lot of it is just their own discussions, what they write themselves.”
Over the past five years, a homegrown feminist movement that Fincher called “the most dynamic, resilient social movement in China that we've seen since 1989” has emerged, partially in response to the increased governmental pressure on women to marry and have children. Built on the activism of the Feminist Five, a group of women who were arrested in 2015 for planning a demonstration against sexual harassment, there has been an increased awareness on gender issues like domestic abuse, discrimination in school and work, and LGBTQ rights.
As far as pop culture is concerned, Fincher also said that local shows are likely to be more influential than foreign ones like Sex and the City.
“I really don't think that any kind of American show…has as large an impact on popular opinion in China as the actual Chinese language shows,” she said.
Chinese media remains traditional in its depiction of gender, but recently, a more varied representation of women has appeared to reflect a change in discourse. It’s called “pink drama,” a genre of character-driven shows made for women that was largely inspired by Sex and the City itself. The trend started in 2004, when Sex and the City’s last season aired, and is still popular today.
Perhaps the show most similar to the American comedy is 2016’s Ode to Joy, which tells the story of women living in the same Shanghai apartment building. Among them are a former Wall Street executive and a high-powered associate at a foreign company.
2020 saw the release of Nothing But Thirty, which follows the lives of a group of 30-something women in Shanghai, and the reality hit, Sisters Who Make Waves, which showcases female celebrities over the age of 30 competing to be in a girl band. Critics say that these shows are shallow representations of feminism because many still define women based on their beauty and romantic relationships, but some argue that they are steps in the right direction for portraying women over the age of 30 in various, contemporary roles.
What Manli wants to see more of in Chinese pop culture are women who stay single by choice and still have fulfilling lives with friends. After all, it’s shows like Sex and the City that taught many from her generation the value of “women supporting women.” The biggest gift Sex and the City has given her, she said, is the lesson that “friendship should be more important than men.”