The sex is kind of boring, finds a late-comer to the show, which is celebrating 20 years.
Image: Sex and the City via Facebook
I lived a life entirely innocent of Sex and the City until I began watching it in 2016, a year in which I had just entered the age-range of its protagonists. When the show was becoming popular, in my barely-legal years, I was stomping around Mumbai in oversized handspun kurtas, striving to be serious in spite of a delicate upbringing and a breezy liberal education. After about a decade or so, I was ready for the alternatives.
I went in blind, expecting a slightly more choice-feministy Friends, a sleeping aid. A few episodes in, I couldn’t believe some of my friends had watched this as teenagers. I couldn’t believe we were still letting teenagers watch it. It’s dangerous. Not for the sex and swearing—we live in a world where girls put bottle-brushes up their vaginas for Tumblr. No, it’s just too brassy and nervy, too desperate and pathetic: too grown-up.
It would be banal to say that 20 years later, Sex and the City is a comedy that feels like a tragedy. First of all, it doesn’t. The inversion is more formal. Other sitcoms marry real-world settings to outrageously stagey plots; SATC’s staginess is all aesthetic, while the plots hinge on recognisable, even realistic, psychological transformations. (For a comedy, it’s curiously bad at banter, that stagiest of character vehicles. Even Carrie’s puns are dropped with a clunk more often than not.)
I also see that the air of baroque frenzy, of unending lapses into gloom, must have been part of its charm even in its first airings. Female comedy is often played on the verge of breakdown, and this seemed to be the guiding force of SATC’s first two seasons. It was set in a world where the protagonists had everything, and everything to lose (and then lost it, and kept squandering things at a faster rate than they could acquire them. It was “The Art Of Losing” before Brainpickings made it a sapiosexual fave).
For the first 30 or so episodes I congratulated myself on finding the show after I had started to grey. I would have been too susceptible to it as a younger person. Its roller-coaster of toxic romantic emotion would have swept me up in its intensity. I would have been miserable comparing my body to that of Sarah Jessica Parker, whose genuine, spiky appeal I now enjoy. My sturdy schoolgirl friendships would have seemed boring compared to the New-Yorky esprit de corps of “The Girls,” which I now read as more Edith Wharton than #SquadGoals. (Oh, but the clothes! They’re still spellbinding, unlike that wishy-washy Devil Wears Prada stuff.)
But the third season started to wear thin. There were some yikes-inducing plunges into the narcissistic end of the spectrum of enlightened self-interest. The Carrie-dates-a-politician episode was silly. The show’s fans argue that its early flirtation with Donald Trump (pronounced an analogue to Mr. Big in the very first episode, later a guest star himself) is a product of its time—it’s assumed that the Girls would all be Cynthia-Nixonites. Well, the 2016 US election threw up a bunch of data on white college-educated women that said otherwise.
But it wasn’t the electoral politics that dated badly; it was the sexual politics, and I’m not sure why. There’s an early episode in which Miranda, phased by a partner’s fondness for dirty talk, braces herself to reciprocate. “You love a finger in your ass!” she pants, eventually. She never hears from him again. This, I thought, was a flawlessly executed manoeuvre in the battle of the sexes. The show pre-dated the #MenAreTrash lifestyle, but episode after episode captured its mindset in microcosm, with wit and sometimes lancing cruelty.
So why did so much of the sex now play out so poorly? Had SATC rendered itself obsolete by taking the culture forward? I don’t see it. To our present awareness that many of us are cis and that gender is fluid; to bi visibility, ace pride, and polyamory; to safewording, consent-seeking, harassment-avenging and the eating of ass, it contributed little to nothing, unless you see all this as straights making capital from queer experience, which SATC did very well.
On the other hand, its legion of gay fans have successfully hacked the show and repurposed it as a form of drag, so it has fulfilled its obligation to the future in some way. But for many straight women all over the world, especially those of us who were rich and upwardly mobile, it wasn’t a plaything to deconstruct; it was a mystery into which we wanted initiation. Its edgy, performative girliness, I now see, became a template for authentic adulthood. Our A-plots would help us identify and categorise men (the ‘Mr. Big;’ the gay bestie), and B-plots help put other women (‘she’s the Miranda to my Carrie’) in their place.
The show falls for it, too. This conflation of tutu-skirt cosmopolitanism with status anxiety achieves its peak in the flat, greedy movie expansion of the franchise. The audience stand-in in the SATC movie is no longer Carrie herself, but the great Jennifer Hudson, a curvy young ingenué who gets only two things out of her life as Carrie’s assistant: a salvaged youthful romance and an ugly LV purse.
I remain struck by how much more than that the show promised to be, even as I struggle to get past Samantha calling her Manhattan neighbourhood "tranny," which, by the way, was an insult even in 1998. I’m still working on it; but now the show is attractive because it’s such hard going. In 2018, the fucking just looks like set-up; the punchline is always the disappointment of hetero desire. For the record, I think Charlotte would be most likely to do the bottle-brush thing.
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