In her fantastic reclamation of the much-maligned HBO sitcom Sex and the City as part of television's golden age, New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum argues this week that Carrie Bradshaw deserves more credit than she's previously been granted for being a pioneering member of what’s the now male-dominated fraternity of anti-heroes. In particular, she calls out the moment when the show did what so many dramas would do years later, and challenges our sense of complicity with the main character. "Carrie fell under the thrall of Mr. Big, the sexy, emotionally withholding forty-three-year-old financier played by Chris Noth," she writes. "From then on, pleasurable as Sex and the City remained, it also felt designed to push back at its audience's wish for identification, triggering as much anxiety as relief. It switched the romantic comedy's primal scene, from 'Me, too!' to 'Am I like her?'"
But much of the revisionism that Sex and the City's undergone in the decade and a half since its debut--aided, to be fair, by its second, truly awful movie--has elided that complex relationship between the show's viewers and its characters. Instead of understanding that being a Sex and the City fan was often about seeing your worst fears for yourself and your romantic life portrayed on screen, and being reassured that you could survive and grow beyond them, the show's critics have convinced us that we need, as Nussbaum put it, "to downgrade the show to a 'guilty pleasure,' to mock its puns, to get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered and blinged-out movies."
If you express sympathy for Tony Soprano, the titular character of David Chase's pioneering drama, whoever you're speaking to will understand that you're experiencing Boomer ennui, maybe even that you're anxious about your kids and aging parents. No one will mistake that affinity for a desire to shoot your best friend on a boat, or to strangle a federal collaborator while taking your daughter on a college tour. If you identify with Jimmy McNulty, the roguish Irish-American detective from The Wire, your interlocutors will understand that you admire his swagger, sympathy, and way with words, not that you have any particular wish to develop a drinking problem and torpedo your career in a spectacular fashion. And if you covet Don Draper's suits and the best parts of his professional relationship with Peggy Olson, no one's going to go digging through your background, suddenly suspicious that you made up your identity to get out of a war zone. But compare yourself to Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, or Miranda, and the nuances disappear. To want to be like one of the characters on Sex and the City is to be equally addicted to shoes and toxic love affairs, to be a pathetic, aging slut, a nutty, marriage-obsessed WASP, or a bitch.
The idea that affinity for Sex and the City marks you as misguided, materialistic, or at the very least, extremely naive, is so well-established that it's become a common cultural trope in and of itself among both the show's aficionados and detractors.
In the pilot episode of HBO's Girls, Shoshanna, a young New York University student, breathlessly tells her cousin "You're definitely a Carrie, with like, some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair. That's like a really good combination. I think I'm definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes ... sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. And then, when I'm at school, I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat." And in Aaron Sorkin's drama The Newsroom, about the staff of a cable news program, the show signaled that Maggie, a young staffer on the show, was better for Jim, a senior producer, than Lisa, Maggie’s best friend and roommate, who Jim was currently dating, by having her deliver an anti-Sex and the City tirade at a bus doing a Sex and the City tour of New York. "I'm the typical single woman in New York City. I don't wear heels to work because the typical woman's job doesn't exclusively involve gallery openings," she hollered at him.
Girls creator Lena Dunham has been outspoken about her love for Sex and the City, while Sorkin, who continued his crusade against the show in his second season, seems to have some particular hang-up about it. But in both shows, the message is relatively clear. Girls mistake Sex and the City for real life. Grown women know better.
But if that's true, what are we to make of Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), the character least-addressed by the critique of Sex and the City as fluffy, materialistic and profoundly un-self-aware -- and the one most embraced by the Sex and the City fans of my acquaintance.