Summer Books

Twenty Years Ago, “Sex and the City” Redefined the Single Girl in NYC

In her new book, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong explores the show that changed cupcakes forever


“The most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love, well, that’s just fabulous.” Uttered by the fictional Carrie Bradshaw, these words most likely strike today’s generation of single women in New York as cheesy or outdated. But when Sex and the City debuted twenty years ago — revering female friendships, talking explicitly about sex, and reimagining the single woman as a badass force — Bradshaw embodied an alternate, glamorous version of who we could become.

Without Sex and the City, we’d never have gotten to see Lena Dunham’s disturbing sex scenes, cupcakes wouldn’t have replaced wedding cakes, and current gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon wouldn’t have had the chance to show New Yorkers her sharp legal mind as Miranda Hobbes.

The series based on Candace Bushnell’s New York Observer column was flawed — it depicted a whitewashed version of New York; it was overly fixated on cosmos, designer shoes, and weekends in the Hamptons; the women’s conversations hinged, in large part, around relationships with men — yet it also inspired a generation of women to be proud of their decision to live alone in New York, as explored in Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s new book, Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love (Simon & Schuster, June 5).

Currently the TV columnist for BBC Culture, Armstrong spent a decade working at Entertainment Weekly and has written two other books exploring hugely influential TV shows: Seinfeldia: How the Show About Nothing Changed Everything and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. Armstrong spoke to the Voice about how single womanhood in New York has been depicted over time, among other topics. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How does the single woman’s version of New York in Sex and the City compare with earlier accounts from women like Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, and Helen Gurley Brown?

There is this long line of ongoing obsession, literary and otherwise, with single women. It’s a way that women were able to break in in earlier times. People wanted to know: “What’s it like to be this single woman?!” This exotic, interesting, weird thing to people. Women writing confessionally about their single lives seems to be one of the ways that they were allowed to break in. Who else could tell that story except them? And also, women telling their stories is an important thing.

But wasn’t Gurley Brown writing about these topics back in 1962 with Sex and the Single Girl?

I love Sex and the Single Girl because it’s so bonkers. It’s one of those great documents of its time where if you read it now, you’re like, “Whoa!” We had different ideas, didn’t we? The Mary Tyler Moore Show normalized [being single] a little more. She was the “good girl” who was also a single woman and not apologizing for it. Having sex, and all of that stuff.

Sex and the City is so influential that it’s almost hard for us to remember. Everything that came after was because of it. Women talking this way about sex was not done before that.

The most contemporaneous with Sex and the City is Bridget Jones, in terms of its single woman depiction. And that’s still a very sweet, fluffy, nonthreatening version of the single woman. Whereas Sex and the City comes and says, not only are they flawed, but they talk dirty, they talk explicitly. And there’s a real sense that they often use men just for sex, they don’t seem like they really need men — although, of course, they still talk about them a lot. There is a sense that they are their own family, and men are really secondary.  

Critics also brought up that issue, the way men were objectified. 

It’s especially important to look at the earlier seasons, because they eventually bring men in who end up being long-term romantic partners for the women, who are pretty well-drawn characters. But pre-Steve, they really made a concerted effort — it’s not accidental — that they “try on men like accessories.” This is pretty deliberate. They’re treated the way women have long been treated. They’re the comic relief. The sexual predilections are just “the joke we’re doing this week.” Especially as the show goes on, they get even better at objectifying certain men. The firefighter episode is nothing but shirtless men dancing around. They knew how to do this, and that was revolutionary.

It made men realize how women must have felt this whole time. They were really shocked by it. A lot of the early reviews, often written by men, were just beside themselves.

And some of those critics may have missed the point…

Right — it goes to that point of “reverse sexism.” But it’s not possible. Men have been in charge of patriarchy this whole time. So it isn’t as damaging when we objectify them. It does make a point, in this case. It’s also a show that’s made by straight women and gay men. They’re bringing their point of view. Now we’re doing the female gaze and the gay male gaze, rather than the straight male gaze, which is what we’re used to.

Their sensibility, which hadn’t been given much credence before, was suddenly all in this one show.

Samantha is the most open and explicit about her sexuality. One male critic wrote that she is “excuse the expression — a slut.” This question of whether to frame an active and open sexual life as destructive or empowering has been an intellectual obsession for decades, and considering what constitutes a “slut” is the focus of recent memoirs. What do you think?

It’s really complicated, and this is why the show is so interesting. It ended up hitting at a really weird time. A lot has happened in twenty years in terms of our understanding of a lot of sexuality and gender relations. They were often doing this weird thing, where they were almost undercutting themselves. In that episode, they’re pondering this as openly as the critics are, essentially. They were very self-aware. They were working stuff out in real time, in front of us. That includes pondering whether they were slutty or not. I think a lot of women, then, and maybe now, were thinking: “I’m living this life. I feel OK about it. But there’s this thing called a slut — am I that?”

The men at the helm of the show were gay, and during the series, Cynthia Nixon left her husband and announced that she was a lesbian. What did the series do for the gay community, and for society’s perception of the gay community?

It’s complicated — but it did a lot. It precedes Will & Grace. And it had a gay male creator, and the person who took it over was a gay male. It has that sensibility. They brought a lot of that Chelsea/West Village gay culture into the show. There are major gay characters. But it also had these weird moments. It focused on the “Yay! Fashion and shoes!” gay male culture — a specific facet of it. And the bisexuality episode is very weird. She says “bisexuality is just a stop on the way to gay town.” There’s a lot that we would do differently now. But it opened up a conversation.

On the other hand, there are virtually no characters of color — and when they are introduced, the attempts often “misfire,” as you write. 

It’s one of the biggest and most warranted criticisms of the show. Especially because it’s New York City…it’s weird! You’re like, what planet is this? It started in the time we were talking about, when there was the idea that white audiences didn’t want to watch people of color. There was a real skittishness around that. So we get all these shows like this, and Friends, and there was so much fear among the networks, and it filtered down to the people who made things. Once you get going with that model, they really had a hard time trying to make the change.

You see moments where they try. Like the episode when Samantha Dates a Black Man. I’ll say that with all capital letters. That’s why it didn’t work! It was like they couldn’t quite turn the ship around. It was another strange thing about the show — the times they go the wrong way feel so wrong. Samantha has a relationship with a woman, who’s Latina, but it’s brief. And we don’t get a major character of color until the last season, with Blair Underwood. And even then, he still ends up being this conduit for Miranda to go back to Steve. But it’s freaking Blair Underwood! Great actor, gorgeous — he was the perfect man. The relationships were the opportunity to do more of this. And somehow that didn’t happen for them.

The show predates The Sopranos and played a huge role in ushering in the “golden age of TV.” Why do you think it’s been overlooked by critics?

Because it’s fun. There’s an enjoyment to The Sopranos, but I think you know what I mean. Sex and the City is just pure pleasure so much of the time. We’ve got all this complicated television now. Sex and the City was both fun and complicated, but it was fun, so it confused people. And it’s about women. That’s always a strike against you.

Just because there were these girly accoutrements, like cupcakes and shoes, and they are fun, does not mean it didn’t also have serious moments and artistic moments, and artistic impact. It was actually enjoyable to watch. It confused everybody.

What’s your take on the current depiction of a single woman in popular culture?

Part of the thing about Sex and the City and The Mary Tyler Moore Show is that for their time, they are iconic depictions of a single woman. Beret toss in the air, or cosmos and shoes. Those are the two. What’s cool about now is that I don’t know that there is one. Now we have Broad City, Girls, tons of other stuff, where they can be all kinds of different things. I really enjoy The Bold Type, the girls who work at a magazine like Cosmo. We’re seeing all kinds of depictions of women in the city now. I’m thinking about Issa Rae’s Insecure. It owes so much to Sex and the City. But it’s so far beyond. It couldn’t do that without the groundwork laid by Sex and the City. That’s what we need. Singlehood is a bit category at this point — there needs to be more than one representation.

A lot of the conversation in Sex and the City revolved around men and relationships. Was it still, in a sense, a traditional show?

It’s like The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They had to make Mary a good girl. They had to sneak up on the idea that she had sex and was on the pill. This is sort of the same thing. Yeah, they use men, they talk dirty, and they have careers — but it’s a little more comforting that they keep talking about men anyway. And ultimately, of course they want to settle down. Most shows are like this, the ones that work. They push certain boundaries but go back to safe spaces to help calm people down.


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