If there had not been a spate of articles about 25 years of Sex And The City, this milestone would have just flown past unnoticed, because the show does not seem that old, and it has never been away from pop culture consciousness, with movie versions, rip-offs and tributes dropping with regularity, including And Just Like That, the not very effective sequel to SATC, and Indian web series Four More Shots Please.
SATC was the first show that had female friendship at its core — yes, gal pals were more important than romantic interests. In movies and shows till then (some not too),women always seemed to be competing for men, and sometimes for high-flying jobs. Single women were portrayed as tragic creatures, just waiting for a man to rescue them from the worse-than-death fate of spinsterhood.
Who in their right minds would call Carrie Bradshaw, Samantha Jones, Miranda Hobbes and Charlotte York spinsters? They were single, havingthe time of their lives, dressed in designer outfits and always out for adventure. Over the six seasons and 94 episodes, the women worked at their careers, fell in and out of love, faced illness, heartbreak and disappointment. But they always had one another to help get them through it all. (Though in real life Sarah Jessica Parker ‘Carrie’ had an ongoing feud with Kim Catrall ‘Samantha’, which kept the latter out of the sequel when Parker, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon returned to it.)
Interestingly, the women, living in New York, were not young — three were in their thirties and one in her forties. They all had diverse temperaments and interests, yet complemented each other. Carrie was a writer, Charlotte a gallery owner, Miranda, a lawyer and Samantha a PR executive — as eclectic a group as any. They had enough years behind them not to be naïve but also not enough to turn cynical. By the time the series came out, feminism was well-entrenched at least in urban lives, and women’s problems were not the same as they were, say a decade or two earlier. SATC candidly brought up issues that were important to women then — careers, relationships, sexuality and the ever-changing norms of femininity.
The show was based on Candace Bushnell’s column, Sex And The City, published in The New York Observer, which was later compiled into a book. Carrie Bradshaw, who shared her initials, was an alter ego. In the series too, Carrie, who is the narrator and lead character, writes columns for the fictional New York Star which are also compiled into a book later in the series.
By the 1990s, people were not coy about sex, and SATC caught that candidness. Alexandre Marain commented on the show’s appeal in VogueFrance and pinned down its “uninhibited sense of humor (that) made it one of the most revolutionary series of the 1990s, cementing its cult status. Its four main characters talked openly, and without euphemism, about their experiences with men, both good and bad, proving that women have sex lives too and that they don’t mind shouting about it… Sex and City is also a love story, a love story between Carrie and Mr Big. From the first to the last season, their romantic idyll becomes the central subject of the New Yorker’s column and books as their tumultuous love story brings up questions on every possible theme surrounding relationships, from love at first sight to cheating, sex, commitment problems, marriage and divorce. At the end of the series, the four friends learn that love can be found on a street corner, when you least expect it, that it is much stronger than the ideal image they have in their heads, and that sex has no age limit. But the most important thing that we learned about love was that it doesn’t matter if you’re 20, 30 or 40, whether you’re in a couple or single, as long as you love yourself.”
When SATC hit the 20-year mark, Marina Garcia-Vasquez wrote in vice.com, “There is this idea that with age and experience life will work out, but the ladies from SATC changed that notion. They allowed other women, young women, to peek into the messy, casual lives of professional women trying to make a life for themselves in a big, chaotic city. We saw them fail a lot, but they continued to champion each other and tried to not be judgmental of each other. This was key to me accepting the differences in my own friendships with women and learning to accept all of the individual hot messes.”
There was, of course, some amount of debate on whether SATC was pro or anti feminism. The characters were living in romcom clichés and were stereotypes of what the independent woman was supposed to be like — self-obsessed and shallow. But this was balanced by their outspokenness and unconditional support of each other.
In 1996, the year Bushnell’s SATC book came out, there was another writer’s work making waves across the pond, that would impact chick lit forever — Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. Like SATC, this novel also evolved from Helen Fielding's columns in The Independent and The Daily Telegraph. Inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, it was supposed to be trenchant social commentary about women’s obsession with beauty and romance. However, unlike the flamboyant foursome of SATC, Bridget was a chronically insecure thirty-something single working woman, constantly in the search for a man. Fielding popularised the terms ‘singleton’ and ‘smug marrieds’. Her protagonist’s antics bordered on the pathetically ridiculous, making single women a target of mean-spirited humour, that carried over into the series Ally McBeal and even the more recent Fleabag.
As Rebecca Clayton comemted in rockandart.org, “Having a boyfriend is, in Bridget’s eyes, the gateway to middle-class success. We find out pretty quickly that, for Bridget, middle-class success consists mostly of babies, mortgages, and dinner parties with ‘smug marrieds’ (defined in the novel as those who also have partners, babies, and mortgages). This preoccupation Bridget has with such markers of bourgeois affluence and feminine triumph are as problematic today as they were back in the nineties. Bridget’s desire to settle, both in her romantic and her professional life, is harrowing; especially after women spent the majority of the twentieth century trying to ensure that they would not have to settle for anything.”
What’s alarming is that a quarter of a century after these ideas were considered new and revolutionary, stories about women more often than not, circle around the same tropes.
Still, if one had to choose between Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones… or is that even a valid contest?
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author