Monday 14 October 2019

The joy of Sex and the City

As the hit series marks its 20th anniversary, Meadhbh McGrath considers what it can teach modern women about sex, love and friendship

City slickers: Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte and Carrie had a special bond despite flaws in their friendship
City slickers: Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte and Carrie had a special bond despite flaws in their friendship

Meadhbh McGrath

Whenever we hear about the golden age of television and the all-time greats, the same select group of shows is mentioned: The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad. It's a solid list, but I'd argue there's one crucial series missing: Sex and the City.

The suggestion is often met with scorn - the sitcom is, critics scoff, the definition of a guilty pleasure, a frothy, glittery confection that won't stand the test of time.

But here we are, 20 years later, and Sex and the City is one of the most oft-quoted, cited and replicated in pop culture. Today, Sex and the City remains relatable enough that women from 18 to 80 can laugh along, whether they're in their own glossy apartment with a wardrobe full of Manolo Blahniks or on the couch in a semi-d in Kildare. Here, we count down 12 lessons from the show that still hold true.

Never settle

Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha wouldn't have gotten through over 100 men between them if they were willing to marry the first one that would have them. It doesn't matter how perfect the man may seem (and Aidan fans may disagree), if you're not in love, it's not worth it. There are more things to aspire to than a husband and many ways to feel fulfilled, from a rewarding career to a loving group of friends. Over the course of six seasons of heartbreaks and relationship breakdowns, the series reminds us: don't settle for anything less than what you deserve.

There is a 'right' way to break up with someone

And it isn't on a Post-it note. "I'm sorry. I can't. Don't hate me": who could forget that cruel little missive from Carrie's writer boyfriend Jack Berger? It's a pre-smartphone age, but the sting teaches us that if you're going to end things, an email or text isn't going to cut it - have the courage to say it to their face.

Farting in front of a partner can strengthen your bond

We all cringe at the episode where Carrie farts in bed with her new boyfriend, Mr Big. Mortified, she flees his apartment, and panics when he seems to lose interest in her. As Samantha explains: "Honey, you're a woman, and men don't like women to be human. We aren't supposed to fart, douche, use tampons or have hair in places we shouldn't." By the end of the episode, though, Carrie and Big reconcile, and she learns she doesn't need to hide - or apologise for - her bodily functions.

Every friendship has its stumbling blocks

Carrie may admire how Samantha "puts her sex life out there", but she ends up judging her friend without meaning to after catching Samantha engaged in an intimate act with a delivery man in her office. It leads to friction between the two, until Carrie confesses her guilt and apologises for how she reacted. The two make-up, and Carrie muses: "A picture-perfect friendship, well, that's just in books."

Don't let other people tell you what's important

One of the major themes throughout the series was the tension between single women and their married peers. Nowhere was this better explored than in the seminal episode in which Carrie attends a friend's baby shower, and is instructed to remove her Manolo Blahniks at the door. When someone makes off with her beloved shoes, the host has no sympathy, and instead shames Carrie for her "extravagant lifestyle", while she has "a real life" with other priorities, like family. It acutely analyses how single women are often trivialised or vilified for their choices, when it's really "a woman's right to shoes" how to spend her life, and her money.

Never downplay your career

As Miranda learns during a round of speed dating, men can be intimidated by women in powerful positions. Man after man switches off on hearing she's a lawyer, so she decides to lie and tell them she's a stewardess, which piques their interest. Carrie's romance with Berger ends when he grows jealous of her success. The lesson? It's his problem, not yours.

There's no such thing as the 'perfect man'

Charlotte thinks she's found him when she meets Trey, a handsome doctor from a seemingly idyllic Wasp background. She falls for him quickly, deciding to wait until they married before having sex - and ultimately realising that they have no chemistry. Charlotte, like the rest of us, learns you have to accept people as they are, flaws and all.

A break-up is not a failure

When Charlotte's fairytale romance falls apart, her worst fears are realised as the doe-eyed romantic becomes a divorcee. Over time, and in meeting her divorce lawyer and eventual husband Harry, she discovers that marriage isn't an accomplishment and a breakup isn't a failure, but something that allows her to find out what's really important to her.

There's no time like midlife to explore your sexuality

While the show features plenty of gay men (including recurring favourite Stanford), there are few queer women, apart from Charlotte's 'power lesbian' colleagues in the art world. That is until Samantha, now in her mid-40s, is seduced by Brazilian artist Maria. The other characters dismiss it as just a phase, but the relationship becomes one of Samantha's longest (albeit, at just three episodes). It may not be the most progressive representation of bisexuality on screen, but it shows it's never too late to do some exploring...

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Steer clear of jazz snobs

Any fan of the show will remember Ray the 'jazz guy', Carrie's insufferable boyfriend who spends their dates delivering sermons about the beauty of jazz, comparing the sounds of the city to various riffs and wearing a porkpie hat indoors. Eventually, his snobbery tears the relationship apart - and teaches all women to give music snobs (and indeed all snobs, from coffee to cocktails) a wide berth.

Wear whatever the hell you want

The show sparked many trends, from Cosmopolitans to Brazilian waxes, but it had the biggest impact on women's wardrobes. It helped shoot Manolo Blahnik to mainstream fame, but Carrie also wore a $5 tutu in the opening credits. Legendary costume designer Patricia Field created a distinct look and personality for each character - a first for TV, after the interchangeable wardrobes of Rachel and Monica on Friends, or the uniform of maximalist glamour on Dynasty. It shows women who dress unapologetically for themselves (in outfits that many men find singularly unattractive), and fashion as a form of self-expression and empowerment.

Your friends can be your soulmates

Sex and the City's portrayal of female friendship was truly revolutionary. Here are four women who enjoy each other's company, don't hold back on hard truths, and always have each other's backs - from Samantha's attempts to babysit Brady for Miranda, to Charlotte helping Carrie buy an apartment, and the group's support for Samantha after her breast cancer diagnosis. As much as they talked about men, the show was really about the special bond between women. As Big put it: "You girls are the loves of (Carrie's) life; a guy is lucky to come in fourth."

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