Sex and the City is one of the most iconic and enduring shows of the late 90s/early 00s era – it prompted discussions about at-the-time taboo topics, changed fashion, and gave us one of our favorite on-screen friend groups. But why exactly was it so different from what came before, and why did it have the impact it did?
This is the Total Take, where we break down the most analyzable films and TV shows of all time through their visual storytelling, world, symbolism, writing, and impact. Now, let’s dive into our Total Take on Sex and the City!
Our first category is VISUAL STORYTELLING: the cinematography, editing, the form, or style. How do the visuals tell and elevate the story?
Visually, Sex and the City diverged from other ‘female-focused’ media that came before it. Instead of soft lighting and gentle colors, it was initially in your face with both the dark glitz and gritty reality of New York City. This is particularly true of the series’ pilot episode (which differs quite a bit from the rest of the series for reasons that we’ll get to in a moment.) The show’s first episode takes an interesting documentary-like approach, with Carrie Bradshaw explaining to us the absolute misery that is searching for love in Manhattan. Unlike the rest of the series, here Carrie at times speaks directly to the audience, pulling us right into her world as if we, too, are one of her friends. We’re introduced to several characters through interviews about their experiences with dating in the city, which is how we first meet both Miranda Hobbes and Charlotte York. However, we’re introduced to Samantha Jones in a setting and style much more in line with what the show would go on to be stylistically: all four friends sitting and chatting about life over a meal. These communal settings would become integral parts of the show, key times when we would get to see these four very different women coming together to discuss taboo topics and unpack the ups and downs of their lives. These chats helped us understand the friend group’s bond and worked to make them all feel more like real, relatable people.
Given the show’s title and the fact that it aired on HBO, it’s no surprise that sex itself is a major recurring theme. But the way sex is presented visually is interesting to unpack. While all of the friends have relatively healthy sex lives, Samantha is the MVP of getting laid. She accounted for nearly half of the on-screen sex scenes during the show’s run. And while there’s a chasm between Samantha’s sexual freedom and the other women’s more reserved nature in the way they speak to one another. There’s also a big difference in the way the acts are depicted, especially when comparing Carrie to Samantha. Sarah Jessica Parker had been upfront with creator Darren Star that she wasn’t comfortable doing full nudity, which Star was fine with because, “We’ll have other actors, if they feel comfortable doing it they’ll do it, but you do not have to.” And much of that nudity ended up going to Kim Cattrall’s Samantha instead. On one hand, this makes sense as Sam is the more sexually free of the two. But it also lead to a very stark contrast between the way their scenes came across – with Carrie’s often feeling more light and romantic, while Samantha’s were more edgy but also (combined with the show’s constant need to try to knock her down a peg for her sex life) could feel a little more alienating. But even though the writing and visuals often seemed to be attempting to get us to judge Samantha as well, her personal freedom and willingness to always stand up for herself were actually one of the big things that made the show worth watching.
As we mentioned, there was a shift in visual styles between the pilot and the rest of the first season, but the show’s imagery continued to change over the course of the show’s six seasons. This was in part just thanks to changing filmmaking technology and styles at the turn of the millennium and the fact that the show was bringing in lots of money, so HBO was willing to spend on it. But it was also indicative of changes within the show itself.
As the show went from fantasy realism to full-on fantasy, so too changed the world we saw on screen. In earlier seasons, we’re treated to shots of gritty Manhattan streets and run-down apartments, and even the nicer venues often have at least a little bit of edge. But as the show was nearing its end, everything was much glossier and more divorced from reality (and don’t even get us started on the movies).
Now, let’s take a look at SYMBOLISM. Does the show have a rich and original system of symbols, and can it work as a parable on multiple layers?
In the same way, the show’s look became more and more sleek and perfected over the course of the seasons, so too did Carrie’s hair – and it surprisingly symbolizes a lot about her change as a person. When we meet Carrie in the pilot, she’s a feisty, edgy woman about town with the free, bouncy curls to match. In the early seasons, her hair is beautiful and wild, just like she is at the time – untamed and blowing where the wind takes it. Curly, frizzy hair on screen is often seen as something about the heroine that needs to be fixed so that she can then become truly beautiful. But Carrie owned her locks, and they were just as an important part of her look as her iconic outfits. But as time went on and Carrie’s fiery spirit began to dim ever so slightly, her hair took a hit as well – gone were her beautiful curls, replaced instead with blowouts and barrel curls. Her hairstylist on the show at the time said this change was due to Sarah Jessica Parker’s hair becoming too damaged. And, as Dhani Mau wrote for Fashionista, “As Parker’s hair grew back, Carrie’s gradually morphed into an editorialized idea of wavy hair, a texture that, to my knowledge, has never once actually grown out of a person’s head.” In the same way, Carrie worked to flatten and mold herself into who she thought she should be to have the rich and glossy life she wanted, so too went her curls.
Many of Carrie’s outfits on the show became iconic, but Sex and the City really uses every character’s fashion to tell their story. Carrie is a mishmash of ideas and energy, with textures and colors and vibes all crashing together but somehow always (almost always) coming together in the end. Miranda, the strong-willed, confident lawyer, charges her way through life cycling between power suits and turn-of-the-millenium athleisure. Charlotte always looked prim and put together, even when her life was falling apart, and her flowy, pastel outfits meshed perfectly with her romantic outlook on life. And Samantha always looked hot, whether she was running errands or running the opening night of the hottest new restaurant in the city. A big part of “making it” in Manhattan is being seen the way you want to be seen – projecting the ‘right’ look can help you fit in and even open new doors. And when you don’t fit in, you can really feel it.
One of the most memorable things about Sex and the City, even for people who never watched the show, is Carrie’s shoe obsession. While most Manhattenties might like a nice pair of shoes, Carrie seems to have a full-on addiction. Carrie loves shoes so much because they’re a status symbol she can actually attain on her own (with the help of a little, well, a lot of credit card debt). They elevate her, literally and figuratively. They also give her a sense of control in her otherwise chaotic life – she can walk into a store and walk out with something beautiful; they won’t disappear or forget to call, and they’re always right there when she needs them. The elevated status of shoes in her life is really hit home when, in the end, Big ends up proposing not with a ring but with a pair of blue satin Manolo Blahniks.
Speaking of rings, after torpedoing her stable relationship with ‘normal guy’ Aiden, in season four, Carrie makes amends, and they get back together. Everything seems to be going great until she realizes that he really wants to make things official. The ring is the ultimate symbol of Carrie’s fear of commitment – she literally can’t even stand to wear it on her finger and instead keeps it on a necklace like a best friend charm. Aiden had hoped that the ring and the idea of marriage would help get Carrie on board with the idea of settling down, but instead, it spins her out and sends her running for the hills. And even when she and Big do end up (finally, for real this time) deciding to make things official, he proposes not with a ring but with those shoes.
Our next category is the WRITING: the originality, inventiveness, and insight within the script. What is the true takeaway?
One of the most key aspects of Sex and the City’s writing was the choice to have each episode framed around a central question, often related to Carrie’s column in the New York Star. The show was based off of Candace Bunshell’s own real-life column in the New York Observer, and the compilation book it spawned. Bunshell had begun to use ‘Carrie’ as a pseudonym when writing her column, allegedly to keep her parents from realizing they were reading about her sexcapades. On the show, this framing provided a thematic cohesion to each episode, allowing each character to explore a different aspect of the question or idea through their various subplots. This also helped us to see multiple sides to these issues, as each character approached them in their own unique ways and often came to different conclusions. Adding to the feeling that the show was a dramatization of Carrie’s column was her voiceovers, which usually directly put forth the central question of the episode. This was effective at both engaging the audience directly – leading us to think about our own answer or lack thereof – and at helping Carrie’s more grating or conflicting choices feel a little more grounded because it provided context from Carrie herself.
The show was also special because it focused on four adult women navigating their lives. Sure, they sometimes fell into the same old traps, but overall, the show was incredibly refreshing in the way it showed single women in their 30s not as washed up or “past their prime” but as vibrant, interesting women leading fulfilling lives. The show did spark many debates about how feminist its portrayal of women really was. Many felt that while sure the women were flawed, that’s part of what made them feel realistic and of their times. But the way they talked about sex and sexuality could feel conservative even for the era, and it can feel especially incorrect looking back with our modern lens. But the fact that these four rich white women were occasionally out of step with progressive values does actually make sense if we’re being honest. People might want to believe they were or would have been better back then, but the women’s attitudes do reflect the faulty opinions many people shared at the time. Thankfully on the show, by the end of the episode often they learn their lesson that their thinking was out of whack and change their ways. And while the group did certainly have their more problematic views, they were also quite forward-thinking in many ways. The show openly discussed many previously taboo issues in a way that women had never really been allowed to on TV before.
A big part of what made the show’s writing feel so fresh and innovative was the way it handled the four female characters at the center of the show. Instead of attempting to frame them as always good and right or trying to fit them into ‘good girl’ and ‘bad girl’ boxes, the show allowed each character to exist as an independent human being with amazing qualities and deep flaws that she needed to work through. This can be seen clearly with Carrie: she’s the protagonist but definitely isn’t framed as the ‘hero’ or even as a role model; she’s messy (both literally and figuratively,) self-centered, makes rash decisions, hurts people, and makes plenty of mistakes. But her flawed nature doesn’t make her a villain; if anything, it’s what made her feel so relatable and real. It didn’t feel like Carrie was set on a perfect TV show track where everything would just work out in the end magically; it felt like her choices had real consequences in her life, for better and worse. Writer Emily Nussbaum even named Carrie “the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television” in her New Yorker essay Difficult Women. She writes, “Before “Sex and the City,” the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl to Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to say, actual role models,” but Carrie instead,” spun out, becoming anxious, obsessive, and, despite her charm, wildly self-centered.” Instead of being relatable to the best part of ourselves, she instead connected to those deeper, more negative facets we try to hide or will away.
The other three main characters, too, felt like real women with agency and desires and flaws. They provided alternate viewpoints and experiences and weren’t afraid to butt heads with Carrie or each other. Samantha Jones quickly became a fan favorite for her confidence, freedom, and willingness to always stand up for herself. While Carrie might have called herself a “sexual anthropologist,” it was Samantha who brought the sex to the city. But while she was in many ways aspirational, her sexual liberation was a double-edged sword – her freedom and willingness to experiment often got her derided by society and even her own friends. Charlotte York existed on the other end of the spectrum – the Park Ave princess that was all about romance and had a hardwired belief that if she followed the rules, she’d be able to secure the exact life she wanted for herself. The show often forced Charlotte to confront the fact that no amount of rule-following was a guarantee that things would turn out the way she wanted – and instead of just continuing to make the same mistakes over and over like Carrie, Charlotte did indeed grow as a person and change her patterns of thinking – without having to change the core of who she was – and was better off for it. Miranda Hobbes was never as glamorous as her counterparts, but her intelligence, strong will, and dash of brutal honesty and cynicism (okay maybe more than a dash) made her an important part of the friend group. And if anything, it was the fact that her life and look wasn’t all so glossy that made her incredibly relatable. She also, crucially, wasn’t totally obsessed with men and dating in the way that the others were, and so was able to pull them back to thinking about anything else. She also provided an important counterbalance to Carrie’s whole thing, unafraid to straight up call her out when she was being, well, a Carrie. The writing of all four women, which allowed them to each feel like specific individual people with their own goals and desires that were grounded in reality, was the lynchpin that kept the show together and allowed it to weave through so many topics and still feel real.
The next category we look at is WORLD. How does the show use tone, atmosphere, performances, music, or sound design to build a particular world that’s memorable, evocative, or takes us somewhere that makes us feel something?
The world of the show is a realistic yet slightly fantastical, romantic version of New York City in the late 90s and early 2000s: the classy and fun metropolitan lifestyle of the modern liberated women who makes her own money and runs her own life (but she’s also still sad because she single, but she’s also conflicted about being sad about it because she worried that it wasn’t feminist but also she’s still being pressured by society at large to do it all and settle down.) The show is emblematic of the time when women had made huge strides towards wide-scale acceptance that women could have careers and relationships and own their own sexuality and still be respected – but they were also having to deal with the realities that attempting to do everything and be everything for everyone (including yourself) could be taxing. Sex and the City was revolutionary for putting all of this on screen – showing the ups and downs of trying to have it all. But of course, there were glaring omissions as well – these revolutionary aspects were showcased exclusively through the lens of four rich white women in the heart of Manhattan. Other perspectives were only trotted out as curiosities to be mocked or ogled (or, often, were just ignored altogether.) This is something that the creative team has been trying to rectify (to varying degrees of success) in the modern revival series And Just Like That. Sarah Jessica Parker apparently hated the Sex and the City pilot and even tried to get out of her contract to avoid having to film any more of the show. To keep her on board, showrunner Darren Star agreed to totally change up the show going forward. Carrie’s hair got a little more flowy, and her eye makeup a little less harsh, and she broke the fourth wall to speak directly to the camera far less often. The show as a whole backed away from the documentary-esque feel – though occasional talking heads featuring random citizens continued to appear on the show, it was no longer a main framing device. Starting to switch up the vibe of the show after only the first episode could have been disastrous, but because they kept the heart of what worked well – namely, the friendships and the openness about taboo subjects – it ended up just feeling like the earliest episodes were a quirky, documentary intro into the characters’ lives.
They also make the friendships feel real (even when things weren’t so friendly behind the scenes.) There’s a grounded, human element to each performance that makes it easy to believe that even though these four women are quite different, both in their lifestyles and their personalities, they all still enjoy each other’s companionship.
And our final category to discuss is IMPACT. Has the show sparked debate, thought, and conversation – and has its influence managed to stand the test of time?
Sex and the City has continued to resonate with audiences in the decades since its release because there’s something for everyone to connect to within the show. The trials and tribulations Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda face over the course of the show – in their relationships, in their careers, in their friendships with each other – all continue to feel deeply relatable to audiences (especially single women over the age of 25 who still don’t often get to see themselves represented in a genuine way on screen.) The show also spawned a number of fashion trends – from catapulting Manolo Blanik into the wider public consciousness to adults wearing tutu skirts – and women continue to take inspiration from the show’s outfits to this day. While the show did certainly fall into the ‘materialism as feminist empowerment’ trap, it did also showcase some very important feminist throughlines, especially the joy and power of female friendship and women having frank, open conversations about sex, love, careers, and creating the life you really want.
The show has influenced many of the shows that followed it, especially in giving female protagonists the freedom to be grating and even a little unlikeable. Take HBO’s 2010’s hit Girls, which follows an annoying, self-centered writer and her group of girlfriends as they attempt to navigate love, work, and finding themselves in New York City. Girls didn’t shy away from its connection to Sex and the City, but in fact highlighted it in the very first episode. And Girls followed in Sex and the City’s footsteps of being unafraid of letting the show’s protagonist make bad decisions, be a bad friend, actually have to deal with consequences of her actions (while complaining about it the entire time), and, importantly learning from her struggles and finding her way back to what’s most important – her friends. Sex and the City has also now of course spawned its own direct continuation with the generally lackluster revival And Just Like That (which we haven’t included in this Total Take because it’s still currently slated to come back for another season.) This new show has struggled to recapture the magic of the original, mainly because it’s missing so many of the aspects that make the original work – namely, real, genuine friendships and icon Samantha Jones. But this also goes to show what lightning in a bottle Sex and the City really was, able to create such a special spark at the turn of the millennium that is still burning bright all these years later.
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