When Sex and the City first aired to 3.7 million viewers in 1998, the show was hailed as refreshingly candid and real in how it depicted love, sex, and being a woman in New York City, through the eyes of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall). But looking back, was it really so progressive? While it discussed sex with an admirable frankness, many of the insights it made and the conclusions it came to fell short. Too often it upheld regressive ideas about sexuality, and instead of breaking down barriers for everyone, it fostered problematic stereotypes around gender, race, and class. And so, as much as there is to love about this show, we can’t help but wonder: what did Sex and the City get wrong?
When Sex and the City first aired in 1998, the show was hailed as refreshingly candid and real in how it depicted love, sex, and being a woman in New York City. But looking back, was it really so progressive? While it discussed sex with an admirable frankness, many of the insights it made and conclusions it came to fell short. Too often it upheld regressive ideas about sexuality. And instead of breaking down barriers for everyone, it fostered problematic stereotypes around gender, race, and class. And so, as much as there is to love about this show, we can’t help but wonder: what did Sex and the City get wrong? Here are the Toxic Takeaways of Sex and the City:
Toxic Takeaway #1: Women only talk about men.
For a show that is ostensibly about female empowerment and successful women, Sex and the City spends
a remarkable amount of its screen time revolving around men.
Charlotte: “How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?” - Sex and the City - 2x1
In its essence, the show barely passes The Bechdel Test, which requires that a TV show or a film contain any scenes of more than one woman having a conversation about something other than a man. While of course there are plenty of examples of Carrie and her friends talking about other subjects, everything always seems to come back to relationships.
When Charlotte and Carrie go to the opera together, it’s not some glamorous girls’ night out. Charlotte is using Carrie because she could not go with the man she wanted to take. She even makes an angry call to the guy who was supposed to set them up from the lobby, completely ignoring Carrie, who likewise ditches Charlotte upon seeing Mr. Big in the crowd. How good can their friendship really be if they can’t spend one night together, just the two of them, without men getting in the way?
Charlotte: “Isn’t the opera romantic?”
Carrie: “Even more so with a man.”
Charlotte: “Well I did expect to be taking Phil.” - Sex and the City - 3x7
Toxic Takeaway #2: Experiment sexually, but don’t be a slut.
What set Sex and the City apart from its contemporaries was how honestly and extensively
it talked about and depicted sex. Maybe the biggest surprise, then, is just how conservative and prudish the show can be about sexuality. Of the four, it’s Samantha who most embodies the sexual freedom and exploration the show is purportedly all about, yet her friends mock, judge, and slut-shame her.
Charlotte: “Sex is something special. It’s supposed to happen between two people who love each other.”
Samantha: “Or two people who love sex.”
Charlotte: “Oh my God! You’re such a-”
Samantha: “A what? What am I, Charlotte?” - Sex and the City - 3x16
Privately, Carrie holds herself to a more old-fashioned standard of purity. The women besides Samantha also aren’t truly open to any kinds of sex that aren’t totally vanilla. When they go to an S&M restaurant, all aside from Samantha are pretty squeamish about the whole idea of fetishes. When Miranda does indulge in public sex, the validity of her relationship is immediately dismissed by her friends. And when Carrie equates her on-again-off-again relationship with Big to an S&M relationship, this comparison is supposed to illuminate how dysfunctional the relationship is with Mr. Big.
Worst of all, this show, which revolves around Carrie Bradshaw writing a column about expanding your understanding of sex, only explores heteronormative relationships with any depth, while wantonly propagating harmful myths about LGBTQ people, like:
Toxic Takeaway #3: Bisexuality Doesn’t Exist
In the episode “Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl,” when Carrie finds out the man she’s dating is bisexual, the revelation effectively stops the relationship in its tracks. Her ensuing conversation with her friends is full of damaging misconceptions about bisexuality.
Carrie: “I’m not even sure bisexuality exists, I think it’s just a layover on the way to gaytown.” - Sex and the City - 3x4
This bi-erasure crops up again when Samantha starts dating a Brazillian artist, Maria, and despite her clear attraction to men, suddenly redefines herself as a lesbian. Her friends immediately question the relationship’s authenticity. From there, the show shallowly engages in cliches about lesbian relationships until Samantha gets bored.
Toxic Takeaway #4: Trans people don’t deserve respect.
For the most part, the show ignores the transgender community, but when they are depicted it’s with ridicule and ignorance.
Carrie: “There they were, Samantha’s friendly neighborhood pre-op transexual hookers. Half man, half woman, totally annoying.” - Sex and The City - 3x18
The portrayal of trans people as essentially freakish, literally creatures of the night, occupying some space between male and female, serves to other them. At best, queer characters in the show are treated as loveable accessories:
Stanford Blatch, who exists only in relation to Carrie, is the “Gay Best Friend,” an all too common trope in which gay characters are there to serve the straight ones as a kind of lip-service to the idea of representation. As journalist Philip Ellis says, “When you’re the gay best friend, you become an accessory, like the latest handbag.” Vogue’s Emma Specter writes, “Carrie genuinely seems to view Stanford as less than, not deserving of the same consideration that her straight, female friends warrant.”
Carrie: “You guys wanna have drinks with the Russian tomorrow night?”
Miranda: “Ooh I’m in.”
Stanford: “Me too!”
Carrie: “Oh sweetie I’m sorry, it’s just the girl’s this time.” - Sex and the City - 6x17
If one gay best friend character is unfortunate, then two is downright careless, but in Anthony Marantino, Charlotte has her own Stanford, on hand to offer her advice and bolster her confidence. And then, to top it off, the two gay best friends eventually marry each other in Sex and the City 2. “It’s the clichéd, condescending hetero fantasy,” says Salon’s Thomas Rogers, “the one in which you introduce the only two gay men you know, and magically, the sparks fly.” The show similarly reduces gay women to limiting stereotypes when Charlotte befriends some “power lesbians”.
Toxic Takeaway #6: Everyone who matters is rich.
Despite living in a city where nearly everyone feels constant financial pressure, the four main characters eat in expensive restaurants, shop with abandon, dress up for fancy parties, and seemingly never
have to worry about money. In the rare moments when financial stress is discussed, it’s from an attitude of privilege and entitlement. Carrie is painfully unaware that there’s another class of people who could hardly relate to her problem of having spent so much money on shoes that she can’t afford to buy an apartment. Sex and the City’s attitude toward money all seems in service of protecting its myth of New York.
Gina: “New York City is really the fifth character.” - Brooklyn Nine-Nine - 3x22
So if we take that as gospel, then what kind of character is it? Most fundamentally, it’s a character who’s rich. In this show, wealth is inherently aspirational, sexy, and mysterious. New York needs to feel like it belongs to Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte. Every pair of shoes, or bag, or cocktail or dinner they buy, they’re buying another part of the city. On top of that, they’re included in an elite New York bubble, with open access to a magical inner circle.
Charlotte: “Capote Duncan, he’s supposedly some big shot in the publishing world. Do you know him?”
Carrie: “Did I know him? He was one of the city’s most notoriously ungettable bachelors.”- Sex and the City - 1x1
And what of the people who don’t belong to that secret elite? When Miranda begins dating someone below her financial station, it’s realistic that the show explores how this leads to tensions in Miranda’s and Steve’s relationship. But the writing mainly sees it as Steve’s problem. He’s painted as too insecure to accept Miranda’s success.
Steve: “There’s always going to be things outside of my reach.”
Miranda: “So I’m being punished for being successful.” - Sex and the City - 2x10
When Samantha discovers the man she’s dating has a servant, far from the show expressing any empathy for this woman, the plot quickly becomes about how inappropriately rude this employee is to Samantha. This employee is, unsurprisingly, a person of color, which brings us to:
Toxic Takeaway #7: Everyone who matters is white.
In Sex and the City’s version of New York City, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, people of color are mostly absent or treated as set dressing. Most problematic is the number of people of color
who are only shown in roles of servitude to the white characters. The history of TV has taught us you can only get away with presenting a whitewashed New York City for so long. Shows like Friends and Girls eventually tried to counteract their whiteness through love interests played by people of color.
And the final season of Sex and the City likewise brought in Blair Underwood as Dr. Robert Leeds, a love interest for Miranda who was pretty much perfect— kind, handsome, successful, and good with Miranda’s baby. In the end, though, Robert is really just there to help Miranda realize she wants to get back with her far less impressive, white boyfriend Steve.
Toxic Takeaway #8: It’s okay to stereotype and fetishize people of color.
Looking back, even Miranda’s attraction to Robert was problematic. Miranda is drawn to the idea of an inter-racial relationship because she’s obsessed with a TV show about one.
Miranda “If there wasn’t a Jules and Mimi marathon on BBC America this weekend, I’d have jumped out the window.”
Carrie: “Hey, speaking of handsome black men, have you spotted any more of Dr. Knicks?” - Sex and the City - 6x19
But the show’s worst instance of fetishization is Samantha’s fling with successful, beautiful music industry executive Chivon, a role Blair Underwood said he turned down. “It was all about the curiosity of
‘What’s the black man like? Are the rumors true?’ I said I’m not interested in being the black curiosity.” Chivon becomes a window into the black community in New York, or rather, how white people view
the black community in New York. The club he takes Samantha to plays hardcore, heavy gangsta rap, and makes a point of doing a security check before entry, implying that there is an inherent criminality in the black community. Samantha also uses the relationship as a way to code-switch, adopting stereotypical black vernacular for no apparent reason. Predictably, the show also leans into stereotypes about black men’s penis size and hypersexuality.
Samantha: “Yes, he does have a big black cock.”
Miranda: “It’s big African-American cock.” - Sex and the City - 3x5
Meanwhile, Chivon’s sister, Adeena, is an embodiment of the “Angry Black Woman” trope. But despite all the stereotyping in this episode, it’s Samantha who is portrayed as the victim.
Other episodes also give us reductive stereotypes of people of color. Maria is every inch the “Spicy Latina,” while Jewish men, according to Jenny Singer, “Come in two varieties: revolting-but-endearing, and pervert.”
Toxic Takeaway #9: Every woman needs a man.
As much as Sex and the City is a story about women’s independence and female friendship, it’s
also a story about growing up. When we meet the characters in their early 30s, Samantha a little older, there’s a feeling that their wildest days in the city may be behind them, and now, they’re looking ahead at what they really want out of life.
Miranda: “I can’t believe you’re getting married. Is this the beginning? Are you next?” -Sex and the City- 3x12
Depressingly, by the end of the series, it seems what everyone really wants is a man. And in helping each woman obtain that lofty goal, the show completely erases a lot of what’s come before Take Big and Carrie’s Hollywood ending in the Sex and the City movie, where Big builds Carrie a walk-in closet. Cynthia Nixon was reportedly devastated by the scene, saying: “To have this [scene] be a climax of the film, that your very wealthy husband built you a nice closet for your clothes, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s not really what you love about the show, is it?’ Cause that’s not what we were making it for.” Christina Marfice writes, “Sex and the City wasn’t about the romantic relationships. They were merely there to show the impermanence of romance and to juxtapose it against the staying power of female friendships.” Yet in the end, it’s the relationships that are everyone’s prize.
Toxic Takeaway #10: Love should be dramatic.
The show’s tentpole romance between Carrie and Mr. Big, a constant from the very first episode to the very last, is sustained by its uncertainty. The fact they seem to be at different places in their lives, to want different things, have different values, the fact that nothing is ever simple with Carrie and Big, is presented as what makes their relationship unique, special, and worth fighting for. Carrie and Big’s relationship thrives on drama. Big gets under her skin, frustrates, and antagonizes her.
Carrie: “One minute he’s all over me and the next minute he’s pushing me away and I just cannot believe this is happening again.” - Sex and the City - 2x12
But moments that should have been red flags and evidence that the relationship wasn’t right for Carrie instead became another obstacle they could overcome. Carrie’s other relationships are written off because they lack this drama. Aiden is essentially perfect. He puts Carrie first. But compared to the peaks and troughs of Big, that isn’t enough. Then there’s the equally depressing moral of Miranda’s central relationship:
Toxic Takeaway #11: Don’t expect too much.
Of the four women, Miranda is the most invested in her career. Yet she ends up with Steve, a man who’s so threatened by Miranda earning more than him, it moves him to anger. In the end, this epitome of the independent working woman must learn to put her family first, as she moves out of her beloved Manhattan for Brooklyn, and embraces a more selfless side by caring for her husband’s difficult mom. It may be true that many people find happiness in living for others and lowering their expectations, but it’s a depressing moral to send that the show’s most independent woman must learn to be less independent and ask less out of her life. Then, in the movie, after Steve cheats and blames Miranda, again the story drives home the point that Miranda should compromise.
Carrie: “You won’t even consider forgiving Steve for something he did six months ago.” - Sex and the City: The Movie
Toxic Takeaway #12: But wanting fairytale romance is stupid.
Sex and the City may give Carrie a fairytale ending— Big literally proposing at the end of the movie by placing a shoe on her foot, Cinderella-style— but the show repeatedly mocks and abuses Charlotte for wanting precisely this kind of romance.
Charlotte: “He could really be the one.”
Carrie: “Charlotte, honey. You’ve only known him for two weeks. You can know his e-mail address, you cannot know he’s the one.” - Sex and the City - 3x8
As we discussed in our Charlotte video, Charlotte can only find happiness after she gives up her most
damaging misconceptions about what love looks like. Yet it’s hypocritical of the show to suggest that Charlotte’s values of romance and family are inherently inferior to the other women’s emphasis on independence and self-determination— especially when it ends up giving its main heroine exactly the Hollywood ending that Charlotte dreamt of.
Despite all these toxic takeaways, in the context of its times, Sex and the City was still incredibly edgy and had positive real-world consequences. Kayleigh Dray writes, “Researchers found that in the 90s, only 42% of Americans believed premarital sex was ‘not immoral’... Post-SATC, though, that number jumped by a whopping 16%. Moreover, it was one of the first shows to show female friendship in a realistic way— both in its frank discussions around sex, and in how it featured topics like miscarriages, abortion, infertility, and trying to have a career in a patriarchal society. So perhaps it’s best to view Sex and the City as a kind of time capsule of the late 90s and 2000s — how it embodied prevalent attitudes of its time, while significantly moving the dial. If twenty years later it still felt completely relevant, then something would definitely be wrong.
Carrie: “I love alcoholics. Hell, I hope to be one someday. That was a joke.”
Patrick: “That’s not funny, yet.” - Sex and the City - 2x16
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