Did the landmark series ruin television for strong female characters?
The year was 1998. On television, women were more assertive than they’d ever been. Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer gave us female superheroes; ER and NYPD Blue presented women doctors and cops who were just as grim as their male counterparts. There was a discordant note in the creation of antifeminist icon Ally McBeal, but otherwise, it
seemed like women would continue to rule in TV land. Then came Sex and the City, a funny, sharply written comedy about four improbably well-dressed women, which creator Darren Star says was “meant to look at relationships and sexuality from the point of view of urban women in their 30s.” Now, as the show celebrates its 10th anniversary with a feature film, women on television are neurotic, sex-obsessed, and less powerful than they have been in years. Sex and the City got a lot of credit in its time for helping the image of women. But if that’s the case, then wouldn’t women on TV be a little better off than they are?
That’s not to say that female TV characters were completely liberated before Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall). True, their predecessors had more interesting jobs and beat up more people, but one thing they didn’t have much of was sex. When Darren Star, the creator of Beverly Hills 90210, tried to do an episode showing that Brenda (Shannen Doherty) enjoyed losing her virginity and had no regrets about it, the network forced him to walk it back: “I was told that for the next season, she had to deal with the dreadful ramifications of this act, which meant a pregnancy scare and breaking up with her boyfriend.” When Star went to the freer environment of HBO and came up with Sex and the City (based on Candace
Bushnell’s semi-autobiographical book), he was finally able to imply that women could not only enjoy sex as much as men, but talk about it as crassly as men, with lines like “is it okay to f-k one guy when you’re pregnant with another guy’s baby?” Diana Cowan, a content specialist for TVGuide.ca, says that “the biggest change Sex and the City brought about in the way women were portrayed on TV was their cavalier approach to sex.”
“We were very consciously turning the stereotype on its head,” is how Star explains the show’s mission.
“Women have always been objectified by men, and in this case the women were objectifying men. The men had names like Mr. Big; they weren’t even referred to by name.” Before Sex and the City, the TV stereotype was that men can be sex-crazed and superficial, but women had to be above all that; the definitive scene of the preSATC era might have been a scene from Friends that intercut women’s romantic,
starry-eyed views of love with men who only care about physical pleasure (“Tongue?”
“Yeah.”). Star and his Sex and the City writers (including Michael Patrick King, who wrote and directed the movie) decided that women might be stronger figures if they were less sensitive and more self-absorbed. The very first episode had Carrie feeling a sense of empowerment—the feminist holy grail—not
by avoiding sex but by having sex “like a man,”
using men for sex without getting involved. It was a show where sex with a handsome man doesn’t have to be a life-changing event for women, and women viewers loved it.
Of course, to make the show more palatable to male viewers—there were some, here and there—the show always took the women down a peg or two when they were in danger of getting self-reliant. But at a time when even superheroines like Buffy the Vampire Slayer would go all to pieces over men (or broody vampires), Sex and the City at least offered something new: when Carrie tells a man that she’s not ready for marriage, he’s the one who whines and pushes and insists that “people fall in love, they get married, that’s what they do.” It’s a reversal of the TV stereotype where women are emotional and men are scared of commitment: in the Sex and the City world, men tend to be whiny, needy, and not too bright.
And since network television is constantly imitating cable, it’s not surprising that the SATC influence is all over the broadcast networks. This past season alone saw two shows that were billed as Sex and the City for the new century, one by Bushnell (.Lipstick Jungle, which was picked up for another season), and another by Star (Cashmere Mafia, which
wasn’t). Shows about women over 35 or so, hard to find in the pre-SATC era, are now
common—Desperate Housewives wouldn’t exist without the example of SATC—and so are autobiographical shows about the experiences of being a woman who isn’t absurdly young and skinny. Julia Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy for the comedy The New Adventures of Old Christine, which is based on the
real life of its creator, Kari Lizer. And while
it used to be unusual for a show to have a narrator, after Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice was plastered all over the soundtrack of Sex and the City, comedy after comedy started
going in for quirky narration. TV lives in SATC’s world.
The trouble is, the thing that was most notable about Sex and the City—giving female characters the freedom to be as selfish and sex-obsessed as men—may have influenced the TV culture in some less-thanhealthy ways. If women are no longer sweetnatured wimps, they’ve taken Carrie’s narcissistic neurosis to the point of insanity. 30 Rock, like Sex and the City a one-camera comedy focusing on a female lead, was cre-
ated by its star, Tina Fey. Yet her own attitude to women sometimes borders on misogyny: her own character once tried to fire the girlfriend of a man she was interested in, her best friend (Jane Krakowski) is an airheaded actress who wants to get a rich husband, and her assistant (Katrina Bowden) is a moron who cares only about clothes. The newest hit comedy, the Christina Applegate vehicle Sama?itha Who?, is clearly SATC-influenced in its portrayal of different types of career women, but many of the episodes also recall SATC for a different reason: they portray urban career women as sex-obsessed, shallow people who need to learn to make emotional connections with men. In the postSATC era, women aren’t moony and romantic anymore, but to some extent that just means that they’re portrayed as the bad guys; if Sexa?id the City sometimes portrayed career women negatively (“We hated how the show would always knock Miranda down a peg,” the creators of Televisionwithoutpity.com complained in their eponymous book), its successors have seized on this idea and made it a little more vicious.
Even the new sexual freedom of SATC has had an odd effect since it’s seeped into the broader television culture: it may have benefited male characters more than their female
counterparts. Because the Sex girls treated men like playthings, they made it all right to show men treating women the same way, like Barney on How I Met Your Mother, who keeps a scrapbook of every woman he’s slept with. Sex and the City helped to make networks less prudish than they were in the days when Fox was forcing Star to punish teenage girls for having sex, but the result hasn’t been to make female characters stronger. Instead, the most genuinely powerful characters these days tend to be those who have sex least often, like the women on CSI procedurals or some
of the women on Battlestar Galáctica. It’s male characters, not females, who have been empowered by SATC’s example.
Powerful female characters now tend to be those who rarely have sex
But that doesn’t mean that Sex and the City is to blame for what came after. Though it spawned a generation of TV females who mostly think about sex, Star says that “the show as it evolved became much more about relationships and wasn’t leaning on sex so much for finding its stories.” He argues that instead of showing women who thought about men all the time, “it showed women who weren’t dependent on men for fulfillment, who felt instead that their friendship was the most important relationship in their lives.”
Amanda Lotz, professor of communications at the University of Michigan, agrees that
this was one of the things that appealed most to female viewers, citing a speech from near the end of the series where Charlotte “reflects on the importance of the women in each other’s lives, while the men are just good to have fun with.” If that’s the case, then the current crop of shows may just have misunderstood what they were imitating.
On the other hand, even though Sex and the City tried to tell us that the characters were interested in other things besides men and clothes, it couldn’t quite keep it up: the finale disappointed some fans by having Car-
rie end up with on-again, off-again love interest Mr. Big (Chris Noth). But even that may be an indicator of how Sex and the City changed entertainment for the better. It came into a world where everyone assumed that female characters would get married off, and now the movie is coming into a world where fans are hoping against hope that Carrie will remain single after all. It’s a long way from the time when Brenda wasn’t allowed to have sex and enjoy it. As Star puts it, “90210 was not able to show the reality of promiscuous sexuality. We were able to suggest it, but we had a network box around us. On Sex and the City, we were able to lift the curtain in a sense.” Or as Lindsay Lohan recently put it, Sex and the City changed her approach to dating “because those women would sleep with so many people.” M
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