Sex and the City S1E1/2: Sex and the City/Models and Mortals

by thethreepennyguignol

Well, here we are.

When it comes to comfort shows, I usually find myself gravitating towards stuff that doesn’t demand a lot from me. Bob’s Burgers, Doctor Who, Happy Endings – shows which either don’t force a particular depth of thought on me in the first place, or that I have exhausted of intellectual stimulation by re, re, and re-watching them to death.

The one show that breaks that rule, though, is Sex and the City. I started watching SATC when I was about fourteen, catching late-night re-runs after my family had gone to bed, and I soon became obsessed with it. Even though I watched it about ten years after its initial 1998 release, seeing that kind of frank, explicit depiction and discussion of women’s sexuality was still impossibly hard to find for me. When you’re a teenager – you know, when you and pretty much everyone around you is obsessed with sex and yet nobody is allowed to talk about it – that sort of shit is so fascinating as to be impossible to deny. Add to that the sharp sense of humour, the crush I had on Kristin Davis, and the sheer brilliance of Kim Cattral, not to mention leading woman Carrie’s career as a journalist at a time when that’s all I wanted to be, and you just had the perfect storm of Shit That I Ate Right The Fuck Up.

And it’s still a show I come back to now, when I feel the need to switch off for a little while and just chill; but, unlike the others I mentioned above, it’s a show that I always come away from thinking about. And not for the best reasons. As I’ve become more involved in feminism and feminist theory in general, it gets harder and harder to consume Sex and the City as the entertaining dramedy that it is; not simply because it’s about four women, and all shows about women Must Be Viewed through a feminist lens, but because it’s about four women created for the screen and written in their most significant parts by men.

Not that I think that men can’t write women, or shouldn’t, or should be constantly criticized when they do. But there’s no denying the fact that Sex and the City, being the incredible hit that it was, has helped define the way that media for women is created. So many shows that have been released in the wake of SATC, shows which go out of their way to explore female sexuality, friendship, and adult life, are seen as owing a debt to this particular brand of storytelling, and there’s something about that which feels a little wrong to me. Yes, the series was initially based off a book by Candace Bushnell, a woman, but there’s no question that men steered the direction of this cultural behemoth – and, as a result, the stories about women that were seen as worth telling after it came out.

And the more I watch it, the further I get from its release, the more obvious that becomes. Which is why I want to take a look at the first season here, over the course of a few articles in the coming months. Sex and the City is still a comfort watch of mine, but it’s one that I have a hell of a lot of opinions on that I didn’t before. And I feel the need to work them out here, with you, in this kumbaya circle, while we hold hands, give mani-pedis, and drink Cosmos. You in? You’re in. Let’s get to it, shall we?

I’m going to be dealing with these episodes two at a time, since they’re so short, and God, they go down so easy. There’s no denying just how entertaining Sex and the City is, even when it’s flawed; a big part of that is just how damn good the cast (excluding Sarah Jessica Parker, but I’ll get to that) is at their jobs. The writing is consistently snappy, the dialogue nothing close to anything anyone has actually said but still entertaining: it’s a late-nineties scrub attempt at Dorothy Parker with a few more tit shots, and honestly, that’s not a bad place to start.

But I’m not here to recount witty one-liners to you, or to try and convey Kim Cattrall’s campy drawl to you via text when we all know it’s impossible: I want to talk about what these couple of episodes have to say about the show as a whole. This is, after all, where we’re starting from, the point from which everything else SATC-related will bloom. So, what the hell are they trying to convey?

I think the first, and most oustanding, thing that this double-header has to offer about the show is this: women come first in the storytelling, but men come first in the plot. All throughout these episodes, women are the ones telling the stories, and men are the ones driving the direction that they actually go. It’s a really strange incongruence when you notice it. Miranda starts out these episodes basically uninterested in and ignoring calls from Skipper, an interminably annoying Nice Guy who pinches Carrie’s phone to call Miranda after she doesn’t contact him post-make-out session, but then bumps into him at a shop and forgets her complete lack of interest as soon as he tells her he thinks she’s hot. Carrie encounters Mr Big (ie, Patrick Bigman) a few times, and during almost every single one, he finds a way to belittle her, her work, or her opinions (including telling her that she’s clearly never been in love, sending her into a tailspin, because that’s all women give a shit about, isn’t it?), only to have her falling over herself to see more of him. When Charlotte won’t have sex on the first date, her eligible-type bachelor heads off in the same taxi as her to go to a club to pick someone up to bang. In one particularly gross and outdated bit of nastiness, a man seeks out only models to have sex with, and videotapes them without bothering to get their consent first, before showing the tapes to Carrie at random; it’s all dudes, dudes, dudes calling the significant story shots, while women happen to be the ones to tell that story to us. Filtering male focus through a female lens doesn’t change that it’s male-focused.

You’ll notice there’s one character I didn’t mention in the above rant, and that’s Samantha. Now, let’s talk about Samantha: not only is she clearly and truly and totally the best character in the whole show, not only is Kim Cattrall so fucking good that literally every second she is on screen is God-tier entertainment, not only are hers the first pair of tits that I ever saw, but she’s also the least traditionally feminine of all the main characters. One of the reasons I think she has endured so much is that she doesn’t fit those stereotypes that we build to squish women into – she’s confident in her body, sexually active, seeks out new sexual partners frequently, is unapologetically successful in her career, shows no interest in settling down or having a family.

The show tries to build her up as a joke, at least in these early episodes (Carrie refers to her deluded self-confidence after Samantha intends to put the moves on a particularly eligible bachelor, citing her looks and her business success as a reason for his potential interest), but she honestly often feels the most real. I don’t think that women have to reject all stereotypes of femininity to pass as real or even as worthy characters, but in a show that seems so intent on upholding gender stereotypes – women as the submissive, shoe-obsessed, emotional ones, men as the confident, dominant, business-minded ones – Samantha is a breath of fresh air. Most of the women I know in my life don’t fit into many of those traditional femininity boxes – they’re more like Samantha than Carrie, is what I’m saying, and I think that’s why, even despite how over-the-top the character and performance is at times, she’s endured so much as a pop culture icon.

And with that out of the way, I think I’m all caught up for this week. I have a lot to say about this show, and I’m really looking forward to getting into it over the course of these recaps – if you’ve enjoyed this one, I hope you’ll stick around for more! Do you have SATC opinions you’d like to share? Drop them in the comments below, or hit me up on social media and let me know!

If you liked this recap, and want to see more stuff like it, please feel free to jump into some of my other recapping projects – the Fifty Shades of Grey book series, the first Harry Potter book, Doctor WhoGame of Thrones, and American Horror Story, to name a few. I also write about movies with my brilliant co-editor over at No But Listen. If you’d like to support my work, please consider supporting me on Patreon, or buying my books!

(header image via Television of Yore)