When “Sex and the City” arrived on HBO in June 1998, sopranos were still singers with high voices, Larry David was the guy who wrote “Seinfeld,” and “Six Feet Under,” “Deadwood” and “The Wire” were years from being credited with starting a revolution of original cable series programming.
New Yorkers Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) ushered in change on $900 Jimmy Choo stilettos, loosening up TV conventions as they swilled martinis in designer dresses some of them shouldn’t have been able to afford on their respective salaries.
Free of the constraints of network television, they cursed like R-rated film heroes, discussed sex in graphic detail, had lots of sex and strove to be fabulous rather than likable.
“It’s slim pickings out there,” said Samantha during one of many episodes where the women were lamenting their dating prospects. “You can’t swing a Fendi purse without knocking over five losers.”
It was the cynicism of Gen X, coupled with a sexual awakening post-AIDS crisis, in an era when the city was moving up from grungy to moneyed.
“Sex and the City” became must-watch Sunday night viewing for young(ish) women, gay men and anyone else who finally saw their embarrassing drunken confessionals with friends, and disastrous/scandalous dating moments, dramatized on screen. Each episode walked the line between fantasy and reality, sentimentality and raunch, and dressed it all to the nines.
In Carrie’s world, walking 10 blocks in 6-inch heels was a glamorous act of independence, not a painful, crippling slog that ended in drugstore Duane Reade’s bandages and plastic flip-flop aisle. And all those high-end dinners and high-calorie drinks never resulted in Miranda bursting the seams of that tiny Patricia Field mini-dress.
I remember watching the premiere of “Sex and the City” in New York, where I lived at the time, prepared to hate the show for making the female characters so materialistic and man-crazy.
Yet I loved it. Bad behavior, objectifying the other sex — we didn’t even know the real name of Carrie’s great love Mr. Big (Chris Noth) until the final episode — and seeking power in the workplace were equal-opportunity ventures in their version of Manhattan.
The show wasn’t meant to represent the real lives of city women. It was there to entertain those who hadn’t been represented.
“Sex and the City” has since been maligned for being unrealistic, for being too white and for setting feminism back with vain characters obsessed with shopping and sex.
But Carrie and company weren’t meant to carry the feminist mantle from “Murphy Brown” to “Girls,” HBO’s millennial version of “Sex and the City.” They simply leveled the playing field.
They were the primary focus, and male characters were peripheral. It was their conversations we finally got to hear, not men talking about them.
Successful TV series with female-driven narratives were rare back then, and those that did survive past one season were often centered on motherhood or marriage. Buffy had been slaying for only a little over a year, and “The Powerpuff Girls” were busy empowering, well, girls, not women.
The “Sex and the City” foursome were equalizers. They weren’t acting like men, they were reflecting the changing values and roles of women from one generation to the next, which in Miranda’s case meant choosing to have a baby out of wedlock and in Samantha’s, sleeping with as many young men as possible.
Was the cast super white in a city that was not? Absolutely. Did the show miss about a billion opportunities to portray single, working women as more than the composite characters they sometimes were in “Sex and the City”? Yes.
Perhaps if it were rebooted for the #MeToo era, it would tackle issues of representation, harassment in the workplace, or even the workplace. We rarely saw the women at work, except when Carrie the sex columnist was writing at home, in her way-too-nice-for-casual-lounging underwear.
Without the show, however, we may not have had the conversations that inspired more female-led narratives by female writers, such as “Big Little Lies” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And HBO might still be the home box office you watched only when you were too tired to change the channel.
“Sex and the City,” along with the uber-masculine 1997-2003 prison drama “Oz,” was the first original-series drama to make HBO a destination for smart, risky original series programming that bent rules and the ratings game.
The series, which predated Tinder, streaming, Facebook and smartphones, has influenced the modern TV viewing experience far more than Carrie, Samantha, Miranda or Charlotte could have ever imagined when they were still making booty calls from pay phones.
So don’t diminish the influence these women from a less politicized TV era still have on the shows we watch. They broke down barriers, even if it was with the swing of an absurdly priced Fendi handbag.