Jun 6 2018
No one would ever argue that Sex and the City isn’t popular, but a lot of people still like to say that it’s silly and shallow while ignoring the aspects — and there were many! — that were revolutionary. In her new book Sex and the City and Us, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (author of Seinfeldia and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted) dives into the history of how the show got made, and explores the reasons that critics have shoved it aside in favor of dramas like The Wire and The Sopranos when discussing the Golden Age of Television. Here, Armstrong (a Miranda, she says) explains why she thinks the show has earned its adoration and shares her thoughts on Cynthia Nixon, gubernatorial candidate.
Your book goes into great detail about the ways in which Sex and the City has been critically under-appreciated, but say you need to give a quick defense of the show. What do you say?
I almost don’t want to defend it in some ways, but I guess I have to because it has never been taken as seriously as it should be. Just because it was fun and it was about women does not mean that it shouldn’t be taken as seriously as The Sopranos. Those are the two big knocks on it, that it’s actually fun to watch and it’s about women and not about killing people. And sex, too — people don’t like to take things that are about sex seriously, but for most of us sex is a much bigger and more important part of our lives than killing people. People think it’s all about shoes and cosmos, but those were just the trappings of the bigger stuff that they were tackling. Everything doesn’t have to be deep and dark all of the time to be serious television. It did just as much to change what we see as television now as The Sopranos did. It predated The Sopranos!
As you were researching this book, did you encounter people who wondered why you were writing a whole book about Sex and the City?
Let’s put it this way: I knew going in exactly what I wanted to do for this reason. I was like, “I want to talk about the problems with it, I want to make sure we’re clear about why we’re talking about this and what we’re talking about,” because yeah, it’s definitely a show about white women, and it had not only race issues but class issues. But it was also doing a lot of work at the time. It was the groundbreaking show about single women. I feel like they could only really get away with so much boundary-pushing. Also, when you’re pushing boundaries, at times you go in the wrong direction, which they did on occasion. I would also say the show’s a really great argument for diversity behind the scenes. That’s the real shortcoming they had. It was male showrunners but it was all female writers, which is incredible, but they were all white, straight women, so they had blind spots.
Another common complaint lobbed at Sex and the City is that it ruined New York. What are your thoughts on that 20 years later?
I get it. I see what they’re saying. One thing that I didn’t really realize until I was doing research for the book was that there were a lot of signs there that this already in play, and that [the show] was reflecting those changes as much as it was driving them. The show was very popular, but I’m not sure it could do this all alone. It certainly got help from say, [former NYC mayor] Rudy Giuliani. They even make Giuliani jokes in the early episodes. Even [the gentrification of the] Meatpacking District, which [the show] really gets a lot of blame for — there were already signs. I was reading old New York Times pieces from the time, and there were already trend pieces about how that area was changing. Part of the inspiration for Samantha moving to that area was the fact that it was already changing, and it was up and coming. On the other hand, there’s a whole chapter in the book about the Sex and the City economy, so it’s no joke. I don’t think any show has a had a bigger economic effect because of that aspirational lifestyle that it embodied.
The only other New York show that even comes close is Gossip Girl, but it’s just not on the same level.
Right. It does have bus tours, but no one is going out and buying something still to this day because it was on Gossip Girl. Whereas a cupcake industry exists mainly because of a 30-second scene on Sex and the City. Of course cupcakes existed and of course the reason they were eating cupcakes is because they already existed at this location at Magnolia Bakery, but the reason that the guy who now owns Magnolia owns it and took it worldwide is because of Sex and the City, and that’s kind of crazy.
You talk about shows like Insecure, Girls, and Broad City as heirs to Sex and the City, but are there any shows out right now that you can see making as deep a cultural impact?
It’s really hard for any show to do this now. We all feel so overwhelmed by all the TV we have to watch. Even though this was a cable show and it was a smaller audience than the mass hits of the past, [it was] still this show that everyone was talking about the next day. I feel like the things that are rising to the top right now are more like Game of Thrones or Westworld or that sort of thing, where we’re not necessarily going to be emulating the lifestyle. The dragon industry has really picked up!
On the other end of the spectrum there are shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, where being a woman is the worst thing that could ever happen to you. What do you make of this swing back to something that’s a more dramatic and a lot less fun?
It’s a different time. That’s part of it, right? I would say if anything’s going to be like Sex and the City in 20 years, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale. They did that great SNL thing that was the Handmaid’s/Sex and the City mashup. It’s perfect, because that is a great snapshot of what being a woman feels like then versus now. We had just as many problems, but we were sort of in denial about a lot of them then, so we were like, “OK, let’s watch a fun show that’s just about sexual empowerment for women, and economic empowerment for women, to some extent.” And now we’re kind of like, “Oh shit, things are bad.” Of course things are not the actual Handmaid’s Tale yet, but it feels like women are so much more under siege and aware of it, and we’re in fight mode right now.
What do you think about Cynthia Nixon running for governor?
I think it’s great! The symbolism is really nice. We have to acknowledge that Miranda’s a fictional character, but it feels right. The smart, successful one is the one who’s triumphing. I don’t even care if she wins or loses, it’s just great to see her out there doing this. It’s a year when record numbers of women are running for office. It couldn’t get better. The joke that everyone’s already made, but it’s a good one, is that this is the Sex and the City finale we all deserve, and I really love that. You can imagine a Sex and the City episode of 2018 where Miranda — she’s a lawyer, it makes sense! — decides to run for governor.
Samantha handles her campaign.
She totally would. You know she’d be so good at it, too.
Charlotte plans the fundraisers.
And Carrie’s useless, as usual.
Sex and the City turns 20 on June 6. Read more anniversary articles here.