top of page
  • camplesem


Updated: May 4, 2023

Jennifer Armstrong, author of Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live and Love says of the show, “it’s an absolutely aspirational lifestyle, but it’s based in reality.” Armstrong has done other media analyses that mean to highlight dramatic influences by certain television series, also writing Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. But, even Armstrong thinks there’s no comparison in influence between the sitcom and the “cultural meteorite” that is Sex and the City: “to this day, it’s why women still move to New York.”

Upon its release, the spunky, fashionable, and sexy narrative sprinkled with stars like Sarah Jessica Parker and Chris Noth has and continues to captivate viewers. Debuting on HBO in 1998, the no-filters attitude of the entertainment group at the time proved to churn out a massive success, perfectly combining raunch and class, sex and professionalism. This reflected a new social reality of Americans as we approached the new millennium. Restrictive values decreased in relevance, while the prioritization of pleasure and autonomy for both genders increased. At the time, Sex and the City was seemingly well beyond its years, with no show being so viscerally aspirational to women and captivating to men, yet simultaneously bringing up deeper, more intimate topics that had never before been touched on television. If you were a girl growing up in the 2000’s, Carrie Bradshaw was the ultimate idol.

But, as we move towards newer and more progressive ways to dissect media and its influence, conversations are starting to emerge about Sex and the City’s grip on a whole generation of girls and women, and what marks that tight grip has left. We are realizing that things that were perhaps intended to be harmless, regardless of intent, were still harmful to the perspectives of the viewers. At its essence, like all media, Sex and the City tells a story to the world, and in this case, it’s a story about essential and ideal womenhood. Its fake depictions inform real interactions and beliefs. It is important to parse those depictions as well as their conditions to better understand the perpetuated beliefs.

Sex and The City provides not only a revealing view into a post-feminist society, but also serves to make modern gender equality accessible, digestible, and attractive to the male audience. Main characters like Carrie Bradshaw and Samantha Jones live a sexually and financially autonomous life akin to the 20th century male existence, reaping the benefits of the second-wave feminist movement, but in a more traditionally attractive and heteronormative feminine manner than the women who fought for these rights. This, in turn, works to water down the message of second-wave feminism and market it as non-threatening (sexually, financially, socially) to the audience.

Gloria Steinem

The term “feminism” was first coined in 1913 and most notably implied the equality between genders, but more specifically encouraged female autonomy when it came to sex, politics, and societal relations. With the growth of the movement as well as the number of different people starting to identify themselves as “feminists,” subgroups of the movement formed. This includes radical versus cultural feminists, liberal feminists, queer feminists, women of color, and so on. These subgroups attempt to label individual facets of feminism – women or men who feel they agree with the inherent ideal of gender equality but also feel the need to qualify or specify their ideological involvement. By the second wave of feminism, radical feminism had been made more culturally valid by women such as Gloria Steinem, notably because of her conventional attractiveness, but also women like Shirley Chisholm and Betty Friedan. Radical, second-wave feminism started to become polarizing by the 70’s, however, with some women of the movement fighting against pornography, sexual violence, and the objectification of women. Questions started to be raised, similar to that of Erica Jong’s 1973 novel Fear of Flying addressing the elephant in the room: can women have sex like men and be happy? Or, conversely, the overall puzzlement of the newest generation: how can modern feminine sexuality and the feminist ideal coexist? This caused a rift among women who possibly identified as feminists but still prioritized sexual pleasure, whatever that looked like for them (sado-masochism, degradation, etc.). With it seemingly being a binary choice as perpetuated by hegemonic media, (simply put) sex or respect, the world started to develop an image of the feminist as anti-sex, humorless, and unattractive- essentially non-woman.

Furthermore, many women after the second wave of feminism became, for lack of a better term, lazy. Many women seemed to believe that the fight for equality was, if not already won, then past its prime of social relevance. Jane Gerhard states in Sex And The City: Carrie Bradshaw’s Queer Post-Feminism, that “the gains won by first and second wave feminists had left the latest generation of women smug in their convictions of equality.... In these formulations, antifeminism, or a broad rejection of feminist goals, transformed 70s feminism into 1990s postfeminism, a conviction rooted in popular culture's view of feminism's redundancy.” Media of the time depicted “modern” feminine problems that are associated with the message of that redundancy, as Susan Fauldi describes in her 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Fauldi claims that when women become too powerful, hegemonic media come up with new narratives to keep men as the invisible in group and women below the threshold of true empowerment, such as the struggle of “having it all”, breaking “the glass ceiling”, or the emotional difficulty of finding suitable partners in a new gender climate. And, so, with pulsing bloodlines and famous predecessors like Helen Gurley Brown and Candace Bushnell, Sex and The City is born.

Despite the backdrop of feminine autonomy and independence, Sex and the City serves first and foremost to identify the ideal or acceptable modern woman. Sex without commitment, more specifically without the obligation of marriage or love, was becoming a theme more and more important to the new generation of working women in metropolitan areas. Women since the mid-20th-century have been pondering what the “modern” woman looks like in terms of sexuality, power, and position; Carrie Bradshaw is indeed not the first woman to open a forum posing these seemingly impossible questions to other women, like her famous, “can women have sex like men? Were women in New York really giving up on love and throttling up on power? (Episode 1), or “in a city of great expectations, is it time to settle for what you can get?” (Episode 9). But, in asking these questions, Carries’ character serves to familiarize viewers with and vocalize the modern social quandaries of womanhood. In this, the show at the time was absolutely revolutionary. Never before had there been such an unfiltered and graphic depiction of era-realistic female sexuality that presented women as the protagonists, as well as challenged what is sexually appropriate and acceptable for women. Themes of sisterhood, power, and femininity are rebranded in a way that combines the traditionally feminine experience with the powerful and perhaps threatening female figure emerging in the 21st century out of second-wave gains.

By using fashion and sex as the biggest attraction to Sex and The City, the creators were able to dress up feminism and package it in a chic, sexy bow that appealed to both genders. The character of Carrie Bradshaw is, while new-age in lifestyle, in many ways as traditional as ever: blonde, white, stick thin, feminine, sweet, bubbly, affluent, heterosexual, and cisgender. She is the culturally ideal woman. She lives in a beautiful apartment in New York City, and works as a columnist focusing on issues like dating and modern life, never taking on issues too "heady." She has a passion for shoes and bags, and frequently laments about her ridiculous spending habits. She goes out to swanky bars to find men to pursue, looking ultimately for “the one.” Her friends, in addition, all fit the same mold in one way or another. Two of her friends, Samantha and Miranda, are seen as the high powered career women, but still participate in feminine and girlish behavior like sexual and flirtatious self-degradation, as well as fitting into the white, hetero, cisgender, affluent, and attractive category of women. Carrie’s other friend, Charlotte, while being more sexually conservative than the rest, again still fits into this character mold described. Through this, HBO was able to play upon viewers’ preconceived notions of acceptable female characters in media and in not, and this gave them the safety to add a risky spin (full-frontal sexual confession). It is important to note that if any of the conditions mentioned above (race, sexual orientation, disposition, attractiveness) were different, Sex and the City would be a drastically different show with a drastically different message for viewers. The perceived message would move away from attractive empowerment and towards the perceived degradation of traditional Western values.

Because of this, the series is a perfect example of a post-feminist society. “The characters’ ‘glamorous consumption of men and clothes’ is made possible by the existence of previously-attained economic, intellectual and sexual freedoms (Richards 2003, p. 148)” (Markle 2008), yet they don’t ever acknowledge or consider this. The characters of Sex and the City walk around as if the conditions of economic and social independence of the 90’s were promised or passive. Further, they act as if they are not one of the most privileged and societally-catered-to groups of women alive, not even questioning what other existences could look like given the same backdrop.

Because of its inherent ignorance of women’s rights gains of the previous century, it asserts itself as empowering but apolitical, perfectly post-feminist. This is an ideal setup for the female viewers of the 90’s given their rejection of the second-wave feminist movement, and the show happened to empower women who may not know or care to know why they can now be empowered in the ways the show depicts. It is as simple or as complicated as the viewer decides it to be. One woman could see the messages of Sex and the City as fact, as the model for the woman of the future, while another could view it more accurately as a show semi-ironically depicting women taking seriously the privileged problems of the new millennium in a quasi-sexist manner. This broadens the show’s viewer demographic, giving uneducated women something aspirational to consume, and more educated women something to identify with but perhaps critique.

However, if Sex and The City is so truly empowering for women, one must cynically ask: why does the media hail it as such? While we know that media is consumer-driven, it bends to the trends of the individuals, it also stands to uphold the cornerstones of American culture. This speaks to the dominant subset of viewers and media creators that fabricate the female trends of the time: men. Unfortunately, we see time and time again truly empowering and enlightening works or actual feminist literature are denounced by mainstream culture as “radical” and “fringe”, while works such as Sex and the City become tenets of liberal, mainstream feminism, which, in its essence, attempts to reconcile radical feminism and capitalism. The two contradict each other inherently, and because capitalism will be forever unyielding in American culture, ideals of the former must be sacrificed to make it palatable in a capitalist society. This means the characters’ obnoxious consumption of all things girl, making consumerism attractive and aspirational. Modern female empowerment is packaged and presented as “endless possibilities of free-floating desire – desire which is almost always linked to consumption and sexuality” (Wheelan 200, p.93).

With this in mind, one can see that Sex and the City is attempting to re-prioritize the modern female agenda, telling viewers that while equality may be on the horizon, men and women can’t experience social conventions in the same way or with the same priorities. It reorganizes where women are to place their effort (clothing, men, attitude and personality most importantly), despite their social, political, and sexual gains that in theory could let women deal with these conventions in the same way men do. This is the threatening aspect of equality to men, not that women can freely participate in the same things they can, but that women could begin to have the same superior and aloof attitude about them as they do about women.

In order to appeal to men as well as women, Sex and the City must diminish in power and salience any threatening aspects of attitude in the modern woman: sexual independence due to normalization of female masturbation and polygamy (dating around), equal professional footing in the workplace, equal educational and intellectual opportunities, and so on. All of these things threaten to impede on men’s invisible social superiority due to the perpetuated message that women don’t necessarily need men anymore; not sexually, financially, or socially. Women’s dependence on men is what keeps women ultimately at their whim. So,

while threatening topics to men are discussed and even endorsed in the show, they are done so in a way that is essentially feminine and therein disempowering. This means viewing the women of the show through a primarily sexual or romantic lens leaving them devoid of complexity or individuality beyond their relationship to a man. Further, it means presenting women dealing with traditionally masculine problems in a traditionally feminine way; the concept of coruminatlon is integral to the execution of this strategy, in that we see powerful and independent women still acting subordinate to the men they discuss, and expressing feelings of romantic or sexual inadequacy that are uniquely feminine ad nauseam. At the same time, in media depicting men who "sleep around," we rarely see attractive and successful men sitting at breakfast with their friends the next day worrying if their one-night-stand will call them back, or if they did something to make a woman they are interested in dislike them (despite the fact that men feel these things just as women do). This coruminatlon and discussion can be seen as “a means of expression in which women acknowledge their lesser status within patriarchal society” (Brown 1994). Socially, men are aware that they are in ultimate power, that there will always be women to have sex with because of their status, and that they don’t need to change themselves or bend to anyone’s preferences. The same cannot be said for the women in the show; men are still seen as a commodity or something that needs feminine keeping and tending to. This again upholds the power structure that is imperative to the illusion of equality for women. It sends the message that while we can participate in the same activities, we will never be able to do it in the same way.

Due to this, Sex and the City uses feminism as a prop, an unavoidable consequence of social evolution, but, still a prop. Hegemonic media becomes aware that radical and fringe groups are becoming too influential, and then tries to water down the message and confuse audiences into thinking that just their acknowledgement is progress due to the societal obscurity of the group or topic. However, media can acknowledge these movements in any way they wish to, and this is evident in Sex and The City. The show touches on the themes of second-wave feminism such as sexual and financial autonomy, themes that are truly attractive to women as individuals, but markets them through a “sexy” and gender-essentialist lens. By giving viewers just enough, the media not only dismisses urgent and dangerous shifts in social structure, but also adds yet another aspirational but nonetheless impossible moving target for women, throwing them completely off of the scent of true equality.

While analysis of a television show from the 1990’s may seem unnecessary, while it may seem as if picking apart the message of a product of its time is redundant, I would challenge the reader to think about the aforementioned cultural influence of Sex and The City, still today more than 20 years later. While, yes, most viewers now know better; most can now separate influence from intent; most can now understand the sheer absurdity of the supposed reality they are depicting, we cannot expect all viewers to come to these conclusions on their own, least of all young viewers. As a young girl, I watched Carrie Bradshaw clack around in expensive heels with her skinny legs and a man always by her side, and I thought that was womanhood. More specifically, I thought Carrie Bradshaw was the ultimate woman. Because this message lined up so perfectly to all of the other gendered media I was consuming (weight loss and transformation shows, princess movies, clothing ads with only one type of model, etc.), I took Carrie Bradshaw to be the truth.

It has taken me until now to realize Carrie Bradshaw is a lie (and debatably, while a lie, I still let her inform my behavior). This matters. While it may seem an inconsequential correlation, the rebranding and watering-down of second-wave feminist ideals so they can better align with American capitalism in media in modern years has left young girls confused about their expected role in the gendered world, and ultimately to be set up for disappointment. Two conflicting messages are represented in the new age of liberal feminism: one being that a girl can now be whatever she wants to be in our world, the second being that the world and the systems that seek to oppress women are unchanging. We are seeing the ill effects of this force-fed contradiction among young women that are trying to pursue this promised liberation in an oppressive and capitalist society. Our systems do not seek to include women in a truly equal way because they operate based on outdated paradigms, despite the marketed messages that state the opposite. It is absolutely no wonder that young girls even more so than young boys feel ideologically and personally disillusioned.

In America, girls every year experience worse depression, worse anxiety, with numbers in depression cases in teen girls rising 66% between 2007 and 2017. We ponder so extensively what can be done to better support teen girls so that they don’t suffer alone, yet, somehow always forget that this quiet suffering is taking place on a mass level. Further, we do nothing to address root causes of girls’ dissatisfaction with themselves, their bodies, their brains, their lives. Carrie Bradshaw is not the reason girls are depressed, neither necessarily is the media. But, the way we approach media, the way we talk about media, the way we consume media has a massive hand in the crisis. We view these images, these carefully and deliberately constructed performance pieces, to be truth. To be realistic and employable final forms, something that a viewer can become if they try hard enough. This is the problem. And, no matter how hard we are made to believe the opposite, nobody, not even Sarah Jessica Parker, can become Carrie Bradshaw.


bottom of page