For the 20th anniversary of Sex and the City—which premiered on HBO on June 6, 1998 and went on to become iconic prestige television—Jezebel is doing a week of posts dedicated to our favorite band of sexual women friends.
I first discovered Sex and the City when it was well past its prime, via the popular—if lightly bowdlerized—reruns on TBS, and I would always dismiss it. Too much talk about shopping. Finally, it was the spate of coverage around the show’s 15th anniversary in 2013—in particular, Emily Nussbaum’s standout critical reassessment for The New Yorker—that got me to watch. Sex and the City has been pilloried over the years as a shallow chronicle of ephemeral trends, but imagine experiencing the show not as a take-spawning commentary on Women in Our Era, but as something rather different: a historical document.
On the air and immediately after, Sex and the City was subject to a flattening argument about whether it was empowering or cheapening, realistic or fantastical. As its premiere recedes into the distance, that simplistic analysis begins to fall away. Now, it’s not only a chronicle of things and ideas that fascinated us, but a source that can become richer and weirder and more conflicted as a text, a relic of how a certain slice of media approached topics like: vibrators.
The Wire has often been described as this incredible piece of reportage, a document of our time, comparable to Dickens. As Nussbaum wrote in her essay, Sex and the City is part of what spurred the modern prestige TV business, but it was rarely talked about in those terms, instead dismissed as a fundamentally frivolous show that cared about nothing but shoes and clothes and cocktails. But those ephemeral details are exactly the ones that are so difficult to reconstruct, decades down the line. Someday, we’ll want to reconstruct them, and Sex and the City will be a valuable resource.
Watching Sex and the City for the first time in the 2010s felt like reading an Émile Zola novel, perhaps The Ladies Paradise, the one about the department store. This was, in fact, the best possible way to experience it. The series is dated precisely because of its hyper-specificity—it’s a product of its time and milieu. Really, it’s beyond dated, to the point that what seems a flaw at first glance becomes a virtue.
This is something that was hammered home by the experience of viewing a show that was set in a wildly limited territory of Manhattan while sitting in my Queens apartment, on a streaming service on a laptop—and watching these women use clunky cordless landlines and, oh my god, answering machines. Technological hallmarks of the era suddenly seem as old-timey as a gramophone.
SATC makes for a fascinating time capsule of fashion, a faithful observer of trends flying past like highway signs. Statement bags, styles of heels, color palettes, patterns. (Remember that era where you could buy those very specifically shaped, 1970s-style headband scarves at Old Navy?) You could probably build an entire food-writing cottage industry on the show’s depiction of trendy restaurants, too. Samantha used her job as a power publicist to gain the women access to spots that were hot, but what passed for hot in 2000 increasingly might as well be the Gilded Age high season of Delmonico’s.
The further we get from the early 2000s, the more striking the period details. Episode 2 is a perfect illustration. There’s an ancient, brick-like flip phone; a fashion show as a scene-y New York City phenomenon (rather than an act of showrooming for digital media influencers, staged for the ’gram); and a Soho loft actually used by an artist as a proper studio.
The episode even features an early version of the nonconsensual sex tape, in the form of an artist who secretly videotapes himself with models. Carrie is more fascinated than horrified, though she immediately warns off Samantha, who finds the concept so exciting that she seeks it out. You could spend thousands of words unpacking this episode alone.
Of course, Candace Bushnell saw it all coming. In a New York Times oral history, executive producer Darren Star said:
When we did the pilot, Candace took me on a trip to the Four Seasons Nevis. I remember her saying, “They’re going to teach this show at universities.” I was, like, “What are you talking about? I hope this show gets on the air.” She was very gung-ho from the beginning. I was thinking, “Am I going to work again? Are people going to misinterpret this and think it’s pornographic?”
Of course, like all primary source texts, this one cannot be taken purely at face value. The show was always a fantasy—that apartment was not realistic on that salary, even in the New York of yore. Carrie’s was a TV apartment, and the economics of her life did not make sense, lacking the behind-the-scenes scramble of Bushnell’s real life as a freelancer, before she sold her book. (Also, I’m really not sure the Judith Leiber episode is entirely faithful to the reality of who actually loved those bags.)
Maybe the best comparison is portraiture; a Holbein is highly constructed and cannot be taken purely literally, and yet those portraits from the Tudor court say plenty about the culture that produced them.
What Sex and the City really reminds me of is the other thing for which Chris Noth is best known: Law and Order, an accidental chronicle of New York City’s changing face between 1990 and 2010. Play them off each other and for better or for worse, you get a big chunk of the story of New York at the dawn of the 21st Century.
Anniversary content is an almost morbid reminder of the passage of time, a digital media memento mori. Here’s an image that oddly enough makes me feel young, or at least sufficiently disembodied to distract me from the thought of the gray hairs starting to sprout: a century and a half from now, when we’re all dead and dust, there will be historians sitting in hushed libraries, headphones on, watching episodes of Sex and the City that seem impossibly grainy, taking notes on designer shoes and It bags and mass market fantasies of Manhattan real estate and conversations about blowjobs.