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Toxic Takeaways - What Sex and the City Got Wrong

"When did this happen? When did the sexes get all confused?"   

When Sex and the City first aired in 1998,

the show was hailed as refreshingly candid and real

in how it depicted love, sex, and being a woman in New York City.

"A guy gets angry in a meeting, he's a pistol.

A woman, she's emotional."

But looking back, was it really so progressive?

While it discussed sex with an admirable frankness,

many of the insights it made and conclusions it came to fell short.

Too often it upheld regressive ideas about sexuality.

"I don't think she's a lesbian, I think she just ran out of men."

And instead of breaking down barriers for everyone,

it fostered problematic stereotypes around gender, race, and class.

"I am paying a fortune to live in a neighborhood

that's trendy by day, and tranny by night."

And so, as much as there is to love about this show,

we can't help but wonder: what did Sex and the City get wrong?

"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Sista's gotta get ready!"

Here are the Toxic Takeaways of Sex and the City:

Toxic Takeaway #1: Women only talk about men.

For a show that is ostensibly about female empowerment

and successful women,

Sex and the City spends a remarkable amount

of its screen time revolving around men.

"How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing

to talk about but boyfriends?"

In its essence, the show barely passes The Bechdel Test,

which requires that a TV show or a film

contain any scenes of more than one woman

having a conversation about something other than a man.

"After all the hours I've spent listening to you people talk

about your relationships."

"You do that?"

"I make the courtesy call.

Do you think you love him? Blah, blah, blah."

While of course there are plenty of examples of Carrie and her friends

talking about other subjects,

everything always seems to come back to relationships.

"Miranda has a son."

"Just what the world needs. Another man."

When Charlotte and Carrie go to the opera together,

it's not some glamorous girls night out.

Charlotte is using Carrie because she could not go with

the man she wanted to take.

"Besides if you hadn't been available tonight,

I would be here all alone, just some pathetic, dateless freak!"

She even makes an angry call

to the guy who was supposed to set them up from the lobby,

completely ignoring Carrie who likewise ditches Charlotte

upon seeing Mr. Big in the crowd.

How good can their friendship really be

if they can't spend one night together,

just the two of them, without men getting in the way?

"Isn't the opera romantic?" "Even more so with a man."

"Well I did expect to be taking Phil." 

Toxic Takeaway #2: Experiment sexually,

but don't be a slut.

"How could you forget someone you slept with?"

"Toto, I don't think we're in single digits anymore."

What set Sex and the City apart from its contemporaries

was how honestly and extensively it talked about and depicted sex.

"I'm a try-sexual. I'll try anything once."

Maybe the biggest surprise, then, is just how conservative and prudish

the show can be about sexuality.

"If I walked in on you giving a [BLEEP]-job

to a worldwide express guy-"

"You would never walk in on me

because that is something that I would never do."

Of the four when, it's Samantha who most embodies the sexual freedom

and exploration the show is purportedly all about,

yet her friends mock, judge, and slut-shame her.

"Sex is something special.

It's supposed to happen between two people who love each other."

"Or two people who love sex." 

"Oh my God! You're such a-"

"A what? What am I, Charlotte?"

Privately, Carrie holds herself

to a more old-fashioned standard of purity.

"But wow many men is too many men?

Are we simply romantically challenged,

or are we sluts?"

The women besides Samantha also aren't truly open

to any kinds of sex that aren't totally vanilla.

"How did they get the message that the ass is now on the menu?"

When they go to an S&M restaurant, all aside from Samantha are

pretty squeamish about the whole idea of fetishes.

"I wonder what your fetish is."

When Miranda does indulge in public sex,

the validity of her relationship is immediately dismissed by her friends.

"This is supposed to be a relationship,

not outward bound.

You've gotta get this guy in a bedroom

and find out what's really there."

And when Carrie equates her on-again off-again relationship with Big

to an S&M relationship, this comparison is supposed 

to illuminate how dysfunctional the relationship is with Mr. Big.

"Why do I keep doing this to myself? I must be a masochist or something.

That's when I first realized it. I was in an S & M relationship."

Worst of all, this show, which revolves around Carrie Bradshaw

writing a column about expanding your understanding of sex,

"I'm sort of a sexual anthropologist."

only explores heteronormative relationships with any depth,

while wantonly propagating harmful myths about LGBTQ people, like: 

Toxic Takeaway #3:  Bisexuality Doesn't Exist.

"The weird thing is he was so open about it.  

'Hi, I'm a bisexual,' like um… 'Hi, I'm from Colorado!' or something."

In the episode Boy, Girl, Boy, Girl,

when Carrie finds out the man she's dating is bisexual,

the revelation effectively stops the relationship in its tracks.

"What kinda question is that? Is that a problem?"

"Of course it's a problem!" 

Her ensuing conversation with her friends is full of

damaging misconceptions about bisexuality.

"I'm not even sure bisexuality exists,

I think it's just a layover on the way to gaytown." 

  This bi-erasure crops up again

when Samantha starts dating a Brazillian artist, Maria,

and despite her clear attraction to men,  

suddenly redefines herself as a lesbian.

"What am I supposed to say?

'Hi, this is my lesbian lover, and PS, I'm done with d-[BLEEP]'"  

Her friends immediately question the relationship's authenticity.

"Oh please, she isn't having a relationship,

she's just doing this to bug us."

From there, the show shallowly engages in cliches about lesbian relationships

until Samantha gets bored.

"Don't tell me you're in a Sapphic slump!"

"Oh please. All we ever do is lie around,

take baths together and talk about feelings." 

Toxic Takeaway #4: Trans people don't deserve respect.

For the most part the show ignores the transgender community,

but when they are depicted it's with ridicule and ignorance.

"There they were, Samantha's friendly neighborhood pre-op transexual hookers.

Half man, half woman, 

totally annoying."   

The portrayal of trans people as essentially freakish,

literally creatures of the night,

occupying some space between male and female,

serves to other them.

"Chicks with d-[BLEEP], boobs on top, balls down below."

"It's the other white meat."

At best, queer characters in the show are treated as loveable accessories:

"It's midnight, he's gay. He has to start his night."

Stanford Blatch, who exists only in relation to Carrie,

is the "Gay Best Friend,"

an all too common trope in which gay characters are there

to serve the straight ones as a kind of lip-service

to the idea of representation.

As journalist Philip Ellis says, "When you're the gay best friend, 

you become an accessory,

like the latest handbag."  

Vogue's Emma Specter writes that,   

"Carrie genuinely seems to view Stanford as less than,

not deserving of the same consideration that her straight,

female friends warrant."

"You guys wanna have drinks with the Russian tomorrow night?"

"Sure."

"Ooh I'm in."

"Me too!"

"Oh sweetie I'm sorry, it's just the girl's this time."

If one gay best friend character is unfortunate,

then two is downright careless,

but in Anthony Marantino, Charlotte has her own Stanford,

on hand to offer her advice and bolster her confidence.

"I have the best memories of my prom. I was the prom queen.

"Of course you were, darling"

And then, to top it off,

the two gay best friends eventually marry each other

in Sex and the City 2.

"It's the clichéd, 

condescending hetero fantasy," says Salon's Thomas Rogers,

"the one in which you introduce the only two gay men you know,

and magically, the sparks fly."

"Her best gay friend is marrying my best gay friend!"

The show similarly reduces gay women to limiting stereotypes

when Charlotte befriends some "power lesbians".

"Power lesbians and their shoes are like Wall Street brokers and their cigars."

Toxic Takeaway #6: Everyone who matters is rich.

Despite living in a city where nearly everyone feels

constant financial pressure,

the four main characters eat in expensive restaurants,

shop with abandon, dress up for fancy parties,

and seemingly never have to worry about money.

"Later that week I had a religious experience

at Manolo Blahnik."

In the rare moments when financial stress is discussed,

it's from an attitude of privilege and entitlement.

"I'm homeless, I'll be a bag lady, a Fendi bag lady, but a bag lady."

"Last time I took the bus it was like 75 cents.

You know for 3 more bucks you could take a cab?"

Carrie is painfully unaware that there's another class of people

who could hardly relate to her problem of having spent so much money on shoes

that she can't afford to buy an apartment.

"I spent $40,000 on shoes and I have no place to live?

I will literally be the old woman who lived in her shoes."

Sex and the City's attitude toward money all seems in service

of protecting its myth of New York.

"New York City is really the fifth character."

So if we take that as gospel, then what kind of character is it?

Most fundamentally, it's a character who's rich.  

In this show, wealth is inherently aspirational,

sexy, and mysterious.

"See that guy? He's the next Donald Trump,  

except he's younger and much better looking."

New York needs to feel like it belongs to Carrie,

Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte.

Every pair of shoes, or bag, or cocktail or dinner they buy,

they're buying another part of the city.

"Honey, it's not so much the style as what carrying it means."

"It means you're out $4,000."

"Exactly. When I'm tooling around town with that bag

I'll know I've made it."

On top of that, they're included in an elite New York bubble,

with open access to a magical inner circle.

"Capote Duncan, he's supposedly some big shot

in the publishing world."

"Do you know him?"

"Did I know him?

He was one of the city's most notoriously ungettable bachelors."

And what of the people who don't belong to that secret elite? 

"You're talking about more than a difference in income.

You're talking about a difference in background and education.

This guy is working class."

When Miranda begins dating someone below her financial station,

it's realistic that the show explores how this leads to tensions

in Miranda's and Steve's relationship.

"I returned the suit. Frankly, I couldn't afford it."

"Then why didn't you let me pay for it?"

But the writing mainly sees it as Steve's problem.

"Being in that store with you, I didn't feel good about myself."

He's painted as too insecure to accept Miranda's success.

"There's always going to be things outside of my reach."

"So I'm being punished for being successful."

When Samantha discovers the man she's dating has a servant,

far from the show expressing any empathy for this woman,

the plot quickly becomes about how inappropriately rude

this employee is to Samantha.

"Should-should I have my breakfast in the dining room or-"

"Breakfast? I got no time to make breakfast."

"Sum was very rude to me the other morning.

She practically threw me out of bed."   

This employee is, unsurprisingly, a person of color, which brings us to:

Toxic Takeaway #7: Everyone who matters is white.

"And your okra wasn't all that!"

In Sex and the City's version of New York City,

one of the most multicultural cities in the world,

people of color are mostly absent or treated as set dressing.

Most problematic is the number of people of color

who are only shown in roles of servitude

to the white characters.

"Enjoy."

"Isn't she the best?

I tell ya I could not live without her."

The history of TV has taught us you can only get away with

presenting a whitewashed New York City for so long.

Shows like Friends and Girls eventually tried to counteract

their whiteness through love interests played by people of color.

"I'm one of the instructors, Paul-Louis."

And the final season of Sex and the City

likewise brought in Blair Underwood as Dr. Robert Leeds,

a love interest for Miranda who was pretty much perfect

— kind, handsome, successful and good with Miranda's baby.

In the end, though, Robert is really just there to help Miranda realize

she wants to get back with her far less impressive,

white boyfriend Steve.

"I don't get it. Miranda could've had Blair Underwood,

but she settled for Steve?"

"Oh, but you do get it, sir."

Toxic Takeaway #8:

It's okay to stereotype and fetishize people of color.

Looking back, even Miranda's attraction to Robert was problematic.

Miranda is drawn to the idea of an inter-racial relationship

because she's obsessed with a TV show about one. 

"If there wasn't a Jules and Mimi marathon on BBC America this weekend,  

I'd have jumped out the window."

"Hey, speaking of handsome black men,  

have you spotted any more of Dr. Knicks?"

But the show's worst instance of fetishization is Samantha's fling

with successful, beautiful music industry executive Chivon,

a role Blair Underwood said he turned down

"It was all about the curiosity of 'what's the black man like?

Are the rumors true?'"

"I said I'm not interested in being the black curiosity."  

Chivon becomes a window into the black community in New York,

or rather, how white people view the black community in New York

"That is one fine-looking man. I'd like to get me some of that."

"Don't talk like that."

"Like what?"

"You know…"

"Oh, relax with the knee-jerk liberal reaction.

That wasn't black talk."

The club he takes Samantha to plays hardcore, heavy gangsta rap,

and makes a point of doing a security check before entry,

implying that there is an inherent criminality

in the black community.

Samantha also uses the relationship as a way to code-switch,

adopting stereotypical black vernacular for no apparent reason.

"Holding onto those nasty cigarettes, well, that's just wack."

"Please tell me she didn't just say wack."

Predictably, the show also leans into stereotypes about

black men's penis size and hypersexuality.

"Yes, he does have a big black cock."

"It's big African-American cock."

"I hope you can sleep in a little."

"Sleep?"

Meanwhile, Chivon's sister,

Adeena, is an embodiment of the "angry black woman" trope.

"I don't care how many Jennifer Lopez looking dresses  

you have hanging up in your closet." 

  But despite  

all the stereotyping in this episode,

it's Samantha who is portrayed as the victim.

"I have a problem with my only brother getting serious with a white woman." 

  Other  

episodes also give us reductive stereotypes

of people of color.

Maria is every inch the "Spicy Latina,"

while Jewish men, according to Jenny Singer,

"Come in two varieties: revolting-but-endearing, and pervert."

Toxic Takeaway #9: Every woman needs a man.

"Everyone needs a man!"

As much as Sex and the City is a story

about women's independence and female friendship,

it's also a story about growing up.

When we meet the characters in their early 30s,

Samantha a little older, there's a feeling that

their wildest days in the city may be behind them, and now,

they're looking ahead at what they really want out of life.

"I can't believe you're getting married.

Is this the beginning? Are you next?" 

Depressingly, by the end of the series,

it seems what everyone really wants is a man.

And in helping each woman obtain that lofty goal,

the show completely erases a lot of what's come before.

"Maybe we could be each other's soulmates.  

And then we could let men be just these great nice guys

to have fun with."

Take Big and Carrie's Hollywood ending in the Sex and the City movie,

where Big builds Carrie a walk-in closet.

"It's love at first sight."

Cynthia Nixon was reportedly devastated by the scene, saying:

"To have this [scene] be a climax of the film,

that your very wealthy husband built you a nice closet for your clothes,

I thought, 'Wow, that's not really what you love about the show, is it?'

Cause that's not what we were making it for."

Christina Marfice writes,

"Sex and the City wasn't about the romantic relationships.

They were merely there to show the impermanence of romance

and to juxtapose it against the staying power

of female friendships."

"No matter who broke your heart or how long it takes to heal,

you'll never get through it without your friends."

Yet in the end, it's the relationships that are everyone's prize.

"Carrie you're the one."    

Toxic Takeaway #10: Love should be dramatic.

"Real love. Consuming… can't-live-without-each-other love."

The show's tentpole romance between Carrie and Mr. Big,

a constant from the very first episode to the very last,

is sustained by its uncertainty.

The fact they seem to be at different places in their lives,

to want different things, have different values,

the fact that nothing is ever simple with Carrie and Big,

is presented as what makes their relationship unique,

special, and worth fighting for.

"It took me a really long time to get here. But I'm here."

Carrie and Big's relationship thrives on drama.

Big gets under her skin, frustrates and antagonises her.

"One minute he's all over me and the next minute

he's pushing me away and I just cannot believe

this is happening again."

But moments which should have been red flags and evidence that

the relationship wasn't right for Carrie instead

became another obstacle they could overcome.

"What is it you have to say?"

"I made a mistake."

"[BLEEP] you."

"I love you."

Carrie's other relationships are written off

because they lack this drama.

"I'm used to the uh… ya know the hunt.

And this… is effortless. It's just… it's freaking me out."

Aiden is essentially perfect. He puts Carrie first.

But compared to the peaks and troughs of Big, that isn't enough.

"How could it feel so good when it's so bad?"

"Honey, they design it that way."

Then there's the equally depressing moral

of Miranda's central relationship:

Toxic Takeaway #11: Don't expect too much.

Of the four women, Miranda is the most invested in her career.

"A law firm softball game is like any other,

except when a lawyer steals a base, he gets promoted."

Yet she ends up with Steve,

a man who's so threatened by Miranda earning more than him,

it moves him to anger.

"Let's try 800 on the card, I'll write you a cheque for 1000,

and I'll give you the rest in cash."

"Steve forget it, it's too expensive."

"Would you just let me buy the f-[BLEEP] suit."

In the end, this epitome of the independent working woman

must learn to put her family first,

as she moves out of her beloved Manhattan for Brooklyn,

"You owe it to all of us, you, me, Brady, Scout, Fatty…

to really look at this place."

And embraces a more selfless side

by caring for her husband's difficult mom.

"What you did… that is love. You love."

It may be true that many people find happiness in living for others

and lowering their expectations,

but it's a depressing moral to send

that the show's most independent woman must learn

to be less independent and ask less out of her life.

"You had a window for sex?"

"I'm sorry, I'm a lawyer, I get tired."

"Yeah well I'm a bartender and I get awfully tired of

dealing with other people's neuroses."

"Miranda had never felt less like a successful lawyer in her life."

Then, in the movie, after Steve cheats and blames Miranda,

"You and I hadn't had sex in a really long time.

It just happened once, and it's been killing me."

"It's killing you?"

again the story drives home the point that Miranda should compromise.

"You won't even consider forgiving Steve

for something he did six months ago."

Toxic Takeaway #12:

But wanting fairytale romance is stupid.

Sex and the City may give Carrie a fairytale ending

— Big literally proposing at the end of the movie

by placing a shoe on her foot, Cinderella-style

— but the show repeatedly mocks and abuses Charlotte for wanting

precisely this kind of romance.

"He could really be the one."

"Charlotte, honey. You've only known him for two weeks.

You can know his e-mail address, you cannot know he's the one."

As we discussed in our Charlotte video,

Charlotte can only find happiness after she gives up

her most damaging misconceptions about what love looks like.

"Harry's not who I expected to fall in love with, but I did."

Yet it's hypocritical of the show to suggest that Charlotte's values

of romance and family are inherently inferior to

the other women's emphasis on independence and self-determination

— especially when it ends up giving its main heroine

exactly the Hollywood ending that Charlotte dreamt of. 

Despite all these toxic takeaways, in the context of its times, 

Sex and the City was still incredibly edgy,

and had positive real world consequences.

Kayleigh Dray writes,

"Researchers found that in the Nineties,

only 42% of Americans believed premarital sex was 'not immoral'…

Post-SATC, though, that number jumped by a whopping 16%."

"I drink coffee, and have sex, and buy pies,

and enjoy battery operated devices."

Moreover, it was one of the first shows to show

female friendship in a realistic way

- both in its frank discussions around sex,

and in how it featured topics like miscarriages,

abortion, infertility,

and trying to have a career in a patriarchal society.

"It turns out Julian had an agenda as well.

But it was cleverly hidden. From then on, once a month,

when I went to Vogue,

I thought it best to work exclusively with Enid."  

  So perhaps  

it's best to view Sex and the City

as a kind of time capsule of the late 90s and 2000s —

how it embodied prevalent attitudes of its time,

while significantly moving the dial.

If twenty years later it still felt completely relevant,

then something would definitely be wrong. 

"I love alcoholics. Hell, I hope to be one someday.  

That was a joke." "That's not funny, yet."