I own every single DVD from every single season, but despite its very positive attributes, I'm still pretty sure that Sex and the City might be more responsible for fucking up a woman's perception of what's real than any other show in the history of television – and I’m not just saying that because for a few months there, I thought it made perfect sense to pick up my dry cleaning while wearing a puffy pink tutu.
There was the time my mother watched me unwrap a birthday present and gazed at my puzzled face as I held up a long grey taffeta dress that was backless and had a plunging neckline that was designed to make nipples the outfit’s key accessory.
"I thought you could wear it to dinner when you go out with your friends," she said.
Those were the days when I spent most of my time in the city, arriving at my friend’s apartment lugging a bag crammed with a toothbrush, some makeup, about four pairs of shoes for one night, and my dog. She would stick her furry face out of the top of the carrier bag she'd been stuffed into for an hour and she would look entirely pissed off. There wasn’t even a smidgen of an expression of gratitude on her puppy face for the fact that I took her with me everywhere, but then again, Wookie has always been an animal who never warmed to a plush carrier, a carpeted crate stuffed with every squeak toy in the universe, or having bows stuck into her hair.
You’ve kind of got to respect her for all of that.
My friends and I went to great places, but I tried to imagine myself walking though Union Square in my birthday gown. I just couldn't see it happening.
"It's beautiful," I told my mother, her face so proud of her find. "But I think it's more a dress I'd wear to a wedding – or to an awards show in Vegas."
"It reminded me of something Carrie Bradshaw would wear," she responded.
"Yes," I agreed. "But only a fictional character who never went to bed without a bra can get away with such a thing."
I never wore that dress, but I have it still. It hangs in my closet and every time I see it I think about how lovely it was that my mother wanted me to have it. I still have no idea where I'd wear it, and let’s be honest: when I finally go to an awards show, I'll be wearing something strapless.
My cable was recently going on and off like the receiver was possessed by either the devil or by the spirit of a man I might have accidentally destroyed, so to stop myself from being annoyed by faulty technology on a rainy Sunday, I dug out my Sex and the City DVDs and had myself a mini-marathon. I'm on this healthy eating kick, so I indulged in the show while tucking into plain, nonfat Greek yogurt sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa powder. Maybe the scariest part of all of it was not the demon who is definitely living inside my cable box, but how much I have started to pretend that plain, nonfat Greek yogurt sprinkled with unsweetened cocoa powder is the best snack ever.
I started with season two. I hated Carrie's short, puffy hair in season one and I really saw no need to punish myself. And I watched Carrie fall back into a relationship with Mr. Big and then get hurt again when he decided to leave for Paris without a moment of concern for her feelings, refusing to even validate her right to feel lost and confused and angry as fuck.
"He's a bad guy," Carrie softly told her friends at the coffee shop – and she was right.
A few seasons and a terrible movie later, she married him – after he left her at the altar where she stood destroyed, a petrified bird carcass weaved into an unfortunate updo. (Seriously, season after season those hair and makeup artists turned the Carrie character into a stunning doll, a cosmopolitan Barbie – one who actually held a pink cosmopolitan. Why did those transformation Gods turn her into such a hideous-looking bride? Those are legitimately the kinds of questions that keep me up nights, along with whether or not I have read enough true crime books to actually get away with murder myself. I don’t think I’m quite there yet, but I’d say I’m well on my way. I might still need to purchase a shovel.)
Anyway, married Big and Carrie became, fictional characters I had come to know so well. I felt like I maybe knew them even better than some people in my real life because my real friends and family never allow me to hear their innermost thoughts voiceover-style, not even when I'm hallucinating.
I wanted to be happy for my fictional friends, but I left the theatre feeling somehow cheated. And it’s been a lot of years now since the series ended and those awful movies were released, but I still can’t fully untangle the characters and the choices they made from my mind. I suppose there’s something quite profound about the magnitude of resonance a series must have if I’m still contemplating it after all this time, but I wish I thought about it now with greater fondness. Take a show like Lost. See, with that series, I just pretend the final episode never existed and I moved on happily and with a genuine residual affection for the joy it brought me for so many years. I look back now and I still love the twists and turns that were tossed in our path week after week and I am oddly able to forgive the fact that not all of my questions ever got answered. (Who the hell was shooting at our castaways while they were paddling in that boat? Was Walt supposed to be somewhat “special” since apparently birds crashed into windows whenever he was around or was that an example of birds committing suicide and it was just a coincidence that Walt was present? And that terrifying statue, the one that looked like a crocodile had a threesome with a hippopotamus and the largest man on the planet. Who built that statue? Why was it wearing an ankh? And is there a pill I can take to wipe that image from my mind because it’s maybe the scariest hybrid creature I’ve ever seen captured onscreen and it sometimes haunts me still.) All that said, I don’t feel cheated by Lost. It was a show that never fully made sense to me and so I guess I embraced this odd personal agreement with it in the sense that there was a sort of primacy effect put into place the moment I started watching. Psychologically speaking, a primacy effect means that you remember and internalize the first information you’re given and you become more likely to use that information to form a later impression. Lost started with mystery upon mystery being heaved across a television screen. There were unseen monsters that gobbled up airline pilots and polar bears roaming across a tropical island in the very first episode, so I began the series by willingly suspending any kind of disbelief and that internal agreement stayed at the ready until the very last frame of the show aired. But it’s different with a show like Sex and the City. There’s an ingrained element of realism that I think is meant to exist when it’s a story that centers around women living in Manhattan in the present day who are doing conventional things like dating and working. I always found myself more than willing to buy into certain things that were less than realistic – like a writer owning that many pairs of such expensive shoes – but what drew me in wasn’t the fantasy; it was the reality that happened to be stylistically sprinkled with city lights and sequins like urban fairy dust…which someone should immediately bottle and then mass produce.
But when it came to what was meant to be a blissful union and the ultimate emotional payoff, what caused my dismay with Carrie and Big’s nuptials had nothing to do with me being the kind of viewer who wanted Carrie to remain perpetually single. The show was often so well written that I came to feel like I truly knew her, and I want people – and the characters I like – to be happy. And it wasn't that I held out some sort of hope that she'd reconcile with Aiden; by that point I'd kind of forgotten about him. My annoyance was entirely due to the fact that we were asked to believe that Big had changed.
Not only had Big supposedly changed – in his late 40s, like men always do – but the women were changing too. I've lived enough life to know that some aspects of a person's values and mindsets can be altered by major events in life – of course they can. But the changes that grated on me were the little changes, the kinds of things that maybe should have been established a little earlier if they were meant to be even the slightest bit believable.
Let’s take Charlotte. All of a sudden, Charlotte became a character who started shrieking. I counted four piercing shrieks in the overlong first movie alone. Now, for years I'd bought a lot about this character and the kind of behavior she exhibited. Want me to believe she'd let a shoe salesman get off on touching her feet for free sandals? Done. I might require a higher heel to allow a guy to jerk off near me while I pointed and flexed my toes for his pleasure, but to each her own. Expect me to buy that she would convert to Judaism simply for a man? I'll believe that one. I’m from Long Island – I’ve seen more religious conversions than I have NASCAR races. Want to shove it down my throat that overnight Charlotte becomes insanely inspired by Elizabeth Taylor – so much so that seeing an E! True Hollywood Story on the star gives her a burst of strength so massive that she can get up and get dressed after experiencing a devastating miscarriage? Fine. Show me that a guy fell asleep on her during sex and then she banged him again? I might not agree with her choices, but okay, I’ll believe that she believed in her choices. But the enthusiastic shrieks? In public? Um, no. Women do not all of a shrieking sudden begin to bellow with glee in the middle of a scene-y restaurant, especially women as concerned with appropriate levels of public decorum as Charlotte, our WASP-JAP princess.
And Miranda. The redhead was never portrayed as being a particularly googly-eyed emotional creature, but her total inability to enjoy her engagement or her wedding or her honeymoon seemed like the writers were taking her too far. The reasonable character went from controlled to two-dimensional shrew in two shakes of Samantha's tail and it just read as coldly artificial and more than a teensy bit fucked up and the whole thing made me not care at all about her happiness with her husband and child since she seemed so reluctant to embrace it herself.
Even during the movie – until the sequence where the writer decided to give her an unnecessary muffin top that got stuffed into terrible denim – Samantha looked phenomenal. I always liked Samantha, and it’s not just because she was funny and outrageous and marched to the buzz of her own vibrator. I liked her because she was a loyal friend who rarely brought out the judgment – and as someone who struggles sometimes with being judgmental, I was always struck by her unwillingness to go to that dark place when it involved a true friend. I still remember how Carrie went first to Samantha after she started her affair with Big and how Samantha was concerned, but the concern was simply about her friend’s well being. She’s a friend viewers believed could keep a secret and if I ever have to bury that body, I’ll spend my first night on the lam praying that Samantha Jones is actually real and not simply a figment of a writer’s imagination and that maybe I’ll run into her near the ice machine at the sleazy motel I’m hanging out in until the suspicion for the crime is off me entirely. I figure that out of all of them, Samantha is by far the most likely to show up at a sleazy motel.
But of course it’s Carrie who was always the real draw. Maybe no character has ever worn clothes so perfectly – and I was raised on Dynasty! Even the totally ridiculous shit she wore (like the yellow short shorts she wore to play Twister with Jon Bon Jovi) hung like a glossy dream. Sure, there were moments when the costume designer maybe took things a wee bit too far. The times she wore a belt around her bare waist or a loofah strapped to her head to a baby’s Christening were legitimately rough moments for me, but I overlooked them because Carrie was always there for the others and she (or the writers) knew how to deliver comfort with a quip, brutal honesty with a soft verbal embrace. And it’s precisely due to her goodness that makes the character she turned into in both movies such a fucking shame.
Listen: I know what it’s like to be in love with a man who is bad for me. I think a lot of us do. I also know the feeling of lightness that comes with finally getting over that person and I’ll spend my life choosing to carry that gratitude instead of an expensive purse any day. Still, while I certainly have empathy for the pain Carrie had to work through, I will never forgive her for taking Big back just because she found him standing in the massive closet he built for her holding the pair of shoes she’d lost like he was the entrepreneur version of Prince fucking Charming and she the fairy princess who needed to be rescued. I resented it – all of it. I resented how Big didn’t have to illustrate his accountability to the viewers who so closely followed a path he’d been a fixture on for years. I resented that he managed to really win back the love of his life by copying poems other people had written and emailing them to her. Going by that logic, perhaps I can pretend that I could have won back lost paramours by scribbling down the box scores of hockey games on yellow lined paper and mailing them to the guy’s front door or transcribing a chapter from How to Win Friends and Influence People and dropping the pages from the sky like they were locusts, my plagiarized papers standing in as the newest modern plague. I resented how we were asked to believe that a woman so consumed by style would ever get married in some random white suit. And I will always resent that I don’t have a closet so immense in my own home where a dapper man resides, holding a pair of my slingbacks in his hands twenty-four hours a day in case I might have the urge to slip them on.
It’s a weird thing to actually feel betrayed by fiction, but I think it might also be a genuine compliment as well. The only way you can feel a loss is if you felt like something was yours in the first place, and it is perhaps the finest work that allows viewers to embrace characters so completely that we can also feel legitimately angry with them. Still, despite where they ended up – and despite that hideous tuxedo Carrie wore in the second movie, which was even more horrible than the first movie – I’ll always love the basic premise of four women being true friends to one another through the passage of many years. So often we watch entertainment where the female characters are pitted against one another, always gulping down resentment and envy instead of food. Sometimes that fierce competition is played for comedy, like it is in Scream Queens, a show I’m pretty sure is supposed to be hilarious, though I only really laugh hard when Niecy Nash is onscreen as the security guard because nobody says a line with more originality and nuance than that woman. There are also times when female-driven conflicts are played for dramatic effect, illustrating legitimate problems. On Girls, those college friends seem like they kind of hate one another now that they’re all in the real world, at least on a moment by moment basis. And the thing is, there’s a certain realism present on that show because, when you’re in your twenties, you are still figuring shit out, like which friends should earn permanent places in your life and which friends were great fixtures for a very specific period of time, but that time now ceases to exist. Sex and the City appealed to me in that it never presented friendships that wavered. There was perhaps an episode or two where animosity existed between the women, but they got over it quickly and they moved forward. Watching that level of loyalty and love meant something to me – it still does.
I guess what it comes down to is that, the higher standard you hold something or someone to, the greater the level of disappointment that can be created. I’ve written seven pages here about my feelings for Sex and the City, but I couldn’t so much as write a paragraph about Michael Patrick King’s newest series, 2 Broke Girls. There’s just not anything to say about it other than the fact that it’s racist beyond comprehension and every joke is rooted in something sexual and the word “vagina” is stated more frequently in an episode than the word “the.” Oh, and I like the blonde girl’s hair because not everyone can pull off bangs. Other than that, there’s nothing left to say because it’s a shitty piece of entertainment and I never developed real feelings for it in the first place because it sucked in the first place – and in the second place. With Sex and the City, I made a commitment. I invested feelings. I publicly declared my love only to feel like a moron later on when women I’d grown to respect danced in ugly caftans across a stage in Dubai singing I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar). And I’d sooner crawl towards Big in a closet where he’s holding a pair of flip-flops he bought for me at Duane Reade than harmonize with the ladies on that stage to that song.
There does, however, remain inside of me a level of affection for the show and for Carrie Bradshaw in particular. I see a clip now as I scroll through the channels and I smile at the way she walked down a city street carrying a white lace parasol on a sunny summer day. I still laugh at how terrible her first sexual experience was with a man she anticipated having insane chemistry with because the moment was tragically relatable. I even almost feel like one day I’ll finally forgive her for wearing that full ball skirt with a Dior tee as she wandered through a dusty outdoor marketplace in the second movie, but I’m not quite there yet. I guess what really remains is a sense of affection and nostalgia for something I once cared about, an urban fairytale I wanted to believe in that no longer feels present or innocent in the way it once did. I can no longer slip my arms around it because I no longer want to hold it close. What once made it special now feels compromised, forever changed – and all I can do now is tell myself that maybe it’s me who changed and then move on with a rueful smile while sliding that pink tutu onto my hips every once in a happy while.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.