sex and the city
GenderSexuality and Gender

The phallic centre of Sex and the City

My flatmate and I have a saying – “good trash.” When we know something is bad, less intellectually astute than the political documentaries and boundary-pushing foreign dramas we know we should be watching, we throw it on the “good trash” pile. It is the heap to which we have sentenced many a TV show – The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills (don’t judge), Five Guys a Week (if you’ve never seen it, you’re missing out), and pretty much everything that exists on Disney+.

The latest convict to make its way to the “good trash” penitentiary is Sex and the City. An iconic show, it’s being revived as ‘And Just Like That’ on HBO later this year, and people are going out of their minds for it. It’s like we’ve all been transported back to 2002 (which, FYI, I wouldn’t completely mind as 2002 was a pretty good year for me – I was four years old and had absolutely no knowledge of the phrase “student loan repayments”).

However, when you bring up the past, especially a popular, glitzy, American TV show in the past, you’re bound to bring up some things that don’t quite ‘cut the mustard’ in 2021, to invoke a phrase that my mother used to embarrass me with.

When it comes to Sex and the City, there’s a lot for contemporary viewers to baulk at. We’re only three seasons into the obligatory pre-revival-rewatch, and the show is beset by issues that not even the writers could have pre-empted (and some that they really should have foreseen – the complete lack of non-cis, non-white representation springs to mind).

Defenders of the show often say that Sex and the City is supposed to be a fantasy, and therefore is deliberately unrealistic. I am inclined to agree with them. Yes, the complete dismissal of any experience that isn’t incredibly white, upper-middle-class, and privileged, would be considered problematic in contemporary society.

However, the show is, by definition, decadent and frivolous. It isn’t supposed to fill the gap left in the TV schedule by The Wire. It would be unfair to expect that of Sex and the City because that is not what the writers had in mind at its conception. If you want gritty realism, go watch The Wire (and you really should – it’s pretty great).

Official Trailer
Sex and the city
Credit: Film Daily

The amount of disposable income Carrie and her friends seem to possess – enough to buy $400 Manolo’s on a whim – is unfeasible. As they are all single and living alone in one of the most expensive cities on earth, even in the nineties… well, it makes no sense.

The only way it would make sense was if their families were secret Russian oil oligarchs. Spoiler alert, they’re not. In fact, at multiple points in the show, Carries runs out of money. However, instead of only shopping at Walmart and spending her evenings at home with a book like a regular person, she simply tries (and fails) to stop buying so many $40 cocktails at Upper-East Side restaurants every night of the week. Still, her financial hardships dissipate by the time the next episode rolls around.

Again, this is another example of the show’s fantastical nature. It would be no fun to watch a woman descend into financial difficulties and to stay that way until her apartment is eventually repossessed and she is forced to live on the street. You cannot expect Sex and the City to combat issues that it never intended on raising in the first place. Sex and the City exists in a bubble; a bubble consisting predominantly of Birkin bags, unending Cosmopolitans, and unspecified property prices.

However watertight this argument may appear to be, that “you cannot expect Sex and the City to combat issues that it never intended on raising in the first place,” it falls at the final hurdle. Namely, when it comes to its eponymous hero – sex. The HBO hit is indeed a fantasy, and therefore one would expect its representation of sex to be as implausibly flawless as the rest of the show. However, the show’s representation of sex is what made my flatmate and I so uneasy.

Despite the professed sexual empowerment of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte, there are countless occasions where their sexual escapades seem problematic rather than empowered. At many points in the show, the main characters seem pressured to conform to the romantic and sexual appetites of men.

At one point in season two, Charlotte is pressured into giving a blowjob. The guy in question suggests that if she doesn’t agree to give him one, then that would be enough of a reason for him to cheat on her a couple of months down the line. In this situation, the guy actually kept shoving her head down towards his crotch, and although she eventually broke up with the guy over the issue, it was never stated that his pushy and entitled behaviour was wrong.

Also in season two, Charlotte is pushed into having a threesome that she doesn’t actually want, simply because “everyone is doing it.” When she does finally consent, the guy just leaves her in the dust. Furthermore, also in season two, Charlotte is pressured into having anal sex – however, this time it is not by a man but by her best friends. Samantha warns her that she’d be likely to lose her man if she didn’t bow to his desires.

Despite this, the very essence of Samantha is that she doesn’t give in to any man’s desires for her.

Sex and the city
Credit: HBO

It isn’t just Charlotte who has her sexual experiences continually manipulated and marred by men. Carrie is constantly rejected by a man who is at best, old fashioned, and at worst, deeply misogynistic and superficial. Despite his obvious flaws, she blindly chases after him for six seasons until the show’s finale, where she finally “gets” him, and he gives her the walk-in wardrobe that she always dreamed of.

Although this is clearly meant by the writers as a tongue-in-cheek fairy-tale ending (and it is one that many fans of the show were absolutely delighted with) it isn’t consistent with the show’s view of female independence. It completely falls short of the message of sex being something women shouldn’t compromise on.

In fact, the show seems to suggest that this view of female sexuality, that of independent women getting what they want from men, is in itself a fantasy. The show’s ending gestures towards the unrealistic nature of female independence, as though it is something that could never actually exist. The ending suggests that the only thing that is truly real is a love of a rich, yet deeply unlikeable, man.

It is not the show’s depiction of women that I resist – it is the show’s depiction of men. Despite the show’s feminist stance, it has a phallic centre. To paraphrase Miranda, can’t four intelligent women find anything to talk about other than men? And especially such terrible men.

There isn’t a single man in the show who is particularly likeable, or three-dimensional, or even just nice. Even Skipper, purported by the girls to be one of the “nice guys,” drops other women immediately – like, even when he is literally having sex with another woman – every time Miranda gives him a mere minute of her attention.

Some might call this another fantasy trope – the men aren’t supposed to be three-dimensional, or complicated, or nice. They are props used by the writers to explore feminine issues; in this way, it can be likened to the way TV shows usually use women as props for the (always male) character to fetishize, romanticize, and dismiss. 

I would agree with this perspective if it weren’t for the show’s ending. Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, all end up with somebody. In doing so, they undermine the message of feminine sexual empowerment that runs through the show. Mind you, I will still watch the show.

It is perfect escapism, and I know it isn’t supposed to be a truth-seeking satire. However, I do think it’s important not to become too enraptured by the fantasy Sex and the City offers its viewers. As the show likes to remind you, such female independence is a tightly woven mirage designed to obstruct a woman’s “happily ever after.” Apparently.