The ‘Sex and the City’ creators tell Moneyish why the show still resonates 20 years later — and what could be upgraded.
Twenty years after “Sex and the City” debuted on HBO, we couldn’t help but wonder: How has the series about 30-something NYC women chasing big dreams (and Mr. Big) shaped the way single ladies are depicted on television — and everywhere else?
Writer Candace Bushnell, whose early ’90s “Sex and the City” columns in the New York Observer inspired the hit series, told Moneyish that pop culture deemed single women in their 30s as “social pariahs” when the show first premiered on June 6, 1998.
“I’m not saying that single 30-somethings weren’t having a great time — we were; it was the ’90s — but society in a sense shunned the single woman; there was something wrong with you,” she said. “And something that many women today take for granted is that ‘Sex and the City’ allowed women to imagine their lives taking a different course than getting married and having kids in their 20s, and relying on a man. ‘Sex and the City’ was really about a new time in women’s lives when they were delaying marriage and childbirth.”
Darren Star, who adapted Bushnell’s book into the HBO series, had already hit commercial success with “Beverly Hills: 90210” and “Melrose Place” in the ’80s and ’90s. He told Moneyish that “SATC” appealed to him as a creative outlet to push the envelope, since being on cable freed him from broadcast network constraints like showing nudity or brands that might conflict with advertisers.
“We didn’t follow the mold of what was considered a ‘commercial comedy’ at the time — it was R-rated, and it was filmed without a laugh track,” he said. “And where network comedy was very sanitized — the comedy came from the innuendo — the humor on ‘Sex and the City’ came from being very frank and honest about sex, and hearing people talk about sex in ways that hadn’t been discussed on television before.”
More importantly, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) were fierce females getting candid about anal and oral sex over countless rounds of cosmos. “I certainly knew women who talked that way in real life, but you didn’t see it on TV,” added Star. “I’m proud of the fact that the show portrayed women who owned their sexuality in a really positive way.”
Former New York Daily News television columnist David Hinckley agreed. “‘Sex and the City’ took the more traditional model of TV women, whose real dream was to find the right guy and win him by pleasing him, and said, ‘Screw this. What about if he should also be pleasing me?’” he told Moneyish.
But anyone who’s watched all 94 episodes and both feature films (which made $703 billion combined worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo) knows the show was more about friends than flings. “Men were important, but the most important relationships were with one another,” said Star.
And that has been the secret to its staying power. “‘Sex and the City’ developed four female buddies who were interesting both collectively and individually, and did it in a way that spoke to women from 10 to 90,” said Hinckley. “OK, the show wasn’t designed for 10-year-olds, but an edited version played on non-premium TV for years, and developed quite a cult following among tweens and young teens.”
Bushnell said that when she moved to New York in the ’80s, she knew only two people, and quickly built a circle of friends that became family. “You couldn’t survive your 20s and 30s in New York without your female friends, so that bonding between women is a really, really important aspect of ‘Sex and the City’ that is still true today,” she said.
And as a result, Hinckley notes that some nod to “Sex and the City” can be found in almost any ensemble show that features independent female characters. “‘Lipstick Jungle,’ which was based on another Candace Bushnell tale, may be the most obvious,” he said, “but you also see ‘Sex and the City’ in shows as niched as ‘The L Word’ or ‘Unreal,’ and as mainstream as ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘New Girl.’ And ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ one of the great young-adult TV shows, had a lot less graphic sex, but still came directly from the ‘Sex and the City’ playbook.”
Some aspects of the show haven’t aged as well, such as the fact that the core four were all white and straight, with the exception of Samantha exploring a lesbian relationship for a few episodes. That’s something Sarah Jessica Parker addressed in a conversation with Time’s Up leader Tina Tchen recently at The Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival.
“I think it would be a different show (today), frankly,” she said. “I think, first of all, there were no women of color, let’s talk about that, on that show. And there weren’t substantive conversations about, you know, the LGBT … things changed. And I would be curious to see how (Carrie) fits into contemporary life today. It’d be certainly interesting. And I’m not opposed to figuring it out.”
“It’s hard to imagine that any show with four main characters would make them all white and straight today,” agreed Hinckley. “On the other hand, HBO’s ‘Girls,’ another direct descendant of ‘Sex and the City,’ didn’t go much for diversity, and the fans didn’t seem to mind.”
But “SATC” has had staying power in many other ways. It was one of the first shows to actually shoot around New York City, compared to fellow ’90s hits “Friends” and “Seinfeld,” which were also set in New York but mainly filmed on sound stages in L.A. Two decades later, a record 52 primetime episodic television series filmed in New York City in 2016, a 13% increase from the previous year, creating 70,000 jobs and contributing close to $9 billion annually to the local economy.
And filming in the streets of New York put local restaurants like Sushi Samba and exclusive clubs like Bungalow 8 on the map. But nothing compares to the sweet chaos created by a brief scene of Carrie and Miranda eating Magnolia cupcakes in the West Village, which owner Steve Abrams told the New York Post led to “quadrupled” sales after the episode aired. “There were no lines [out the door] before ‘Sex and the City’ … [then the shop was suddenly doing] 2 or 3 million in sales,” he said. It also made the high-end labels of the elite, particularly expensive shoes from Manolo, Louboutin and Jimmy Choo, household names.
“The audience felt like they could go out and experience the lives of these characters because we were showing real New York places” and designer brands, said Star. “They were living really great, fun lives, and it turned objectification on its head. Women were objectifying men (Marathon Man or Mr. Big), whereas it had always been the other way around.”
© 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved