The Class Politics Of ‘Sex And The City,’ And Why The Show Became A Punching Bag


Credit: New Line Entertainment

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Last week, the New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum wrote a terrific piece that explains how Sex and the City, a comedy that began running before The Sopranos premiered and became the model for the Golden Age of television that followed, as she put it, “lost its good name,” fell out of the canon, and became a punching bag and a way to condemn hyper-feminity in popular culture. I riffed on her to write about why I identify so closely with Miranda Hobbes, a character that critiques of the show tend to skip over or reduce to a bitchy man-hater. And then we got together for a long discussion of the show, the movies based on it, and everything that’s happened to Sex and the City‘s reputation since.

I wanted to pull out this excerpt of our conversation about one aspect of the show that’s come in for particular condemnation in a way that isn’t quite supported by the text of Sex and the City itself: the very clear way it explained that the characters’ lifestyles were built on debt, moral compromise, or extremely hard work in sociologically specific professions like PR and large law firms.

This is always one of the things I’ve loved best about Sex and the City, the little and constant ways the show gets at class and money, frequently through questions of real estate. There was the subplot where Charlotte found herself embroiled with a foot fetishist shoe salesman who gives her extreme discounts on very expensive shoes, but ultimately feels she has to break off their exchange when he gets a little too enthusiastic about her arches. There was the assumption, when Miranda bought her first apartment, that someone (specifically, a man) must be helping her with the finances. There’s Samantha’s move to the Meatpacking District as an early gentrifier (in part because her wealthy neighbors in another area considered her sex life déclassé), and her confrontations with the black transgender prostitutes who occupy her block. There’s Charlotte’s negotiation over her prenuptial agreement, and her insistence to her new mother-in-law that “I’m worth a million,” instead of the traditional $500,000 her groom’s family has allocated in those legal documents. There was Miranda and Steve’s first breakup, and the horrible apartment Steve decided was the best he could afford when he needed to move out in a hurry, and that Miranda helped him avoid. There’s Carrie’s painful reckoning with her utter financial irresponsibility when she has to buy her apartment back from her ex-fiancee, and she has to come to terms with the fact that she has no savings, and her friends are critical of her total lack of attention to constructing a security net for herself.

I mention all of this because one of the common slams against Sex and the City is that it’s in some way blind to privilege, or that it actively promotes an unsustainable lifestyle as aspirational. This is, I think, an area where the movies did clear damage to the show’s reputation, as Emily points out. The “Labels or Love” Jennifer Hudson Fergie track that opens the first movie (which is much stronger than the second) does more to erase the class complexity of the show than anything else in the film does. But if you’re talking about the show itself, the critique is incredibly unfair, and to me seems much more directed towards the fan response to Sex and the City than at the show itself.

And this gets that something that feels to me like a real and true gender disparity between the way Sex and the City and anti-hero dramas have been treated, even controlling for genre and taste. We all know there are fans who think Tony Soprano is awesome, Walter White is a badass, or Jimmy McNulty shouldn’t have been fired from the Baltimore Police Department, and who believe that Carmela Soprano is a greedy bitch, Skyler White is holding Walt back from his true potential, and that The Wire is all about how awesome being a transgressive cop or a drug dealer is. But we don’t decide that those fans’ interpretations of the texts in question mean that David Chase, Vince Gilligan, and David Simon failed at making themselves clear. We accept that certain groups of people are always going to read these shows this way, and celebrate the shows for what they are. Sex and the City has had much more merchandising around it than any of these other shows. But the inability some critics of Sex and the City demonstrate to tell the difference between that marketing–which more good shows, by the way, should be lucky to have as help in turning into genuine cultural phenomena–and the substance of the show itself is telling. So often, the response to Sex and the City is about its fans, rather than the show itself. It’s a discourtesy we’d never dare extend to the giants of the anti-hero age. And it’s revealing.