Personally speaking, the nineties was a good decade. As long as I’m able to see through the aggressively pencilled-in eyebrows and velvet-ribbons-as-chokers, there’s very little to complain about: I became of age, studied in Switzerland twice, grew out of grunge, moved to Scotland and figured out feminism and never looked back.
What was also good about the nineties was pop culture.
TV-shows had actors. My obsession with the Cosby Show campus spin-off A Different World led me to study abroad as soon as I got out of high school and the EU smoothed out the practicalities (Dwayne Wayne and his clip-on sunglasses, anyone else remember?)
Songs had actual lyrics. A successful night of drinking is, in fact, still not at all successful unless it ends in belting out songs such as Robin Beck’s Tears in the Rain (it was released in 1989, but things reached our neck of the woods with a few years’ delay), Don’t Speak by No Doubt or most stuff by Oasis, Nirvana, Ace of Base and Guns’n Roses (including, but not limited to November Rain and Don’t Cry).
Then 1998 and Sex and the City happened and almost nothing has been the same again. There had been Friends, yes, and The Sopranos and Gilmore Girls quickly followed, but few TV-shows in addition to SATC have snowballed societal discussions on such scale. I dearly loved the series then and very much still do.
Even if I personally consider 1997 to have taken place “about 15 years ago”, 90s TV today, of course, must be watched as representation of bygones. Woke did not exist in the 90s. Watching re-runs of something as benign as Friends can be a cathartic experience: “it was OK to laugh at that?”
Also, men dressed in women’s clothes. Hilarious.
Universally hailed as a feminist manifesto and a game-changer for unmarried women the world over, SATC rode the Third Wave feminism, which sought to reconcile femininity, sexual power and equality. Pop-culture examples include Madonna’s shocker of a coffee-table book, Sex. The one that had nudes of her, as well as of Vanilla Ice, because Will it ever stop? Yo, I don’t know.
Alanis Morrisette was wondering in Jagged Little Pill whether her love-interest’s new girl was as perverted was she and whether she might “go down on you in a theater?” It was considered such a powerful expression of women’s sexuality that it earned her a cameo in SATC.
The way SATC waved feminist themes on TV (albeit cable) was quite the polar opposite to the previous (fictional) female superstar we had gotten used to: the neurotic lawyer Ally McBeal, whose main concern was to get married and have babies.
As far as Third Wave feminist topics go, SATC did hit the nail on the head: it’s OK to not want to get married and have children. Being single is fine and something to be celebrated (amen to Women’s Right to Shoes -episode in which Carrie organises a gift list at Manolo Blahnik for the event of her marriage to herself). Brunch and shoe-shopping are as legitimate hobbies as golf.
It would be unfair to expect one TV-show to address every single sensitivity and grievance of the world. And again, SATC needs to be seen as the product of its time. Given its unforeseen, progressive agenda and the way it portrayed homosexuals as being allowed to freely express their sexuality on mainstream TV for the first time, it did little to address its almost exclusive whiteness.
This is almost strange given how much effort the producers put in striving to make SATC as authentic a NYC experience as possible (SATC was exclusively filmed on location in NYC unlike most other TV-shows). How does one even manage to exclude people of colour from a 6-season show set in New York City?
There were attempts, ranging from awkward to OK. There was the one in which Samantha dated black Chivon who works as hip-hop producer (stereotype much?) and whose sister disapproves the affair. There’s a physical fight between the two women, during which things like “little white pussy” and “big black ass” were belted out. It became so obvious that the writers had not gotten the racial stereotype-memo at all, when Carrie’s voice-over declared that “Samantha knew the real problem wasn’t her little white pussy. It was the fact that Chivon was a big black pussy who wouldn’t stand up to his sister”.
Later in the series Dr. Robert Leeds, The New York Knicks physician, was introduced as Miranda’s love interest, already a much less-obvious inclusion attempt. (There was also a Hispanic woman when Samantha was a lesbian for two episodes.)
SATC was a trailblazer in its choice of topics relating to women’s right to determine what goes on in their bodies (abortion, not being able to get pregnant, cosmetic surgery, cancer with its impact on sexuality) and in discussing sex to unprecedented detail.
As much as SATC helped mainstream the gay community by having prominent gay characters throughout the series, it still poked insensitive fun at the expense of non-white queer people, who were exclusively portrayed as street prostitutes, sorry, “tranny hookers”, and crudely made fun of by the girls on their brunches . (Samantha complained about paying a fortune to live in an area which was trendy by day and tranny by night and explained “tranny” to Charlotte: “Transsexuals. Chicks with dicks! Boobs on top, balls down below!”)
Additionally, I couldn’t help but wonder what’s wrong with this picture: Carrie is a NYC-based, open-minded sex columnist who flees a party, shocked to the very core, when she’s being kissed by (Alanis Morrissette’s character) during a game of spin the bottle. She even says the following in the episode: “I’m not sure bisexuality even exists. I think its’ just a layover on the way to Gay Town”.
So yes, while most of SATC fashion has stood the test of time, many other things clearly haven’t. Again, this is true for so many TV-shows from the bygones, including The Nanny (seriously that’s some f**ked up shit!) as well as Friends. And also Gilmore Girls. In the current day and age, of course, any moving picture with people sharing food, touching, kissing and hugging is shocking to watch, but you get my point.
Will any of the above stop me from watching SATC (not that there’s any need – I know the six seasons by heart)? No. The actors and producers have openly admitted its flaws and shortcomings, and again, it was the nineties and early aughts. We used brown lipliner back then.
And why did I dive so deep into SATC on a regular June Friday? There was a book I had bought last time I was in New York (maybe literally the last time, by the look of developments) by an entertainment writer Jennifer Keishin Armstrong: Sex and the City and Us. Does not sound like much, but is a brilliant (recent) study about the show, and she’s actually interviewed Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Candace Bushnell and many of the writers and producers of the series. In addition many feminists and sociologists have their say.
I also just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest, Death In Her Hands, which I will need a second to reflect on before voicing any thoughts.
I shall now retreat to enjoy the summer rain & see the lightning & hear the thunder, much like Belinda Carlisle predicted already back in 1990.