“Which ‘Sex and the City’ character are you?” It’s a question, that, when typed into Google, yields a whopping 377 million search results. That’s a lot of quizzes about four fictional ladies-about-town named Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha.
To non-watchers, the HBO television series, which launched June 6, 1998, appeared as superficial as these quizzes. Its lead characters—a quartet of single, Manhattan-based gal pals—tottered from buzzy brunch spots to hot nightclubs, guzzling Cosmopolitans, coveting luxury swag and swapping salacious stories of sex and overpriced footwear. Its earliest reviews, often by men, dismissed the show, based on Candace Bushnell’s book of the same name, as anti-feminist drivel, about “four narcissistic Tinker Bells with attitude.” Many saw the characters as archetypes: an iron-maiden career woman, a self-absorbed sexpot, a wide-eyed prude and a daydreaming “it” girl.
But television writer Michael Green, who began his career on the show, describes a so-called formula as an accessible way into a boundary-breaking show. “In a way, the archetypes were an entry point,” he says. “Because the show was so much of a Trojan horse of depth and quality.” People tuned in for its ribald name, he says, “but then they fell in love with a particular voice and a particular time and place, a particular point of view of women, and female friendships, that is unique to itself.” In fact, the show’s characters are based primarily on the women described in Bushnell’s book, who were inspired by the writer’s real-life pals.
“Sex and the City” comes from a lineage of television comedies centered around four female friends, such as “Golden Girls” (1985-92), “Designing Women” (1986-93) and “Living Single” (1993-98), all of which trafficked in similar stereotyping of the tough gal, the ditzy childlike one, the man-eater and so on. Still, says SATC writer and executive producer Jenny Bicks, when they first conceived the show, “there wasn’t anything on TV that we were trying to replicate.” It was rude, sparklingly funny, its characters often flawed or obscene, and it spoke to modern women for whom conversations about sex did not require whispering or blushing.
Before 1996, the show’s very particular tone would not have been possible. The Clinton-era Telecommunications Act opened up the cable market and allowed HBO to make risqué television quite unlike previous offerings. “SATC,” in 1998, was one of its first original series, predating “The Sopranos,” and forging a model for original subscription content that would later be imitated by Amazon, Netflix and others. In the 20 years since, numerous shows have made it a model, or touchstone. In the first episode of Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls,” for example, Shoshanna looks up at the poster on her wall, and declares of her TV friend Jessa: “You know, you’re funny because you’re definitely a Carrie, with like, some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair.” In other words, a mixture of heroine and slut, with posh-girl looks.
Under scrutiny, these very fixed character types barely hold up. “The beauty of the TV series,” says the academic Kim Akass, who edited the book Reading Sex and the City, “is that you follow these women for however many years, and the stereotypes that they start with are not the ones that they finished with. They unpack it, I think.”
Take Miranda, she says: “She’s a lawyer, she’s high-powered, all of that stuff.” Yet when she unexpectedly falls pregnant—and falls for a less-educated, working-class bartender—her gentler, maternal side emerges. Prim Charlotte York, meanwhile, isn’t without wild impulses: She variously has a sexual relationship with a Hasidic rabbi/artist, experiments with drag and ditches an otherwise well-suited boyfriend because of his limited libido.
These differences in character often helped structure the stories. In each episode, the theme would be announced early in the piece—money, fidelity, the question Carrie couldn’t help but wonder. Then, Green says, “that theme played very clearly through the lens of the different characters. Each one had a unique perspective that you could rely on, that would change the way they handled the question at hand.” Case in point, some banter from Season 4, Episode 1:
Charlotte: I believe that there’s that one perfect person out there to complete you.
Miranda: And if you don’t find him, what? You’re incomplete? It’s so dangerous!
Carrie: Alright first of all, the idea that there’s only one out there, I mean, why don’t I just shoot myself right now? I’d like to think that people have more than one soulmate.
Samantha: I agree. I’ve had hundreds.
Viewers seem to have found something cathartic in this diversity of experience and taste: Psychotherapist Elisabeth LaMotte remembers using the show to discuss difficult topics about sex and relationships. Her clients, she says, often felt a clear affinity with one character over another: “They often enjoyed making that categorization, and playing around with that.” More than that, she recalls, the show came at a time where many women, like the characters, were “building a rich and full emotional life, social life and professional life,” that wasn’t necessarily predicated on marital status.
It may have posed as a show about sex, but it was primarily a show about friendship, says the social psychologist Bella DaPaolo, who has authored multiple books on singledom and modern family structures. “The friendships among the four women are the real emotional heart of the show,” she says. “They are the relationships that are real, deep, multi-faceted, and enduring.” As a writer, Bicks sees it much the same way: “It’s a romance among four friends, and in the end, they had each other. Men would come and go, but they always had each other.”
It’s this depth that lent the show its legacy, and which more recent imitators have sometimes struggled to recreate. An apparent recipe for success—gal pals in the big city—is more complex than it looks. “The problem,” Akass says, “is, with any kind of formula, if you try to reproduce it, you’ll never get it right again.”