Politics

Sex and the City and the sexual marketplace


In the Purity Chronicles, Vox looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. Read more here.

Like low-rise jeans, Bennifer, and other artifacts of the 2000s, Sex and the City is back. The HBO classic, which ran from 1998 to 2004 and saw two feature film sequels in 2008 and 2010, has returned to TV in the form of a revival, now titled And Just Like That …. Which means now is the perfect time to look back at the original series, and at the bizarre, glamorous vision of the sexual marketplace it championed.

Sex and the City, which follows the lives of four 30-something women as they date their way through New York City, is often thought of as frothy and aspirational, all cupcakes in the West Village and Manolo Blahniks on the Upper East Side. When it premiered, however, it was lauded as an unusually frank depiction of the inner lives of women: It was the show that dared to tell it like it was. As such, Sex in the City is a model of one mainstream way of thinking about what it meant to be a woman from 1998 to 2004.

Under that model, women are assumed as a default to be white, wealthy, and heterosexual; people of color and queer people exist primarily to be cute accessories to those wealthy white women; and — above all — selfhood, relationships, and life are all built according to the logic of the free marketplace.

One way of understanding the plot of this show is as watching the fluctuations of an erotic commodities market. Under the neoliberal system of Sex and the City, a woman must prioritize her sexual market value at all times. Her value may be pledged to either one man with whom she is in a monogamous relationship or simply to the marketplace itself, but always she must optimize it. The priority is to be thin, beautiful, charming, and available; to never become sad, ugly, or in any way undateable. And what makes Sex and the City both frustrating and great is how much time it devotes to luxuriating in and problematizing that model.

It is always clear on Sex and the City that the neoliberal sexual marketplace is a chilly, alienating place to live your life; when one character bursts into tears because she’s been dating since she was 15 and she’s tired of it, it’s a thoroughly understandable statement. So the show compensates with friendships, arguing that at the center of a woman’s life is her found family of girlfriends. The central quartet of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte is the emotional heart of the show. They frequently call each other their soul mates, and they insist that while men may come and go, female friendships are forever.

But this compensation becomes a contradiction that cannot sustain itself. Watching Sex and the City in 2021, I found myself thinking of Little Women, and of the problem that critic Lara Langer Cohen once described as “the bitter tragedy” of that novel: “It tells a story about the bonds that knit together a family of women — of love nurtured with exquisite care — only to break up that family and transfer its bonds to an array of frankly disappointing men.”

What Sex and the City teaches its audience to care about is its friend group, its ensemble. That’s where all of its emotional and libidinal forces are concentrated. Then it shows us all those exquisitely nurtured bonds repeatedly ripped apart, all that emotional energy redirected toward a set of frankly disappointing men.

Sex and the City sometimes makes the case that women don’t need to choose between intense romances and intense friendships — that Carrie can marry her central love interest, Big, and maintain the intensity of her friendship with Miranda and Samantha and Charlotte. But what the sequel films and the new revival make clear is that there is no convincing way to depict this proposed reality. If Carrie really can have it all, Sex and the City doesn’t know how to show us that.

“It’s just exhausting”

Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) finds being with Big (Chris Noth) exhausting.
HBO

The women of Sex and the City track their value on the erotic commodities market with scrupulous care — their own value, and the value of their friends, which they guard jealously.

“Your stock is up!” Samantha crows in season 6 when Carrie juggles dates between two men. When Charlotte gets a vibrator and decides she’d rather get her orgasms by using it than by taking her chances to “go out and deal with men,” her friends hold an intervention and confiscate the vibrator for her own good.

“With a little help from her friends, Charlotte decided not to settle for herself,” Carrie remarks approvingly in voiceover. For Charlotte to fulfill herself both sexually and emotionally would be unthinkable, impossible; it would mean she would be taking herself off the market without having been bought.

When Samantha is stuck in an unhappy relationship during the 2008 film and gains 15 pounds, her friends host another intervention. It becomes clear Samantha must leave her boyfriend not because she is unhappy, but because her unhappiness makes her undesirable. For a woman to lose track of her own market value is to commit a dangerous and irresponsible sin.

Should a woman happen to survive this cold and transactional landscape, she cannot count on the man she lands to offer her emotional fulfillment in return. Carrie’s love interest, Big, is the most valuable man within Sex and the City’s marketplace: wealthy, powerful, and because of his wealth and power, sexy. Carrie finds herself optimizing almost against her will to land him. She tells Miranda in season 1 that for Big, “I’m, like, Together Carrie. I wear little outfits: Sexy Carrie and Casual Carrie. Sometimes I catch myself actually posing. It’s just — it’s exhausting.” Big responds by toying with Carrie’s emotions, repeatedly suggesting he’s on the verge of being ready to commit to her and then refusing to do so.

Instead, Carrie gets her emotional fulfillment from her friend group. It’s they, the show repeatedly suggests, who are her true love. “Maybe we can be each other’s soul mates,” says Charlotte in season 4, in one of the show’s most frequently quoted lines. “And then we can let men be just these great, nice guys to have fun with.”

When Carrie gets engaged in season 4 (to Aiden, emotionally available and hence no great catch according to the marketplace), each of her friends by turns selects an engagement ring to give her. Miranda chooses Aiden’s first-choice ring and Samantha his second. Then Charlotte gives Carrie her own engagement ring — left behind from a now-finished marriage — to help Carrie buy an apartment.

Symbolically speaking, they’re all proposing. And while Carrie ends up leaving Aiden, she says yes to her friends every time. Until she doesn’t.

“I’m so bored I could die”

A woman at a cocktail party laughing loudly while everyone looks at her.

Kristen Johnson as Lexi Featherson, not yet so bored she could die.
HBO

Ideally, the Sex and the City model allows women to have it all. An independent life, friends who are soul mates, and great, nice, fun guys. Selfhood, emotional fulfillment, and high sexual market value. The show, however, continually frets over the idea that it may be impossible to ever truly achieve all of those things.

The fundamental tension between these two models of life is best typified by two bookending episodes: “The Baby Shower,” toward the end of season 1, and “Splat,” which takes place in season 6 just before the two-part finale. Each depicts a different kind of death: the married death, of constraint and Connecticut and boredom; and the single death, of loneliness and Manolos and boredom.

“The Baby Shower” sees the four friends visiting former party girl Laney at her baby shower. Laney used to love to drink and date and flash her boobs at parties, but now she’s married to an investment banker and is expecting a child with him in Connecticut. When Carrie arrives, Laney asks her condescendingly whether Samantha is still going out partying every night. “It’s so sad, isn’t it?” she asks. “When that’s all you have.”

By the end of the episode, the tables have turned. Laney, we learn, misses the freedom and fun of her single life. She shows up at one of Samantha’s parties, still pregnant, and tries to psych herself up to flash her boobs at everyone and reclaim her old self. But it doesn’t work. She feels too vulnerable and uncomfortable to go through with the stunt, and all the party guests stare at her with pity. “It’s so sad,” Samantha says gleefully.

“No one warned me this was going to happen!” a shocked Laney tells Carrie. “One day you’re going to wake up and you’re not going to recognize yourself.”

Laney has lost her old self. Sex and the city are both gone for her now, and so she is left pathetic, humiliated, as good as dead. Carrie considers her an avatar of what her own possible future might look like, and regards her with mingled fear and longing.

But Laney sees a kind of resurrection in “Splat.” There, we meet the Laney-like figure Lexi Featherston, another party girl, this time played by Kristen Johnston.

Lexi, unlike Laney, has chosen not to move to Connecticut and settle down. Instead, she’s still single and still partying in her 40s, smoking and doing coke after Carrie and her friends have left their vices behind and are beginning to pair off into long-term monogamous relationships.

“When did everybody stop smoking?” Lexi moans when Carrie meets her at an elegant Condé Nast party. “When did everybody pair off? This used to be the most exciting city in the world. And now it’s nothing but smoking near a fucking open window. New York is over. O-V-E-R. Over. No one’s fun anymore. What ever happened to fun? I’m so bored I could die.”

Then she trips over her own Manolo Blahniks, falls through the open window she’s been smoking next to, and dies.

Carrie, as it happens, stopped smoking because a man asked her to, and she wanted to pair off. Carrie sees Lexi as an avatar of herself, the way she saw Laney — Lexi is Carrie’s future if she makes the choice Laney didn’t, if she doesn’t pair off, if she doesn’t stop partying, if she doesn’t make a man her first priority. And the consequence of making that choice isn’t a symbolic death by humiliation, like it is for Laney. It’s literal, actual death.

You have to pair off to survive, Sex and the City argues — but pairing off is, for women, a sort of spiritual and emotional death. None of Carrie’s avatars ever really gets to have it all.

“I cannot stay in New York and be single for you!”

Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) in Sex and the City: The Movie.
Getty

As a fictional character, Carrie seems to be designed to make sense of this problem. She has no family, but only exists sui generis, out of context. She briefly mentions that her father left her life when she was young; her mother never comes up, and neither do any other relations. (A short-lived prequel series, The Carrie Diaries, attempted to fill in some of the blanks of her past while contradicting the main show’s established canon.) Alone in the world, she’s free to devote her whole life to her friends and her romantic relationships — and her job makes it essential she do as much. As a sex and relationship columnist, Carrie must date (and pilfer from her friends’ dating lives) for material in order to make her living. When she goes through a romantic dry spell, she panics that she’ll be fired. She is in a sense a professional dater.

But Carrie’s profession only dramatizes the position in which all women find themselves in the Sex and the City universe. It’s not that far off from the 19th-century marriage market of Little Women, but it’s been bowdlerized by neoliberalism. Women are no longer obligated to optimize their value because their economic survival depends on marriage — but they still find themselves compelled to optimize, in search of something they consider almost as important. The reward they earn now is social capital.

The line between social capital from men and literal capital from men is frequently blurry, especially for Carrie. That’s a problem the show plays with repeatedly. In season 1, a wealthy foreigner leaves Carrie $1,000 on her nightstand after they spend the night together; Carrie decides to keep the money but stay away from the friend who introduced them.

Each time Carrie gets engaged, it’s primarily to solve a real estate problem. Aiden proposes after Carrie’s apartment building goes co-op and she can’t afford to buy her unit, so he buys it for her, and then suggests that they might as well just get married. Big proposes after Carrie falls in love with a lavish Fifth Avenue penthouse that she can’t afford but that he can. Carrie may not have to literally marry in order to keep a roof over her head, like the girls in Little Women, but she somehow seems to find herself doing it anyway.

Her most coldblooded decision to choose the security of marriage and a man over her own desire for freedom comes at the end of season six, after she witnesses Lexi’s death. At the time, Carrie is dating Aleksandr Petrovsky, a super-wealthy older Russian artist who casually condescends to her, isolates her from her friends, and makes it clear that he doesn’t take her work seriously; a Professor Bhaer if ever there was one.

Aleksandr asks Carrie to move to Paris with him, and while at first she refuses, Lexi’s death pushes her to say yes. She quits her job, says goodbye to her friends, and moves to Paris to be a full-time girlfriend to Aleksandr.

“I don’t understand why you have to move away and give up your life,” Miranda says before Carrie leaves.

“I cannot stay in New York and be single for you!” Carrie responds viciously. Friends may be soul mates, but soul mates only go so far when the specter of Lexi Featherston is dancing before your eyes.

But at the end of Sex and the City’s broadcast run, Carrie’s coldbloodedness no longer matters. Big rescues her from herself, in what is surely one of the most unsatisfying copouts of an ending ever to make it to the screen. (Aside, maybe, from Little Women’s famously unsatisfying ending, and all the screen adaptations that tried to make it work.) He comes to Paris to take Carrie away from Aleksandr and bring her back to New York, ready at last to commit. Carrie gets to have social capital, emotional fulfillment, and an independent life, all in one neat package.

In her seminal 2013 essay on the show, New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum argues that Sex and the City’s ending “showed a failure of nerve, an inability of the writers to imagine, or to trust themselves to portray, any other kind of ending — happy or not.” It’s a betrayal of what Nussbaum calls the show’s “realpolitik,” its forthrightness in exploring the limitations of the neoliberal market system it espouses.

That betrayal is perhaps nowhere clearer than the scene in which Big asks permission from all of Carrie’s friends to go rescue her from Paris. “You’re the loves of her life,” he tells them. “And a guy’s just lucky to come in fourth.”

And Miranda, pragmatic Miranda who understands the show’s realpolitik and doesn’t much care for it, who repeatedly tells Carrie that Big will only hurt her, who is more protective of her friendship with Carrie than any of the other three, says, “Go get our girl.”

The scene offers the ideal of a world in which Carrie gets both friends and man. But it rings fundamentally false and dishonest. The twin ghosts of Lexi and Laney belie Carrie’s happy ending.

And Sex and the City seems to understand, on some level, that the ending is a lie. The first episode of And Just Like That … ends with Big’s death. There seems to be no way for the show to keep producing story with him still around.

That’s because when Sex and the City is being honest with itself, under all the sparkly cupcakes and the designer labels and perfect hair, it exists within a screamingly nihilistic world. The landscape of this show is one in which being a woman means losing either emotional fulfillment, social capital, or both. The only escapes you get are through death.



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