love and (sex in the city)
I started watching Sex and the City, the TV show inspired by Candace Bushnell’s column in the New York Observer, when I was 17 and freshly in love with my first serious boyfriend. Recently I read an interview with her where Jia Tolentino commented “I think of ambition as your real subject—sex and relationships mostly matter in terms of how they manifest the nature of someone’s ambition.” I hadn't thought about it like that before, but as soon as I read the line it clicked: Sex and the City is a show about love as a vehicle for different kinds of ambition. Emily Nussbaum wrote a phenomenal essay about the show, and I’ll quote the passage I think about most here:
As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focused on exploiting the power of femininity from opposing angles, the Rules Girl and the Power Slut. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to glide toward caution, away from freedom, growing more fearful, not less.
I started thinking about these things—sex, relationships, ambition—around the same time I was first introduced the show. I was in love with my boyfriend and I was wondering whether I was serious about him. I was wondering what it meant to be serious about him. Naturally, I was very curious about the Sex and the City continuums and where I fell along them.
Here’s what I’ve since decided: I’ve always been a romantic, though my romanticism is shot through with paranoia and cynicism. I’m halfway between a third wave feminist and a second wave feminist. And I seem like a libertine, but I’m actually a prude. I probably had that figured out by 17, to be honest. But the thing I wasn’t sure about was a question I’ve been struggling to answer ever since: How important a relationship should be, and how does it fit in with the rest of my life?
Here’s how Emily Nussbaum describes the central plot of Sex and the City:
For a half dozen episodes, Carrie was a happy, curious explorer, out companionably smoking with modelizers. If she’d stayed that way, the show might have been another Mary Tyler Moore: a playful, empowering comedy about one woman’s adventures in the big city.
Instead, Carrie fell under the thrall of Mr. Big, the sexy, emotionally withholding forty-three-year-old financier played by Chris Noth. From then on, pleasurable as Sex and the City remained, it also felt designed to push back at its audience’s wish for identification, triggering as much anxiety as relief. It switched the romantic comedy’s primal scene from “Me, too!” to “Am I like her?” A man practically woven out of red flags, Big wasn’t there to rescue Carrie; instead, his “great love” was a slow poisoning. She spun out, becoming anxious, obsessive, and, despite her charm, wildly self-centered—in her own words, “the frightening woman whose fear ate her sanity.”