Girls Gone Mild

‘Sex and the City’ is back at last! But those Manolo heels may be the sharpest things about it.

“I know it might be overwhelming,” says Emily Sproch, 28, the earnest tour guide standing at the front of a bus rolling slowly through Manhattan’s West Village, clutching a microphone. She places her hand over her heart as her tone grows serious, almost reverential. “I might see a few tears walking down there. It’s a magical place. But try to stay calm, and quiet.” The bus stops, and Sproch, wearing a pretty, pale summer dress, steps out, leading her group—an odd assortment of women of varying ages, a gay male couple and some bored-looking boyfriends—past the sickly-sweet smells of Magnolia Bakery and on to Perry Street. The crowd stops at a pretty brownstone with a tall stoop. Here it is: Carrie Bradshaw’shouse. Or at least the façade that producers pretended was located on the Upper East Side. The place where the lead character on “Sex and the City” bid her dates farewell, spiky heels clicking on the stairs—or where she allowed them inside, where she decided whom she was going to sleep with. It was the border, the gateway, Mr. Big’s Berlin wall. The place where she sat and smoked and drank and argued and cried. Carrie’s stoop. The crowd stands, silent, then quickly begins to take photographs. The stoop, the door, the tree. Themselves in front of the stoop, the door, the tree. Many simply stand before it and weep. An estimated 50,000 people from countries as distant as Australia and Japan make the pilgrimage each year to the shrine of the sexy single woman who came to symbolize, for a generation of women, independence, assertiveness and style.

What’s striking about the intense interest in “Sex and the City,” particularly in the lead-up to the release of the feature film, is how many people speak of it in hyperbolic terms: as a revolution, a phenomenon, a cataclysm, almost an insurgency. As a show, it was remarkably successful. It ran on HBO from 1998 to 2004, winning seven Emmy Awards—the first cable program to win best comedy—and has been broadcast in 200 countries. It is still watched, in reruns on TBS, by an average of 2.5 million viewers every day. Ten years after the show debuted, the audience is expanding, even though its sassy thirtysomething heroines are now in their 40s, and one is in her 50s. For many women in New York and beyond, the release of the film is a major social event. For when women watch it, they see themselves. Older, younger or imagined selves, perhaps, but themselves nonetheless.

Yet for all the hype and adoration, was “Sex and the City” really all that revolutionary? The show definitely, and loudly, explored uncharted TV territory. It was naughty and bawdy and was one of the rare shows—along with “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Murphy Brown”—to ask the provocative question: is it OK for a woman to be alone? The fact that the four characters—the thoughtful writer Carrie, the razor-witted lawyer Miranda, the defiantly romantic Charlotte and the sexually voracious Samantha—demanded sexual satisfaction was refreshing, even empowering. But the fact is, the show really only asked questions. When it came to answering them, the result was, well, old-fashioned. By the end of the series, all these women had husbands or lovers. The buildup to the movie has been based almost entirely on whether Carrie and Big finally get hitched. When you look back on it all, this doesn’t seem like the stuff of a revolution. By its conclusion, the show was not so much about being single as searching for The One.

The movie doesn’t really change those ground rules. Ten years on, the women are still funny, cutting, narcissistic, materialistic (the labels!) and loyal. There is not a whiff of anything subversive in the entire film, unless you count those scenes where Carrie (and Parker) doesn’t wear any makeup—curiously, by the end of the series the women looked younger than when it began. Sure, Samantha still has an insatiable sexual appetite at 50, but today she seems like just another cougar. The friendships are strong, and important. But by the end of the film (spoiler alert), only one woman remains single. The only character struggling with the idea of marriage is a man, Mr. Big, an irony that seems to escape Carrie and her protective bridesmaids. It is only good guy Steve’s infidelity, and the question of whether Miranda can forgive him, that gives the film real depth. There is still no suggestion that you can carve out an identity outside of the realms of sex, love and men. Perhaps few of us want to. Still, you can’t help but wonder how hard it would be to have just one of the characters find meaning in her job, study or even aid work. Or something else beyond the movie’s heavy investment in what you might call a Cinderella complex.

Then again, “Sex and the City” is hardly the first time we saw women considering what it means to love and to lust. The idea that love should be a part of marriage was introduced during the Enlightenment. Ever since, the institution of marriage has been considered more optional—and therefore more fragile. When love is part of the equation, the choice and intangibility of the standard heighten the anxiety. In the 1800s, the exaltation of romantic love made many more women hesitant to commit, according to the historian Stephanie Coontz, author of “Marriage: A History.” They went through “marriage trauma” as they fretted over “what would happen if a spouse did not live up to their high ideals.” The questions seem perennial—are single women too picky? And an even more “SATC”-type question: while waiting for those ideals to be fulfilled, is it OK to have sex? A lot of sex?

In the 18th century, one catchphrase went “Better single than miserably married,” but few believed it. Bachelor women were occasionally called “extra women” or, most often, “spinsters.” Whatever the word, they were both ridiculed and much discussed from then on. In 1936, Vogue editor Marjorie Hillis wrote that “So many volumes have been written on the Sex Life of the Unmarried Woman in the last twenty years, and so many thousand cases listed, that if you waded through them you would emerge feeling that you were the sole surviving virgin.” Her best-selling book “Live Alone and Like It,” inspired by the burgeoning numbers of single women in New York, is still selling copies—it will be published in paperback next month.

But it took decades to erase the stigma of spinsterhood, and it never completely vanished. Despite the best efforts of some defiant, bohemian women, being single has usually been seen as a pitiable state, and sexually active singles have been cast as harlots. In 1957, 80 percent of Americans told pollsters that people who were single by choice were “sick,” “neurotic” or “immoral.” But at the end of the 20th century, armed with the pill, an education and a job, more women chose to wait before becoming a wife. By the 1990s, unprecedented numbers of women in Western countries were delaying marriage and childbirth. In 1998, when the show first aired, there were 21 million American women over the age of 18 who had never married. More than one in four households contained only one person. Yet even though there were more single women than ever, the assumption that “spinsters” were tearful, tragic and lonely was still widespread, an image boosted by such neurotic heroines as Bridget Jones, whose “diaries” sold millions of copies.

This is why, when “Sex and the City” arrived, so many women in their 20s and 30s clustered around their TV screens and cheered. They had been waiting almost 200 years for it. The spindly-limbed, dirty-talking, loyal friends were thinner, wealthier and better dressed than most of us, but in their clumsy, often difficult relationships, their honest searching for love, their fear of suburban drudgery, their discomfort with conventional ways of living with and relating to men, we saw ourselves. They were redefining what it meant to be single. When Carrie—contemplating marriage to the handsome but not heart-stopping Aidan—tried on big, puffy wedding dresses with Miranda, she started choking and broke out in a rash. She complained that she was “missing the bride gene. I should be put in a test tube and studied.” She wrote later in one of her trademark voice-over sex-column entries, “As progressive as our society claims to be, there are still certain life targets we are all supposed to hit: marriage, babies and a home to call your own. But what if instead of breaking out into a smile, you break out into a rash? Is something wrong with the system, or is it you?”

This is what “Sex and the City” was about—the system and how we did or didn’t fit into it. What is forgotten now is how radical a suggestion it was to refuse to settle, to wait until you find love—big love. As Carrie called it, “Real love. Ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live without-each-other love.” Later she wrote, “Some people are settling down, some are settling and some people refuse to settle for anything less—than butterflies.”

Yet it’s one thing to want that kind of love—and another thing entirely to wait for it for decades. For all their exploration of the topic, the show and the film never really resolved the question of what to do if waiting means gambling with your fertility. That’s the anxiety that has emerged in the new millennium, with the stomach-tightening cautionary tales of Women Who Waited Too Long. In 2002, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Work-Life Policy (formed by the National Parenting Association), provoked a debate with her book “Baby Hunger,” in which she warned that after 35, a woman’s fertility “drops off a cliff.” Today Hewlett points out the discrepancy between the lives of Carrie Bradshaw and the actress who played her. “Sarah Jessica Parker in her own real life absolutely was very clear that she wanted both things. She wanted success, but she totally sought and made happen a marriage and a child,” says Hewlett. “It is interesting that Carrie Bradshaw makes different decisions—and that real women in really successful lives in this city do tend to want both things.” When Carrie wondered if she should marry Aidan, in her late 30s, she did not ponder the state of her eggs. In the film it is not discussed when she considers marriage to Big in her 40s. “In real life,” says Hewlett, “a woman would be weighing that.”

Just six years ago, suggesting that women consider their eggs before rejecting suitors was controversial. Today, it’s so commonplace that the very un-Carrie notion of “settling” is no longer taboo. This March, author Lori Gottlieb wrote a much-discussed piece titled “Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” for The Atlantic. She advised women to settle: “That’s right. Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling ‘Bravo!’ in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics.” Settling will make you happier, she said, because those who marry with high expectations are only disappointed. This could have been written in the 1950s. The whole idea of settling remains depressing—and offensive, especially if you imagine people might be settling for you.

Perhaps younger women—the well educated, ambitious “millennials”—will think more strategically about the choices they make. At least that’s the impression I get when talking to younger women, such as my 26-year-old NEWSWEEK colleague Jessica Bennett. To Bennett, 35 is the critical number ingrained in the consciousness of her generation if you want to have children. “We know we can’t cross it,” she says, “but we want to get damn near as close as we can.” Her friend Tara Kane, a 26-year-old New Jersey teacher, says that while “SATC” “made married life with children seem like a prison sentence,” she is keenly conscious of timing: “We are bombarded with stories of infertility and couples that ‘waited too long’ and now can’t get pregnant. We are all aware of this magic age of 35 and the exponential increase of things that can go wrong after that. Infertility, Down syndrome …” Cheerful stuff. Surely, though, if young women have decided that they should have children by 35, then the message of the show—or the times—have fundamentally changed. Women still worried about it 10 years ago—but our fictional heroines did not. The “SATC” characters were 35 and older for more than half the series. They were rolling the dice on love—and on babies.

The most enduring legacy of “Sex and the City” may be, as its title suggests, the sex. The show was the first to daringly and shamelessly discuss anal intercourse, vibrators, the taste of sperm (or, as the show put it, spunk). Today, as older women exchange grim words about settling, thousands of young women in their teens and 20s take quizzes to determine which “SATC” characters they are and join Facebook groups called “Everything I Know About Life I Learned From ‘Sex and the City’.” The median age of the audience has dropped by five years, to 33, from when it debuted. Even 15-year-old singer Miley Cyrus says it’s her favorite show. Bennett sees it as “its own little liberation movement. It revolutionized the way we conceptualized and visualized sex, the way we discussed it with our friends and set our expectations in the dating world. Sex suddenly became an acceptable brunch-time conversation, and it brought our discussions of it out in the open. It made it OK to play the field, and to talk and laugh about doing so. And witnessing one orgasm after another went a long way toward making us believe we were entitled to good sex—and that we could demand it.”

The loosening of sexual mores is undeniable. But perhaps younger generations give the show too much credit. For those who were already in their 20s when it aired, “SATC” did not tell them what to do, it revealed what they were already doing—and emboldened them to do more. The “SATC” women were not the first to loudly proclaim their sexual desires. “A hard man,” purred Mae West many decades ago, “is good to find.” Madonna did more than any other female icon of the late 20th century to promote women’s independent, complex sexual desires. (Her 1992 book “Sex” makes the “SATC” girls look like prudish pussycats.) Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote “Sex and the Single Girl” in 1962, declared: “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.” In fact, you could argue that “Sex and the City” did not start a movement—it asked what a movement meant for our relationships. Carrie Bradshaw did not answer questions about finding love and meaning outside marriage—she just asked them. She simply allowed us into her confusion, and reflected our own. And for this, women will travel thousands of miles to the house of a fictional character and cry when they see it. Perhaps the key to the show’s longevity is that, in grappling with the fact that it is impossible to predict, control or tame our hearts, it’s good to know we have company. Just don’t expect a satire of the search for Prince Charming in the film. You’re more likely to find a portrait of an eager Cinderella trying to slip her feet into Manolo Blahniks, their labels angled firmly toward the camera.