Dissecting Sex in Sex and the City
In the era following the reclaiming of sexuality in second-wave feminism and rapid globalization, television became an outlet in which sex—specifically females and sex—was a topic more widely accepted in broadcasting. The pinnacle of this acceptance came in the form of Darren Star’s landmark HBO show Sex and the City, which followed four white, female protagonists through their romantic, sexual, and sometimes lifestyle or career escapades in the Big Apple.
Noted as one of the first shows to revolve around unapologetic, sometimes graphic, depictions of female sexuality, many critics have praised Sex and the City as a leap forward for the feminist cause in television; however, the reality of the show’s intersection of a lavish female lifestyle with agency and ownership of the characters’ sexuality is much more nuanced and complex than strictly positive. Specifically, the first season episode “Secret Sex,” influential in the series because of its portrayal of the first official date between Carrie and Mr. Big, delineates the boundaries of the show in which its frequent display of unabashed sexuality is allowed and the conditions in which sexuality ought to be repressed or hidden. In a show where sexuality is dissected and paraded, this episode is set apart in its acknowledgement of the underbelly of sexuality: stigmas around sexual deviation, double standards for women putting out, and societal commoditization of sex.
This installment, which broadcasted early in the show’s run, began a pattern which the show followed and reinforced until its finale. As third-wave feminism swelled in the late 1990s and Sex and the City became a staple of pop culture, critics classified its message as unequivocally feminist, while the show executed gender and sexuality discourse. under a much more complex reality of feminine life. Over the course of the episode, Carrie investigates the frequency and reasoning of “secret sex”—that is, when someone has sex with another person and covers up the evidence, hiding it from friends, through her relationship with Mr. Big and the escapades of her friends and their partners.
The episode opens up in a flashy—both literally and figuratively—manner, with Carrie’s photo shoot for her column’s promotional materials. She writhes on the bed, hair flowing, in a nude-colored dress, pausing in sultry and carefree poses. The dress, diaphanous enough that her nipples are visible through the material, immediately becomes Carrie’s outfit for her date with Mr. Big that night, the first after their botched attempts the previous episode. Each of her three friends weighs in on the dress. Charlotte, the more demure and traditional of the friend group, chimes in, “It’s a naked dress. You’re obviously going to have sex with him tonight.” Upon the other friends’ agreement, the dress takes on a sexuality of its own, one that permeates through its wearer and enables sexual practices outside of the norm. “The Sex and the City version of bohemian fashion is post punk, post Madonna; it incorporates an assertive sexualised imagery for women that consciously plays with the transgressive sexual connotations of leather, bondage, and underwear as outerwear…Sex in this context becomes like shopping—a marker of identity, a source of pleasure.” 1 Bolstered by the dress, Carrie channels an aggressive, shameless sexuality, and along with the consumption of higher fashion comes the consumption of sex. In the car that Mr. Big brought, staring longingly at each other, Mr. Big asserts that he can restrain himself; yet, seconds later, they are in each others’ arms and minutes later on the ground of his apartment. “Although Sex and the City rejects the traditional patriarchal dichotomy of virgin and whore, insisting in its explorations of the women’s multiple sexual experiences their rights to seek sexual satisfaction without shame, this doesn’t mean that there are no limits.” 1 The limit in this scene comes in the form of Carrie’s culturally imposed set of expected actions. Though, characteristic of second-wave feminism, Carrie makes no apologies for her decision to sleep with him, the entire context of the discussion, both before and afterwards, relates to how Mr. Big will react if Carrie sleeps with him on the first date and to the dress. Discussing the night with Charlotte the next day, Carrie says, “I don’t blame myself. I blame the dress. The dress led me on, had a life of its own.” In both discussions with her friends and voiceover monologues with herself, Carrie’s sexuality is assigned to Mr. Big and to the dress—not to Carrie herself.
On top of her relationship with Mr. Big, Carrie faces off against another channel of her sexuality: the bus advertisement of Carrie’s column. Clad in her “naked dress” and reclined seductively on a bed, the poster declares, “Carrie Bradshaw knows good sex (and isn’t afraid to ask).” In the juxtaposition of the emboldened sensuality and text of Carrie’s work, it is not entirely apparent what is being sold in the advert—the topics of sexuality in Carrie’s columns, or Carrie’s sexuality itself. “In a context freed from the moral constraints of network television, Sex and the City is able to exploit fully the glossy women’s magazines’ consumerist approach to sexuality, in which women’s sexual pleasure and agency is frankly encouraged as part of a consumer lifestyle and attitude.” 1 If Carrie’s column is a good, it’s represented in her body and lifestyle and sold to the New York populace.
Her sexuality is further reclaimed when the group sees the phallus drawn near Carrie’s face on the side of the bus. Shocked and appalled, Carrie laments even more that Mr. Big could not come, nearing an unsaid implication that he would have shielded her from the intrusion. She even links the events of her first-date sex to the episode on the bus in her head, revealing in voiceover, “The truth is: I blamed myself. I wore the naked dress on the first date. I slept with him too fast. And now I’m on a 5th avenue bus with a penis on my head.” Suddenly the strong and invincible Carrie Bradshaw, already knocked down in the episode with the question of Mr. Big’s wish to see her again, becomes the heroine stereotype, in need of a strong and “big” man to save her. “Carrie’s own inability to wake up and realise what a terrible cliche she is dating renders her, at best, pretty dumb and, at worst, passive and weak.” 5 And through the end of the episode, Carrie never makes any large attempts to reverse her mold with the archetype of the the distressed, desperate female seeking a strong man to take care of her.
Surprisingly, the antithesis to Carrie’s ownership (or lack thereof) of her sexuality in the episode comes in the form of Charlotte. During the course of the episode, Samantha points out that Charlotte once had the “secret sex” that Carrie is researching, with a Hasidic folk artist. After visiting his studio and becoming intoxicated by his talent, Charlotte and the man spend a day of passion together, one that she refrains from mentioning to the rest of the group. Charlotte’s reluctance to talk about it stems from the couple’s lack of a future and how society would perceive their acts if they went public. Though Charlotte’s sexuality is not quite as transparent as Samantha’s (who asks, “If the sex is good, who cares what anybody thinks?”), Charlotte’s sexuality remains claimed fully by her—she does not act ashamed of her actions and acted in tribute to her body’s feelings.
As Kim Cattrall, who played Samantha, later said, “I think the show redefined what being single is about, which had a negative connotation of not being wanted or attractive or sexy enough or good enough. This was, I’m single because I choose to be single.” 3 Indeed, Charlotte embraces her singleness and independence as a woman in this episode, owning up to her fling, in a way that Carrie does not. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, also with a marginal part in the episode, is Samantha, who remains unapologetically in ownership of her sexuality. When Carrie asks about what private sex Samantha has had, she’s unable to name any dalliances that she has not already shared with her friends. As Samantha herself says, “Just proves I’m not ashamed of anyone I’ve had sex with.” In her complete, unequivocal acceptance of her own sexuality, Samantha transgresses both Carrie and Charlotte (and Miranda) in her total comfort with her libido and lack of shame or hesitation to share with others and becomes the child of the second-wave feminism movement, where her desire for pleasure outside of monogamous, or even the will for monogamous, relationships is accepted. Throughout the episode and the majority of the series, Samantha “treat[s] men as branded goods—the packaging has to be right but the difficulty is to find one whose use value lives up to the image. The quest becomes one in which they are looking for the phallus that would bring an end to a seemingly endless chain of desire.” 1 As a liberated, heterosexual white woman, Samantha is afforded this liberation of sexuality and desire in the series and the power to openly admit to this to her friends and the public.
However, not all women in the series are treated with the same ability to be in public relationships. The “Secret Sex” episode details the relationship of Carrie’s friend Mike Singer and his hidden girlfriend Libby. After meeting in a restaurant, where Mike rushes Carrie away from Libby, Carrie becomes suspicious. Mike later reveals that Libby is the best sex he’s had and is a very kind person, but he doesn’t view her as pretty enough to be with in the long-term. The details of their meeting are catalogued meticulously in flashback form, building up an audience sympathy for the unsuspecting and well-meaning Libby. Thinking on Mike’s dilemma, Carrie asks in her column, “Was secret sex the ultimate form of intimacy, since it existed in a pure state, exempt from the world? Or was it just another way we deny our feelings and compartmentalize our lives?” In a way, both of these possibilities seem accurate; while inner acceptance of sexuality leads to peace, the public repression of this peace is something that works for few characters on Sex and the City.
Toward the middle of the episode, Mike reveals to Carrie that Libby has left him for a man who is not ashamed to be with her. The absence of her on-screen departure, however, leaves a gap in the story, filled in by the unreliable and judgmental Mike. The show rests on the audience’s trust of Mike, that Libby has claimed her sexuality and worth and taken it to someone more appreciative of her, but leaves the door open for the possibility that Mike is simply becoming more adept at hiding the relationship. In many ways, the show revealed “that, at the very least, there’s still plenty of mileage in the tension between independence and the desire for sex, love and partnership; and especially for all those things with men.” 5 Though second-wave feminism brought about an acceptance of all facets of the individual’s sexuality, the plot of Mike and Libby’s relationship points out the pitfalls of this embrace—that some will be deemed worthy of this transparency of sexuality, and some will not.
Meanwhile during the show, Miranda deals with a sexual dilemma of her own. After she finds out that the man she has been seeing has a pornographic DVD of spanking, Miranda doubts their relationship and whether or not she can continue seeing him. She goes to Carrie with the tape, and they view what looks like an actual pornographic film of spanking while they debate Miranda’s situation. In jest, Carrie says, “How can you judge him until you spank him?” Though Carrie says this line in a witty, sarcastic tone, her point remains: Miranda, a sexual, independent, intelligent woman with more than one flaw herself, labels him as a sexual deviant and only convinces herself to keep seeing him after extensive introspection. When they do see each other again, Miranda makes casual reference to the spanking, despite her misgivings. In an essay on sexual scripts, cultural descriptions of sex and sex-related behavior, Markle says, “Sexual scripts that obligate women to please and to be emotionally available to men also make it tough for women to refuse sex. Women may find saying no difficult because it breaches an anticipated sexual script.” 2 In the scene, Miranda confidently, even seductively, tries to entice Ted to have sex the way she thinks he wants to. Despite her willingness to mold to his pleasure, Miranda is rejected by Ted, who walks off with barely a word and never comes into contact with her again. In this exchange, nobody’s sexuality is fully their own. Ted hides an aspect of his sexuality that he thinks society will shun, and Miranda molds her sexuality to her partner’s, later discouraged by the rejection.
Though Sex and the City portrays sexuality in frank terms that most television shows shy away from, the show neglects many facets of feminism, many of which are encompassed in the third-wave feminism movement. As seen throughout this argument, complete female ownership of sexuality is lacking in the majority of interactions in the show, as well as intersectionalism. Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays lead Carrie, said when asked about feminism on the show, “We [women] are the beneficiaries of a lot of disappointment, heartache, discouragement, and misunderstanding. But I see a lot of people trying to sort out their roles. People of colour, gays, lesbians, and transgenders who are carving out this space. I’m not spitting in the face or being lazy about what still needs to be done — but I don’t think it’s just women anymore.” 4 The show, in its focus on four white, heterosexual women with reasonably esteemed but mostly sidelined careers who place a great deal of emphasis on men and shopping, caters to what society has constructed as the perfect independent (though this adjective may be contested) woman—split across four distinct personalities. These personalities and their plights supposedly mirror the sexual and relationship struggles of the everyday woman, in ways that audiences can appreciate and relate to. If this is the case, then the show leaves out a few important factors.
First of all, all the women are white, upperclass, and straight, despite Samantha’s brief, trivializing stint as a lesbian. This very narrow field leaves out a few huge demographics represented in contemporary society—people of color, those of lower socioeconomic status, non-gender conforming or LGBTQIA* populations. Each woman at some point in the series, some more frequently than others, dreams of the fairy tale ending with a man sweeping them off their feet. In their discussion during “Secret Sex” of relationships and when the right time for sex is, they acknowledge rigid, though individualized, rules to restrain themselves to, in hopes of achieving a lasting relationship. Additionally, a topic not discussed in the series is relationship or sexual violence. During the show, “men never pressure women for sex and there is no force or date rape. Given the sheer number of men these women date, the fact that they never encounter any pressure or hint of violence seems unrealistic.” 2 Though physical violence is often a long shot for a comedy, the show does not always shy away from serious topics, even embracing ruminations on insecurities, death, the very basis of friendship. In its encouragement of open and uninhibited expression of sexuality, it fails to neglect an important aspect of that interaction: the reaction.
Despite these shortcomings, Sex and the City proved a valuable transition into modern comedies and drama which do cover third-wave feminism topics, like The L Word and Scandal. In its open depiction of female sexuality, it opened the gates, especially as a cultural icon, for both women and men, which both represented large portions of the audience, to recognize the virtues and existence of female sexuality, a concept often repressed and ignored throughout history. As one critic argues, “to dismiss the programme entirely on the basis of its shortcomings as a feminist text would also be to lose out on what it does deliver. Just to take the most headline-grabbing example, that includes some pretty frank discussion of sex, in which female sexual pleasure and agency is obviously considered a fundamental right, rather than a privilege.” 5 The lack of complete female ownership of sex and boundaries within which that openness operated were not ideal, but may have suggested how far the feminist cause still had to go. And in doing so, Sex and the City appealed to a broad culture and created countless discussions about its unique content that emboldened perceptions of female desire and brought them to the forefront of the public eye; after all, with sex in the name of the show, it’s an aspect impossible to ignore.
- Arthurs, Jane. “Sex And the City and Consumer Culture: Remediating Postfeminist Drama.” Feminist Media Studies 3, no. 1 (December 2003): 83–98. doi:10.1080/1468077032000080149.
- Markle, Gail. “‘Can Women Have Sex Like a Man?’: Sexual Scripts In Sex and the City.” Sexuality &Amp; Culture 12, no. 1 (January 16, 2008): 45–57. doi:10.1007/s12119-007-9019-1.
- Millar, Anna. “Sex And the City – Sarah Jessica Parker Interview.” The List. The List Ltd., May 21, 2008. https://film.list.co.uk/article/8571-sex-and-the-city-sarah-jessica-parker-interview/.
- Saul, Heather. “Sarah Jessica Parker Explains Why She Is Not a Feminist.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, July 7, 2015. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/sarah-jessica-parker-explains-why-she-is-not-a-feminist-its-not-just-about-women-now-10372197.html.
- Wignall, Alice. “Can a Feminist Really Love Sex and the City?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 16, 2008. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/apr/16/women.film.