In her fantastic reclamation of the much-maligned HBO sitcom Sex and the City as part of television’s golden age, New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum argues this week that Carrie Bradshaw deserves more credit than she’s previously been granted for being a pioneering member of what’s the now male-dominated fraternity of anti-heroes. In particular, she calls out the moment when the show did what so many dramas would do years later, and challenges our sense of complicity with the main character. “Carrie fell under the thrall of Mr. Big, the sexy, emotionally withholding forty-three-year-old financier played by Chris Noth,” she writes. “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?'”
But much of the revisionism that Sex and the City’s undergone in the decade and a half since its debut–aided, to be fair, by its second, truly awful movie–has elided that complex relationship between the show’s viewers and its characters. Instead of understanding that being a Sex and the City fan was often about seeing your worst fears for yourself and your romantic life portrayed on screen, and being reassured that you could survive and grow beyond them, the show’s critics have convinced us that we need, as Nussbaum put it, “to downgrade the show to a ‘guilty pleasure,’ to mock its puns, to get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered and blinged-out movies.”
If you express sympathy for Tony Soprano, the titular character of David Chase’s pioneering drama, whoever you’re speaking to will understand that you’re experiencing Boomer ennui, maybe even that you’re anxious about your kids and aging parents. No one will mistake that affinity for a desire to shoot your best friend on a boat, or to strangle a federal collaborator while taking your daughter on a college tour. If you identify with Jimmy McNulty, the roguish Irish-American detective from The Wire, your interlocutors will understand that you admire his swagger, sympathy, and way with words, not that you have any particular wish to develop a drinking problem and torpedo your career in a spectacular fashion. And if you covet Don Draper’s suits and the best parts of his professional relationship with Peggy Olson, no one’s going to go digging through your background, suddenly suspicious that you made up your identity to get out of a war zone. But compare yourself to Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, or Miranda, and the nuances disappear. To want to be like one of the characters on Sex and the City is to be equally addicted to shoes and toxic love affairs, to be a pathetic, aging slut, a nutty, marriage-obsessed WASP, or a bitch.
The idea that affinity for Sex and the City marks you as misguided, materialistic, or at the very least, extremely naive, is so well-established that it’s become a common cultural trope in and of itself among both the show’s aficionados and detractors.
In the pilot episode of HBO’s Girls, Shoshanna, a young New York University student, breathlessly tells her cousin “You’re definitely a Carrie, with like, some Samantha aspects, and Charlotte hair. That’s like a really good combination. I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes … sometimes Samantha kind of comes out. And then, when I’m at school, I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.” And in Aaron Sorkin’s drama The Newsroom, about the staff of a cable news program, the show signaled that Maggie, a young staffer on the show, was better for Jim, a senior producer, than Lisa, Maggie’s best friend and roommate, who Jim was currently dating, by having her deliver an anti-Sex and the City tirade at a bus doing a Sex and the City tour of New York. “I’m the typical single woman in New York City. I don’t wear heels to work because the typical woman’s job doesn’t exclusively involve gallery openings,” she hollered at him.
Girls creator Lena Dunham has been outspoken about her love for Sex and the City, while Sorkin, who continued his crusade against the show in his second season, seems to have some particular hang-up about it. But in both shows, the message is relatively clear. Girls mistake Sex and the City for real life. Grown women know better.
But if that’s true, what are we to make of Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), the character least-addressed by the critique of Sex and the City as fluffy, materialistic and profoundly un-self-aware — and the one most embraced by the Sex and the City fans of my acquaintance.
Of the four main characters it’s possible to identify with in Sex and the City, Miranda never seems to be the most popular choice. Carrie is fashion-forward, successful in an occupation that would be sexy even if her column wasn’t about sex, and runs through a series of dramatically rich relationships, each of which propels her towards a truer understanding of herself. Samantha is an adventuress in the most classical sense of the word, a sexual omnivore with a surprisingly squishy heart, a big, expansive career, and a loft with a roof deck in the meatpacking district. And Charlotte managed to balance a nice-girl wardrobe and set of manners, while living a life larger and more interesting than the classic six she got in her divorce, posing for (and hooking up with) drag king photographers and having her vagina painted by an upstate eccentric, not to mention her rendezvous with a group of New York’s Power Lesbians. Whatever their flaws—and Carrie’s obsessiveness, Samantha’s selfishness, and Charlotte’s embrace of a phony vision of marital happiness were all real and consequential–they represented three equally glamorous visions of what it meant to be a well-off woman in New York.
By contrast, when we met Miranda for the first time, it was over one of those shameful, ubiquitous hot foot bars, brandishing a pair of tongs, an unidentifiable piece of meat, and a bad attitude.
Miranda is successful, perhaps even more successful than her best friends, given that she’s the first of them to buy an apartment. She could be tart about what she’d accomplished, whether she was negotiating her relationship with a prudish new housekeeper who replaced her vibrator with a statue of the Blessed Virgin, or explaining that “I just realized, maybe it’s maturity or the wisdom that comes with age, but the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’- she’s very misunderstood. I mean, the woman builds her dream house and these brats come along and start eating it.” That success doesn’t always translate into glamor in the same way it did for the other characters–Miranda memorably found out she’d been wearing the wrong bra size for years while shopping for an outfit to wear to her mother’s funeral.
She was also often an in-house voice for the sorts of criticism that was launched at the show. “How did it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?” Miranda snapped at her friends at one point. “It’s like seventh grade with bank accounts.” When Carrie was pondering a move to Paris in the sixth season, Miranda was both truthful and cutting about what it would entail. “I can’t believe you quit your job,” Miranda told her friend, starting a fight that drew out their very different priorities about work and family. “I think you’re making a mistake…Carrie, you can’t quit your column. It’s who you are…What are you going to do over there without your job, eat croissants?”
And while her friends often got themselves in trouble by being too open to relationships, sexual liaisons, or marriages, Miranda was closed-off, cautious, self-protective in a way that could be caustic, and harmful to herself as well as to other people. She once ate an entire, pizza-sized cookie with “I Love You” written on it in chocolate chips to avoid dealing with a declaration of intimacy. “I am so fucked up,” Miranda told Carrie afterwards. “I am never going to be happy. It’s just not going to happen for me…I always thought that when the right guy came along all my bullshit would calm down and go away.”
In “The Man, The Myth, The Viagra,” angry at Carrie for ditching their dinner plans, Miranda was needlessly rude to the bartender at the restaurant where she was stood up–both before and after she had sex with him. She wasn’t without her reasons: it was just that Carrie had ditched her, but earlier in the same episode, Miranda was humiliated by a stand-up comedian when her date’s phone rang during his set, and the person on the other end of the line turned out to be said date’s wife. “If they’re not married, they’re gay, or burned for a divorce, or aliens from the planet Don’t Date Me,” Miranda told her friends over brunch. “Guys are such liars.”
Miranda wasn’t alone in getting scalded by bad dates and sexual humiliation, though she was the only one of the girls to get sexually harassed by a guy in a sandwich costume, but unlike her friends, she lacked a certain optimistic or adventurous balm that helped their scars heal more quickly and fade faster. “Why do you hate guys so much? We just met, so I know that ain’t all about me,” that bartender, a friendly guy named Steve, told Miranda later in the episode, after she was nasty to him in front of her friends. “I just want to get to know you better. Do me a favor. Can you for one second believe that maybe I’m not some full of shit guy? That maybe I do like you? That maybe the other night was special? Do you think that maybe you could believe that?” When Miranda told him “No,” it was a gesture of self-loathing, a punishment for the times she’d let herself hope before, rather than a slap at Steve himself.
And when her faith was moderately restored by an out-of-character romantic gesture from Mr. Big to Carrie, Miranda raced out into the rain to tell Steve that she’d changed her mind, that “Maybe I can believe it.” It’s one of the most romantic moment in the show that’s both profoundly true to its message” Miranda was placing a bet on herself, as well as on Steve.
Years later, after they’d broken up, reunited, broken up again, and had a child together, but started dating other people, Miranda confessed to Steve in her laundry closet: “I love you. I love you, Steve. I’m sorry. I should never have said that. It’s just that I love you, and I fucked everything up, and now it’s too late. I’m sorry I’m doing this. I’m sorry. Please don’t look at me.” Even then, she doubted herself, and her worthiness of love, given her past mistakes. But Steve’s response was immediate. “I love you, too,” he told her. “Miranda, you’re the one,” even if he needed to remind her of her value over and over again.
That “you’re the on” is overshadowed by the same declaration, uttered a dozen episodes later on a Paris bridge, by Carrie to Mr. Big. It’s the show’s giant fairy tale moment, what Nussbaum argues is a betrayal of the show’s own critiques of romantic comedies. But it’s also part of the compromises all four of the characters reach in Sex and the City’s final season. Carrie’s reunion with Big is a recognition that they’re flawed, even curdled, in some fundamentally similar ways. Samantha, whose aversion to monogamy was always somewhat overstated, ends up in a committed relationship, but to a hot male model. Charlotte converts to Judaism to marry her divorce lawyer, and ends up with an adopted daughter rather than carrying a successful pregnancy to term.
But it’s Miranda, the pragmatist, who makes the most significant sacrifices for her relationship with Steve. She agrees to move to Brooklyn so their young family will have more space. And in the finale, she ends up caring for Steve’s mother, an abrasive alcoholic who’s succumbing to dementia, when the older woman wanders off and is discovered eating pizza out of the garbage. It might seem like a come-down, but given Miranda’s history, it’s a rather remarkable place for her to have arrived at.
While the rest of her friends got some version of the fairy tales they’d always believed were possible, Miranda never quite had matching expectations for herself. She started Sex and the City as a woman who was paralyzed and angry by the prospect of pain. She ended the show open to the possibility that she was capable of great joy, even that she had her fair share of it coming to her, but vindicated in the understanding that it would sometimes be accompanied by great hurt. Instead of being overwhelmed by that possibility, as she was so many times in the past, Miranda, more so than any of her friends, finally opened up to the full force of both of those emotions. I’ll take that life lesson over Tony Soprano’s sexy menace, Don Draper’s sodden mystique, or Jimmy McNulty’s bravado any day.