Sex and the City is so nineties: it’s outdated, early neoliberal postfeminist (and I use that word in its most popular – and least nuanced - connotation: the attitude feminism has achieved its objectives and we’re the hot new women; we fuck anything we want; we have money, and we like our fashion) shit. And yet, its hangover is there everywhere. Yes, despite the fact that Sex and the City 2 was about the worst film to hit the screens in years, SATC, as people will insist on calling it, is iconic to so many women worldwide. In a book titled Reading Sex and the City, Janet McCabe and Kim Akass write that the book by Candace Bushnell and the TV series on HBO that followed have impacted popular culture like no other concept: women from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas have all been enamoured of the lifestyles of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha. The show, which is what this essay will primarily treat, presents something everyone wants: a high-powered, sexy lifestyle.
What then does a show that claims to sexual frankness and realism have to say about queer lives? In Carrie Bradshaw fashion, I ask: is there a Queer Sex and the City?
Stanford Blatch is about the most obviously gay character on the show. As Merck writes, in some ways, his preference: for ‘straight men who are gay’ mirrors the dystopia in Carrie and Co’s heterosexual world: he can never find a masculine looking and ‘straight-acting’ (if someone could tell me how to ‘act straight’ or indeed gay, I’d be much obliged) gay man to love. At worst, he is Carrie Bradshaw’s instant way of feeling better about herself: Stanford is a somehow more pathetic creature than the hot Miss Bradshaw, always watery-eyed, and insecure. At best, he is a steadfast GBF to a hot New York woman. She isn’t his fag hag, he is her personal, trained, pick-me-up fag.
The relationships between women, except between best friends who are bound in a tacit no-competition contract, are entirely those of competition: who gets the hotter, richer husband and the house in the Hamptons quicker, who has babies before the ovaries and uterus give up, and who wears the hotter clothes and talks more sex-trash. Networks of support are hinged on assumptions of a certain social acceptability. For instance, when Samantha declares herself in a relationship with a woman in Season 4, the friends make a number of snide jokes, and express disbelief.
The relationship itself is at best, caricatured. She is in a mostly sexless relationship with an artist named Maria, of whom she slowly tires. Lesbians, we are told, prefer to stay at home and rarely venture out, indulge in too much relationship talk, and take numerous baths. They’d rather not have sex because they are not men. Yup, thanks, SATC. Women don’t have sexual desire at all. A finger, we are told, can’t replace a dick. It’s only a third of real sex, given size, Carrie tells us. The thought of oral sex between these two women is disgusting and the women shudder. These are people who persistently talk about giving men blowjobs and indeed getting ‘head’ from men. The end to the relationship clearly indicates that lesbian sex is perceived as contrived and unnatural.
Bisexuality gets about the worst treatment possible: gay and straight are understandable, we’re told. To be bisexual is just too greedy. Carrie Bradshaw is unable to stomach the idea that the man she’s dating has been with a man before. And when playing spin the bottle with her younger bisexual boyfriend and his queer friends, she is shocked at the idea of kissing a woman. Their ‘gender-confused’ world isn’t for her, she tells us, as she walks away from the apartment. Gender and sexuality are shown along a continuum at other points. A heterosexual man who’s afraid of mice clearly cannot be Prince Charming for Charlotte. He’s not even a real man. He might have done well as a gay best friend, just too bad he was straight and sexually interested in her.
One really cannot be surprised at all of this, given that the show’s basic premise is really a fairy-tale heterosexual one. True, as Carrie says, in New York as it really is, “no one has breakfast at Tiffany’s and no one has affairs to remember.” No, but we aspire to these things, almost desperately. Sex and the City is at best, a fifties dystopia transplanted into the nineties: beautiful womanly women, being ‘women’ in the way their age dictates, learning how best to please men and achieve social power in their relationships with men. All other sexualities, sexual choices and behaviours have got to have something wrong with them: or they are other. Sure, Sex and the City is a self-aware heterosexual dystopia, but it’s a dystopia that is grounded in binary notions of gender and sexuality that masquerade as postfeminist and liberal: if this means being rich enough to live a highly individuated metropolitan lifestyle, involving designer labels and hot men, while scorning all other lifestyles, then all I have to say is that as the truism goes, I will be a postfeminist in the post-patriarchy.
Sneha Krishnan is a first year D. Phil student reading Development Studies at Wolfson College, Oxford. She will be writing a thesis on sexuality and space in the city of Chennai. She is currently working on theoretically understanding exclusion and concepts of home.