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Review: Sex and the City and Us doesn’t shy away from the show’s problematic legacy

  • Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love
  • By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 256 pages

In the two decades since the show’s premiere, most Sex and the City fans have come to understand one truth: The series has not aged well.

That’s a tough pill to swallow if, like me, your formative years were rooted in Carrie Bradshaw references and cosmopolitans. And it’s made tougher still when you realize that Sex and the City helped usher in HBO’s golden era and broke barriers in terms of the way we talk about sex, gender roles and social norms on TV. So is it possible to celebrate something that’s as problematic as it is groundbreaking? And despite its pitfalls, does Sex and the City still deserve any recognition?

The cast of "Sex And The City" ("The Caste System" episode). From l-r: Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Sarah Jessica Parker. © 1999 Paramount Pictures

© 1999 Paramount Pictures

I couldn’t help but wonder: Can you still be critical while being a fan?

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According to Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s Sex and the City and Us, absolutely.

Armstrong’s work has always been anchored in responsible and interesting criticism. In 2013, she wrote Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic, and in 2016 she released Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. Each book is interesting, detailed and compelling to read, and Armstrong takes great pains to shed just as much light on the greatness of these empires as on their weaknesses. Which Sex and the City and Us does as well. But this time, Armstrong does one better and lets us in on her personal connection to the show, starting with an introduction about the way her romanticized view of New York and singledom helped her end a relationship and begin living on her own terms. Which is an all-too familiar tale: Thanks to the series about four best friends and their romantic (and sexual) narratives, Sex and the City became a guide to navigating a very specific sect of life. Ultimately, it taught the masses that if you were single, well-dressed, affluent and white, you could truly have it all.

SEX AND THE CITY debuts new episodes Sunday nights (9:00-9:30 p.m. ET), exclusively on HBO. Pictured: Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Craig Blankenhorn

Because that’s the thing about Sex and the City. For as much as it did to eradicate sexual taboos and outdated gender norms, it very much relied on them, too. But thankfully, Armstrong uses her book to tell you as much.

While we quickly learn that her admiration of the series is hugely personal, at no point does she abandon her job of examining the show and its legacy. And with the help from the series’ creators, writers, actors and viewers, Armstrong takes readers from Candace Bushnell’s column to the show’s inception to the two movies we dare not speak of outside this context. (They’re so bad, you guys. And Armstrong also admits as much.) She’s present as a writer and as a fan, but removes herself far enough to make no excuses for the series’ embarrassing approach to race and the LGBTQ community – or the derogatory remarks made by characters to describe sex workers. And because of her willingness to call out hurtful language or plot points, Armstrong earns her readers’ trust. Especially since she doesn’t stop at merely pointing out what’s problematic: Instead, she examines the long- and short-term effects of the series’ blemishes, and pinpoints what could have been done better. No free passes (under any circumstances) are awarded.

SEX AND THE CITY. 2004 Season. Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall Credit: HBO

And honestly, that makes the rest of the book easy and fun to read. Because she proves she’s willing to tell the full story, you genuinely want to follow Armstrong along as she continues to dissect seasons, behind-the-scenes conversations, and opens the door to the writers’ room. (Or Magnolia Bakery.) But perhaps most importantly, you glean a bright and colourful picture of a TV show that changed the way television works. You realize that despite its missteps, Sex and the City still changed the conversation, creating a cultural landscape in which sex and female friendships were redefined, and norms on all fronts were re-examined. After all, it’s easy to ignore the legacy of a show that’s morphed into a dated depiction of single life that wouldn’t be economically feasible unless you were a multimillionaire. And it’s easier still to credit gritty series such as The Sopranos over a TV show about four characters who strayed from traditional TV roles for helping television grow up.

SEX AND THE CITY. 2004 Season. Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, Sarah Jessica Parker Credit: HBO

And, hey: By no means is Sex and the City perfect. But in terms of cultural criticism, Sex and the City and Us comes pretty close. You know, in case anyone else was still wondering.

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