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Growing Up Alongside <em>Sex and the City</em>

Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samatha make their big-screen debut this week, but what sort of legacy are they leaving behind to the girls in their wake? Abby McDonald explores the past ten years of Sex.
Focus on females: Other films celebrating female friendship
Not in the mood for getting "Carrie-d" away? Try this smattering of features about the bond between women. Since mainstream film has women as girlfriends and daughters, if looking for female-centric films, remember the ever-fertile categories of indies (The Clockwatchers, Gas Food Lodging), teen movies (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), foreign (Mina Tannenbaum), and Joan Crawford classics (The Women).


Nine To Five
Feature, Dir. Colin Higgins, 1980
Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Jane Fonda stick it to their boss, warble a classic song. The best.


Fried Green Tomatoes
Feature, Dir. Jon Avnet, 1991
Famously about female friendship, since the book's central lesbian relationship was cut and merely implied in a food fight. Still a pretty good movie with the ever-rad Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates as pals.


Thelma and Louise
Feature, Dir. Ridley Scott, 1991
While it may be remembered for introducing the world to a shirtless, gorgeous Brad Pitt, Thelma and Louise had the world by the throat as they ran off on their empowering road trip. The Time-cover zeitgeist of the early 90s.


Walking and Talking
Feature, Dir. Nicole Holofcener, 1996
Possibly one of the most accurate films ever made about a best-friendship unmoored when one friend announces her engagement. For those nights when you want to tell your best friend all your secrets without her s.o. automatically knowing them too.


Me Without You
Feature, Dir. Sandra Goldbacher, 2001
A British movie about the dynamic between the "pretty" one (Anna Friel) and the "smart" (Michelle Williams) one. Painful and real.
so best
Women across the country will be breaking out the martinis and sky-high stilettos when the movie version of Sex and the City opens this Friday, and returning along with the original cast are the crowds of critics taking a fresh appraisal of the zeitgeist-shifting show. From the feminist relevance to the character archetypes, they’ve been attempting to understand what transformed a TV series into a phenomenon that could sustain a jump to film four years after the final episode. It was the friendship, the fucking, the fashion—for the first time, thirty-something women were shown as independent, ambitious, and sexually liberated, and this groundbreaking honesty inspired loyal and passionate fans still eager for more.


For women who were peers of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha, more accustomed to seeing a PG-13 version of their own desires on-screen, there is little doubt that the show was a refreshing breeze. But to younger viewers—those of us who were in our teens, preparing for first kisses and coming of age as SATC straddled the cultural horizon—the show helped mold our perceptions of women in the world from the very start.


Whether right or wrong, we grew up with the show as our vision of normal.


When SATC first aired in England in 1999, a year after its HBO debut, I was fourteen years old. According to my mother, I wasn’t allowed to watch the show, as it would give me a damaged view of relationships. With that decree, I just watched it on the old TV in my bedroom with the volume low, creeping quietly so the floorboards wouldn’t creak. To me, there was more damage in Ally McBeal’s waif-like passivity and constant, aching loneliness than the defiant, hopeful energy of Carrie and friends. They had careers, dreams, and most importantly, each other; the much-touted sex was simply a distraction from all those beautiful shoes.


At least, at first it was.


But while the Rampant Rabbits, funky spunk, and debates over the virtues of anal sex were an alien and embarrassing concept to my fourteen-year-old self, they formed a backdrop of sexual acceptance that is impossible to over-value. Once my mother ceded her territory, I was soon watching with the volume on full, paying just as much attention to the many forms of pleasure the women explored as I did to the accessories. For the first time, I was shown sex as something other than an illicit Flowers in the Attic chapter, tastefully romantic fade-to-black, or clinical biology lesson; SATC showed it in all its messy, fraught, political, and orgasmic glory. The language of clitorises, g-spots, and vibrators may have been outrageous to those who had never spoken of such things before—let alone in public, with a satisfied smile—but dispensing with the fairy-tale of perfect, precious sex as a shared secret was a powerful lesson for those of us attempting to navigate the complex world of backseats and boyfriends for the first time. If anything, understanding sex to be so much less than everyone pretended empowered me to make better sexual choices; to focus on context and person rather than the mysteries of an act which, thanks to my weekly dose of Samantha’s athletic prowess and Carrie's parade of bras, was not so mysterious after all.


The sex, however, was always in contrast to the show's hopeful delight in the promise of love; and in its execution, SATC was remarkable for its un-romantic narrative. The cast may have been seeking ‘"the one," but instead of white knights, men were shown to be transient: They left, they cheated, and they died. Even the ever-romantic Charlotte’s quest for Mr Right was gleefully destroyed when her “perfect” marriage collapsed in the hollow wreckage of impotence, infertility, and the magnificently over-bearing mother-in-law, Bunny. In the wake of the destruction, the Park Avenue princess took comfort in her friends, succinctly presenting the thesis of the show with her plaintive suggestion: “Maybe we could be each other's soulmates, and men could be these great nice guys to have fun with."


valley of the twentysomethings who love flowersTo women raised with the social conventions of marriage and family still looming large, this idea was as revolutionary as shopping for sex toys. However, to those of us who witnessed divorce first-hand through adolescent eyes, the idea that happily-ever-after depended not on men, but friendship was hardly radical. We could have spelled it out long before Miranda settled for Steve in Brooklyn and Carrie fled the empty romantic illusion of Paris towards the dream that Big could change. Yet despite attempting to cast off one outdated fairy-tale, the show merely replaced it with another, equally misleading one that younger women swallowed as readily as that dream of Mr Right: That of a modern urban lifestyle filled with friends, rent-controlled studio apartments, an endless parade of cocktail parties, and yes, all those delicious shoes.


That fantastical vision of what it means to be a young, careerist woman is SATC’s legacy to those of us who had barely ventured into the world when it first aired. By now, such a vision is irrefutable, trickling down through film, literature, and pop culture until it seems that unless you’re tripping off to brunch on a pair of designer shoes to chat with your gaggle of girlfriends about all the wonderfully athletic sex you’re having, you are just plain doing it wrong. From Bridget Jones chick-lit to Kate Hudson chick-flicks, this shiny consumer utopia exploded at the end of the Twentieth century and is now the norm. For my generation, it’s the only version of success we’ve ever seen—despite the fact that it’s just as much a myth as that white knight.


The themes of friendship, independence, and self-reliance initially presented by the show have been buried under the swathes of designer clothing and fabulous parties that followed. Where Carrie and company could have hypothetically sustained that lifestyle on the thirty-something salaries of a lawyer, PR executive, sometime gallery manager, and newspaper columnist, to those of us on internship crumbs and starter job slave wages, that glittering dream of fabulous accessories is as far from reach as all those orgasms that seemed to roll with such ease off Samantha’s clitoris—and just as desirable. Through the show's duration, the other women were secure in their finances; however, even Carrie, the writer, discovered the perilous financial insecurity such a lifestyle brings, leaving her with $40,000 worth of shoes, but no deposit to buy her co-op. Yet still, even with Carrie's finances in mind, we are undeterred: Budgeting lipsticks alongside groceries, sipping ten-dollar cocktails, and striving for that perfect alchemy of glamour, lust, and friendship that spoke to our hearts from the very start.


Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha may now be in their forties, a world away from their former carefree thirty-something selves and even further from my own trial-and-error twenty-something existence, but I’ll be there for opening weekend all the same. I could never identify with them as peers, but instead, those characters were like the cool aunt or the rebellious godmother: guiding my sexual identity, giving me a vision of possible futures that didn’t revolve around men, and helping me become the woman I am today. I live in a world they helped create, and for that—and the Rampant Rabbit—I will always thank them.


Abby McDonald is a twenty-three-year-old author based in Montreal. Her debut novel for teens, Sophomore Switch, will be published in spring 2009, and her adult novel The Popularity Rules will follow next summer. She can be found at


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