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Sex and the City: They're older - but are we wiser?

Joan Smith 08/05/2008

Sex and the City changed the way women talked about relationships. Now, with the long-awaited film set to open, Joan Smith argues that it belongs to a lost age of innocence They were smart, single, and their ambition was unashamedly to "have sex like men". That was in the Nineties, when the idea of four attractive women talking frankly about sex on television still had shock value.

This month Sex and the City is back as a full-length movie and its stars - Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis - are a decade older. So is the show's original audience, and the world has changed dramatically since the day SJP flounced along a Manhattan street for the first time in her Manolos. The movie's premiere will be in London on Monday, surprising fans who believe the show is defined by its New York location. Yet that famous opening sequence, with its jazzy soundtrack and Parker shying as a bus sprays her with water, already seems like something from another era.

When Parker first played newspaper columnist Carrie Bradshaw, Bill Clinton was in the White House and his wife Hillary had never even run for office, let alone started her struggle with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. In early episodes, the World Trade Centre dominated the Manhattan skyline as Carrie voiced the questions twenty- and thirtysomething women had been secretly asking themselves: can there be sex without politics? Is it OK to sleep with a guy on a first date? Where should you set the limits?

Thirty years after the sexual revolution, Carrie and her friends Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha met for coffee in upmarket cafés and talked endlessly about men - and ordinary women loved it. Few of the audience were as slender, soignée or successful as the show's main characters: a lawyer, an art dealer and a PR woman, as well as Parker's sassy columnist. Their $500 shoes might have been the stuff of fantasy, but we identified with them instantly, recognising a see-sawing between brash confidence and self-questioning that was just like our own. "You're so Carrie!" we exclaimed when a friend returned home laden with shopping bags. "We love Samantha!" we declared when the oldest and most sexually adventurous of the quartet did something particularly outrageous. If traditionalists were shocked by what they saw as another Channel 4 plot to destroy the nation's morals, it is undeniable that Sex and the City captured the spirit of the Nineties, reflecting a glamorised version of the lives many British and American women aspired to.

At the time of those early episodes, a lifestyle based around beautiful apartments and meals in expensive restaurants didn't seem totally out of reach. The final decade of the 20th century was characterised by optimism and economic growth; no one had heard the term "sub-prime" and maxing out your credit card to buy a frock didn't feel like the first step on the road to having your flat repossessed. Time and again, the series broke taboos, providing the daughters of Seventies feminists with a language they could use to talk about sex and relationships; it reassured them that you could be a strong, independent, modern woman and still care passionately about fashion. In that sense, Carrie and friends were a fusion of the Hite report and Vogue, never using the word feminism but living out its insistence that women could enjoy casual sex as much as men. This was pretty much an article of faith for Candace Bushnell, author of the column in the New York Observer on which the HBO TV series was based. The show blurred the edges, never resolving the tension between the pleasures of single life and Charlotte's longing for a husband at any cost, but it also ensured that every base was covered.

Women watched the show because it was funny and stylish and they could almost always find a character whose dilemmas matched their own. Charlotte's obsession with getting married and Samantha's impersonation of a female Bill Clinton were at opposite ends of the spectrum, but the fact that such disparate women got on so well sent a powerful message about female friendship.Samantha's rejection of hostile stereotypes of older women was genuinely ground-breaking, as was the fact that the writers had created a part for a sexually confident woman in her forties.

Some commentators expressed disquiet when the sixth and final series of Sex and the City ended in 2004 with Samantha recovering from breast cancer, detecting a subliminal message that she was being punished for her sexuality. But despite its glitzy surface, the series never tried to deny the drawbacks of casual sex.  In one episode, Miranda discovers that she has chlamydia and has to track down former lovers and tell them to get tested. With hindsight, one of the striking things about the series is that its discussions of sex were shockingly candid but rarely tipped over into the vulgarity that has become the hallmark of a generation of "reality" TV shows.

If Sex and the City now seems dated, it's largely because it assumed that dating the wrong man, being dumped and getting the occasional sexually transmitted disease were the worst hazards its four heroines would ever have to face. Last month Nixon, who reprises the role of Miranda in the movie, revealed that she had been treated for breast cancer two years ago. And in general the world has become a darker, more frightening place since the series burst on to our television screens in 1998."Are relationships the new religion?" Carrie mused at one point, a question that sounds breathtakingly naïve now, in the light of the horrors unleashed in the first decade of the 21st century.

It goes to show that there is more than one kind of innocence: in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the site of the World Trade Centre has become a place of pilgrimage and it is clear that religion is the new religion. A characteristic of the Islamist ideology promoted by al-Qa'eda is its pathological misogyny; last summer, terrorists parked a car bomb outside a nightclub in London and narrowly failed to murder a generation of single women who embody Sex and the City's sexually liberated ethos. A British Islamist is serving a long jail sentence after boasting in a conversation intercepted by the security services about a plot to kill "slags" at another London night spot, Ministry of Sound.

The original premise of Sex and the City was that women still had to cope with contradictions, but they were doing it with style, humour and a lot of help from their friends. The series took the energy and ideas of the Sixties, gave them all a frothy, modern look and changed the way women talk about sex and relationships. Ten years on, as we struggle with anxieties about money, terrorism and global warming, it already seems to belong to an enviable age of innocence. When the movie opens later this month with the suggestion that Carrie is finally about to marry Mr Big, it's going to be harder than ever to believe in happy endings.

Sex and the City: the Movie goes on general release in cinemas on May 28


See also
Sex, Drugs and Cameron
The sordid society

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