Male loathing for Sex and the City has always baffled me: The HBO comedy, which debuted 20 years ago this week, on June 6, 1998, was nearly Seinfeldian in its ability to recreate the strange landscape of New York City with sharp insights and hilariously dead-on character portraits. In the second-season episode “The Freak Show” we met a fellow who hadn’t left Manhattan in ten years. “Everything you want is right here,” he reasoned. “Culture, food, the Park, cabs at 3:00 a.m. Why leave?” What about the world outside Manhattan? “There is no world outside Manhattan,” he claimed. The city snob, like many other types satirized on the show, was the kind of person you would regularly encounter in Manhattan, a place where I several times heard people brag that they never traveled above 14th Street.
A couple of columns appeared in the New York Post this week that argued Sex and the City had been ruinous to women’s lives. The show “did permanent and measurable damage to my psyche that I’m still cleaning up,” wrote Julia Allison, who was a rising high-school senior when the show debuted and modeled her life after the show’s protagonist Carrie Bradshaw. Karol Markowicz wrote about the “devastation [Sex and the City] wrought in women’s lives,” noting that “having sex like a man never ends well for women, despite what the show led you to believe.”
Perhaps the HBO series was disastrous for women. But it was certainly a boon to men, or at least the kind of men who would roll their eyes and grunt with contempt whenever the show was mentioned, which in the New York City of the Aughties was often. I would never be caught dead watching that estrogen party, men would say with a snarl. Who wants to watch a show about women talking? was the subtext. Their loss. Sex and the City was not only one of the best-written sitcoms ever (at least until its soapy final season) but it provided a crucial dual service to bachelors on the make.
There can be little doubt that the popularity of Sex and the City caused New York, which was already abloom with beautiful single women, to become a mecca for feminine pulchritude. Just five years earlier, the year of the election of Rudy Giuliani as mayor, vulnerable young women were reluctant to move to the city because of the raging crime rate, which had peaked in 1990 and was still at dizzyingly high levels. Cars parked on streets had placards posted in their windows: “No radio,” or, more acerbically, “Radio already stolen.” Large swaths of Manhattan were considered terrifying after dark, especially to women.
A year into Giuliani’s second term, though, the level of mayhem had been winched down to such a degree that aspiring young fashionistas, editors, publicists, pastry chefs, and gossip columnists were flowing into town. During six seasons of Sex and the City, the tide became a flood. These women had been raised on propaganda celebrating casual sex. To be a straight man in this environment was not unlike being one of the dudes at a formerly all-female college that had recently gone coed. Inspired by Carrie, Samantha, and Charlotte (but not the dour lawyer Miranda, who was no one’s role model), women were putting away alcohol grenades known as Cosmopolitans as though they were wine spritzers, and through the occluded gaze they produced every young buck must have looked about 70 percent more enticing than he did in the cold light of day. A guy could, in theory, fail to find feminine companionship, but it was like failing to come across a Ray’s Pizza. You really had to be obtuse. All you had to do to find someone was go to parties and approach a girl. Then open mouth and commence speaking.
And the show taught guys how to do that too. Though it was often derided for its fantasy elements, Sex and the City was at its core a fairly accurate portrayal of how women talk: endless picking apart of the foibles and behavior of their friends and their friends’ dates. (When boyfriends become husbands they cease to be of interest and drop off the conversational menu.) There is intense discussion about whether this or that action should be ruled “okay” or “weird.” Men generally find all of this boring. These would be the same men who endlessly pick apart the foibles and behavior of professional athletes they’ve never met. Given that most women love to talk as much as Carrie and her pals, all a man really had to do on an Aughties date to qualify as top-shelf material was pay attention, remember a few details, and drop in the occasional encouraging noise or sympathetic wisecrack. At the advanced stage, truly ambitious men could model themselves after the show’s object of obsession, Chris Noth’s Mr. Big. To be as enticing as Big would require being tall, handsome, and rich, but if most guys couldn’t match that they could at least imitate his habits of always showing up in a stylish suit and being a bit ironical and aloof.
Sex and the City was, of course, later supplanted, corrected, and ultimately shredded by Girls, where the sex was gross, the friends were mean to one another, the boyfriends never wore designer suits (much less pulled up to the girls’ apartments in a limo), the apartments were shabby, the jobs were humiliating, and everyone was stuck out in Brooklyn. I suppose young bachelors praise that show for continuing to attract women to the city while lowering their expectations. If I were a young woman, though, I’d steer clear of New York and head for the locus of yet another HBO show: Silicon Valley.