I still remember my first time.
I finally got to watch my first episode of “Sex and the City” in 2002 on a family vacation in a hotel with premium cable. Although the viewing experience was punctuated by my parents shouting "close your eyes" every time Samantha brought out her vibrator (which happens a lot in this particular episode, “Critical Conditions”), I instantly fell in love with the humor, fashion and fierceness of the series. Never before in a sitcom had I heard women discussing sex, power and relationships so unfiltered. I knew when I grew up I wanted to be just like these confident, glamorous women.
But as I re-watch the series over a decade later as a single woman living in New York City, I find myself distracted by how unrealistically dreamlike their jobs, apartments, clothes, trendy nightclub jaunts and, most of all, sex lives are. I still very much enjoy the series, but the glitter of “Sex and the City” has somewhat faded as I’ve grown to realize these women inhabit a world so glamorous it glosses over reality.
My feelings are somewhat ironic considering 2013 has seen a second wind for "Sex and the City." In the 15 years since the series premiered on HBO the show enjoyed a meteoric rise to pop cultural touchstone and then a slow-fizzling fall. In large part due to the poorly received 2008 movie (50% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) and even more poorly received 2010 sequel (15% fresh; ouch), critics and fans appeared to abandon the "Sex and the City" ship. However, Emily Nussbaum's recent piece in the New Yorker "How 'Sex and the City' lost its good name" has ushered in an apologetic wave of return praise from former naysayers.
And I am pleased "Sex and the City" has gotten some long overdue praise. I completely agree with Nussbaum's argument that to ignore Carrie Bradshaw as a female anti-hero no less significant to television history than Tony Soprano is stupidly dismissive, if not outrightly sexist. Moreover, Nussbaum is right on the nose when she describes Carrie and the gang as a welcome departure from TV’s previous "you-go-girl types" single ladies who were "vulnerable and plucky and warm." They weren't always nice and they made mistakes in their relationships with family, friends and, of course, lovers.
But for me and my friends spending our high school weekends binging on “Sex and the City,” the series established a set of unrealistic expectations and pressures to live up to, not least of which was sexual. It may sound silly, but “Sex and the City” was more than a television show to us; it was a way of life, which is a testament to the show’s longevity, but also its power to shape and inflate our expectations.
If Carrie’s, Miranda’s, Charlotte’s and Samantha’s jobs, apartments and clothes looked too good to be true, their sex lives looked flat-out damn amazing. While the four women’s open discussion of sexual desires, problems and queries was ample, the sex itself the majority of the time was pretty stunning. From Samantha coming almost always without fail to the sexy boudoir shots of Carrie in subtle black lace bras, the sex looked either incredibly fun or incredibly elegant.
Which is not to say the sex was always perfect. As every good "Sex and the City" fan knows, Charlotte's first husband Trey was impotent in her presence, Carrie dated a short story writer-cum-premature ejaculator, and Miranda dated an overeater who, in one of the best puns of the series, "overate her."
However, the women themselves never seemed to actually suffer from any sexual performance problems. They knew their bodies, and they knew what they desired; some men couldn’t fulfill them, and then they generally chucked them. One major exception is the episode “Was it good for you?” in which Charlotte questions her prowess when a lover falls asleep during sex. But overall, sex for the women on the show was generally a confident, glamorous and well-choreographed act.
In 1998, when there were few television depictions of women openly discussing and achieving their sexual desires, that was a good thing. As Nussbaum writes, with the “Cathy” comic as the prevailing image of single women at the time, “Better that one’s life should be viewed as glamorously threatening than as sad and lonely.”
Unfortunately, after watching the series as young teenagers, my friends and I embraced not only the cosmopolitans (which we quickly realized were not a particularly affordable habit), but the expectations that glitzy sexual and romantic adventures were just around the corner. To a degree, that was a good thing. As a result of "Sex and the City," we grew up never fearing being single, no small feat compared to earlier generations of women. Who wanted marriage when we would make love in a firehouse or be whisked onto a horse-drawn carriage through snowy Central Park by a mysteriously sexy older Russian?
However, once we were older and entering the "real world," we were disappointed and convinced we were doing something wrong for not having the apartment, parties and, most of all, sex that Carrie showed us we could, and should, have. We expected the hardest part to be finding a man who could meet our sexual needs, not to be struggling to figure out and articulate them ourselves. Like a cooking show that presents a few ingredients and then immediately cuts to a perfect chocolate soufflé, "Sex and the City" never gave us the guidance to put it all together. I recognize that television's first job is to entertain, not to educate, but for a generation of girls who idolized the Fab Four, the show left us grappling with an illusion of what sex is supposed to be like. And too often because we didn't know why sex wasn't as exciting as pleasurable as Samantha Jones made it seem, we were too shy to say anything.
It makes perfect sense that by the time “Girls” premiered on HBO in 2012, my peers and I were craving messy, unsatisfying, awkward sex and life in general on TV. We wanted to see the raw, unfiltered discussions and portrayals of sex that “Sex and the City” did so well, but we also wanted it real: the insecurity, the pressure to please, the confusion. We wanted TV that not only encouraged us to embrace our sexuality, but to openly share what perplexed us, frightened us, silenced us.
Which is not to say “Girls” is better than or, for that matter, even as good as “Sex and the City.” It certainly is a response, which in and of itself says a lot. Although “Sex and the City” can at times seem anachronistic and unrealistic from my 2013 eyes, the fact that we’re still discussing it and our programming is still reacting to it proves that as a piece of television history it has stood the test of time. It is a credit to the charm and dramatically powerful appeal of the series that part of me will always yearn for Carrie Bradshaw's closet space, lingerie and sex life, even if I know it's a fantasy.