The first time we meet Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) in Sex and the City, she’s scooping meatballs into a takeout container on a deli line, talking about her worst nightmare. As the show’s soon-to-be iconic jazz jingles play in the background, Miranda tells the story of a friend who had once lived the free-wheeling, fun life of a single woman in New York in the late ‘90s — the life that Miranda and her three friends, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) would lead throughout the show. According to Miranda’s ominous story, this kind of lifestyle might not always lead to a conventional happy ending. It might also lead to something chaotic and disappointing.
“One day, she woke up and she was 41. She couldn’t get any more dates,” Miranda says, staring at the camera and waving a meatball on a skewer. “She had a complete physical breakdown. Couldn’t hold on to her job, and had to move back to Wisconsin to live with her mother.” Cynthia Nixon delivers Miranda’s lines with a perfect graveness. Sure, Miranda may be an extremely intelligent, career-oriented corporate lawyer. But she still senses the possibility of her friend’s fate, singleness sealed in Wisconsin, looming over her – and Nixon is sure to actualise that anxiety in her delivery. “Trust me,” Miranda continues. “This is not a story that makes men feel bad.”
While watching the show for the first time in 2018, I bristled slightly at Miranda’s story. An independent woman losing total motor function because she can’t get a date? A fun-loving woman leaving New York City and moving home to her mother’s house in the Midwest due to romantic loneliness, which appears to have descended overnight? It’s especially shocking to hear this story from Miranda, who’s since been revived as a symbol of the empowered single woman and deemed the real hero of Sex and the City.
It’s tiny moments like these that made Sex and the City seem ever-so-slightly dated to my 2018 sensibilities. Now, a women’s value is supposed to be derived by more than her ability to get a date. Books like Spinster and All the Single Ladies are devoted to dismantling the idea that singledom automatically means doom. Single women in their 40s can be protagonists of TV shows (Sarah Jessica Parker is in one such show). Being a single woman is not the end of the world — or at least we’re not supposed to admit it is as openly as Miranda does. Yet there Miranda was, staring at the camera and giving a completely honest summation of her greatest romantic worry. Miranda’s fear is one that may not be chic to have anymore, but I realised from my reaction it’s also a fear that hasn’t fully gone away, either. With her unapologetic candour, Miranda initiated me into the intimate ritual that would define the entirety Sex and the City’s tenure: Talk.
Much of the joy of Sex and the City comes down to to the exaggerated language the four women characters use to describe their own love lives, and judge friends’ loves lives — the very language Miranda uses during her debut. This is the language I use when gathered around the table with my own friends, certain that no one’s listening to judge. This is the language women use when they’re not censoring themselves; where they can admit they don’t want to be single and in their 40s.
For all its emphasis on sex and dating and “happy endings” with Mr. Big, this is really a show about talk.
In Sex and the City, conversation about events is just as important as the events themselves. So for all its emphasis on sex and dating and “happy endings” with Mr. Big, this is really a show about talk. It’s a show about the safe spaces women create to verbalise their anxieties with one another, like Miranda does at the very start. At least once an episode, the four women gather around a table and discuss a specific issue that might apply to single women in New York’s dating scene in the late ‘90s, from threesomes to anal sex to their friends who moved to Connecticut, got married, had babies and left the singles club. If the women are navigating the world of sex and dating, then their friendship is the boat carrying them through it.
Ultimately, those booze-filled brunches and quick phone conversations form the backbone of the show. It’s not just that the women led independent lives in a newly hospitable New York. It’s that they talked about them, together. Sex and the City paved the way for an entire genre of urban-set, women-led shows in which women could discuss everything from rent payments (Broad City) to vagina facials (Insecure) to questionable life decisions (Girls, a show which sparked conversations of its own). More significantly, the show’s revolutionary frankness created gateways for real women to speak openly about topics that were once considered too embarrassing or too personal, like rabbit vibrators or the concept of sluttiness. Eventually, conversation between women about the most intimate topics would lead to a watershed reckoning about sexual harassment.
Conversation and dialogue are fundamental to the premise of the show. As a writer, Carrie’s entire livelihood — and that ridiculously lavish apartment — is literally sustained by her friendships. She often spins the main ideas of these conversations into full-blown columns. In an episode about firefighters and fairy tales, Carrie famously wonders aloud, “Was Charlotte right? Do women just wanna be rescued?” Or, after Samantha makes her reconsider cheating, Carrie wonders, "Was Samantha right? Is cheating like the proverbial tree in the forest? That it doesn't exist if there's no one around to catch you?” Her great ideas often come from her friends. Remember: In that very first conversation, Miranda is speaking to Carrie.
Throughout Sex and the City, the gravity with which Miranda describes her single friend in the premiere never disappears. Rather, it’s transferred to every discussion the women have about Bigs and Aidans and dissatisfying relationships. Even as our conversations about gender and dating grow more nuanced and reflective (and rightfully so!), Sex and the City still holds up. For all its blindness regarding social issues and its datedness regarding lifestyles, this is a show that takes the romantic lives of women seriously — and does so through conversation. Just as talking with friends will never get old, neither will Sex and the City.