In this era of great male TV antiheroes, those of us who spend much of our time thinking about how women are represented in pop culture have become fond of asking, “What about the ladies?” As Mad Men and Breaking Bad and House of Cards have dominated the news cycle, and especially in the wake of James Gandolfini’s death, there has been quite a bit of debate over why we still don’t have a female Tony Soprano — and whether we actually need one. This week, The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum jumps into the conversation with a piece defending Sex and the City (particularly by comparison to The Sopranos) and positing Carrie Bradshaw as “the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television.”
As I may have mentioned, I’m no stranger to Sex and the City fandom. I have an intimate understanding of what makes it so meaningful to some women, and especially women a decade or two younger than the show’s central foursome. But that doesn’t mean I can pretend for the sake of feminism that Carrie Bradshaw is a creation equal, or even comparable, to Tony Soprano. He’s a middle-aged mob boss plagued by guilt and loyalty and family obligations and plain, old professional stress — a killer with a rich and conflicted internal life, who has a moral compass and feels love despite all the monstrous things he continues to do; she’s a glamorous 30-something sex columnist whose inner struggles can be summed up in a series of simplistic questions about love and sex dramatically typed on a laptop midway through any given episode, whose career and personal life both revolve around her quest to find “the one.”
SATC did for romantic comedy tropes what The Sopranos did for gangster movie tropes, Nussbaum argues, writing that “the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run.” But where The Sopranos defied genre expectations time and time again, even to the extent of alienating its audience with a giant question mark of an ending, Sex and the City (in a move Nussbaum didn’t like but doesn’t find particularly important) ultimately fell in line with the genre it was supposedly critiquing. Rather than a response to these fairy tales, SATC revealed itself to simply be playing a romantic comedy long game. With her pink-collar career, unluckiness in love, sparkly outfits, questionable relationship decisions, glamorous nights out with the girls, and signature cocktail, Carrie Bradshaw was a rom-com heroine who spent almost six seasons’ worth of screen time in the first half of your typical Kathryn Heigl movie.
Nussbaum makes the crucial point that Sex and the City‘s legacy suffers from an “unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior.” This is an argument I’m particularly sensitive to, and one that sums up much of the response to a host of great women-centered shows that are as different from one another as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Girls. And I don’t doubt that this prejudice explains why many critics — especially male ones like Difficult Men author Brett Martin, whose condescension prompted Nussbaum’s essay — harbor a suspiciously intense dislike for Sex and the City.
But it’s not the stylization (or the formula, or the pleasure it gives, or its humor, or its femininity, or its semi-explicit sex, or the fact that it wasn’t created by one of TV’s great auteurs) that makes SATC a failure — both as a feminist statement and as art — for me. What keeps the show from ascending to the genre-busting, universal-experience-describing heights of The Sopranos or Mad Men or (to use the example of a show labeled a comedy, with a female heroine) Enlightened is that it only cared about one aspect of its characters’ lives. Sure, Carrie and Samantha and Miranda and Charlotte had careers — but when did we ever hear about them in a context unrelated to their love lives? I assume the characters had families and childhoods, too, although I imagine your average SATC fan will have as difficult a time as I do remembering salient details about them. Stylized depictions need not be incomplete ones, but in Sex and the City‘s case, they were.
What frustrates me most about positioning Sex and the City as the unfairly maligned female equivalent of The Sopranos is that it overlooks HBO’s other important original series of that era: Six Feet Under. If The Sopranos has been over-praised and SATC belittled and ridiculed in the years since they aired their finales, then the story of the Fisher family and their funeral home has been somewhat forgotten. That’s a shame, because although its characters inhabited a far less homosocial world than Carrie’s or Tony’s, Six Feet Under still ranks among TV’s most insightful and empathetic depictions of women. You want a great antiheroine? How about Brenda, with her sex addiction and her troubled child-prodigy past and her disturbing relationships to her parents and brother? Then there’s Ruth, a chronic sufferer from Betty Friedan’s “problem that has no name” who shakily comes into her own after her husband’s death in the show’s pilot. And who could forget Claire Fisher, a brilliant, passionate fuck-up of a young artist whose disarmingly honest coming-of-age story (which included one of American TV’s only decent abortion plots) makes her Six Feet Under‘s true heroine?
If you want to use feminism as an excuse for liking an admittedly groundbreaking show that was often fun and sometimes provocative but rarely transcendent, by all means, continue to enjoy Sex and the City guilt-free. But if it’s truly great turn-of-the-millennium depictions of women you’re after, then you’re better off returning to Six Feet Under.