Long before Caitlyn Jenner came into her own, long before Sandra Oh’s “Grey’s Anatomy” character put career first and terminated a pregnancy, long before “Broad City” brought us stoner girl high jinks, there were four women in the back of a cab.
And those women were talking about sex.
Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) new beau had asked for the anal variety. Flummoxed, she tapped her friends, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall), for advice.
“The question is,” says Miranda, “if he goes up your butt, will he respect you more or respect you less? That’s the issue.”
Seconds later, Samantha has a different take: “Front, back, who cares? A hole is a hole.”
That scene, specifically, (and “Sex and the City,” generally) was groundbreaking for its time. The series strutted — along with Carrie Bradshaw’s signature Manolo Blahniks — onto the air in the late 1990s, making all sorts of waves. It attracted attention, and vitriol, for its frank talk about sex, otherworldly fashion and celebration of singlehood.
Let’s light a birthday candle, or several, for the series, which turns 20 Wednesday. The first episode aired June 6, 1998. Here are three reasons why it was revolutionary.
It brought women’s sex lives out of the shadows — shamelessly. The scene referenced above became known as the “up-the-butt cab-ride scene” on set, according to “Sex and the City and Us,” a new book by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who grew up in the Chicago area and has also authored books on “Seinfeld” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” That scene, Armstrong says, was “a watershed moment.” The cab ride in question occurred in the fourth episode of Season 1. “It was this very detailed, no-nonsense discussion of the pros and cons of anal sex,” she says, that made many viewers think, “Whoa, this feels really different.”
Throughout the show, the women would have these “Socratic dialogues” in which they’d mention something a man had done, or wanted to do, in the boudoir, and the others would share their opinions, which often differed. The show tackled some sexual acts — teabagging, rimming — that no newspaper editor would allow a reporter to describe in detail.
Armstrong says the show’s treatment of sex was, in some ways, like a “fun sex-ed class.” Many viewers she interviewed for the book said they learned a lot. Female masturbation was also highlighted multiple times, in multiple ways. In one episode, the very reserved Charlotte gets addicted to her vibrator. (The style of vibrator that caught Charlotte’s fancy went on to be the top-selling sex toy of all time, Armstrong writes.)
In another scene, Armstrong says, “Charlotte calls Samantha, and Samantha answers the phone and is exasperated and says, ‘I told you I was going to be masturbating all of today. Why are you calling?’” That moment is one of Armstrong’s favorites, and she makes an astute observation: “If Samantha can masturbate all day, certainly most of us can do it once in a while.”
It exalted female friendship. After Charlotte, who struggled with infertility, has a miscarriage, she initially can’t bear to attend Miranda’s son’s first birthday party. Nobody blames her. But in the end, she shows up. When Samantha is diagnosed with breast cancer and tries to withhold the news, so as not to disrupt Miranda’s wedding, Miranda says, “you are my people, and we’ll talk about it now.” When Carrie scrambles to cobble together the money to buy her apartment, Charlotte, who’s divorced, gives Carrie her extremely valuable engagement ring.
As Armstrong puts it in her book, “The show’s focus on supportive female friendship became the second prong in its revolutionary attack.” The characters aren’t catty or petty. They’re loyal and protective, quick to offer cheer or counsel, unafraid to call out each other’s destructive behavior and self-sabotage. When they’re angry, they’re straight about it. When they argue, they don’t fight dirty. Armstrong says it’s an “evolved look at these female relationships.” The fact that they find time for weekly group brunches might push at the bounds of believability, but all things considered, that’s fine, Armstrong says. “Women helping other women is a pretty powerful message.”
It made being single seem enviable. The brunches, the see-and-be-seen parties, the Prada — Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha led vivid, successful, decadent lives. That was subversive. The series “sort of singlehandedly flipped the idea of the single woman in culture from the ‘Cathy’ comic strip to something everybody wanted to be,” Armstrong says.
And lest you forget, these women had flourishing careers. Carrie was a newspaper columnist, Miranda a high-powered lawyer, Charlotte an art dealer and Samantha a skilled publicist. They worked as hard as they played and had a near obscene amount of fun. As Armstrong writes, “‘Sex and the City’ told women beyond ‘ideal’ marriage age, but not yet to middle and older age, that there was still no hurry to settle down.”
The characters weren’t desperate, even though certain TV critics tried to describe them that way. “It felt like those early reviews” — some of which were rather cruel and dismissive — “were so much more about the hang-ups of the people writing them rather than the show itself,” Armstrong says.
Even Charlotte, who was vocal about her desire for a husband and kids, doesn’t exactly merit the “desperate” label, Armstrong says. “She has a plan. I don’t think she’s desperate, but she has a plan.”
By lionizing single living, the series’s writers and producers “found ways to show that being single and female was not merely OK — it was something special, an independent phase worth preserving,” Armstrong writes. Heartened by the characters’ independence, Armstrong rewrote her own story. In the early 2000s, she left her intended. “I could not afford Manolo Blahniks when I left my fiance,” she says. “It really was more about that vision of independence.”
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong will be in conversation with the Chicago Tribune’s Amy Carr at Printers Row Lit Fest 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. June 9. Buy tickets at www.printersrowlitfest.org. Armstrong will also be speaking at the American Writers Museum June 19 at 6:30 p.m. Buy tickets at www.americanwritersmuseum.org.