“Sex and the City” the Book Is the New York Dystopia I Was Promised
A look back at the Candace Bushnell columns and book that actually started it all.
Photograph by Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images.
Even though I am a writer with curly blonde hair and an incredible shoe collection, I did not move to New York because I watched Sex and the City.
I moved to New York because I read it.
Candace Bushnell’s column Sex and the City, which ran in the New York Observer from 1994 to 1996, and was anthologized in a 1996 book called—all together now!—Sex and the City, was dark and cynical and weird. Samantha Jones is a casual acquaintance and a big shot film producer, Miranda is a coke-loving cable executive, and Charlotte…doesn’t seem to make an appearance. Everyone is mean, and selfish, and complicated, and many of them are not rich, and most of them have wardrobes that go unmentioned. A sense of weariness hangs over each of the dispatches, which are mostly sprawling stories about dating habits and sexual preferences and “notorious” figures based loosely on ’90s media kingpins like Mort Zuckerman.
All are reported with Bushnell’s savvy reporter’s eye: she gets a room full of finance and media and marketing and fashion guys together to talk about threesomes, and female executives from each of New York’s power industries to discuss how to get married after 40. (This was echoed in the beginnings of the show in “on the street” interviews with strangers speaking to the camera; in season two, this was unceremoniously dropped as the show’s focus contracted.) Here, the “sexual anthropologist” description that Carrie (Bushnell’s alter ego) seemed to offer with a wink on the television series sounds like a legitimate job description. Her characters are often dark and evil people (even the naïve Skipper Johnston, who here fumes at being seen not merely as too nice but as “gay,” which is “ruining his reputation”), and are candid about the realities of money and love and relationships in a way that makes the groundbreaking nature of her column much more apparent. It’s hard to imagine any of these people eating a cupcake, let alone waiting in line for one.
I first read Bushnell’s collection of columns in 2008, when I was halfway through college, and had watched the whole HBO series with equal parts delight and revulsion. It left me feeling that New York was not for me (though if you are not firmly convinced of the television show’s undeniable power and importance, please read Emily Nussbaum’s fantastic New Yorker piece from the 15th anniversary on why the show was more revolutionary than The Sopranos.) But the columns promised something different—another New York. It’s hard to imagine now, because there is an ice cream museum and adults “announce” their relationships in Harry Potter costumes and the East Village is a glorified fraternity row, but New York was once a place for people who did not enjoy being children and could not wait to be adults, or so Bushnell seemed to suggest. Suddenly, the idea of maturity, of aging, seemed appealing—an achievement rather than something to fear. With age came power, and success, and more earning potential, and more confidence—in Manhattan, your thirties and forties were when the less ambitious or interesting might desert the city for the suburbs, and life could really begin. There was even a trousseau for this stage of life: dresses and shoes and like, sexy skirt suits that required not merely more money but a certain level of confidence that only women in their thirties and forties possessed. “We all know lots of them, and we all agree they’re great,” Bushnell wrote of the thirty-something single woman. “They travel, they pay taxes, they’ll spend four-hundred dollars on a pair of Manolo Blahnik strappy sandals.” Remember: Blahnik may collab with Rihanna and Vetements now, but for most of his career, his shoes have looked like this. And that is not a shoe for a 26-year-old PR girl—though it is one for her to aspire to.
It’s hard to imagine now, but New York was once a place for people who did not enjoy being children and could not wait to be adults.
What’s most compelling about Bushnell’s work is the ennui that hangs over Carrie’s life. Anxiety, the defining mood of our New York age, is an absolute paranoia about what could be; the fear, often irrational, of what’s to come, and our uncertainty about it. In her columns, Carrie is fearful about the present: is this enough? Can this relationship—either one with a man, or one with myself—satisfy me for the rest of my life? At one point, as her relationship with Mr. Big hums along, he and Carrie go to his house in Westchester and he heads out to play golf—a picture of the perfect suburban life. “Carrie gets up late, makes coffee. She goes outside and walks around the yard. She walks to the end of the street. Walks back. Goes back inside the house and sits down. ‘Now what am I going to do?’ she thinks, and tries to imagine Mr. Big on the golf course, swatting golf balls impossible distances.” She wants him, but does she really want to be married? And if she doesn’t, does she have what it takes, emotionally and financially, to be alone for the rest of her life? Or is being single forever actually the ultimate privilege?
One of the most potent criticisms of the show—its inability to grapple with class, and its seemingly absolute ignorance of Carrie’s precarious financial situation—is not only addressed in Bushnell’s columns, but is an undercurrent that gives her writing power. For Christmas one year, Mr. Big gives Carrie a white mink coat. “It was just three years ago Christmas that Carrie had been living in a studio apartment where an old lady had died two months before,” Bushnell writes. “Carrie had no money. A friend lent her a piece of foam for a bed. All she had was a mink coat and a Louis Vuitton suitcase, both of which were stolen when the apartment was inevitably robbed.” She goes to a Park Avenue party where “she knew she didn’t really fit in,” and a man—another Mr. Big-type—asks her out to dinner. All is going fine until he asks where she went to high school; he says, “Never heard of it,” and asks if she thinks he should get his ex-girlfriend a Christmas present, and then never calls her again. Later, Mr. Big tries to give her advice about her outsize ego: “Listen, sweetie…people don’t like you as much as you’d probably like to think they do.” She explodes: “‘If you want to help me, don’t regale me with the misguided, ignorant opinions of your coddled, spoiled friends who don’t even have the guts the be single,’ she screamed. ‘Who never had to eat hot dogs for a month because they didn’t have enough money to buy damn food. O.K.? So don’t tell me I’m too aggressive.’”
And those scenes weren’t mere fiction. In a New York Times Style section story on Bushnell, published just after the show’s 1998 debut, she is sleeping on a sofa bed in an apartment a friend uses for an office. She recounts being evicted from her $300 a month apartment for not paying the rent a few years prior, when she made just $14,000. “When you're in that low point,” she told the Times, “you wake up every morning at 4 A.M. in a cold sweat and say, ‘I’ve got to make it, I’ve got to make it.’” Bushnell’s is a world in which a woman’s career and influence blossom not her in Bambi-leg twenties, but when she is truly developing her voice, in her thirties and forties—a point of view that is refreshing even now, in our 30 under 30 age.
And the idea that a newspaper—the New York Observer, at that, which was a powder-pink rag for the rich intelligentsia—published what you might now consider the foundation of chick lit thrills me. “People were buying the Observer for my column,” she boasted to the Hollywood Reporter last year. Carrie’s popularity is much more of a triumph when viewed through the lens of Bushnell. And best of all, not once—not ever, at all—does Bushnell write that Carrie could not help but wonder.