“Sex and the City” and the urban cult of misery

Over the weekend, I found myself hate-watching the cringe reboot of Sex and the City, which they are calling And Just Like That. I realize hate-watching television shows does not seem like a pleasant activity, but I do this from time to time as a quasi-anthropological project. It is fascinating to me what cultural influencers (Hollywood, Disney, Netflix, etc.) test on the masses and how they try to control the zeitgeist. Then I like to talk to people about these shows: Is it working? Can influencers successfully “nudge” people into even grotesque directions in their own lives? Is the change durable, or does it fade away with the show’s ratings? This is what economics geeks do for recreation – evaluate the architecture of choices.

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As a wee digression – somewhat related to the activity of hate-watching television shows and manipulative bias – allow me to say this phenomenon is particularly interesting with shows targeted at children. I have a theory about Netflix in particular – they seem to save controversial content in children’s shows for around the third or fourth episode. I assume this is because their research shows that’s the point where parents stop pre-watching content for appropriateness. That’s where you find the episode of Babysitter’s Club that defends very young children transitioning to a new gender and pronoun-splaining – do you remember that being covered in the books? – or Anne of Green Gables inexplicably talking about sex and abortion. (Apparently Avonlea has a seedy underbelly. Who knew?) Before you say that sounds like a conspiracy theory, (1) Netflix quantifies audience response to absolutely everything, even the thumbnails you see as you browse shows or how long you linger on a preview, and (2) try it yourself and you will quickly see what I am talking about here.

This mirrors what is happening in public schools, where teachers and administrators try to prevent parents from seeing controversial content that is covered in the classroom. They want to influence malleable young minds, but they do not want to have to endure defending themselves and their endless attempts to sexualize elementary school to parents. If you don’t want to suffer through pre-watching every show your child watches, I highly recommend checking out the website Common Sense Media, which will tell you specifically where such content shows up in programming and the extent of it. If you were surprised by CNN having not one, but two, pedophiles on its senior staff, or by USA Today defending pedophilia as just another sexual orientation, trust me, seeing the content that is actually directed at children these days will feel like falling down a rabbit hole to Wonderland.

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Anyway, I had followed the original Sex and the City show when I was younger for much the same reason – to know what everyone was talking about. I have always felt that this show was largely responsible for the insufferable personalities many white suburban women nurse even now. I mean, if you think about it, this has always been a show about four Karens. It’s improbable that four narcissists would actually be friends in any context, because that’s not how narcissists operate (narcissists seek out co-dependent relationships to prop their egos up, not people like themselves who will compete for precious attention and drama). But here you have four narcissists that feed off of each other in every episode. They aren’t conventionally attractive, but they get lots of action in bed. They aren’t uniquely successful – especially in a place like New York City – but they think of themselves as girl bosses out to conquer the world. I mean, Carrie’s entire identity is wrapped up in being a “writer,” even though the only thing she writes is a column (and now a podcast, so hip) about getting laid. But in her mind she’s practically another Salinger, a vital part of the intelligentsia. One can imagine the show’s writers think this about themselves.

This show captured the birth of self-proclaimed, but clearly undeserved, elitism in our society. The women who have Very Important Opinions on culture, but they sound like the cutting floor at Teen Vogue accidentally became self-aware. They regard having emotions about current events as a pseudo-intellectual substitute for actual knowledge. Highly-qualified emoting can even pass as a form of expertise. (This is basically the raison d’être of The Atlantic these days, lol. Again, a snapshot of the declining quality of urban intellectual life.)

And these women are gross. The way they use their bodies is akin to licking the toilet seat in a public restroom – they really don’t care what random person’s bodily fluids they ingest. So you have this weird juxtaposition of self-importance with what most people would recognize as a form of physical mortification. Even before the pandemic, that premise was pretty disgusting. But the show did successfully influence a lot of people to make similar decisions, particularly Millennial women (who became the Tinder generation – with low marriage levels, low birth rates, and lower earning potential to show for it). It ushered in an era where you could be cancelled for “slut-shaming” – which basically means you aren’t allowed to say gross behavior is gross. Sluts are a sensitive protected class in Facebook’s community standards now.

Throughout the pandemic, I have started to wonder if the bizarre fetishization of masks is some Freudian expression of guilt among the people who spent their youths in this fashion. It’s like a neurotic secular baptism that allows them to think of themselves as something clean again. Think about who you know that obsesses over masks even after being triple-vaxxed. Were they Sex and the City‘s target market in a past decade? It cracks me up. We’ve gone from tsk-tsking slut-shaming to performative moralizing about cooties within two years’ time.

And of course there is then the oft-mocked disingenuous materialism of the show. The idea that a person who writes a dorky sex column can live like a Wall Street heiress. Or that by banging random guys around Manhattan, you could actually end up a kept woman on Park Avenue, air-kissing other elite housewives in the prep school car line. Or that you’d be made partner at a white shoe law firm after bringing a professional bartender to the firm Christmas party. Because these are all things that happen in the real world.

It’s a show where the biggest consequence of making terrible life choices is someone throwing a tantrum. It’s not about trying to survive in NYC on a single income while deliberately making yourself an unmarriageable commodity to be passed around by men, which is the way this behavior actually works for women. The creators gave these women designer heels, not child support battles. It was always a bizarre fantasy.

But what is surprising about the remake is how miserable it is. These writers seem to have followed the unfunny trajectory of late-night comedy in the post-Trump era. It has unwittingly become a show about the consequences of the lifestyle they fêted decades ago. If you look at the things these folks think they are glamorizing now, it’s a very strange tableau of the neuroses that are driving people away from intellectually toxic urban areas now.

The original Sex and the City left the yasss queens with what they perceived to be Cinderella endings. But they reach what has traditionally been regarded as retirement age and they are forced into examining the quality of their lives. None of them like what they see. They try to manufacture meaning in lives that have been deliberately devoid of meaning up until now. Instead of trying to shove moral relativism down your throat, the writers are now looking in the mirror. And what they see is really freaking bleak.

The feminist lawyer plunges into alcoholism, much as I have watched many of my college acquaintances who participated in what I call “the Legally Blonde law school wave” do. She left her job to live a more meaningful life, but she has no idea what meaning looks like. Miranda concludes that she wants to help people marginalized by the legal system, and she seeks to accomplish that by… going back to school. She’s “helping other people” by seeking yet another credential for herself, a new line on her résumé. Because God knows a former partner at a prestigious law firm can’t just go out and defend the underclass without ceremony.

She is disappointed with what her child has become in her absence as she racked up the billable hours, which is ironic, because he’s the same person she is. His days are literally measured out by sex. The show gave the kid no interests and no ambition beyond fucking as much as possible. He’s so oblivious to anything besides fucking that he bangs his bed against the wall he shares with his parents’ bedroom so they can listen to him too. The writers briefly try to revive the same kind of gross humor that made them a household name with Miranda talking about how she stepped barefoot onto a used condom while walking in her son’s room. But it just emphasizes how feral and unimaginative the children of the managerial class have become as the importance of parenthood has been sidelined by modern feminism. Work really hard, get that promotion, and you too can have offspring whose main contributions the world are weed and semen. So much progress!

Miranda also finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage. Of course, it is not loveless for her husband. For him, it is just the totally normal routine of two people growing old together and helping each other through the indignities of being embodied. But what she wants is sex and drama. She’s let herself go, as her “friends” point out in every episode, so she finds herself in the position of seeking non-committal sex from the only person available to her to whom physical appearance does not matter – Carrie’s new gender fluid boss. And what a sad commentary on the postmodern panoply of sexual orientations, eh? “I’m so open-minded about sex that I’ll even hit the old hag.”

Charlotte’s home life also gets a woketastic makeover. The child she and Harry adopted is an Asian Tiger Mother’s dream come true. She loves beautiful things, she carries herself with dignity, and makes maximum use of her native talents as a concert pianist. The child Charlotte and Harry went through fertility hell to conceive, however, is confident she’s not really a she. She doesn’t like her name Rose, but wants to be called Rock. She scoffs at Oscar de la Renta gowns in favor of punk attire. The Park Avenue princess finally has the life she wants, yet it’s going to involve conversations about top surgery and the best fake phallus for her kid. But Charlotte is an enlightened member of the milieu that was raised in Connecticut and pledged Kappa Kappa Gamma at Smith, and she knows a woke kid is the height of fashion now. She’s obviously all-in.

On top of that, Charlotte has finally made a Black friend! Let the progress wash over you! Naturally, having a Black friend involves much performative angst and approval-seeking. She has to make a list of Black authors to name drop. She has to genuflect before the Black community at dinner parties. She can’t simply be someone’s friend – the woke meltdown of the girl boss demographic demands that she allow her token Black friend to walk her around on a Burberry leash. As someone who has always lived in diverse environments, this nonsense is just weird. But it did make me think about exactly how white the original Sex and the City was and that it never occurred to the writers to correct that until now.

Carrie finds herself a wealthy widow, obsessed with why her late husband left a million dollars for his ex-wife in his will. The obvious answer doesn’t even occur to her, which is that the money was an apology for treating the woman cruelly over the years. Nope, it’s a detail that forces her to debate whether her husband truly valued her. But don’t worry, she’s ready to start getting plastic surgery and scoping out hot men within two episodes. Who cares about true love, the show must go on. In fact, much of the whole show is Carrie looking around at her relationships and asking “what’s in it for me.”

Watching all this, I could not help but be struck with what an accurate picture of the denizens of urban intellectual bubbles this show is. The whole thing is not even remotely entertaining, but toxic. Watching it truly has the feeling of rubbernecking some gruesome car accident. In this country, we have been subjected to several years of persistently hateful rhetoric that consumes more or less every topic under the sun. All you have to do is observe the Sex and the City cohort grow old, and you see that none of this was ever really about politics. It’s about a much more vague matrix of parasitic ideals that have slowly been eating away at their hosts. This is one massive cultural burnout, where people who have managed to lead spoiled, inauthentic lives so far are finally left staring at hollow, empty shells, and they have no idea what to do about it. They aren’t capable of introspection, so they just start punching hysterically in every direction.

No, they aren’t going to get better.

It is interesting how HBO has tried to transfer the Sex and the City formula to every subsequent generation too. After Sex and the City, they had Girls, where they tried to make Lena Dunham happen. Now they are pushing The Sex Lives of College Girls. But it has proven rather difficult to sell the reincarnation to Carrie Bradshaw to new generations, whom have had a front row seat to the woke meltdown of the girl boss. In fact, we are watching an era of history where millions of women are leaving the workforce and you can see endless Reels and TikToks made by stay-at-home moms. There are a lot of women who don’t think stepping on their children’s used condoms and pounding Tito’s at 10 AM constitutes a life well-lived.

So does the tail wag the dog or the dog wag its tail? I think the original Sex and the City exploited a window of opportunity when it comes to cultural influence, and that window has closed. People do not stop wanting happiness.

You had one generation of hedonistic libertines who became shrill and incoherent scolds as they lost their youth. The experiment seems to be quite over and people are choosing the sunnier alternatives offered by moderation and basic self-respect.

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