Love it or hate it, the hit HBO show Sex and the City presented a part-real/part-fantasy version of New York City that viewers worldwide still cannot get enough of, filled with cosmos, cupcakes, and Carries. In Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s latest book, Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Change the Way We Think, Live and Love, the writer provides an in-depth retrospective on one of HBO’s most beloved shows just in time for its 20th anniversary.
Armstrong has previously written about two other influential shows in her books Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything and Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made The Mary Tyler Moore Show A Classic. In anticipation for her latest book, we spoke to Armstrong about what it’s like to go on an official Sex and the City bus tour, the worst thing the show did for the city, and #WokeCharlotte.
In a sea of shows about New York City, what makes Sex and the City stand out from the rest? It was sort of a landmark show for New York. Now it’s totally normal to shoot here, but back then people didn’t shoot here. They all shot in L.A. Even Seinfeld, which was such a quintessential New York show. [Ed. note: Does no one remember Kate & Allie?] So this felt really different because you could tell it was New York. They worked really hard to shoot on location, and it really made a difference—even to New Yorkers.
Sex and the City feels like a New York show. People say that New York is the fifth lady because it really is a character of the show. It’s called Sex and the City, and that’s a part of it. It really worked out that it landed on HBO not just because of the sex, but because of the city. I feel like everywhere I go there are shows shooting now, but that didn’t happen back then. It was this and The Sopranos in Jersey. And it’s expensive to shoot that way too, compared to sitcoms of the time. You had a set and a studio audience. I talk about this in my book, about the stuff they had to go through. From no one wanting Sex and the City to shoot in the street, to later everyone wanting them to shoot, and it being so hard because of the large crowds.
And in your book, you even describe how the show was sort of a commercial for New York. Yeah, I think that it really was. There’s evidence that many people since have moved here, at last partly because of the show. Women really moved here to live like the women [on the show]. Sarah Jessica (Parker) told me that people all the time on Instagram are tagging her to say “We just moved to New York!” She’s like, “I kind of worry about them, but I’m sure they’ll be fine, and I wish them the best of luck.”
The Sex and the City economy is real. It’s a whole chapter in my book and I feel Iike could’ve written even more about it, too. Everyone knows about the Manolos and such, but something that was pretty interesting to me were the cupcakes and the cosmos. The cupcake thing really struck me. Magnolia Bakery was only featured for 30 seconds on the show. They eat them once, but it made an entire worldwide trend that hasn’t died yet. The best theory I’ve heard is that it’s cheap. Most of us can’t go buy $600 Manolo’s to be like the women. But a cupcake we can handle, and even a cosmo. You can get a little tiny piece of that feeling without having to spend so much money.
And that’s something I loved getting into for the book. I didn’t know any of that information about the cupcakes. It completely passed me by the first time. And I Googled Magnolia Bakery and found a whole can of worms. There are still lines around the block. They once had to hire a bouncer for the door. And then, there was a big feud with the owners and also the bus tours.
Do you think the commercial success of Sex and the City had the most economic impact out of any New York show in regard to the city? I do, but I have no actual way of backing that up. There was a significant economic aspect of Seinfeld, but because it wasn’t shot in New York, there was still an element missing. For Sex and the City, they were shooting on location, literally, every place had to be real. They were all real places, they were brand focused on the show and they were living a life that was aspirational for [some] women. I could be wrong, but I don’t think people watching Seinfeld were like, “Hmm, I wish I could live the Seinfeld lifestyle.” People still go to the restaurant uptown, Tom's Restaurant, and people still go to the Soup Nazi. But it's not the same as going out and feeling like the Sex and the City women. I think we all want a little bit of it.
I was actually kind of embarrassed doing all this research and going to these places. There’s a feeling, where like even though I knew that I was doing research, there was something about just being in these places that took me back. First of all, to when I first watched the show, but also when I visited places like Manolo Blahnik, where clearly I couldn’t buy anything, there was something about it. I remember when I went on a bus tour, and I sat in the park, I ate a little cupcake and was like, “Oh this is nice.” It's a little taste of the indulgent lifestyle. Just having a little taste of it is fun. I think that’s what everyone gets through this show.
And in the show, everyone goes out and gets dressed up. Nobody gets to do that anymore—be fabulous. And that's all people want. It's just a little bit of that fabulous life. Probably most people don't live that life, but that’s okay.
Right, and I feel like that’s how we as New Yorkers project ourselves to be on the streets. We may not be as glamorous as we make ourselves out to be, but that’s part of the beauty of living here. Exactly. And you could be watching the show in your pajamas, and still get that feeling, you know? With your popcorn, or whatever.
I have to ask, I’m sure you’ve had your fair share of binge-watching the show for this book, what was your favorite part of your research? Honestly, all of it. I even took the tour. I did the bus tour, and you know when you're like a cynical New Yorker you don't want to go on some bus tour or whatever, but I'm so glad that I was forced to go! I never would've done it otherwise. But it was so nice, and I was so glad that I had an excuse to do it because as a typical New Yorker I would've never done it.
The rest of the tour was a bunch of Midwesterners, but it was actually really fun. Well, aside from the fact we drank cosmos and ate cupcakes, which is a bit of a deadly combination. They’re a little too sweet for my taste. But that was actually the most fun thing that I did that I would never have done under normal circumstances.
You really captured the magic of New York that Sex and the City gave to its viewers. But you also highlight the relationship with the writers and how they drew inspiration for the show from their actual lives. Can you tell me about what went on behind the scenes? They (the writers) were telling each other everything that was going on in their lives for those years they were on the show, and they’ve kind of kept up that relationship throughout the years. They still email each other about all the weird stuff that's happening to them at various stages of their lives. They're all around the same age, so they've now gone through, like, motherhood and marriage and all this other stuff. But they're still all telling each other everything which I find incredibly heartwarming.
Something they say about themselves, which I think is right, is that part of the show was just talking about stuff people usually don’t say out loud, even to their friends. And that's why we all felt like they were our girlfriends because it was like, “Yes, that's the thing!”
We had a seat at the bar with them. Right, the characters in the show would say things that were kind of like, “Yes I'm going through that, and I didn't even know it or didn't want to say it!” And I think that's why people still feel so passionate about it and why it catches on with younger women even today.
I mean even today, younger women are still watching it and even in the problematic aspects of the show they just sort of are like, “Yes it's from a different time, but the basic core of the friendship and talking about stuff is what is valuable to the show.”
Even the problematic stuff has become an Internet sensation, like the #WokeCharlotte meme. Yes! I love #WokeCharlotte. I could imagine like an older Charlotte being the most woke in some ways. Another thing I love is that Woke Charlotte is from an Instagram account called Every Outfit on Sex and the City. And something else the Instagram account has done that I love is that they kind of have led the way in “Miranda worship.” That's been something I've talking about a lot especially in relation to her gubernatorial run. It was heartening to find out in the course of my research that young women now identify as a Miranda.
The idea back in the day—I hate even saying out loud it's almost gross—but it was really kind of built into the show that no one wanted to be a Miranda. She's the boring successful woman. It was built that you wanted to identify with Carrie and then there were these other extreme personalities built around her. So at the time, everybody said they wanted to be a Carrie, including me. But everybody today just wants to be a Miranda, and that’s so exciting. She’s rich, successful and reasonable.
Some viewers don’t realize Carrie was actually based off of the writer Candace Bushnell, who had an actual column called Sex and the City. I was very interested in Candace. Even though she’s famous, I feel like her story hadn't totally been told. It kind of was like a footnote. You kind of see stories that just said “Candace Bushnell wrote a column.” But I wanted to know, what happened before the show?
Some people love to talk about how unrealistic Carrie's life was. But we have have a real Carrie Bradshaw. She exists. So, “Was your life really like that?” was my basic question. And it turned out yes, kind of. It's not as crazy as it seems. In New York, there are a lot of people who do a lot of weird things figure out ways of living.
I call that the tub-in-the-kitchen lifestyle. Exactly. People are operators here. People figure stuff out. Like Candace really did wear head-to-toe Dolce but at the same time, she was sleeping at night on her friend's sofa bed.
So she had priorities, she figured it out and that's how she worked. She’s really interesting because it turns out that there’s a real Carrie Bradshaw. She was sort of like that, I mean personality wise I'm sure she veered far from the original. But like you know it's a lifestyle that exists. She was a real journalist, a working freelance journalist who had the idea to write about all her fabulous friends. And it worked.
So I have to ask about the Carrie everyone know and loves: Sarah Jessica Parker. It’s funny, actually just weeks ago I was doing promotional stuff for the book. I was shooting some photos in Midtown. It was one of the first warm days, so I decided to walk for a little bit. As I was walking down Fifth Avenue, I saw that there was a little pop-up store for her shoes. So I went in, and she was there selling shoes! I’m not making this up. She was there with her other staff members helping people try on shoes. She knows who I am, and I reminded her about the book. She helped pick out shoes for me and I ended up buying some shoes for my book tour. But the one thing is that she doesn't take selfies with people in the store, she really just wants to focus on like what kind of shoes people need. She's not kidding around.
So lastly, what is the best thing that Sex and the City has given New York and what is the worst thing? I think maybe the best thing is the overall Sex and the City-ness. The sort of memory of the time that it captured, because things have changed so much already. It was so real in certain ways. I mean, we understand it wasn't like a gritty realistic documentary, but because it was shot in real places, it actually is a snapshot of that time. And I know for me, because it was such a special time, I had just moved to the city. I think having that on film is almost like having your own photo album-—but more beautiful. You get that nostalgic feeling.
And I’m sure it has contributed to the things that a lot of us complain about. Like how real estate has skyrocketed, and how it's only millionaires who can afford anything in Manhattan. It’s been blamed a lot for the Meatpacking District and other neighborhoods blowing up. But I think it was going to happen anyway—there’s this trend of the “mall-ization” of things. I mean I Iove the fashion, but sometimes the indulgent factors of the show go overboard. It seems like it's only about these women and their buying power as feminism. Obviously, there's more to it than that. But that was one of the only representations of the time.