The fabulousness of ‘Sex and the City’

A group of women look to the side with expressions of shock.
Flickr/Courtesy

For a show that hasn’t aged particularly well — or, many argue, well at all — “Sex and the City” has been insistently optimistic about its relevance since it ended in the early 2000s. The HBO hit revolving around the lives of four New York women in their thirties and forties — Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte — has spawned two movies. The first, released in 2008, adopted a sappy tone incongruous with the show, and the second, released in 2010, was tone-deaf in general — stunningly, ridiculously so. Then, from 2013 to 2014, “The Carrie Diaries,” a blandly sweet prequel focusing on teenage Carrie before the chain-smoking and dry wit, ran for two seasons on the CW.

And now, it seems fairly definite there will be a “Sex and the City” reboot that explores the lives of women over 50. According to W Magazine, the reboot will “be more about the dissolution of relationships than the beginnings of them. There will be considerably less morning-after brunch gossip and, instead, more heavy talks about divorce, children, and bereavement.”

This little description of the reboot caught me by surprise: It rang true and felt loyal to the original show. Before the franchise warped its absorbing aesthetic of excess into a repulsive, flat ugliness, before it became remembered and adjacently remembered for consisting only of “morning-after brunch gossip,” “Sex and the City” was at its best when it was about dissolutions and pressures of all kinds. Its quartet — but most reliably Carrie — tied themselves up in obsessive, anguished knots over their unmarried statuses, how they come off to other wealthy and white Manhattanites, aging and their romantic interests. Then, they’d briefly make peace with themselves, before suffocatingly constricting all over again.

“Sex and the City” was at its best when it was about dissolutions and pressures of all kinds.

Yet, even those moments of self-acceptance rarely feel wholly genuine. When Carrie unknowingly lands herself on the cover of New York Magazine — one of many, many eyebrow raising plot points any dedicated viewer of the show must let slide — looking haggard and miserable, accompanied by the headline “Single & Fabulous?”, she spirals. For the rest of the episode, she rails to her girlfriends over — yes — brunch, and gets raging drunk at a bar on a Tuesday night before concluding, “Instead of running away from the idea of a life alone . . . I’d better sit down and take that fear to lunch.”

In this iconic and recognizable scene, Carrie sits at an outdoor table of a café, wearing a black dress, baby-blue shawl and aviator sunglasses. She continues to narrate in a voiceover, “So, I sat there and had a glass of wine . . . alone. No books, no man, no friends, no armor, no faking.”

The Parisian-esque café, dusky light and elegance of her outfit synchronize to evoke an image of self-containment. Despite this narrative, you don’t quite believe Carrie when she says she isn’t faking, or that Carrie herself believes she isn’t faking. Indeed, two seasons later, our suspicions that she hasn’t truly come to terms with her insecurities are confirmed when she breaks down again over her singlehood in “The Agony and the Ex-tacy,” at the beginning of which the quartet discuss a dating service that purports to match users with their “soulmates.” “It’s saying you’re not enough,” Miranda says with disgust. “Are you enough?!” Charlotte demands, appalled. “Actually,” Carrie comments, picking at her food, “today she’s too much.”

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Later in the episode, when no one shows up to her birthday dinner for legitimate reasons, Carrie narrates with the same sardonic charm, “After I paid $70 for my own birthday cake, I was totally out of the party mood, so I decided to go home and kill myself.”

Besides being the latter part of the episode’s title — “Single & Fabulous?” — the word “fabulous” is used so frequently in “Sex and the City” to ironically and unironically describe everything from glitzy parties to shitty birthdays that it’s become attached to the show. “15 Fabulous Facts About ‘Sex and the City’” a Mental Floss headline reads. And from Houston Chronicle: “The fabulous ‘Sex and the City’ women are back.” But before fabulous came to mean “great,” it originally meant “characteristic of fables,” a fable being “an invented tale.”

In other words, fabulous also means unreal or mythic, a definition that even imbues its colloquial usage with a shade of vapidness and insincerity. (Does anyone say “fabulous” seriously?) The melancholic tension between what Carrie narrates and what she wants, between illusions of glamour and the reality that she’s barely keeping it together, then, is what gives her life — and the lives of all four women — a fabulous quality.

After all, we find Carrie’s lifestyle fabulous in the sense that it is great, only because it is fabulous in the sense that it is mythical.

Similar in falsity to her performative emotional independence is her financial independence. Somehow, someway, just by writing a weekly sex column for a newspaper, Carrie is able to afford her comfortable apartment in the Upper East Side, thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of designer shoes and restaurant meals every meal — she never cooks and uses her oven for clothing storage. To try and pop the glossy bubble of the show’s aesthetic pleasures, however, (including its celebration of materialism) by critiquing the characters’ unrealistic lifestyles, seems somewhat fruitless and beside the point. After all, we find Carrie’s lifestyle fabulous in the sense that it is great, only because it is fabulous in the sense that it is mythical.

Fittingly, beneath the fashionable clothes and defensive humor, we get little insight into Carrie’s family history or coming-of-age — not including the awkwardly tacked-on “The Carrie Diaries.” It’s impossible to imagine her as anything other than a fully-formed adult living, writing and shopping in New York. To me, Carrie becomes most knowable and vulnerable when she constructs and reconstructs her inner narratives and her own image of herself.

Though fake, this fabulousness never struck me as dishonest. After all, one of the show’s achievements has been acknowledging pretense as a necessary way to cope with the pressures of womanhood. But more successfully and memorably, the show portrays feminine self-consciousness and artifice as beautiful, alluring ways to self-empowerment. Sitting with Carrie, we are allowed to be honest fakers and dubious believers.

Contact Angela Yin at [email protected].