“Sex and the City” has brought us the cupcake craze, spawned bus tours, influenced dozens of other television shows and inspired a generation of women to move to New York City or get into relationship writing (including yours truly). One longtime fan, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, writes in her new book, “Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love,” that she even left her fiance for the hit HBO series, which premiered 20 years ago this week.
Okay, she might have left him regardless. But watching “Sex and the City” while in her late 20s did show her that another life was possible. The show “really made it less scary,” she says. “It gave me this idea that . . . there’s this other way of life that I hadn’t explored yet.”
The following conversation, about the effect “Sex and the City” had on her life and those of its viewers, is edited for clarity and length.
Lisa Bonos: Once you broke off your engagement, did your life feel like “Sex and the City”?
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong: I don’t think anyone would have identified my life that way. Most factors were not the same. Most notably, I left a pretty comfortable life to live in a studio apartment with the shower in the kitchen. I didn’t have any money. So that part, of course not.
So many of us our lives might look nothing like “Sex and the City” in terms of glamour, but we still identify. There was something magical about aspiring to that life that was enough; an occasional Cosmo or just going out with your friends could make you feel like “Sex and the City” when of course we were not leading nearly as comfortable a life.
Bonos: This is a cliche question, but I have to ask whether you’re a Carrie, Miranda, Samantha or Charlotte.
Armstrong: There’s a reason we ask this; it is revealing to some extent. I was definitely Carrie when the show was on. She was the protagonist, we were supposed to identify with her and then of course I was a writer. A lot of us who were Carries earlier in our lives usually grow up to be Mirandas. She was successful and secure and smart; she was the grown-up to a large extent.
Bonos: I was telling some friends about your book and that I was going to be interviewing you today and one of them said: “Oh, if you wrote a ‘Sex and the City’ show about D.C., it would be four Mirandas.”
Armstrong: That’s probably true. I read someone saying that if you made “Sex in the City” now, Miranda would be the main character, because we’ve evolved in our thinking about women on television enough that that’s what we all aspire to. Nobody wants to be Carrie anymore; everyone recognizes that Carrie has some major character flaws.
Bonos: You’ve written for Solo-ish about how Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign is the perfect culmination for this show’s legacy. If you were to write a reboot of “Sex And The City” in 2018, what might these characters be up to?
Armstrong: I have a piece in New York Magazine this week on this topic. The show’s writers pitched me story lines for a reboot. The governor thing is in there. We’ve had some very interesting experiences that reveal the shortcomings of reboots, which is that a television show comes out of a time. If there were a reboot, I would be most interested in the ways that they would be tackling aging and femininity; certainly we’re all grappling now with a lot of issues of masculinity and femininity in the world.
The real strength of the show was the feeling that you were talking to girlfriends about things that you didn’t talk about with other people, and those are only more numerous as you get older. There’s a certain point where we’re all supposed to stop talking to other people about our relationships and it’s assumed that everything’s fine, that it’s super-easy to be with somebody after 10 years, when in fact it’s unbelievably difficult. Samantha, is she alone in her 60s? What does that look like? What are the pluses and minuses of that? I refuse to believe that either Miranda or Charlotte is divorced, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Carrie is single again.
Bonos: As you know, the show gets criticized for being unrealistic. What about the show do you find to be the most realistic?
Armstrong: The most realistic parts are the relationships — the friendships, especially. These women have been through a lot: infertility, breast cancer, and the friendships and the relationships that still survived and thrived among that. That’s why we still care about this show.
The Cosmos and the cupcakes and the fashion loom just as large as remembering what it was like when Samantha had to shave her head because she was going through chemo. That balance somehow really worked. It made us want to go in, and then we were in there and they tricked us into dealing with heavier stuff.
Bonos: To watch the show now, it seems tame, but when it aired in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was really risqué, right? What was so shocking about it?
Armstrong: There just was not ever a show where you saw this depiction of single women. “Friends” might have been the closest we got before that, and they were still hampered by having three guys around. With “Sex and the City,” it really shocked the people to think that women could possibly think and say these things. The sex scenes are funny, occasionally character-revealing; whereas the talking was more important. That, to me, is where the revolution happened. The show was basically fun sex ed for adults.
Bonos: People who write about sex and relationships are often sort of branded as, “Oh you’re a Carrie Bradshaw”; I get that reaction a lot. A lot of women did decide to write about relationships after seeing this show about it. What do you think the show did for journalism of the heart?
Armstrong: There’s a history of women writing about relationships; this has always been the way that women are let into the room. The combination of “Sex and the City” and the Internet contributed to this explosion of confessional writing from young women about their love lives. Which is probably mostly good.
My one concern is this idea that it’s the only way in, that you have to be so self-revelatory, as in: We’ll listen to you, but only because you’re revealing all the gory details of your sex life. I’m thinking of the early days of Jezebel. Part of it was probably also that the show unleashed a bit of a backlog of women wanting to tell their stories because they hadn’t been able to.
Bonos: The show’s ending was somewhat controversial. What did you think of Big coming to Paris to woo Carrie back to New York?
Armstrong: For me personally, both at the time and now, in my ideal world she would have come back from Paris because she realized she belonged with her friends and New York — not because Big came and got her. I never bought Big, and he would not make a grand gesture like that. The whole point of a Big is that you can’t have him. But I’m sure the Charlottes of the world loved that ending and would have been really sad if it didn’t happen.
Bonos: I always wanted her to be with Jack Berger (played by Ron Livingston), but I think that’s just because I want a Berger.
Armstrong: I was so in love with Berger; it was a problem. Probably part of breaking off my engagement was that I thought: “I have to go find Berger.” I dated all the Bergers, all the writers in New York City of a certain age; especially ones who looked like that. I just re-watched that episode where she reads his book and critiques it, and then he’s like sad and mad. It’s just too real.
Bonos: Guys like that are my Big — the unattainable writer who never wants to settle down and just cares about his next story or book deal or whatever.
Armstrong: My Bigs were all like that, too. I really wanted Carrie and Berger to figure it out. That felt real to me.
Bonos: They seemed like equals to me, and that she could just be herself with him. You know, all that cheesy stuff we’re supposed to look for. The Post-it note breakup was infuriating at the time. But now, every time I’m dumped by text message or ghosted, I think about Berger and how at least he left a handwritten note.
Armstrong: The show’s writers have said that Berger was based on a bunch of guys they all dated in New York City. And they got it real right. I think Michael Patrick King, the show’s executive producer, said, too, that Berger was the most finely drawn male character they had. There was something special about him. He and Carrie were equals and had things in common; I could imagine them spending their lives together.
When I see couples, fictional or otherwise, my obsession is always: What would they talk about in 20 years? I still can’t imagine Carrie and Big’s conversation in 20 years, except: “Honey is it okay if I charge these shoes?” That’s really depressing to me, whereas I can see her and Berger still bantering.