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Is it just the shoes?

Filming the TV show at a Manhattan cafe

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Fluffy, funny and frankly outrageous to its fans, Sex and the City has long baffled a sizeable constituency of the TV-watching public - namely men. As the feature film premieres in London, what is its appeal?

Picking up a cosmopolitans on a tour of key locations
On a Sex and the City pilgrimage
It's the tantric sex workshop I remember. Sex and the City's four heroines line up on a sofa, abject fascination writ large, as a matronly type demonstrates the art of lingam massage on her naked husband.

While TV viewers don't see exactly what Dr Shapiro does to her man, his enjoyment is certainly forthcoming, especially for Miranda.

In 1999, when this episode aired on primetime TV, it was groundbreaking stuff - unbelievably frank, and funny with it. This was before sex shops populated the High Street, before celebs boasted of their sexual prowess in Heat, before furtive fumblings on Big Brother.

And before Sex and the City became better known for name-checking designers and the latest It bar.

An established brand in its own right, Sex and the City is cosmopolitan - its cocktail of choice as well as the lifestyle celebrated in the newspaper column turned best-selling book turned blockbuster television series turned A-list film.

A decade after Sarah Jessica Parker first strode about in $300 stilettos - and more than four years since the TV show ended - Sex and the City is to have its big-screen premiere in London on Monday. The original quartet reprise their roles as the thoughtful one, the smart one, the dreamy one and the man-eater. Not forgetting the fifth star, New York City itself.

Filming a wedding scene for the movie
True love never runs smoothly

Detractors deride it as little more than women obsessed with men and shoes. But this does it a disservice. Kate Smurthwaite says that as a feminist and comedienne, she is a big fan. "In fact I would go so far as to say that if you enjoy Sex and the City, you ARE a feminist.

"If you can watch the amount of sex Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda have without shouting 'harlot' at the screen; if you're not horrified by the idea of women having professional jobs, living alone, talking about sex, drinking alcohol, having children out of wedlock, experimenting with lesbianism, owning vibrators and all the other stuff they do, then you support a level of freedom for women that is a very long way off for a majority of women in today's world."

Shoe fetish

These women do go on a lot of dates and do own many expensive shoes. And they inhabit a dreamscape New York of great apartments, swanky bars, luxury hair and fabulous jobs - at magazines, art galleries, PR firms, law offices.

Cynthia Nixon and Sarah Jessica Parker
Chemistry and the art of screen friendship

But where they find true happiness is in their bond, an unbroken circle of female friendship. Despite living an aspirational urban lifestyle, fans recognise something of themselves in these women.

"The characters are quite flawed and they exhibit normal traits of human behaviour - that makes them easy to relate to," says Gabriel Tate, TV editor of Time Out magazine. "There's a great chemistry between the leads which gives their relationships extra depth."

He regards the show as a finely-crafted piece of escapism.

"I live in a house full of girls and if it's repeated on TV, they will watch it - and that means so will I," says Tate, echoing a commonly-voiced experience of how many men come to the show. "It's one of those shows that stands up pretty well, although you might have thought it would date. That's down to the writing and the performances."

Toby Young
It made it seem sexy and normal, rather than mind-numbing, to spend hours painting your nails
Toby Young

It was smart casting to recruit established film actor Sarah Jessica Parker as the heroine/narrator Carrie Bradshaw, the alter-ego of party-girl Candace Bushnell who penned the original - and altogether darker and more cynical - columns for the New York Observer.

For it's about the lives and loves of successful single 30-somethings, and Parker was 33 at the time. The same age as her more whiny but equally funny British contemporary, Bridget Jones.

With lived-in eyes and unconventional prettiness, Parker seems more real than the cute starlets cast in producer Darren Star's earlier masterwork, Beverly Hills 90210. "It put paid to the assumption that there are no good roles for women once they hit 30," says Mr Tate.

Beauty myth

Toby Young, author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People - also about working and partying in 1990s Manhattan - says the show resonates beyond its native New York because of its portrayal of single women.

Outside Carrie's fictional apartment on a tour of key locations
The faithful gather outside Carrie's fictional brownstone apartment

"It encourages women to believe that they can be single and have an active social life and a great career and be as happy as Larry. But in my experience of single women in New York, it's a myth."

Bushnell herself is more Dorothy Parker than Sarah Jessica Parker, he says, and she and her friends are "like cats in a sack, constantly trying to scratch each other's eyes out".

Just as Candace is harsher than fictional Carrie, the screen incarnation bears only a passing resemblance to its source material. It picks up on Bushnell's waspish concepts, for example toxic bachelors and modelisers - men who sleep only with models - but is a gentler creation.

"Candace sold the rights to the column to Darren Star lock, stock and barrel for $50,000 and has never received a penny more," says Young, who himself knows Bushnell.

"Darren Star is a friend of hers. If that transaction was portrayed on screen, it would have enriched Carrie and her gay best friend both in equal measure."

Sweating during a Bikram yoga class - conducted in the heat
It takes hard work to look good

What does ring true for him is the time and effort New York women put into grooming, from their pedicured toes to their Brazilian waxes to their blow-dried hair.

"It made it seem sexy and normal, rather than mind-numbing, to spend hours painting your nails. Its sleight of hand is to make this seem like a post-feminist choice, rather than sexual enslavement. As a man, I shouldn't really object - go right ahead, make yourselves look gorgeous for me and my leery mates."

And Tate, of Time Out London, also covets its portrayal of a job very like his own. "Endless brunches and very little work. If that's what life is like as a magazine journalist, I'm working for the wrong publication."

Perhaps it's like that in Time Out's New York office.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Yawn. Let me sum up EVERY episode of Sex and the City:
- Pretentious woman has self-obsessed issue.
- Pretentious woman discusses self-obsessed issue with equally pretentious friends (assuming they aren't too busy with their own self-obsessed issue)
-Pretentious woman has experience that either confirms or disproves self-obsessed issue and writes about it.
- Kim Cattrall gets them out.
And that's pretty much it. Oh, and with lots of shoes.
Stuart, Margate

Isn't SATC anti-feminist? Although these women are all independent with careers and are sexually liberated etc, the show is mainly about how these women relate to men. They seem to be all obsessed by men and the need to pin one down. The thread through the show is how these women need the perfect man to complete their lives. It always comes across as quite sad and desperate to me.
Steve, Oxford

It's funny, well written and the characters evolved into ones I really cared about, particularly in the later series. SATC isn't about shoes at all it's about four friends who have grown up together and had boyfriends come and go, cancer, babies and miscarried babies, got married, got divorced, but their friendship has always stayed solid. I think that's what I relate to (not the shoes - certainly not on my wage).
Susan, Leeds

Anyone who's watched the show will know that binge-drinking and casual sex are cool - thanks Sex In The City for contributing to Modern Britain.
Bob, Southampton, UK

Well that's a surprise - I thought I was an old fart with a warped sense of humour (43-year-old happily married man who really enjoys SATC) but now I discover that I am apparently "a feminist".
Father Ignatius Brown, London, UK

A lot of people are totally missing the point here - the show was light entertainment, not a documentary. Your average coffee shop waitress can't afford a huge apartment and designer wardrobe, but I don't remember people criticising Friends. SATC works on the same formula as every other programme from Friends, to The Office to Holby City - taking situations that everyone can relate to and exaggerating them. All woman, married or single, can relate to the support you get from friends through thick and thin, lots of women can relate to the struggle of balancing work and life and we all know how sometimes treating ourselves, be it to a pair of shoes or a nice meal out, can improve a bad day. This show isn't supposed to be an accurate portrayal of modern women - it is simply holding a mirror to the hopes, aspirations and disappointments facing women the world over.
Catherine, London

There are some 30-something guys who watch this show and I'm one of them (and I'm straight). For me the show is all about friendship and what that means. All the best US comedies have made this the focus - Friends, Golden Girls, Will and Grace. It's the relationships between the four main characters which hooked us in, the men in the show are just supporting characters. All the best moments and best episodes are those shared between the four women.
Lee Bennett, Newmarket, UK

Men should beware of SATC women. After watching this programme, my wife's internal frame of reference became SATC. Her obsessive comparison was "Why is my life not like SJP's?" She spent all our savings funding a SATC life and we eventually separated with her moving to London to pursue her fantasy.
Jim, Edinburgh

I don't have a problem with that portrayal of women. I agree that it is anti-feminist for people who are already feminist - it is exactly the side of male behaviour we should not be trying to copy - but for people who have never seen that equality grasped by women in real life it will still have value. I, personally, only ever enjoyed the show for its friendships and the warmth of its humour between those friends. The sex/drinking/shoes were decidedly secondary. Although I do know who Manolo Blahnik is now.
Susannah, Northampton

I think a lot of men, like me, enjoy watching Sex and the City. OK, I'm not madly interested in the shoes, and sometimes the sex talk is a bit cringe-makingly frank for us chaps. But it's a funny and very warm-hearted show. What I like best about it that it's a celebration of the sort of freedom that one day all the world's women will enjoy - once the institutionalised misogyny we see all around the world has been supplanted by enlightened liberal democracy.
Guy Matthews, London

I'm a single woman in her 30s: I'm not into shoes, not into fashion and not into endless hours of pampering & preening & I don't believe in romance. The reason I like SATC is that, like most HBO productions (Oz, Six Feet Under etc), it treats its audience like they're adults and doesn't patronise.
Vic Milbourne, Carlisle, UK

I Love SATC. It is completely the opposite of how I live my life, the most I have ever spent on shoes is about 10. But it is funny, liberating in the sense that I find myself saying "My god, I am so glad I don't have all that to contend with." I got into the show primarily because of enjoying Mannequin and Girls Just Want to Have Fun, I just wanted to see what they were up to now. I hate the shoes, hate the fashion and really want to wear ear plugs whenever Charlotte opens her mouth, but on the whole, it's a laugh. I wish me and my friends were in the position to spend that much time together. I love Kim Cattrall, I would rather look up to her than Vicky Pollard (and being as Vicky Pollard is readily available on any housing estate in the UK, I'm quite glad to be able to hide away in my home watching SATC).
Jesse, Exeter

I have often wondered what it is I like about it because I can honestly say I despise each of the four women. In contrast, I quite like the male characters. There is obviously a lot of male influence over the show. Why else would the women be completely self absorbed/neurotic messes while the men are charismatic and relatively sane? And feminist? I think not. If this show is intended to empower women by encouraging irresponsible behaviour, then it has certainly succeeded. I wonder how many young women out there have bought an impractical and overpriced pair of shoes because Carrie wore them on SATC. They seldom address the issues that come along with overspending. I have never seen Carrie tear open a credit card bill and collapse on the bed in despair.
KL, London

I'm a man and I live in NYC. I watched the show and found it funny at times, irritating and silly at other times. Still I watched it. The only thing that bothered me was where did they get all that money and great apartment locations? I was a single man making good bucks and living in a hovel in Brooklyn and could barely afford much more than a few dinners a month on the town with the shoe obsessed gals I knew.
Phil, Brooklyn, NY

It was refreshing to see strong, independent women like that on TV. A feminist show, probably, but what disappointed me the most about it was the absolute cop-out at the end. After all the episodes and seasons of these women being independent, strong and well able to take on the world on their own terms, they end it the way they did, with the soppiest of nods to romanticism and conformity. The most unfeminist ending they could have thought of. Bah, humbug.
David, Ireland

Don't we all fantasise that we will be successful women? And is it so wrong to be optimistic that one day we will find Mr Right and have a fairytale life with a good job, fabulous clothes and fabulous friends?
Terri, Northampton

It's actually men who find it difficult without women, not the other way round, as is commonly fed to us.
PS Kumar, Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

I know nobody who watches it. My female friends tell me it is bereft of any humour, even if you are a woman. I don't think watching Sex And The City makes you a feminist at all, it just shows that you have no sense of humour and will tolerate any old drivel, nothing more.
Russell Lambert

Whatever spin feminists put on it, it's just not normal behaviour for women to act like they do on this show - women trying to be men. What needs to be stressed is that women are biologically different to men. They don't naturally look to "spread the seed" as men are programmed to do. Also, it is not sexy for women to act this way. Personally I wouldn't ever want my daughter to watch this show and therefore be influenced by perceiving this sexually deviant & promiscuous attitude as normal. With the world gripped by STD epidemics and single parents, this is the last show that should be on TV. It's unbelievable how much TV can mould a generation's values.
Conor Smith, Dublin, Ireland

There is nothing wrong with a strong, sexually independent woman... does anyone say anything about the Joey character on Friends and his promiscuous ways?
Lynn, Edinburgh

Before SATC aired, 30-something women were doing exactly what they are still doing now. Drinking, trying to make themselves look pretty, trying to carve a career, sexual experimentation and having sex. Nothing has changed over the past 10 years. Nothing has changed since the show finished. It's just a programme for girls to enjoy and watch on a Friday night. After all, as we all know, this is US entertainment for adults.
Reena, London

My partner despises this show and "doesn't get it" - I feel very alone in the female world in that I totally agree with him. I cannot stand this programme. I can't exactly say why I don't like it as I enjoy comedy and good storylines (which SATC apparently has) but something about it makes me dive for the remote control whilst shouting obscenities as to why people watch it.
Helen Preston, Swindon

Personally I think SATC is very sad. It has created the idea for women to seek satisfaction in material items. The idea that any hardship in life can be fixed by purchasing a pair of $300 shoes is pathetic. Girl power, yeah right.
Andy, London, UK

"....if you're not horrified by the idea of women having professional jobs, living alone, talking about sex, drinking alcohol... then you support a level of freedom for women that is a very long way off for a majority of women in today's world." Fascinating how if you reverse these and apply them to us men, you are left with a stereotypical laddish, uncaring, selfish, immature character that we unfairly spend our modern lives apologising for. But it's OK if you're a feminist - it's a positive thing. Ridiculous.
Scott, Oxford, England

I find SATC a bit boring and shallow and never really got into it. I think it's because I don't identify with any of the characters. You don't have to be a cocktail glugging, shoe worshipping sex maniac to be a feminist and I find Kate Smurthwaite's comments as ignorant and as shallow as the show itself.
Rachel, London

If anything, the vast range of interpretations of feminism that get thrown about whenever SATC is discussed suggest to me that the term should be abandoned in favour of simple equality. I think SATC can be far more easily appraised in terms of advancing gender equality rather than some undefined (often antagonistic) concept of feminism. And I love the show.
Nick, Edinburgh

I think Brian Griffin (Family Guy) summed it up best after watching it with some gay friends: "... so it's a show about three hookers and their mom?"
Neill, Plymouth, UK

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