The first time I saw Sarah Jessica Parker sauntering across a New York City sidewalk in a tulle ballerina skirt, I was starstruck. It was something about the bounce in her step, the quirkiness of her outfit, and her fierce challenge of convention that spoke to me- and actually influenced my future choices. After inhaling season after season on an epic weekend binge, I knew two things:
1. I had to move to New York and 2. I wanted to be a writer. The show also chipped away at the dating process that had been instilled in me- meet a man, go steady, get married, procreate. I suddenly felt that it was OK, and even enviable, to find yourself single in your thirties. In many ways, Sex and The City took the pressure off, and reminded me to worry about me.
In the years after SATC, the themes covered in the show are now commonplace. Women are getting married later than ever (on average at age 27), earning more than ever (despite there still being a gender gap, which is a different story), and the female movement is raging intensely. For those young Gen Xs/mature millennials (pick your poison) like me, the impact made by our favorite show was a deep one. Thanks to an imperfect set of protagonists, provocative fashions, and relatable story lines inspired by the actual lives of female writers, women my age have been free to seek satisfaction through self development, careers and friendships, rather than a relationship.
SJP filming the intro for SATC
“SATC gave women a chance to openly express what they were going through and what they were thinking," says the show's illustrious fashion designer, Patricia Field, who famously paid only $5 for that opening credits tulle skirt. “It was liberating to achieve this. It was a show that put women on the center stage."
Field, the recipient of an Emmy (and no less than five additional nominations for multiple SATC episodes) and a number of Costume Designers Guild Awards for her work on the series, told SWAAY she did her best to use the distinctive personalities of the four main characters to imbue the series with a focus on the self.
“I wanted to communicate the idea that women can discover their own originality in the way they dress themselves," says Field. “Women identified with the four individual characters, and tended to pick up iconic cues from their styles. I continued to present edited ideas, always focusing on the character identity."
The show's focus on individualism was perhaps best illustrated through the protagonists themselves, each living a life so directional and differentiated that one could discern personality traits even from an outfit choice or apartment decor. When asked to describe the look of each main character in one word, Field laughs: “Not sure I can really stick to just one word, [but here goes:] Carrie - eclectic and original; Samantha - sexy and outspoken; Charlotte - the girl men take home to mother (7 words, haha); and Miranda - assertive." Bottom line, there was always a style, and a character, to relate to.
“As costume designer I like to look forward to look ahead. I think the SATC girls illustrated [what was happening in New York City fashion] in the most perfect way." -Patricia Field
Fashion aside, the show's main characters were also intrinsically vulnerable. The character arcs were such that through the course of an episode we would see one of them on the highest of highs (say, a chance meeting with a handsome stranger, only to fall back to earth by the end of it (when you realize he's a compulsive book thief). Through the humor we learned to laugh at the absurdities of life and through Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte's imperfections, we learned to embrace our own.
Carrie, who asks a total of 92 questions throughout the series, is perhaps the one who draws us in the most. Covering everything from religion to social status to motherhood, these open-ended thought-starters echoed our own experiences and helped us prepare for what was to come.
"The monologues invite you in," says internet personality, Dan Clay, AKA Carrie Dragshaw, highlighting that the many questions of the series further make the show take hold. "They anchor in Carrie's specific experience, but quickly shift to the language of 'we' and 'some girls.' They ask a lot of questions that force the audience to shake their heads. They rarely make statements, but end with 'maybes...' and force you to agree to complete the thought; they demand involvement. It requires your perspective. And your perspective might change through the years, so the episodes, in a way, do too."Clay, who by day works in strategy and innovation consulting for financial firms, says he stumbled upon his Carrie Bradshaw moonlighting side gig after dressing as her for Halloween one year. "I posted a picture of my costume on Instagram, with no aspirations of Insta-fame, just expecting to make a few friends smile," says Clay, who has built a cult following of more than 70K through his head-turning side-by-side Carrie photos. "Somehow, someway, the picture went 'viral,' was reposted by a few Sex and the City fan sites, and a lot of people said really really nice things (including SJP!) [The account] seemed like a delightful way for me to push a little positivity into the world."
Clay as Bradshaw
“They are these four complicated characters grounded in simple archetypes: The cynical careerist, the unfiltered libertine, the in-love-with-love prude, and the fabulous romantic. You can reduce it all to, "Are you a Carrie / Charlotte / Miranda / Samantha?" That simplicity is huge to draw you in."
Even 13 years after the show went of the air, Carrie and her posse are still capturing the imaginations of Gen Xers and Millennials alike. Instagram accounts like @everyoutfitonSATC and @sexandthecity_newyork entertain millions of women with modern day musings on the show's iconic fashion statements and little known factoids, while others like Clay focus on recreation. To nail each photo, Clay enlists a trusted group of friends who help him style and shoot his uncanny images, as a homage to the emotional impact he says was given to him by the series.
“I was in the closet during the original airing of Sex and the City," Clay tells SWAAY. "Because the show is so glittery and fashion-based and classically feminine, I never really allowed myself to like it. So when I did come around to it, simply the act of enjoying Sex and the City felt like a minor expression of self-love. It also reminded me to focus as much on my friends as I do on my love life."
For Clay, who admits he watches episodes ''the way an MFA student analyzes Eugene O'Neill,' one of the biggest draws towards the Carrie Bradshaw persona is the fact that in many ways she is an anti-hero, and her mistakes make us say 'Same.' Among Clay's most cringe-worthy Carrie blunders is the moment Carrie interrupts Natasha's lunch to apologize for her affair with Big. "She is so so self-centered in this interaction, she even steals Natasha's water," says Clay. "It's uncomfortable, but it's what makes Carrie not just relatable but interesting."
“Sure, she has some great things to say about friendship, and self-love, and embracing imperfection, and moving on, but she has a lot of very human flaws: the neediness, the self-centeredness," says Clay. “She's not always a great friend, she's certainly not always a great girlfriend, and in a sometimes uncomfortable way that causes you to question your connection to her. That, to me, is what makes her a fascinating character. She's wrestling with love's biggest questions, and not always responding in an admirable way. Human flaws in fabulous shoes."
Dan Clay as Carrie Dragshaw
So on a larger scale, how far does Carrie's reach actually go? According to Antonia Hall, MA., psychologist, relationship expert and author of the Sexy Little Guide books and The Ultimate Guide to a Multi-Orgasmic Life, Carrie, like That Girl's Marlo Thomas, Murphy Brown's Candice Bergen (also a Sex and The City star) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show's eponymous main character, effectively pushes boundaries via an honest relationship with the viewer. Although none of these game-changing protagonists were perfect, they served as personifications of safe space, and we sympathized enough to come back to them by the end of each episode.
“One show can definitely have an impact on a generation," says Hall, naming The Mary Tyler Moore Show as revolutionary when it came out in 1970, as it showcased a woman in the workplace, and addressed issues like abortion and birth control pills.
"More women entering the workplace saw Mary as a role model, envying her cozy apartment and vibrant friendships," wrote Hope Reese in The Atlantic. "The show moved away from the domestic sphere, featuring a woman in an office."
Thanks to Mary, womankind would never be the same. And thanks to Carrie, the torch was passed on.
“My favorite moments in Sex and the City are when the characters express their independence, and demonstrate that you can be perfectly happy and fulfilled even when you're single. (When Samantha says, 'I love you. But I love me more.')"
A compelling protagonist is not the only thing The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Sex And The City have in common. Perhaps the most notable commonality is the fact that there were actual women behind the scenes crafting episodes based on their personal experiences. For MTM's part, 25 of the show's 75 writers were women (a progressive ratio at the time), while at Sex And The City, a rotating team of writers (comprised heavily of women) interpreted Candice Bushnell's best-selling tome via the lens of their own lives.
"There were so many subjects explored that really hit home, many of them still so relevant," says Jasmine Lobe, the writer who "inherited" Carrie's column AKA Bushnell's sex column at The Observer which she called “The J-Spot." "The column and the show certainly impacted my life in a very big way. It was quite intimidating at first, so I really had to make it my own."Lobe, who worked as an actor before stepping into Carrie's proverbial Manolos, says that although she was was hesitant to talk about sex and dating on the record, she eventually found the process cathartic, and empowering. "[The show] paved the way for writers like me to explore sex, relationships and social satire without it being taboo," says Lobe. "I was able to take more chances because of it. And while it is never easy to write about one's own sex life publicly, it was more of a personal challenge for me than societal. My readers are receptive and often very supportive so that made it easier to really put myself out there, and in part, that's because of Candace Bushnell and also Lena Dunham."
Covering topics that range from matchmaking to egg donation to dating while feminist, Lobe is dedicated to using her voice to bring important issues to light, and facilitate conversation among women. And, while there may be some conflicting views on whether bedding 94 men in a 94-episode series is egregious or empowering, for Lobe, an avid crusader for women's rights, open dialogue about sex frees women, and ultimately uplifts them."I think overall [the show] helped the women's movement because when women come together, that's a powerful thing," she says. "That's how great change is made. Look at what's happening right now with the sexual harassment stories. It's women banding together, and speaking their truth that's creating such waves. These harassment stories have shown how very toxic patriarchy can be. Although it's a painful moment in history, I think ultimately, we will all be so much healthier for it, as men and women come together in more loving and empowered ways."
"Each of the women was trying to find fulfillment in life and the bedroom in their own ways, which is very relatable." -Antonia Hall
Would the Women's Movement have charged on without Ms. Bradshaw? Maybe. But, we cannot deny that Carrie and her three soul mates helped push once unacceptable conversation topics out of the shadows and into the forefront. Thanks to episodes that explored modern life from the lens of a woman's satisfaction with it, the world saw that women more than passive images of sexuality. Instead, we seek lives that fulfill us on a deep level, and we embrace the ability to condemn or walk way from anything that displeases us.
When I look back on my college-age decision to follow in the footsteps of the fashionable columnist, I can't help but wonder: "Is there a little Carrie in all of us?"
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."