Sex and the City, which premiered 20 years ago this week, changed the way women thought about sex. The assertion of the show’s main character, Carrie Bradshaw, that she will start having sex “like men” — sleeping around and feeling “nothing” afterwards — struck a chord. It was a new kind of fairy tale — a glitzy, glamorous, New York City Cinderella ditching the prince but keeping the shoes. Twenty years later, though, these “real-life” Carrie Bradshaws are single, childless, and many are starting to wonder what happened to their happy endings.
In the early 2000s, modeling themselves on Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, women in their 20s and early 30s began to have sex “like men.” One night stands and sexual exploration became the ultimate feminist statement. If men could do it, then why shouldn’t they? “There was no such thing as a bad date,” writes dating columnist Julia Allison of her time living the Sex and the City lifestyle, “only a good date or a good brunch story.”
In fact, in the years since the show’s premiere, Sex and the City has come to be seen as not feminist enough — receiving criticism for leaving its four heroines happily paired up romantically by the series finale. In 2010, The Telegraph complained that “The happiest character, Charlotte, is by far the most conventional – rich husband, children, no job (by the end), a Park Avenue palace.” In 2017, Marie Claire called one of the show’s main characters “anti-feminist” for saying that “everyone needs a man.” If a lesson is to be learned from the show, today’s critics seem to be suggesting, it’s that it didn’t go far enough. In order to be truly feminist, it seems, women must give up romance altogether.
There’s only one problem: eventually women do want to settle down. In fact, many of the women who bought into the Sex and the City lifestyle 20 years ago are coming forward to share their regrets. Julia Allison says the show literally “ruined her life.” She says it peddled a “fear of intimacy disguised as empowerment.” Writing for The New York Post, Allison wistfully wonders what her life might have been like if she hadn’t bought into the Sex and the City philosophy. “Perhaps I’d be married with children now?”
In her memoir, Unwifeable, journalist and former dating columnist Mandy Stadtmiller describes how a decade of living the “real-life Carrie Bradshaw” lifestyle left her fearful that there “might be no one out there left for me at all.” She writes, “I told myself I was a feminist,” but, ultimately, she came to realize that happiness came, not from casual sex and no-strings-attached relationships, but from “only revealing [her heart] when someone has proven themselves worthy.”
The fact that the women of Sex and the City ultimately want to settle down is not the unrealistic lie the show sold these women. The lie is that they can settle down after spending their 20s and 30s sleeping around. At the time, it seemed like a radical act of feminism to do away with Prince Charming and focus, instead, on the dress, the shoes, and the physical attraction. After all, as novelist Keira Cass said, “Cinderella never asked for a prince, she asked for a night off and a dress.” But suddenly, with biological clocks ticking and one man after another running away from the thought of commitment, these women are beginning to wonder. Maybe Cinderella knew something they didn’t, after all.