The end of the affairs

Was Sex and the City's climax a triumph for romance, or did the girls simply grow up?

Jennie Bristow

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You’d think you could rely on Sex and the City, of all things, to go out with a bang. Instead, the hit US series has reached its climax in true fairytale form – man and woman fall in love, and live happily ever after. All four of the celebrity singletons have finally grown up, swapping sex-with-many for romance and companionship with The One, and set to trade funky shoes and Manhattan life for babies, best-friendship and Brooklyn. Aaaaah.

Reports from America (we have a few weeks to wait for the final episode to reach the UK) all seem to agree that the fairytale was the ending to go for. When Sex and the City started back in 1998, it was widely seen as a celebration of the young, free and single life of the newly liberated professional woman amid the metropolitan buzz of a city like New York. But as the episodes went by, the exuberant message was increasingly tempered by frustration, loneliness and disappointment.

The buzz of New York life began to look like a rather samey round of alcoholic coffee mornings, while the ‘girls’, despite their catwalk clothes, started to look, frankly, past their best. In one poignant episode, Carrie turned up for a photo-shoot for a magazine feature on the theme of ‘Single and fabulous’ (or some similar formulation), late, having overslept, with no make-up and a caffeine deficit. The front cover of the magazine appeared with a picture of the haggard-looking Carrie gripping a fag to her mouth, under a headline that gained a question mark: ‘Single and fabulous?’

The question mark was what defined the rest of the series, taking the show to the heart of the contradiction within our contemporary singleton culture. Today’s society loves to extol the virtues of the non-committal, multi-orgasmic twenty-first century relationship. That young professionals increasingly live alone, have several partners (though not at the same time), self-consciously prize their friends above their lovers and opt for motherhood only if and when the biological clock kicks in is often presented as one of the great achievements of our tolerant, equal, modern life, where women are freed from the shackles of wife- and motherhood, and able to make the most out of themselves.

Once terrestrial UK TV had got over the shock of seeing middle-class women talk dirty about sex – let alone having it – in a primetime slot, the original message of Sex and the City was less controversial than any mainstream young women’s magazine.

But it soon became apparent that Sex and the City‘s strength lay, not in its celebration of the modern relationship, but its exposure of the cultural myth that singleton society represents some kind of positive progress. As the characters grew up, they grew out of the best that Manhattan had to offer in terms of shoes, venues, careers and appropriate relationships. Sold short by consumer society and left cold by continual emotional analysis, these feisty young-ish women yearned for the security and spontaneity of that same old romantic story. Their lives were revealed as, not a third wave of womanhood, but something more banal – running away from adulthood, and hiding in a fantasy of endless play. In the end, they only wanted what their mothers wanted; and the fact that they got it made for a happy ending.

This makes it somewhat curious that Sex and the City‘s original fan-base has been oozing appreciation, rather than betrayal. After all the sex and semi-celebrity, the glittering careers (with a work-life balance strangely skewed on the life side), wilful independence and cool cocktails, does it really all come down to the same old story – marriage and children, and a back garden in Brooklyn?

On one level, there is something comforting about the fact that Sex and the City‘s characters ended up here – as the reaction from its fan-base indicates. Today’s cultural promotion of singleton society is informed at least as much by a suspicion of spontaneous, long-term, intimate heterosexual relationships as it is by an appreciation of the fun that can be had by playing around. That Carrie et al ended up gambling on forever with the flawed character they loved, rather than flitting like teenagers between emotional lightweights who appreciated them, shows that we are not quite cynical yet.

But also, what a shocking come-down this is from the expectations men and women could once have of their lives, loves and relationships with one another. Thirty years ago, women of Carrie’s age had been living the domestic for a decade and were demanding to know if this was it: if a husband, house and kids was all they could expect out of society, and their lives. Now, the Carries of this world live the life of teenagers until they are eventually propelled to ask ‘Is this it?’ of shopping malls and restaurant menus, and look for fulfilment even closer to home. Is it really progress, when people take an extra 10 years to ask the same questions, and come up with the solutions that previous generations derided as no longer enough?

Sex and the City was a great series, with a lot to say about today’s apparently liberating, but strangely stifling society. So too, in their own ways, were Friends and Frasier, also finally coming to an end. By soldiering on well past their sell-by dates, all of these cult series could not fail to reveal the logic beneath the infantile world they depicted – that people grow up, and when they do so they want something more than the silly, shallow self-obsession offered by today’s fashionable lifestyle culture. Trouble is, where do they go next?

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