Tuesday questions, Manolo Blahnik edition

The other day, the Better Half and I were lounging on the couch and came across a rerun of “Sex and the City.”  I had caught the occasional (full-length, non-bowdlerized) episode back during its initial run, and enjoyed it well enough. Watching a few random episodes seemed a pleasant-enough way of passing an idle hour or so.

My main reaction to it back in the day was aspirational, at least in a certain way.  (Let’s all be clear that I didn’t get around nearly as much as certain members of that particular foursome.)  Carrie et al lived the kind of glam, chic and cultured life that I associated with New York City at its most opulent and enticing.  They actually shot part of one episode (which I never saw) at the hospital where I was working at the time, and so I got to see Sarah Jessica Parker emoting at Chris Noth, though from a distance.  (The woman who I took to be the director seemed incredibly unpleasant, and kept shrieking at the people who had gathered to watch to be quiet.  I mean, hey… it was our hospital they were in, and I don’t recall anyone being particularly noisy anyway.  For the record, the nurses who eventually managed to snag autographs reported back that SJP was every bit as nice as her reputation indicates.)  I remember being kind of thrilled when there was a scene in a bar (specifically the bathroom, which had a big fish tank in it) where I had hung out a few times.

Mind you, I didn’t lead anything like a life so glamorous myself.  Much of my time was spent lying in exhaustion on a certain best friend’s comfy furniture, watching television of varying quality and eating carry-out.  That was my real New York, and certain best friends are more central to my love of Manhattan than all the fancy cocktails in the world.  But insofar as I liked to style myself a sophisticate, it was that kind of sophisticate I tried to pretend to be.

What a difference a few years makes.

Friends, those women are awful.  Awful.  There was absolutely nothing that appealed to me as I watched them sulk their way through their cosseted, shallow and narcissistic lives.  It didn’t help at all that I found the whole thing reeking of artifice, with stilted, mannered performances (sorry, SJP!  I hear you really are a super-nice person!) and glib writing.  But the characters themselves (Samantha and Carrie, in particular) were just obnoxious and unbearable. Perhaps I am being unfair to the show, and am drawing too much on a couple of episodes, but there was nothing I could see about these characters that would endear me to them.

I hope against hope that I am nothing like them.

Part of what I found so gross is how New York is represented as this luxe playground for the privileged.  Sure, as many people have lamented over the years, it is increasingly becoming hard for any but the most affluent to live there.  But it remains a vibrant and vital metropolis, full of color and excitement far removed from the trendy bars of the pampered.  I feel like the City deserves better than the one-note depiction it gets in “SATC.”

But then, I remembered the words of a certain best friend regarding another show about a different set of privileged people:

If you reject a film or show because it does not adequately critique its culture, you are basically saying that art should reflect your own social views. But why? You already have those views. You don’t need to be convinced. So art is…not for you? Really?


I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with a system of landed gentry. Or that World War I was a walk in the park, or that women who wanted the vote did not go suffer to earn that right. I do question whether it is the sole job of every single work of fiction set in that time and place to educate people as to those facts. In addition to an education about broad social issues, art can also educate about interpersonal issues, about moral issues. And, dare I say it, some of the functions of art may not be educational at all.

I agreed (and agree) with everything that Rose wrote about “Downton Abbey,” a show I unabashedly adore.  Why is it that I feel that “SATC” fails in some way when “Downton” does not?  Is it merely my personal connection to life in New York during the years the show was set, and so I know far more about how the City looked and felt than I ever will about life in a genteel manor house?  Is it that the writing and acting on “Downton” are so much better, and most of the characters so much more likeable?  (I was less bothered by some of the rather more bothersome plot twists in Season 2 than I probably would have been had I not enjoyed the performances so much.)  Is it because “the City” is essentially made a character in “SATC,” such that it’s right there in the title, and I feel that the real place that I love has been replaced by a high-gloss facsimile?

Or is this all just resentment that, for all the bills I racked up buying booze in glitzy bars (and on occasion clothes I couldn’t really afford at Barney’s), that wasn’t the life I led?  No doubt people more genuinely fabulous than me would recognize a more authentically Bradshaw-esque City than I ever lived in.  Who knows?

So, before this becomes another installment of “Russell Gets Analysis from the Internet,” what say you?  Is there some line of authenticity a work of art should try to cross before claiming to depict something real, or should I just get over it and enjoy the pretty people at play the next time Kim Catrall flounces across my TV screen?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I found Sex In The City pretty off-putting, from the first time I saw an episode.

    It’s the narcissism more than anything else. They treat everything – including each other – as window dressing for their own experience. Even when they’re upset with each other, they’re upset with each other for not doing things for *them*.

    Maybe that’s a massive over-generalization from the < 5 episodes I saw, I dunno.

  2. I tried to watch it a few times but found the characters more annoying than entertaining. I am a west coast girl and wondered if it was my lack of interest or indentification with NYC culture that made me dislike the show or if it was merely that the show was bad. Glad to know there are fellow New Yorkers out there whose reactions were similar to my own.

  3. I don’t think art has any obligation to be a 100% accurate reflection of real life. Of course the people that actually live that life are always going to find reasons to complain because they take a certain pride in being authentic and/or they don’t want that thing they loved betrayed incorrectly.

    My guess is that you are just being a proud New Yorker here. Nothing wrong with that but I would cut them a little slack.

    • I don’t think art has any obligation to be a 100% accurate reflection of real life.

      But it helps a lot if you at least try to get close.

      A few years back there was a short-lived, post-apocalypse, sci-fi show, Jericho, that was supposed to be set somewhere in Kansas. The show itself was ok, but what bothered me was the writers had absolutely no conception of the geography of my state. They had the namesake town located in western KS, so far west that the main character stood on top of his car and watched a mushroom cloud over Denver against a backdrop of mountains. FAIL. The KS/CO border is like 200 miles from Denver and the front range of the Rockies. I’m not sure how far away you could see the top of a mushroom cloud but you have to travel at least 150 miles from the border to start to see mountains.

      Then there’s the local geography around this town. It looks fine for Kansas, eastern Kansas, which is indistinguishable from western Missouri, natch. Western Kansas is pretty damn flat and doesn’t have a lot of trees. The two ends of the state are way different in look and feel.

      Finally, in the closing credits, they show a highway sign that reads something like “Wichita 150 miles, and Kansas City 400 miles” (I forget the exact numbers now) and again, it’s just physically impossible to be on an actual highway anywhere in the state and see a sign like that. Maybe if you were down in Oklahoma somewhere. Maybe. Not even then really because the relative distances between the two cities were wrong.

      It’s a different sort of nit that I’m picking than what Russell is complaining about–physical facts vs. cultural milieu or something. But it’s as bad as if you were watching SATC, set in NYC, and saw the Seattle Space Needle in a background shot. It’s like the writers didn’t even bother to look at a map or pull up the wikipedia page on Kansas before they started writing the show.

      It really detracted from my enjoyment.

      • Rod,

        I think those kinds of inaccuracies are yes, a sign of the producers not caring that much, but it still only impacts a small group who are going to notice it. I was a history major and I notice gross changes to actual events in an attempt to make the story more interesting. A recent example was Tombstone on AMC the other night. Terribly inaccurate but still a really fun movie. I’m okay with that kind of stuff, especially when the movie doesn’t pretend to be a Kevin Burns film.

      • Dude, when you live in Los Angeles?

        This happens all the time. “Waitasecond… he drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles and his ‘entry into town’ scene is the southbound 110 freeway? Who gave this guy directions?”

        “There’s no Randy’s Donuts there!”

        • For some reason, this reminds me of what happens in modern urban fantasy tabletop games that are set in the players’ home city.

          “What’s the quickest way to Briargate?”

          “We want to take the highway!”

          “You only know one way to get to anywhere! You want to take 30th to Garden of the Gods, Garden of the Gods to Centennial, and take the back roads up to Briargate!”

          “You’ll hit too many lights!”

          “It’s easier to run a red light than to avoid the congestion on the highway!”

          And so on.

      • My favorite along this line was when you could see Victoria’s Peak in the background of Rumble in the Bronx.

  4. i work on the upper east side, so it’s more like a crappy documentary/siren song to a certain kind of folk than a show. i’ve worked with women who moved to the city after college because of the show. that says something to the power of dreams and myths, like a west wing for people who really like shoes.

    that said, no way i’d get through a whole episode without cyanide.

    • “that says something to the power of dreams and myths, like a west wing for people who really like shoes.”

      This was very good.

      I will say that Magnolia makes very good cupcakes but it always sort of amused and horrified me that there were “Sex in the City” tours that would stop by the place on big buses.

  5. 1. Downton Abbey takes place far enough in the past that it looks like and basically is a different world. We can look at Downton Abbey more like fantasy. Sex in the City is more like recent history and history that you lived through so you can critique it more.

    2. You are from New York or at least lived there for a while, so you have more of an emotional and personal connection to the city than the English country-side. I have no idea what your New York is but you obviously feel Sex in the City slanders it in someway.

    3. There is that issue of New York quickly becoming a playground for the ultra-privileged. There was a lot of criticism about Lena Dunham’s Girls for being the same thing even though Lena Dunham wanted her show to be the anti-Sex in the City. The shows feature relativity to very wealthy affluent people who show a very strong lack of awareness at their privilege. Do you feel strongly about the need for a NYC that is affordable to middle and working class people? Do you feel like the economics of it all threw you out of New York?

    4. I spent most of my life in the NYC-Metro area but have been living in San Francisco for the past four years. I came out to SF for law school. San Francisco is probably the second most-expensive real estate market in the US. However in many ways, it does seem more affordable than NYC. My rent is roughly the same but in SF, I get a proper one bedroom and a parking space in a garage and laundry in the building. Though my Brooklyn apartment had more romantic charm because it was on a classic tree-lined Brooklyn street in an old brownstone. I still miss New York fiercely and am pissed about it is portrayed on Sex in the City and Girls even though Lena Dunham is a New Yorker.

    5. When you can connect to a place, you feel strongly about people turning it into a stereotype. This is an article written by a woman who lived in my old Brooklyn neighborhood. To me it reads like a parody of how red-state people view upper-middle class New Yorkers:


    • I’ve always liked Joe Kotkin’s description of NYC as a ’boutique city’ which now caters to the needs of the upper class (unfortunately creating a huge income gap). It seems pretty accurate.

      • I think that is partially true but does not paint a full picture.

        On the one hand, NYC has streets with huge income divides. You look down one way and it is incredibly wealthy and the other way it is incredibly poor or at least significantly more modest.

        The housing policies of Giuliani and Bloomberg certainly went towards building condos for the professional classes and above rather than middle-class housing. That being said, my brother lives in a condo building in Brooklyn and most of his fellow residents are well-off but not super-wealthy. They are working upper-middle class professionals.

        Young people and others with modest means still find ways to make it in the city. They live in unglamorous neighborhoods like Inwood (the northern tip of Manhattan), or the more residential and far away sections of Brooklyn and Queens. Some might even go to Staten Island and the Bronx. There are also roommates.

        All this being said, NYC is in many ways a playground for the very well-off. It certainly helps to have a lot of money. The public school system is a chaotic mess and private school tuition is very expensive. Then there is the cost of activities.

        I don’t think I would ever raise a family in NYC even if I could easily afford it. If I moved back, fell in love, and wanted to start a family, to the suburbs we would go. I might consider raising kids in San Francisco. The public schools* seem reasonably better in this city and the neighborhoods seem more like small towns. Though I have been told that just as many people in SF flee to the suburbs once they have kids. Of course the Bay Area is still strange, you have a lot more young people living in the suburbs here than you would in New York. Mainly because of Silicon Valley I think. A lot of people who work in Silicon Valley seem to decide to live in the burbs instead of doing a reverse commute from SF.

        *I am a big proponent of K-12 public education. I think going to private school from K-12 can be a bit spoiling especially the secular ones that I would want to send a hypothetical child to.

      • Though it is interesting to note that Sex in the City treated Brooklyn as if it were Siberia.

        Even though during the run of Sex in the City, large sections of Brooklyn were already the home of the upper-middle class and kids moving to the city right after college. Brooklyn was no longer working class but developed in parts with boutiques, Michelin-star restaurants, cool bars, etc.

        Now it seems that people are developing the old-school Brooklyn pride and treating it like an independent city. People hang out in Brooklyn and treat Manhattan as an after thought. You go to Manhattan for work but not much else.

        • a lot of my friends were raised in brooklyn and queens, and while mellowed a bit, they tend to swap enraged and amused at what’s happened over the last 15 years. i both understand and don’t understand their feelings on the issue. nyc has always been a magnet for outsiders, of which i am one despite having lived here for 15 years and grown up 20 minutes away. one thing we all agree upon is that there’s an interesting/amusing/infuriating undercurrent to the ball of “gentrification” that gets tossed about – basically that there are certain kinds of “white people” (i.e. art school kid from iowa – white / russian immigrant – not entirely white / hasidic jews – really not very white at all / etc) who should only live in certain places, and it rests on a certain kind of accepted sense of where ethnic and racial demarcation should be.

          as for the playground of the rich thing, it’s neither entirely true or false. it has never been cheap to live here, or to build here, or to run a business here. what’s changed is the desirability, a reverse white-flight of sorts. is it weird to see people on kent ave in wburg with strollers that aren’t filled with bottles? sure. but it’s worth remembering that the area was affordable, as a friend of mine who grew up on the northside is fond of saying, because it was dangerous enough to entrench those who had a stake a drive away those who weren’t desperate. and my ten+ year old memories of the area are nothing compared to his 30 year memories, which are even stranger when compared to the present day.

          it’s, like, complicated and stuff.

          the public schools do by and large suck. even where i live in queens the elementary schools are pretty decent, but the middle schools on up are a disaster. anyone who suggests there’s a total fix, much less a quick fix, for this sort of thing (charters / tons of money / more teachers / less teachers / more accountability / less accountability) are probably high as hell or trying to sell you something. i have a few years to worry about that, but i might be in montana or the ozarks or some other place far different by then, so for the time being i pretend it’s not an issue.

          • This is all very well said.

            I grew up in Great Neck, NY and could walk to the more suburban parts of Queens from my house. I lived in NYC from 2005-2008. First on the Upper East Side and then in the Boreum Hill/Carroll Gardens part of Brooklyn. My heart still largely belongs to that Brooklyn neighborhood. It really felt like home.

            You are right that NYC has always attracted outsiders especially young people who want to make it big and immigrants. New York probably experienced less white flight than other cities because 20-somethings have always wanted to live there and escape small-town and suburban dullness.

            The Williamsburg thing is true. Artists did move there in the 1990s but it was not until around 2002 that the hipsterification began and I noticed it around the same time that you did. A friend from college was looking at apartments in the area and I was hanging out with her. I remember being kind of shocked by Williamsburg being cool.

            My mom is a career veteran of the NYC Public School system. First as a teacher and then as an administrator. What I’ve noticed from my time in the city reflects yours. In Carroll Gardens, there was a good elementary school and a not-so good elementary school. Even though I was a single grad student in my mid-20s, my real estate agent was sure to tell me that my junior one bedroom was in the good school district. So I would see that the public elementary school was fairly diverse and contained the students from the upper-middle class professional families who lived in the area. However, the local middle school appeared to be 99 or 100 percent black students who either came from the housing project on Hoyt Street or from other parts of Brooklyn.

            In San Francisco, it seems like more of the professional parents are willing to send their kids to public school from K-12. However, I have also been told that the same issues on public or private school exist here but I don’t notice them as a non-native.

    • The economics of New York didn’t throw me out. But they would probably prohibit my moving back, at least anytime soon. The quality of life I enjoy on the money I make now is vastly greater than what I could afford raising a kid in New York.

      • I like New England. Some of what I miss about NYC is very specific like the theatre and culture scene. I do miss my beloved Brooklyn brownstones and the Brooklyn Academy of Music and their Next Wave Festival.

        However, there is a lot that I just miss about the Northeast in general and could probably obtain by moving to the Boston/Cambridge area. I am one of the few New Yorkers who will admit to really liking Boston and Cambridge.

        • I love Boston/Cambridge. (It helps that I have a ton of friends that live there, as well as a good gig working in the area.) While it’s certainly not New York, I am quite content with the city fix I get when I’m there.

  6. Imagine having a conversation about the evolution of medicine since the turn of the century (last one, not this one) and specifically about the use of radiation as treatment for such things as children having enlarged thymuses or the ringworm affair in Israel.

    Now imagine having this conversation with any one of these four characters from SITC.

  7. Back when SATC was popular, both a woman I was seeing and a female platonic friend raved about it. So I saw a lot of it. I enjoyed it for a while. It wasn’t hard to figure out that every one of those four characters was intended to personify a different dimension of Candace Bushnell’s personality. One thing that struck me right away was that the sex wasn’t typically all that sexy. At the time, I thought it was because the premise of the show was to play up sexual misadventures for laughs.

    But as the show developed them, each character turned out to be desparately afraid of intimacy, constantly rejecting the men they were able to attract into their various orbits or doing things to cause the men to reject them. It wasn’t about women looking for love: it was about women looking for reasons not to love, for reasons to disconnect from other people. When I came to that realization, suddenly I found the show repellent.

    Even later, it occured to me that the characters weren’t just hiding from men who wanted to be intimiate with them, they were hiding from themselves, too. Then it stopped being repellent and started being pathetic. No, strike, that, I should have said “tragic“: they were being slowly destroyed by their own character flaws.

    So I think SATC was art: it pointed to and depicted a truth, about dating and sex as avoidance. That actually resonated with me nicely at that point in my life: the women I was seeing all seemed to act like that, and I found myself acting like that too. So the art challenged me to behave better, and I think, or at least hope, that I did.

    The glamorous, affluent New York depicted in the show with all the fancy restaraunts and shoe stores and fashionable bars and high-class social events — well, that was just pornography.

  8. I enjoyed SaTC as mannered, sometimes slapsticky silliness and a chance to look at Kristen Davis [1]. Looking any deeper would have ruined it.

    1. Who, quite properly, wound up with the unhandsome Jewish guy.

    • E.g. there was one episode where Miranda was moving into an apartment in a really desirable building. Why was it available? The previous occupant had died suddenly. She was (like Miranda) a single woman, and no one thought to look for her for days. By the time she was found, her cat had eaten much of her face. The next thing you see is Miranda’s cat’s bowl, filled to overflowing.

      You can reflect on the horrifying anomie of big city life (or realize that the rest of the cast wouldn’t go half a day without needing to show her their new shoes) or just laugh and wait for the next joke.

  9. Is it correct to say that Girls is SiTC:TNG?

    (I only know of Girls from the awesome Boom Skrillex reviews, and think I may have watched 10 cummulative minutes of SiTC for its entire run)

    • That depends on who you ask.

      Girls seems to be a show that inspires extreme hatred or extreme love with not much inbetween. I don’t remember Sex in the City producing the same kind of firestorm.

      There are a lot of Lena Dunham supporters who see the show as being the anti-Sex in the City and being more realistic about the life of young people in the city because they have roommates, work at not great jobs, live in smallish apartments, etc. For some reason, large swathes of the chattering classes are proclaiming Lena Dunham as the next great artist. The entire staff of Slate basically loved-fested on the show every week with no dissenting voices. Part of me wonders whether there was an office memo that said “no dissent on Girls”.

      On the other hand, other people were like the Gawker reviews and saw Girls as being entirely about privileged people especially because as the take-downs noted, every young woman on the show is the daughter of very rich and famous people. Some friends who live in Brooklyn and are young artist types are repulsed by the show.

  10. I’m not sure that what’s in play here is authenticity.

    Art often pushes past realism in an attempt to deliver its message, and it can do that successfully or not. With something like a movie or television show, the authenticity seems less important than the skill and craft employed to create the final piece. One of my favorite “New York” movies, for example, is still Annie Hall – despite the fact that there isn’t a scene it that movie that I can picture happening in real life. (Best example: the scene where Allen is in line to see a movie, arguing Marshall McLuhan with a media professor from NYC.) All of which is to say I don’t care how realistic a TV show or movie is; I care about how well the writers, actors and director are able to get me to where I’m supposed to go.

    Regarding SATC, though, I wonder to what degree it’s just outlived its time?

    I remember when it came out in the 90s, most of the people I knew that watched it were women. And my recollection is that part of what they liked about it was that it was a TV show that had female protagonists seeking (and reacting to) sexual situations in their lives. Before SATC, I think TV only really showed the male side of that. Whenever females were featured, it was always as a foil or object of conquest for the male protagonist. I also remember that it focused pretty hard on female bonding, which was another thing that had largely been ignored by TV.

    I think it’s possible that it’s tiredness today is a consequence of its success. None of those things are edgy any more. And so the vicarious thrill one might have gotten from those TV taboos 15 years ago is (thankfully) gone; now that they are gone, it’s easier to see now that there wasn’t a lot of there there past that edginess.

    That’s my mansplaining explanation, anyway.

    • Oh! You reminded me! One of my (female) friends watched the show compulsively. This friend happened to be a journalist.

      I asked about the quality of the writing that appeared on the show (Carrie was a writer, if I recall correctly) and my friend said “Oh, it’s absolutely awful.” “Why do you watch the show?” “I wish I had three friends that were all friends with each other and we would all eat together, or all go out together, or just all talk together.”

      Which may be a gender thing.

      • Seinfeld (and other ensemble shows) argue that it’s not a gender thing. There are a few things these shows tend to have in common:

        * There’s what amounts to an extended family, whether they be friends (Friends, Seinfeld) or co-workers (Taxi). In Arrested Development it’s an actual extended family.
        * They don’t necessarily all like each other, but they spend time together and take care of each other
        * They have an unrealistic amount of time to just hang out

  11. I feel like this is an issue between lies of omission and lies of commission. Does a show have to show every single facet of every thing related to anything happening in it? Surely not. But SATC seemed to go out of its way to misrepresent the city while at the same time claiming to represent the city accurately.

    Also… a fish tank in the bathroom? What?

      • OH CRAP! I thought you were talking about the hospital you worked at. Reading fail.

        I’ve been in several bars with fish tanks in the bathrooms. Was I in the wrong kind of bar?

        • Not necessarily. And hey, if you don’t have a problem hanging out with a bunch of dudes who like dudes, you wouldn’t be in the “wrong” kind of bar at XL.

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