Carrie Bradshaw is not the feminist icon we want her to be

Rewatching Sex and the City in a modern feminist context reveals a lackluster approach to sexual health

The escapism of a fictional world can be dangerous. One can start to believe that buying full-priced Manolo and Fendi products can be a weekly occurrence. Pretending that you can live like or even be a certain character gives your life a newfound glamour. Thus, I’m reluctant to let go of Carrie Bradshaw. Maybe you can put this down to me re-watching all six seasons of Sex and the City during quarantine, or perhaps you can put it down to me going through young womanhood, but either way, I’ve come to view Bradshaw as a complicated anti-hero in the eyes of modern feminism.

Due to the emergence of Instagram as a major social media platform, Sex and the City has experienced a resurgence of interest and popularity over the past decade. It is all too tempting to repost quotes that Carrie and her accessory-like friend group declare to each other. The conservative Charlotte York, the powerhouse Miranda Hobbs, and the sexually liberated Samantha Jones compliment Bradshaw’s supposedly outgoing nature as a sex columnist. However, the more episodes you watch, the more the show contradicts this. It is Bradshaw’s attitude towards sex that damns her; her views by today’s standards are outdated, backward, and frankly, shameful. 

“Bradshaw is meant to be a sex columnist yet is perfectly willing to erase an entire orientation.”

Some of you may be aware of a clip that has resurfaced across social media, in which Carrie and company discuss Carrie’s new fling, who happens to be bisexual. The man in question is called Sean, approximately a decade younger than Carrie. He comes with a few defining traits: he’s a great kisser and he can ice skate, but what the women of Sex and the City can’t let go of is the fact that he is bisexual. The day after his admission, Carrie launches into a discussion with her girlfriends and comes to the conclusion that bisexuality doesn’t even exist, that it’s just a “layover to Gaytown,” and that “they always end up with men”, – both bisexual men and women, that is. Charlotte thinks that bisexual men are the reason that there are no available men in New York. Samantha, on the other hand, dismisses it as mere sexual experimentation, while Miranda calls it “greedy double-dipping”. Carrie later unceremoniously ditches Sean at a party; to her, he is not worthy of a goodbye, let alone a relationship. Bradshaw is meant to be a sex columnist, yet she is perfectly willing to erase an entire sexual orientation.

Similarly and apologies in advance for spoiling certain sub-plots Carrie seems to put herself above the love of her life, Aiden. Not only does she have an affair with her married ex-boyfriend, Mr. Big, while initially dating Aiden, but during round two of their relationship, Carrie rejects Aiden for wanting to get married, yet is surprised when he asks her to buy back her own apartment. In a Bradshaw-esque way, I have begun to wonder: is Carrie truly embracing what we know to be modern femininity by using men for her own pleasure, no matter the consequences, or rather, is she a narcissist with a white knight complex? She talks big game about how some women are wild horses that cannot be tamed, but time and time again she proves that she needs a man to feel fulfilled. From Aiden reflooring her apartment in season three to Alexander Petrovsky installing mouse traps for her in season six, Carrie shows that she is less “feminista” and more archetypal maiden in an ivory tower. Her tech illiteracy and stubbornness, no doubt initially intended to be quirky and charming, prove annoying and downright irksome throughout the series. If we could talk to Bradshaw in 2020, would she be as woke as we want her to be? I don’t think so. 

Time and time again, we witness Carrie’s total lack of responsibility and emotional immaturity. Ultimately, she needs to borrow $40,000 from Charlotte in order to afford the downpayment on the apartment, after coming to terms that she has no money of her own and no means to get a loan. Shockingly, not only does Carrie fail to expect Aiden to ask her to buy the apartment but she also rages at Charlotte for not volunteering to help her out financially. Carrie’s dependency on others throughout the series makes me want to recoil. She is a self-centered narcissist, a main character in her own mind. Initially, I thought this was a power move. Aren’t women encouraged to put themselves first nowadays? But once I revisited episodes that featured the aftermath of her affair (and the aftermath of all of her relationships), I saw that Bradshaw doesn’t have the agency to put herself back together. She relies on her friends and sales at Manolo Blahnik. Not once do I feel that she has a moment of true independence a “Truth Hurts” moment if you will. Maybe that’s what makes her character so addictive — she has the glamour, but nothing else in her life has worked out. Bradshaw lacks a plan and personal certainty, and those very aspects led me to idolise her.

One could instead take the opposite approach and favour Miranda and Samantha, both of whom have reached a new level of admiration over the past decade. The launch of We Should All Be Mirandas: Life Lessons from Sex and the City’s Most Underrated Character, by Chelsea Fairless and Lauren Garroni, embodies the new appreciation felt towards the sarcastic, sweatpants-wearing lawyer who is too busy to wax her bikini line yet human and imperfect enough to fish out discarded cake from the bin. With an unmatched kindness underneath the hard-ass professional shell, one can only imagine how progressive Cynthia Nixon’s character would have been if the show had been written today. 

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“Among the millions of memes and internet jokes, #WokeCharlotte stands out; it helps us to defy nostalgia and decide whether old shows can be universally beloved in our modern world or have to be consigned to the distant, unwoke past.”

An equal appreciation has been felt towards Charlotte York, but not as we know her from the show. York, traditionally the WASP-y, Republican, marriage-driven type, has been given a second chance in the form of a meme. #WokeCharlotte has become an Instagram trend that truly embodies modern feminism, rewriting Sex and the City’s problematic past. As lovable and quirky as Carrie tries to be, over the course of six seasons and some dubious movie adaptations, it becomes obvious to any viewer that she has made some fairly immature, uneducated and judgemental statements about everyone else’s sex lives. Her words are now immortalised in suitably millennial fashion by pop culture account @everyoutfitonsatc, whose creators, the very same pair who wrote We Should All Be Mirandas, have created and embraced the #WokeCharlotte way of life wholeheartedly. Among the millions of memes and internet jokes, #WokeCharlotte stands out; it helps us defy nostalgia and decide whether old shows can be universally beloved in our modern world, or have to be consigned to the distant, un-woke past. The basic format challenges what has been said on the show, corrects the other characters, and provides fans with a feeling of hope and assurance. It is genius. 

At the same time, one has to remain sceptical as well as realistic. Sex and the City was never intended to be about girl power. It was a show about normal women embracing their sexuality in different ways and living their normal lives as best as they could. Though I am fully aware that no normal person can afford Carrie Bradshaw‘s closet after all, Miranda estimated that she splurged around $40,000 on shoes alone this is the form of fantasy Sex and the City provides for its audience. With episodes with names like Are We Sluts?, it is clear from the outset that Sex and the City was never meant to be the messiah of third-wave feminism, although it did clear a path for more sex positivity on an international scale. However, it is unfortunate that the ambassadors for this positivity were four white, affluent women. Carrie was a trail-blazer for her time. Talking about abortion, birth control and even female masturbation on television was legendary, but you can’t forget her degrading comments on sex work, like when she claimed she would have to find “hookers” for her gay best friend Stanford Blatch when he was having dating issues. Unfortunately, we’ve come to outgrow her. What was acceptable to say in the 90s would never last a day on Twitter in 2020.

“Sex and the City helped illustrate a dream accessible to anyone.”

At the end of the day, was I happy to find out I shared the same star-sign as Carrie? Yes. Did I try to draw parallels between the men she dated to the relationships I’ve been in? Also yes. Will I always? Maybe. Sex and the City helped illustrate a dream accessible to anyone. Shows like Gossip Girl play audiences the same way; we are gifted with a possible life, a life on the Upper East Side with no financial woes, where cocktail parties are the standard Tuesday night social and Chanel is as common as toilet paper. Is this life achievable? For most of us, no. But isn’t it nice to think that it is? To say you’re such a Carrie or such a Samantha? I used to say to my friends that I couldn’t wait to find Mr. Big, the person to say that I’m “the one”. I didn’t realise that I should be looking for a job in whatever newspaper Carrie was writing for that allowed her to spend $40,000 on shoes alone. And that’s not even counting the constant stream of cosmopolitans. 

Still, I hope that in the long run, I keep learning, that I stay a bit cynical. As it turns out, Miranda was the feminist icon all along and Carrie merely catered to viewers on an exclusively aesthetic level.

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Editor of Sex and Relationships, and a Senior Fresh student of History and Economics.