It is ten years since the final episode of HBO’s hugely popular series, Sex and the City (1998 – 2004) aired. This anniversary is being marked by a conference held at the University of Roehampton next week on the 4th of April, entitled ‘Sex and the City Ten Years On: Landmark Television and its Legacy’, an event that aims to explore the impact of SATC on popular culture and television specifically. As the CFP for this event noted, even though the series ended a decade ago, SATC continues to inspire much debate, both within academia and in the popular press. This interest has increased in recent years since the beginning of another female-led HBO drama, Girls (2012 – continuing), with many identifying parallels (as well as key differences) between the two in relation to their frank sexual depictions and focus on single (at least as the start of the programmes) women living in New York City. Indeed, the New York Times recently featured a joint interview between Cynthia Nixon (Miranda from SATC) and Allison Williams (Marnie from Girls) where the pair discuss the relationship between the two series.
Perhaps one of the most frequently celebrated aspects of SATC was its portrayal of desiring female sexuality. The series’ positioning on HBO, a subscription channel known for its explicit language and portrayals of sex, allowed for particularly frank sexual discussions between the four main female characters as well as relatively explicit depictions of their sex lives.
It was a show in which active, female sexuality, both inside and out-with the confines of monogamous relationships, was frequently celebrated and portrayed as potentially pleasurable. Last year, The CW, a US network known for its teen-oriented programming, launched a prequel to SATC, called The Carrie Diaries, based on Candace Bushnell’s novel of the same name. Set in 1984, The Carrie Diaries focuses on the protagonist of SATC, Carrie Bradshaw (played here by AnnaSophia Robb), at 17 years old, attending high school and living with her father and young sister in the suburbs in Connecticut. In the series, Carrie also enjoys a kind of double-life in Manhattan, where she works for one day a week as an intern at a law firm and, later on in season one, at a hip magazine.
As a teen TV scholar and fan with a particular interest in representations of teenage sexuality, as soon as I heard about the plans for a high-school-set SATC prequel, I was immediately intrigued. It struck me as something of a generic paradox. The teen drama is a genre that is centrally concerned with issues of sex and sexuality as teenage characters gradually mature. Their sexual development is key to marking this transition from childhood to adulthood and programmes often emphasise important developmental stages, such as first kisses, dates, loss of virginity narratives and the formation of monogamous sexual relationships. Indeed, sex is central to the way the CW’s website advertises The Carrie Diaries, stating that ‘the story tells of Bradshaw coming of age in the 1980s, “asking her first questions about love, sex, friendship and family, while exploring the worlds of high school and Manhattan.”’ At first glance, then, the teen series seems like the perfect genre for a SATC prequel. But, at the same time, in the teen series, the liminal teenage stage is portrayed as a particularly vulnerable time and teenage characters’ fallibility and vulnerability, including their vulnerability to sexual pressure, manipulation and abuse, is a recurring and prominent generic theme. This age-related vulnerability stands in sharp contrast with the celebration of adult female independence found in SATC. Furthermore, this vulnerability is often gendered and sexualised in significant ways (Berridge, 2013).
Writing on the representation of teen sexuality in 90s teen drama, My So-Called Life (ABC, 1994 – 5), Michelle Byers argues that each central character’s sexuality is rooted in a gender-appropriate stereotype (1998/2007: 22). According to Byers, the three central female teens assume roles of ‘innocence’ (referring to the protagonist, Angela (Claire Danes), who remains a virgin throughout the series), ‘promiscuity’ (Rayanne (A.J. Langer)) and ‘conformity’ (Sharon (Devon Odessa)) (Pictured below left to right).
The three core male teens occupy the roles of ‘traditional masculinity’, ‘deviance’ and ‘immaturity’. Byers argues that while these sexual roles are constricting for both male and female characters, the male teenagers at least have some potential for mobility. As she notes, in these constructions “the binary positioning of feminine and masculine sexualities is one wherein the feminine is ever the less powerful, the less sexual, the less free to choose, the one with the most to lose” (1998/2007: 22). Male sexuality is portrayed as active, complex and fluid in the series, while “girls can only choose between saying yes and no, knowing that to say no in this text is to forgo agency and to say yes almost always leads to loss” (1998/2007: 22).
Notably, My So-Called Life is, in many ways, an exceptional case. Because the series was cancelled after just one season, the teenagers’ sexual identities are arguably more fixed than in longer-running series. In the programme, Angela never loses her virginity and, thus, remains perpetually ‘innocent’. In other teen drama series, characters are able to transcend the sexual roles initially written for them. However, what is striking from my own research into representations of teenage sexuality across a number of teen series is that the range of roles available to characters remains largely the same as those identified by Byers back in the 1990s. This is true also of The Carrie Diaries. From the series’ pilot, Carrie occupies the ‘innocent’ role, remaining a virgin. Her voiceover that marks the start of each episode reinforces this, stating, ‘before there was sex, before there was the city, there was just me – Carrie’. Her best friends, Mouse (Ellen Wong) and Maggie (Katie Findlay), occupy the roles of ‘conformity’ (assuming an ‘it’s ok if you love him’ approach to sex) and ‘promiscuity’ respectively (Pictured below left to right). When the series begins, Mouse has recently had sex within a monogamous relationship, while Maggie is yet to have sex with her boyfriend, but is secretly having sex with her brother’s older colleague. Notably, both Mouse and Maggie’s sexual experiences result in loss, reinforcing Byers’ argument. Mouse ends up in despair when she discovers that her boyfriend had sex with other people while they were briefly broken up, while Maggie seems to only have sex with her older lover because she feels rejected by her boyfriend (who turns out to be gay later on).
In short, in its first season The Carrie Diaries, in keeping with the teen drama series genre more widely, displays a reluctance to portray active female teenage sexuality as morally good and potentially pleasurable. This reluctance can partially be attributed to the moralising aims of the teen genre, in which programme makers often feel a responsibility to educate young viewers about relevant issues (of adult choosing) (Davis and Dickinson, 2004: 3). And, yet, it is notable that the sole recurring heterosexual male teen in the series is sexually active without experiencing these negative consequences – his sex life is rarely portrayed as much of a story at all.
A comparison between SATC and The Carrie Diaries highlights the powerful ways in which institutional context and genre impact upon representations of gendered sexuality. But, at the same time, I’m aware that to judge The Carrie Diaries on its relationship and, in particular, its fidelity to, SATC is unfair. It is a very different show, on a very different channel and belonging to an entirely different genre, despite involving some of the same writers. And, yet, I find it almost impossible to avoid thinking about SATC when watching The Carrie Diaries, something that has made me reflect more widely on what it means to watch prequels and also remakes of particular shows.
The dramatic excitement of many drama series, and the reason that many viewers return to watch programmes each week, lies in the anticipation of what is going to happen next. In teen series, this is often tied to over-arching narratives about heteronormative romantic relationships (i.e. Will Joey end up with Dawson or Pacey? Will Veronica end up with Logan?) In contrast, my engagement with The Carrie Diaries feels more akin to my engagement with a soap opera, a genre often known for its repetition and predictability. The fact that I feel that I know who Carrie ends up with, where she ends up living, what her job is, who her friends are means that I’m not so interested in what is going to happen in the show, but rather how and when it will happen. I’m most interested to see how Carrie’s loss of virginity narrative, which occurs in the second season, is handled, although I am yet to watch this. This difficulty of unpicking the two series and seeing them as separate entities emphasises the potential of long-form narrative structures (such as SATC, which ran for 6 seasons) to offer particularly detailed characterisation and, in turn, intense forms of viewer identification, identification that makes it hard not to project certain expectations, however unfair, onto The Carrie Diaries.
Susan Berridge is a Teaching Fellow, Research Assistant and member of the Centre for Gender & Feminist Studies at Stirling University. She also teaches Television Studies at Glasgow University and is the co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.