No more Sex In The City?

7 March 2013

Zoe Strimpel is worried by what our TV shows say about our future….

Times have changed since I was a student here (2001-2004) – the kids these days don’t penny like they used to, the Trailer of Life closes at one and – well, Cindies is still called Cindies. But the one thing that has definitely changed is taste in women’s TV shows.

In particular, the changing of the guard from Sex and the City (SATC) to Girls (a new HBO show about four young women having sex in New York). SATC remains the definitive programme for women my age and above (ish), airing in 1998 when we were 16. It brought untold comfort, amusement and seeming wisdom. It offered an idealised vision of female friendship-as-kinship (how appropriate in a world in which men are uncertain bets); consumption (what a playground New York was, awash in slender martinis and even slenderer women!); and sexual assertiveness (the idea of sex at all with the boys at school, let alone telling them what we liked, as if we knew, was amazing).

But never mind that most of my friends (born in the early 1980s) quote/love/identify with Sex and the City and the characters. Never mind the fact that the programme’s aspirational lifestyle has been monetised into pink-faced consumer orgasm around the world. For unlike Girls, SATC showed four ultimately coherent, intelligent, feeling, adult women with four professions, embodying some form of work ethic (especially Samantha and Miranda) and thus some real engagement with the world – *as women*.

They showed us a form of highly artful, earned consumption, which is a far more real form of empowerment than the thankless blow-jobs performed by the Girls girls.  But most of all, and this is where a door opens wider onto feminism, the programme showed women how to discuss sex and relationships in a whole new way.

Without SATC, the globally-recognised format of women sitting around discussing sex openly and honestly (with or without pink drinks) would simply not exist.

Now the world has gone Girls-coloured – which is to say, a sort of vomitous green. Girls knows about SATC and spits in its face. It does this by taking similar themes- relationships and sex, four female friends, and New York – and making them grungy, realistic and horrible.

The sex they have is horrible (“So can I just stay like this for a little while?” asks Hannah of her quasi-boyfriend in the first episode as he uses her to get off); the apartments they live in are horrible (apart from that of the rich one, played by David Mamet’s daughter); their conversations and neuroses are horrible (sure, they’re realistic for a certain type of overbred New Yorker) and most of all, they themselves are horrible bores.

What’s happened is that a kind of privileged, hipster “realism” has stepped in to replace the old gloss and fun of Sex and the City. The Girls girls are supposedly poor –but can still afford to live without income in New York. The Sex and the City women are lambasted for the hedonistic, pre-bust world of consumption in which their femininity and feminism is so tightly wrapped up – but at least they had to work for what they have. (Even Carrie does not come from a wealthy background, though her definition of “work” has always been suspect).

Sometimes their sex is technically unrealistic, but the issues they discuss are real. They are those faced by countless real grown women, who are dealing with biological clocks, romantic shelf-lives, patriarchal work environments and the desire to find love alongside the desire to be free.

The issues the Girls face are real after a fashion, too – they reflect the meaningless, mechanical, desperate-to-please experience that sex has become for many who have grown up steeped in online porn culture, in a society in which feminism has been confused with the right to pole dance. Yes, in Girls the aridity of the job market facing arts graduates rings true.

Call me horribly outdated, but I know which series, which world, I found and continue to find more uplifting, inspiring and colourful. Drabness has its benefits in social realism. But Girls is just depressing. Depressing for what is says about the state of TV and depressing for what it says about Girls today – who are, after all, tomorrow’s women.