In 2001, Sex and the Cityaired its fourth season, and Jennifer Keishin Armstrong moved to New York City. And while she did abandon the suburbs of Chicago becauseof Sex and the City—did not, upon arriving in the city in her late 20s, break off her engagement to her college boyfriend and start a whole new life because of a half-hour HBO comedy—the show was both a comfort and an inspiration.
“It really helped ease the transition for me and made it less scary,” she says—when we speak, by phone, she is rewatching the series yet again for a magazine assignment (I have caught her in the middle of Season 2, Episode 11, only four and a half seasons to go). “It really became a guide to everything in New York City,” she recalls. It was a road map when she needed one, suggesting not just where she could go, but how she could be. The show’s main characters convinced a 28-year-old Armstrong, who was then working as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly, that life as an independent woman in New York City was not only desirable, but possible. “It’s so much easier and less scary to pursue something when you see it in front of you first,” she says. “And that was what they were doing for me.”
She was hardly alone. “Sex and the City changed lives across the gender spectrum, across the sexual orientation spectrum, and around the world,” she writes in the introduction to Sex and the City and Us, which documents both the creation of the show and its monumental impact, which stretches to the present. There is a generation of people—generations, plural, of people—who know what a Manolo is because of Carrie Bradshaw. The show “reshaped the cultural perception of single women, sex, dating, and marriage,” Armstrong writes; it “foisted brunch upon an unsuspecting nation.” More than that, Sex and the City radically “demonstrated that life-changing love comes in forms besides heterosexual marriage and nuclear family; it showed single people that friends could be at least as supportive as family, at least as important as a spouse.” Also, it was funny. It was not a perfect show, especially around its treatment of race and class, but it was radical: “It was a show about women telling their stories,” Armstrong says.
As a historian of television, Armstrong has written about cultural phenomenona before. Her first book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, chronicled the making of the quiet revolution that was TheMary Tyler Moore Show.With Seinfeldia, she became the leading scholar of the show about nothing. She writes about shows, she explains, that “affected people’s actual lives,” because “who cares, otherwise?” Lots of shows create a fake world; she wants to talk about the shows the bleed into the real one.
But while Mary Tyler Mooreand Seinfeldwere important to her, Sex and the Citywas and is special. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a personal connection to a show,” says Armstrong. She’d had a real emotional connection with Mary Tyler Moore, but “I was four when I watched that originally.” She’d felt a deep affinity for Seinfeldbut not a spiritual bond. Sex and the City, though, was different: It tracked her own experience. She too was an adult woman figuring out who she was and who she wanted to be in New York.
So, for Armstrong, the book “feels like a memoir, even though it isn’t.” After the introduction, in fact, she never returns to her own Sex and the Cityexperience. Except for those few pages, the book is heavily-reported television history. But “even the parts where I’m writing just about the show would often still feel emotional for me,” she says. Revisiting episodes meant revisiting, in great detail, what had been happening in her own life when she’d seen them first.
The day after the finale, in which Carrie reunites with her serieslong on-again, off-again boyfriend Mr. Big, Armstrong remembers getting into a loaded argument about that ending. And here is the amazing thing about Sex and the City: Fourteen years later, people are still fighting about that ending. It was a show about who to be and how to live. We still haven’t decided.
Rachel Sugar is a writer living in New York.