In the late 90s, HBO started becoming perceived as less of simply a cable video store as it started producing more of its own original content. Some of Hollywood’s talented younger writers, directors, and producers saw in the premium channel less restriction from Standards and Practices censorship and more creative license for their product. Consequently, HBO started producing edgy, highly acclaimed original series such as The Sopranos, Oz, and a critical darling targeted at young women called Sex and the City.
Of the shows that I’ve written about thus far, I’ll freely admit that Sex and the City is the one which I’ve seen the least and know the least about. But I’ve seen enough, read enough, and talked to enough young women to understand its societal impact.
In many ways, SATC was considered a knockoff of an earlier network sitcom called The Golden Girls, which was only able to get away with half of its content because people considered little old ladies talking about sex as cute, quirky, and harmless enough.
The show follows a New York City writer named Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie is also the show’s narrator and every episode is structured around an article she happens to be writing that week for a relationship column in a New York newspaper.
While in the 80s a weekly show like Sex and the City, starring mostly women, addressing the content matter that it did, would have most likely been considered nearly unconscionable by the collective American public. But by the late 90s, it was met with great critical and consumer fanfare. In its six season span, the show collected 54 Emmy nominations, 24 Golden Globe nominations, and 11 Screen Actors Guild nominations.
And finally, it’s easy to denounce the overtly lewd and immoral content of the show. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting such criticism of the show is unwarranted. It unquestionably is. But I will say this…..Sex and the City is yet another painful reminder that Hollywood beat us to the punch on an important issue and our Christian inactivity allowed shows like SATC to be the first to shape young minds (including many Christian young minds) about human sexuality. In other words, the Christian Church, by and large, shied away from openly and honestly addressing the delicate issue of sexuality for years and years and years. And while there is such a thing as an inappropriate fascination with the topic, its preposterous to have young people learning about sex primarily from locker rooms, or the internet, or premium cable TV, especially when you consider how much it’s on the minds of sexually maturing human beings.
GOD is the one who created humans to be sexual beings. Yes, God invented sex! God even inspired nearly an entire book of the Bible to be recorded about it – you know that one that remains virtually unstudied in most Bibles – Song of Songs? If we as Christian leaders and parents don’t have the courage to address difficult topics with young people who are naturally going to be curious, they’re eventually going to be instructed by someone (or some show) that shapes their understanding of what exactly is sexually “normal” and “healthy.”
What was “magical” about the show?
Even apart from the risqué content of the show, from what I’ve seen, I found the show virtually unwatchable because of the main character’s notorious overuse of “puns” – the lowest, most groan-inducing form of humor I can imagine. The show is littered with them. My personal preferences notwithstanding, the show was, and continues to be, enormously influential.
To get a feel for how much impact the show actually had, particularly on young women, just consider this list. These are all items that were maybe around prior to SATC, but were, for the most part, considered social “norms” by the end of the show. I’m not saying each was directly caused by SATC influence, but the show certainly presented all of these as viable, fairly common, trendy options.
1) Extravagance in fashion, especially shoes – the fashion of SATC is the aspect of the show that actually garnered the most awards. The show spawned fashion lines and is the reason that many young women wear unthinkably high-priced shoes to proms and weddings called Manolo Blahnik’s.
2) Having a gay best friend – Several of the characters on SATC have close gay friends in addition to their network of four girl friends. Again, I’m definitely not suggesting that people didn’t have gay friends prior to SATC, nor am I suggesting that most friendships with homosexual men are disingenuous. That’s ridiculous. But, if we’re honest, these types of friendships did become trendy, almost as a way to publicly express how open-minded and culturally diverse you were. Furthermore, if I was gay, I’d be a little offended and skeptical of some young women who were potentially using me as a fashionable accessory, sort of like how very wealthy and famous people are often, at times, understandably skeptical when people pursue them in dating relationships.
3) Multiple boyfriends back-and-forth – dating became a nearly all-consuming lifestyle with SATC. Dating multiple people until some public proclamation of “exclusivity” is made is fairly common today. This isn’t necessarily inherently good or bad. I’m just saying, it’s a new normal.
4) Occasional one night stands – promiscuous sexuality is not new to mankind or the American public either. However, fairly or unfairly, for a long time the general public perception was that while male hormones were almost uncontrollable, women needed to play defense. SATC unapologetically said that previous “norm” was passé, that women can/should play offense too. And now we’re seeing a fairly historically unique social phenomenon where both men and women are willing sexual aggressors, and the end result is more offense than an Arena League football game. There is very little stigma in “hook-ups” any more, to such a degree that it is considered normal to have had a few.
5) Women primarily with careers outside the home – yes, lots of women worked and worked outside of their homes prior to the mid 90s. But there are now more women currently in college than men. That’s never happened before. It suggests we have a growing trend of women who are not having kids, women who are not raising their own kids, stay-at-home dads, and women who identify themselves primarily with their profession. That’s historically unique as well.
6) Glamour of Manhattan – SATC was not the first or only influence in the fascination with New York City. But along with shows like Seinfeld and Friends, SATC certainly contributed to the allure. Seeing single people in their 30s and 40s living uninhibited, exciting lives led to an influx of young people moving into the city. This is different from previous eras in NYC history where people moved there because they had to for work, but tried to move out of the city once it was feasible for work and finances.
Okay, so how has it influenced us…spiritually?
1) Gender Distortion
To some degree, I think the gender distortion presented by Sex and the City wasn’t created in a vacuum. I think it was a bit of a reaction to gender distortion that was previously presented in a Leave It To Beaver era. No, Sex and the City doesn’t present God’s intention for Christian young women. However, I don’t think that a different generation’s depiction of an admirable woman was necessarily perfectly biblical either – barefoot in the kitchen, primarily capable of simply having kids, making dinners, and cleaning clothes.
Contrast both of these depictions of women with Proverbs 31. Here, the Bible says that a “wife of noble character” is not only hard to find, but also “worth far more than rubies” (Prov. 31:10). Such a woman is…
- hard-working and responsible – “She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands” (vs. 13); “She sets about her work vigorously” (vs. 17); “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.” (vs. 27)
- ambitious – “She gets up while it is still night” (vs. 15)
- financially savvy – “She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.” (vs. 16); “She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.” (vs. 18)
- possesses a certain amount of physical fitness – “her arms are strong for her tasks” (vs. 17)
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- generous – “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” (vs. 20)
- strong and respectable – “She is clothed with strength and dignity” (vs. 25)
- has a sense of humor – “she can laugh at the days to come.” (vs. 25)
- wise – “She speaks with wisdom” (vs. 26)
And yet, while she has all sorts of great attributes that the world would likely applaud, the greatest thing about her is that she loves her Lord and Savior – “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” (vs. 30)
Okay, so my point is that in a sinful world, almost every cultural depiction of a what a woman “should be” is going to be a little different from the Bible’s picture of godly femininity. Sex and the City presented the ideal image of woman as strong-minded, independent, ambitious, and highly sexual. Previous eras of TV presented the ideal image of a woman as passive, quiet, respectful, and virtuously pure. Isn’t it possible that the Bible might present something different, but better? Isn’t it possible that the ideal woman could be presented as both sexual AND pure, respectful AND ambitious, strong AND complementary? In short, the Bible says “Yes. Such is a woman who fears the Lord.”
Sinful hearts are inclined to make good traits into ultimate traits. Accordingly, an ideal goal for a woman should not be to be “strong” or it will compromise another good trait. Rather, if her goal is to be “godly,” she’ll get “strong” thrown in.
2) Overt Female Sexuality
There is absolutely no mistaking how far the “normal” for female sexuality that is presented in Sex and the City is from God’s design. One of my favorite biblical warnings about human sexuality is what the Apostle Paul says to the Ephesians, “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality.” (Eph. 5:3) What was once “hinted at” on TV, SATC went ahead and told the whole secret.
When Paul writes to the Romans, he mentions the commonness of departure from God’s design for human sexuality amongst females as a benchmark for how far a society has fallen from God – “Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.” (vs. Rom. 1:26) For one reason or another, historically, women have generally been more virtuous in the arena of sexuality. When the morals of females go downhill, a society’s hope for sexuality as God designed is all but gone. In SATC, the women give away what previous generations would have paid money for, but now it’s considered being “sexually liberated.” It’s not hard to imagine what long-term implications there might be if this becomes the average woman.
It may sound like I’m being unfair in finger-pointing here at women. I certainly don’t blame all women, or only blame women, or even primarily blame women for the broken sexuality of the 21st century. To be perfectly honest, I primarily blame us men. A recent survey I was reading of 29,000 people at North American universities suggested that 51% of men and 16% of women spend up to five hours per week online for sexual purposes, and another 11% of men spend anywhere from five to 20 hours per week. And this information should be processed while understanding that statistics on sexual behavior that might have a social stigma are notoriously underreported.
You see, for many men, the advent of pornography that is easily accessible, affordable, and anonymous, has, as Naomi Wolf in New York Magazine put it, turned “real naked women” into “just bad porn.” Culturally, one unfortunate end result of this is that it has suggested to many young women that they need to some how keep up with pornography if they are ever going to find real intimacy with a man who can more easily get his sexual fix elsewhere. And some women, the Sex and the City girls included, have taken the “may as well join them” attitude about sex.
But there is hope. As C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory”:
“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased….Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness.”
NET takeaway: Socially, our current understanding of human sexuality is a fairly strange and heart-breaking place. But there is One who not only promises satisfying intimacy, but himself designed it, and is willing to guide us in it if we let him.