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Book Review: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s 'Sex and the City and Us'

Aug. 20, 2018
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“I left my fiancé for Sex and the City,” begins Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in the introduction to her new book, Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love. It’s an opening that’s at once clever and over-the-top, reminiscent of something that Carrie Bradshaw herself might write.  

Armstrong moved to the New York City area with her college boyfriend—aka “Mr. College”—in 2001, quickly landing her first magazine job as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly. The two were engaged shortly thereafter, but Armstrong felt uneasy about the impending union.    

Just across the Hudson from their shared condo in Edgewater, New Jersey lay the island of Manhattan—home to the fictional Bradshaw and her three fellow singletons, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte. Armstrong had followed the girls’ adventures since Sex and the City premiered in the summer of 1998 on HBO. The show, as she puts it, was her “oracle.” It depicted “women in their thirties living carefree, successful lives without husbands or children”—a lifestyle that Armstrong, then in her late 20s, was seemingly saying goodbye to before ever getting to experience. It couldn’t have helped that the show was currently airing its fourth season, in which Carrie navigates her own crumbling engagement to fiancé Aidan. Eventually, Armstrong and Mr. College parted ways, and she continued to work at EW in Manhattan for the next decade.  

Sex and the City and Us is Armstrong’s third book, and timed to coincide with the show’s 20th anniversary. Her fandom of the series and relative proximity to its world make her adept at chronicling its evolution from an uber-popular New York Observer column to “a book, a show, a pop culture phenomenon, a lifestyle, an economy, a commercial for the shiny New York, and a love letter to post-9/11 New York.” In the end, the book functions as a sort of Sex and the City handbook, without any of the dullness implicit in that characterization.

Armstrong’s book is written smoothly and accessibly, though perhaps best enjoyed by die-hard fans of the show. Blending its production history with her own criticism, she contextualizes some of its most iconic episodes, plotlines, and even outfits, along with many of the behind-the-scenes conversations surrounding them. Even the show’s biggest fanatics are likely to learn something new—in my case, that the character of Mr. Big was loosely based on magazine executive Ron Galotti, and that the 2009 film He’s Just Not That into You (along with the 2004 self-help book it was based on) was inspired by one of Jack Berger’s lines of dialogue in the show’s sixth season.    

Commendably, Sex and the City and Us pays some much-deserved attention to the writers and producers whose incessant creativity made the show what it was. Working in the show’s writers’ room was reportedly much like attending regular group therapy sessions, since writers mined their own bad dates and personal travails for storylines. In the book, the show’s crew is paid just as much attention as its cast; they’re made out to be Sex and the City characters of their own. 

Despite Armstrong’s obvious love for the show, however, she resists the urge to fangirl unconditionally. Much has been written by critics in the last two decades about Sex and the City's racial homogeneity and often poor representations of certain marginalized groups. Armstrong has been careful to cite many of these critics in her book, always giving credit where it’s due before adding her own two cents. 

She also reminds us that the show was as much about the city as it was the sex. Like Friends or Seinfeld, Sex and the City is set in the Big Apple, but was the only show of the three to be filmed on-location and not on a Hollywood lot. The places visited in the series by Carrie and her friends—among them Magnolia Bakery, where Carrie and Miranda have cupcakes, and Cafeteria, where most of the show’s brunch scenes were shot—quickly became (and remain) major attractions.

Given that this sense of place was so crucial to the series, the show was also tasked with providing some solace to viewers—and especially New Yorkers—after 9/11. Production on its fourth season had wrapped a week before the attacks, and new episodes weren’t scheduled to air until January. “They had to work with what they already had,” Armstrong writes, “and do what they could to make it feel appropriate to this astonishing shift in national mood.” In the end, the Twin Towers were removed from the show’s opening credits and the scenes in which they appeared, and the new episodes became “a tasteful, subtle tribute to the city in those tender months after a devastating loss.” The last of these episodes especially, entitled “I Heart NY,” takes on increased meaning for me after Armstrong’s thoughtful recounting of its production. 

But as Armstrong writes, “Women and men far beyond New York City took its lessons to heart.” She offers touching examples of young people—women and gay men, in particular—around the country for whom the show served as inspiration, and in some cases, a sort of lifeline. Sex and the City revolutionized the way we talk about women’s sexuality, and especially the way we depict it on-screen. Armstrong points to several series that the show carved a path for, including Lena Dunham’s Girls and Issa Rae’s Insecure. She also discusses how comedies like Broad City have turned the show’s premise on its head, with its “focus on the almost obsessive friendship between two Brooklyn women […] and no glamour at all.”  

Sex and the City and Us demonstrates not only Armstrong’s deep appreciation for the show, but that she’s concerned with the big picture as much as she is the little details. I’ll warn you now that it’s near impossible to resist rewatching all or parts of the series after reading this book. Is it worth your time? Abso-fuckin-lutely.