The first time I saw Sex and the City was right before I left home to attend college in New York. I marathon-watched the whole series excitedly, treating it like a rubric for what my future life could be like. Sure, I was skeptical how writing one column a week would afford me an Upper East Side studio and an endless collection of impulse-buy designer shoes. But the idea of an unwavering friendship between four adult women — a bond that lasted through six seasons (and two movies I willfully ignore) — was everything I wanted.
It makes sense that the real-life feud between Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall, the actors playing the iconic BFFs, feels like a betrayal – we loved and believed their friendship. Fans of the show were saddened to learn the truth about what went on behind-the-scenes: according to the New York Post, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon had "sided" with SJP because Kim's scene-stealing presence was a threat to the star of the show. Other sources pointed at Kim Cattrall's demand for a raise as the drama culprit. Either way, the same show that painted female friendship as a curable force for all of life's heartbreaks ended up being the source of over-a-decade's-worth of alleged infighting and exclusion. But everyone who was invested in the series shouldn't be surprised at the public clash, because Sex and the City's brand of female friendship was anything but realistic and attainable.
For one thing, it's pretty near impossible to maintain a group friendship devoid of any hierarchy. On the show the group did so much together: shopping, brunch, baby showers, Hamptons trips, shots at dubiously-named clubs like "Bed." And while they occasionally broke out into pairs for scenes, you never got the sense that one woman valued one friend more than another. But in reality, the Parker/Cattrall "rivalry" (and the other women "taking sides") is actually more realistic than four women on perfectly-equally footing. "It is more common for dyads of two people among a group of friends to 'click' and feel closer to each other than to others in a group," says Dr. Irene S. Levine, psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Case in point: who was really Carrie's BEST friend, out of the three? My personal pick is Miranda, from the one time she got real about how toxic Mr. Big was – possibly the realest "true friend" moment of the entire series. But in Carrie's own narration, she never ranks her best friends — they are simply ALL her best friends.
Of course, it makes sense that the friendships were so egalitarian: the fighting and disagreements were always over by the credits. Samantha sleeping with Charlotte's brother — and Charlotte calling Samantha promiscuous as a result — was neatly and very literally wrapped up via a hand-delivered gift basket at Samantha's door. When Carrie was mad at Charlotte for not funding her apartment down-payment loan, it was resolved by Charlotte giving Carrie her old wedding ring – conveniently, she needed to give it away anyway! In real life, slut-shaming and demanding money from your best friends would probably be a bigger deal, and might even push you to complain to your other friends, blowing it up even more. The anger doesn't just disappear like it does on the show. "It’s hard to get over a hurt immediately," says Dr. Levine. "People generally need time to process what happened and not react impulsively. The closer two friends are, the greater the intensity of the hurt and disappointment." On top of conflicts rarely bleeding into more than one episode, they seldom turned into one woman gossiping to the other two in private, which, come on, everyone does sometimes! Seeing these fictional women deal with interpersonal problems so easily makes overt Instagram callouts and shady tweets from the actors so much more jarring.
But the most fantastical aspect of the series was how unwavering the friend group was throughout so many years. The SATC women were blissfully immune to any real-life commitments derailing their constant plans together. "[They] seemed to have had an extremely strong bond and were able to spend unlimited time with each other — that doesn’t often happen in real life," says Dr. Levine. Their jobs never suddenly got more time-consuming; their long-term relationships never fully devoured their social lives (at least, not for long) — even Miranda moving to Brooklyn with her new family never disrupted their group dinners in SoHo. But time changes everything, and sometimes your friendship does go out of style. It's normal to have one best friend to keep in touch with for the rest of your life, but three? Three friends who never leave the city, or even simply outgrow each other? "Young women watching may compare their friendships to those of the SATC women and feel disappointed or envious," says Dr. Levine. "Not everyone needs to or would be comfortable with a group friendship. Depending on circumstances and personal obligations to work and family, not everyone has the time or opportunity to be part of a group of friends."
Obviously, this was a feel-good show that made walking through Midtown Manhattan in stilettos actually look zen — it never set out to be realistic. The love lives were the central conflicts most of the time; the friendship was the rock that held everything in place, which, in reality, is important. Solid support systems outside of careers and romantic partners are crucial — but they also do not exist in a vacuum. While Sex and the City explored every man problem from commitment issues to religious differences to that guy with the nastiest-tasting spunk Samantha ever swallowed, it never gave us an honest look at some of the messier, unresolved ways women truly interact in their social groups. "No friendship is perfect, even very good friendships," cautions Dr. Levine.
Knowing that Kim Cattrall's filming experience possibly made her feel isolated for all of these years makes me sad, but I'm also relieved that she can finally be blunt about it. Group female relationships are complicated, even when you're not on the rigorous set of a hit TV series. The more people in a friend group, the more you have to navigate conflict more carefully, avoiding bigger blowups by taking sides or even trash-talking. Cattrall being thrust into a narrative of a difficult diva and then being forced to play nice for a third movie with the same people who played into that narrative is antithetical to the genre of female friendship that Sex and the City peddled for decades. Personally, I'm much more empowered by a woman who can say she's grateful for the SATC experience, but enough's enough. These are not her friends. And they don't have to be.
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