I started watching Sex and the City when my childhood best friend, Emily, came to visit. She arrived in the last breath of September, the end of the beginning of our senior year, on her first trip to the East Coast. In the daytime we walked the jagged brick and cobblestone, gossiped over glasses of tea and champagne, and watched the autumn leaves float down around us. That Friday night, while the rain fell outside, we flicked on the pilot episode of Sex and the City in the pint-sized living room of my Georgetown townhouse.
I was only half-watching. It was Emily’s choice, not something I would’ve watched on my own. But by the end, I was invested in the brilliant, witty, and wonderfully messy women figuring out love and friendship in Manhattan.
Sex and the City follows four friends living in late-1990s New York. Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), our narrator, is a 30-something newspaper columnist who writes about sex, love, and relationships. Her three best friends are the redhead Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), a no-fuss lawyer with a sardonic edge; the blonde Samantha (Kim Cattrall), a femme fatale who values sex but disdains romance; and the brunette Charlotte (Kristen Davis), a hopeless romantic who, despite her naivete, sometimes imparts the greatest wisdom of all. Carrie frames each episode with a particular theme (e.g., threesomes, kinks, dating younger men, dating older men) as the women navigate New York’s dating scene. The show is beautiful to look at: The four friends move through the vibrant streets of Manhattan in unrealistically high but admittedly tasteful heels, decked in designer outfits that rival Emily in Paris in imagination.
The most striking aspect of Sex and the City, however, is how accurately it captures relationships. The toxic men of the 1990s are the same toxic men of the 2020s: men with commitment issues, men that can’t take a hint, men that ask for too much too soon. In 2023 we call these red flags and categorize the men as male manipulators, pick-me’s, players—labels that didn’t exist for Carrie and her friends in 1996. They navigated New York hookup culture in its adolescence, asking how well we really know the people we sleep with, and two and half decades later, I was asking the same thing.
Some aspects of the show haven’t aged well. Its handling of interracial dating, body image, and queer relationships leaves much to be desired. Many of these issues revive old, essentializing tropes that would make a modern viewer cringe: Carrie and Charlotte each have stereotypical “gay best friends,” and Samantha and Miranda each have an arc with a Black love interest that rehashes racist tropes about Black aggression. The women are haunted by traditional anxieties associated with white femininity, like the fears of ending up alone, of growing old and ugly and therefore worthless. But in spite of this, the show’s core depictions of female friendship are what anchor it.
A few weeks after Emily’s visit, my roommate Lea asked me who I thought she was most like on the show. This question has captivated generations of viewers: Are you a Miranda, a Samantha, a Charlotte, or a Carrie? For the women I knew in real life, though, I could only come up with half-answers. Lea had Miranda’s tenacity, Charlotte’s persistent optimism, and Carrie’s wit and charm. She wasn’t a perfect match for any of them. But by observing the fictional women onscreen I could better appreciate the things I loved most about Lea and the parts of our friendship I was most grateful for.
There’s something reassuring in seeing Carrie and her 30-something friends lead lush, exciting lives in the city. It’s what I need to see now at 22 to understand that the end of college is not the end of youth. Last fall when Emily visited, I’d begun to feel my age as I never had before—the rooms I used to frequent filled with more unfamiliar faces, time at Georgetown slipping away like sand through the space between fingers. The end of college started to feel like the beginning of real life, which was terrifying. But in seeing the disordered swirl of city life onscreen, I started to believe there was beauty in all that future unknown.
It’s said that college is the biggest dating pool you’ll ever have in your life. But if you’re like me and you haven’t had a serious relationship in college at all, it can feel like you’re running out of time. Watching Sex and the City as a college senior, I saw women over 10 years older than me still fumbling through romance and dating. They don’t have relationships figured out, and that’s okay. They’re still complex, successful, and beloved. Over six seasons and two movies, they learn that it isn’t about finding the right partner so much as it is about finding the right friends.
I saw Emily last week. We spent Easter together in Arizona, where she lives now. Over the holiday we threw a dinner party, swam in a waterfall, sang Taylor Swift songs down the speedway in the 90-degree heat. One night, sitting by the fire pit under the Tucson stars, we talked about our old friends, our last ill-fated situationships, what life next year might look like for each of us. She asked me if there were any new men (“boys,” actually) in my life, and then she asked me what episode of Sex and the City I was on.
The truth: I was watching the last season slowly. I was trying to make it last as long as possible. Over the last few years, my friendship with Emily has existed mostly in these short conversations over text and FaceTime and in the memes and TikToks we send back and forth. Watching the same shows, reading the same books—it’s our way of saying I see you, and I know you’ll understand this the way I do. In the media that connect us, in the space of a question about Sex and the City, we are saying I’m here, I miss you, and I remember this about you. So maybe it’s true—the real, enduring magic of Sex and the City is the friends we make along the way.