Girls’ four female friends, living in New York City and dealing with their everyday lives, seem to regularly inspire comparison to HBO’s Sex and the City (SATC). But really, beyond the superficial similarities, Girls is NOT the modern day Sex and the City. Another notable, and pretty frustrating, similarity is the absence of any meaningful racial diversity in the casting or story. This is a serious criticism of SATC, and criticism from which one would hope Girls would have learned. The differences between the shows, however, are more pronounced than the similarities.
Girls is an honest look at a whole cast of misfit “young adults” who feel anything but adult, showing the characters at their most honest, and often worst, moments. They’re all still growing up, seemingly ill-equipped for adulthood and struggling to figure out how to function in the real world. Part of why their self-destruction is so appealing is that there is no filter, which also makes many moments on the show pretty hard to bear.
While in SATC, Carrie was the more self-centered friend who tended to make things about her (like sending Aidan to help Miranda when she had thrown out her back in the shower, instead of going to help her herself), in Girls, “self-centered” is the norm. Everyone consistently cuts everyone down, including themselves. Carrie’s unfulfilling relationships always sent her back into the unconditionally-loving arms of her friends. The characters on Girls – Hannah, Shoshannah, Marnie, and Jessa – on the other hand, have nowhere to turn but inward when they’re wanting for affection.
Girls seems to highlight the worst qualities of its characters, but now in Season 3, is choosing to highlight the good qualities of one character, Adam, who has, until this point, seemed the most depraved. At the beginning of Girls, he seemed like he was going to be the boyfriend she looked back on as an adult and was grateful she grew past. Now, he’s the person helping her grow up! That, in comparison to the rest of the main cast, he is shining as the most put-together, mature person on the show is a distinction highlighting the lack of depth of the other characters. In recent episodes, he is providing Hannah with more support than she’s had in prior seasons, though that isn’t saying much. He’s also sort of become her filter for analyzing other people and their actions, in a way he is teaching her to critically engage with the world. It is a scary turn of events given last season he was the selfish boyfriend, with bizarre sexual habits and no regard for what Hannah wanted.
Despite Adam’s transformation, the show’s third season continues to focus on exploring the four friends’ bad qualities. We’re now learning that Marnie’s self-obsession most likely comes from her mother, who Marnie is now living with. Even Shoshannah’s selfish, dark side is coming out a bit more this season, most notably when she casually shared that she wasn’t broken up over her high school friend who died, because their clique “was meant to be a fivesome, not a sixsome”.
Sex and the City
SATC was obviously not “real life” in the way Girls tries to be. In SATC, nobody ever took public transportation, and over the course of 10 years Carrie spent over $40,000 just on shoes, on the salary of a weekly newspaper column. It’s doubtful her weekly column paid enough for rent, her shoe habit, weekly high-end brunch with the girls, and Manhattans in Manhattan for their near-weekly girls nights out, not to mention her takeout habit (since, you know, her oven is really a cupboard for sweaters). In a lot of ways the show was an escape for viewers, broken down into 20 minute voyeuristic views of the glamorous albeit unrealistic lives of these four friends.
Reality Check: my pantry is a shoe-and-accessories-closet…so, maybe sometimes real-life can be that seemingly unrealistic.
What was reality, and was so important to be highlighted in such a megahit show, is the deep friendship and loyalty between the four women of SATC. I may or may not have had this defense of the show scoffed at by many an ex-boyfriend as a weak justification for enjoying a show that on its surface seems to paint women as superficial and obsessed with men and fashion. Despite the constant opposition, I still find the deep, true, unwavering friendships between four women on a blockbuster TV show in an international spotlight to be revolutionary. Beyond their intense loyalty to one another, their honest discussions of sex and women’s sexual pleasure was groundbreaking.
Of course, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha aren’t perfect, they don’t make the best decisions every day, and they have issues. But one beautiful thing that sets Sex and the City apart is how it normalized and elevated friendships strong enough to constitute sisterhood without requiring any biological relations. The women of SATC aren’t “frenemies.” They don’t tear each other down. Instead, they lift each other up in dark moments, finding levity in sadder moments, crying it out when there was no levity to be found, and joyously celebrating the great moments – always together. Miranda regularly told Carrie the honest truth and was reproached by Carrie for doing so. But, when she realized Miranda was right, Carrie was comfortable enough going back to Miranda for support. When Miranda gave Carrie a harsh reality check for moving to Paris with the Russian, who did Carrie call, confused and scared, from Paris but Miranda? And who immediately expressed concern, and asked Carrie to come home? This is only one of the many times Miranda was there for her, sometimes with an “I told you so”, and always with a hug and nonjudgmental support. If Carrie didn’t have friends who loved her enough to tell her like it was, who knows if she would have found reason after so many of those bad decisions?
One thing often overlooked in SATC is how the women didn’t stand for overt disrespect and set boundaries during sexual encounters. They were willing to explore and experiment, but only when they wanted to do so. They regularly expressed outrage at mistreatment – if not in the moment, then at least over brunch with the girls. The examples are numerous, but I’ll pull a few favorites! When Charlotte stands up to Trey’s mother and asserts herself as Trey’s wife. When the politician wants to pee on Carrie, and won’t accept no for an answer, Carrie doesn’t give in, and chooses to end an otherwise promising relationship. When Carrie gets dumped on a post-it note because the guy couldn’t handle her independent success – and he is endlessly mocked as she comes to terms with his cowardice.After Samantha ran up multiple flights of stairs out of paranoia that Richard was cheating again, Samantha asserts her worth and self-respect, deciding that having that much doubt meant she deserved better: “I love you, Richard. But I love me more.” The women on SATC all have inner strength that dictates clear boundaries, and the strength of three unwavering friendships to help them maintain those boundaries and their practiced self-respect.
GIRLS vs. SATC
Perhaps the most important distinction between the two shows, and a way that SATC can be an informative counterpoint, is what the leading ladies in Girls are missing by comparison. The women in Girls allow so many moments of disrespect and degradation to go unchallenged that I struggle through the episodes. Some examples: Hannah puts up with Adam, who has a lot of problems with being respectful toward Hannah in the first two seasons. Marney keeps chasing a guy with whom her relationship is unfulfilling, but who is completely in love with her, because she doesn’t want to be alone. Adam really crosses the line during a sexual encounter with Natalia, completely disregarding her body language and verbal cues, and the only consequence he suffers is that she says “I really didn’t like that”.
Maybe it can be chalked up to the age difference, since the women in Girls are in their mid twenties, and the Sex and the City ladies started out in their early 30s, but I think it’s deeper than that. A few shining moments of friendship that stand out in SATC also illustrate the security the women have in themselves and the strength they gain from their friendships. It was difficult to pick only a few moments:
- When Carrie is at risk of losing her apartment when her building “goes Co-Op”, Charlotte gives Carrie her engagement ring for Carrie to use to buy her apartment.
- When Samantha learns she has breast cancer on Miranda’s wedding day, she keeps it in to avoid ruining the wedding – but Miranda of course immediately turns the attention and support to Samantha, even on her wedding day, and the wedding scene ends with the three friends being there for Samantha.
- Lastly, the entire episode about Miranda’s mother’s funeral is such a solid depiction of deep, lasting friendship, mostly in the form of doing the difficult work to overcome personal hurdles in order to be there for a friend.
Another important distinction is that SATC episodes included analysis and criticism. Characters grew, changed by life, softened or hardened by their experiences. SATC also involved constant dissection of the character’s lives, and candid discussion of their sexual encounters. In such stark contrast it almost seems deliberate, the women in Girls haven’t grown, there is little if any dissection of their choices and experiences, and for all the awkward, pleasureless sex, there is little discussion with one another. Without that analysis or supportive conversation, it’s no surprise the characters haven’t seemed to grow. That might partially be because the characters in Girls seem to have have little to no self-love or confidence, which is only compounded when they receive no enduring love or support from their friends. And there isn’t even any unpacking or examining of why that is. Is it their age? Their relative life experiences and own personal baggage? Or are they just in a world where no one cares about anyone, so they only seem self-absorbed to mask that they are too scared to even love themselves? If that’s the case, what life choices led them to this reality? So far in the first half of season three, it is looking like Adam has grown a lot and might be the unlikely measuring stick against which we can begin to examine the complexity and struggles of the other characters.
While Carrie is sometimes considered the “anti-hero” in SATC, all four girls in Girls are anti-heroes. That provides a very different experience for viewers. Both Girls and SATC are supposed to be comedies, but Girls’ brand of humor tugs at the less savory parts of the human experience. The moments at which you tend to laugh out loud in Girls are the moments where you’re just so horrified at what is happening you don’t know how else to react. That shock value style of comedy, especially as it is examining self-absorbed, emotionally confused, and immature young adults that are just out of their league in the adult world, is important criticism on how unaware and self-absorbed people can be. In contrast, SATC highlights the strength women can find in their friendships, and the ability to feel worthy and demand respect, whether you dare to cut your hair short and live in the suburbs, or spend an obscene about of money on designer shoes. The underlying message is that women are beautiful and worthy, that we should value each other and ourselves despite our imperfections, and that we should have the strength to demand at least basic human respect. And that we can all do that, whether we are prudish wealthy elite, proudly sexually promiscuous, aggressive and intimidating, in love with all things fashion, or anything in between. That sort of groundbreaking feminist expression is nowhere to be found in Girls, at least not yet. While Girls is lauded for its gritty look at the less-than-desirable aspects of its characters, and it does have its own important social commentary – it is undeniably in a different league from Sex and the City.