Most 30-something girls, like me, were brought up on a TV diet of Sex and the City. Those four ladies taught us about love (OK, sex), men, relationships and what it means to be single in modern society.
Or, did they?
Lockdown has given some of us the (somewhat unwanted) gift of time. That’s why I have recently spent some of my non-parenting days rewatching my battered old boxset about Carrie et al as they strut through the New York dating scene.
But I was more than a little shocked on several occasions at its not-so-hidden messages about how women must bag a man to avoid dying alone. There’s a much skewed view of what it means to be single which I don’t think I’ve noticed before.
It screams how these seemingly independent women are desperately searching for their plus one to satisfy something in themselves which cannot be done solo.
All the women who are independent
This series, frequently heralded as revolutionary for breaking boundaries back in the late 90’s, has not aged well. Instead of coming across as a universal celebration of singledom, there’s a thinly veiled moralistic tale about avoiding spinsterhood at all ridiculous costs.
The Atlantic City episode in series 5 is a prime example of this. They laugh/laugh-cry over Charlotte’s ‘old maid’ status as she marks her 36th birthday (I am skipping over how I am currently in my 38th year of humaning and therefore ouch.) The poor girl, who is in recovery from her failed marriage and trying to have the children she longs for, is portrayed as a stick in the mud. Well, that’s until she dons a teeny dress and wants to chat to boys in a bar again.
Even the sexually liberated Samantha seems to be searching for more than she lets on (OK, she redresses this balance in the ‘I love you but I love me more’ scene with Smith in the first film but still). There’s frequent moments where we get a glimpse into the real Samantha who apparently has deep issues with intimacy. The Richard Wright storyline is central to this as is many little moments with (hot af) Smith. Remember when she can’t hold his hand in the street so she falls into basement storage instead?
Also, let’s not skim over how she ditches her girl gang on almost every night out when a man catches her eye. Talk about girl code. I am not saying that there’s anything wrong with a girl being sexually liberated (in fact, my friends at uni often called me the Samantha of the group … read what you like into that …) But, in an era where mental health is getting the attention it deserves, we have to question Samantha’s motives a little on whether they go further than just saving money on batteries.
As a single parent, I also watched the Miranda storyline with renewed interest. It’s refreshing to see her lack of over-sentimentality throughout her pregnancy. Not everyone gushes over tiny socks whilst being cranky, sleep deprived and scared of getting a tiny human out of their body.
There is a token nod to the difficulty of co-parenting and sorting out schedules which I acutely felt. Yet, with Miranda’s double duo of hired help, even these landmines are avoided. She threw some cash at the problem to make it on that Atlantic City trip. That’s not something many of us would be able to do in such a situation.
Although we all rooted for Steve (probably even after his behaviour in the first film), the final ever episode shows the Brady’s living the suburban dream. This screams conformity. It bucks against the freedom of the family structure which Miranda seemed to naturally embrace only a short time prior.
I’ll also just leave here the casual comment Carrie makes that the Catholic Church Brady gets baptized in is as ‘desperate as a 36-year-old single woman.’ Yep. Ouch. Is that what it means to be single? Desperate? I bloody hope not or we’re doomed.
You got the love
Of course, the series isn’t without its unforgettable salutes to female friendship. This is just one of the reasons why I, and so many of us, will never stop loving the show despite its flaws.
We all know the infamous soulmate speech which Charlotte gives: “Maybe we can be each other’s soulmates and then men can just be these great nice guys to have fun with.”
Also, (most of) Carrie’s final words to Aleksandr Petrovsky about her search for love will always resonate with me: “I’m someone who is looking for love. Real love. Ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, can’t-live-without-each-other love.”
Yes, I am acutely aware that I am incredibly lucky to not be looking for love anymore but that doesn’t mean these words aren’t just as positively loaded as they used to be.
It’s scenes like this these which mean that, even though the lessons on dating and men are severely dated, I will never ditch the box set. My best friend and I will also never stop sending clips or quoting it to each other whenever relevant and appropriate (which is a lot).
Modern day single life
That free time afforded by furlough has also given me the opportunity to read the amazing ‘The Unexpected Joy of Bring Single’ by Catherine Gray. This book is a reflective look at Catherine’s dating history to draw some amazing and incredibly liberating conclusions about what it means to be single.
It welcomes fresh thinking on how single life doesn’t have to be a life of one for sorrow. Instead, it grabs all the negative single clichés by the balls and reclaims them to assert that a relationship with someone else shouldn’t be at the expense of the relationship with yourself. This could be a marriage, a relationship which didn’t end well or the many non-starter relationships which end with being left on read. It takes terms which are often trashed in the mainstream – spinster, old maid, table for one – and positions them as markers of personal success rather than failure.
One plus plus equals two
I love the book’s overarching assertion that just because you find someone to Netflix and chill with doesn’t mean that you should lose your sense of self and what is important to you as a single human being in any sense of the word. This is where the book intentionally or otherwise gives some great advice to not-so-single people too.
When I first became single again in 2017, I was, metaphorically speaking, fucked. I hadn’t been single for longer than a few weeks since 2004. So, it all came as quite the scary shock. Although my marriage to TJ’s dad had been a sack of shit for a long time, I had carried an identity as part of a couple, a wife, as a partner. Standing on my own two feet – as a single parent and a solo girl – floored me more than once. Somewhat embarrassingly, I made no secret of my quest to change that single status, either. My dating (ahem) prowess was a poor performance to say the least. Why? I wasn’t ready. I probably dripped desperation from every pore – no wonder so many men went running (some literally).
I wish that book had been in my life back then. I think that it would have changed a lot of my negative thought patterns into the more positive ones about what it means to be single. It would definitely have cut back on how much time I spent wishing my phone would bleep with a message from whatever piece of crap guy I was obsessing over that week.
Instead, this book has now helped to confirm my blueprint of how I want my relationships to look, feel and be like both now and in the future. Never again will I forget the importance of me. I will never again put myself and my own needs at the bottom of the list. Never again shall I not assert what I am thinking and feeling for fear of rocking the boat. I will never deprive myself of the time and space I need to breathe on my own and then feel trapped because of it. That isn’t at the expense of the man whose hand I hold. In fact, it’s to his benefit. We’re on the same page about it actually after he devoured the book too.
Single and fabulous!
So what does it mean to be single? For me, being in a relationship doesn’t mean relying on another person 24/7 to give you everything. It’s about enjoying the additions which they can bring to your life. Also, it’s about being comforted by how your life is or can be pretty full of good stuff without them too. Being with someone doesn’t mean that you’re not enough or complete on your own – no matter what sickening terminology like ‘other half’ and ‘better half’ may foolishly make people think.
So, like one of the few pieces of wisdom from Charlotte which I agree with, men can be welcome additions to an already happy life instead of being an essential aspect for us to be ‘whole’.
In that case, single and fabulous it is. Much of that fabulousness can easily migrate into a not-so-single life too. A partner can enrich our lives just as our friends and family do. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stand on our own two feet, either. As Catherine Gray says, you don’t need a penis to put up a picture. That works for me – both literally and metaphorically speaking.