Sex and the City's literary antecedents.

What you're watching.
Feb. 23 2004 6:25 PM

Little Women in the City

Sex and the City's foursome belongs to a tradition of plucky female heroines.

A Big fairy-tale ending for Carrie
A Big fairy-tale ending for Carrie

As a feminist and a pop-culture addict—a paradox, I know—I watched the finale of Sex and the City with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I can appreciate the fairy-tale dreaminess of the Big-to-the-rescue-in-Paris plotline. Chris Noth has been one of my personal pinups since his early tenure on Law & Order, and despite (or, let's face it, because of) Big's habitual mistreatment of Carrie over the show's run, their scenes together crackle with chemistry, warmth, and that rare Sex commodity, non-cringe-inducing banter. (As we know from one of the show's principal cinematic ancestors, the screwball comedy, your true love is always the one with whom you have the best banter.)

For me, the Big vs. Alek battle was no contest (although I do love me some Mikhail Baryshnikov as well). The real question is, why did Carrie have to end up with anyone at all? For the six years of its run, the show's strength has been its clever inversion of Jane Austen's famous opening to Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Sex and the City asked, what about a single woman in possession of a good fortune, Manhattan real estate, and a seemingly unlimited cache of designer clothes? The four female protagonists lived out their six years of singlehood as a continual interrogation of Austen's "universal truth." With the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), none of these women were ever explicitly on a husband hunt. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) wanted fun, no-strings sex; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) wanted chocolate, TiVo, and a boyfriend she could keep at arm's length; and Carrie—well, the show's momentum arose from the universal truth that the dithering, self-obsessed Carrie didn't quite know what she wanted.

Sex and the City's literary antecedents include not only Austen but a whole tradition of young girls' literature, from Little Women to Anne of Green Gables. These books, like the first five seasons of Sex, are about that liminal moment in bourgeois female life when anything is possible, before our choices have narrowed down to binary options: Big or Alek? Pregnancy or adoption? Marriage or singlehood? In the world of the girls' book, wit, pluck, and resourcefulness—the ability to get oneself into and out of as many "scrapes" as possible on the way to the inevitable happy ending—are what set the heroine apart from the drab market of heterosexual commerce that surrounds her and allow young female readers to identify with her. Like us, she doesn't quite know if she wants a Prince Charming, and when she gets one, we're somehow bummed, if only because it means the story is over. Carrie Bradshaw is clearly Sex and the City's Jo March, its tomboy-writer-klutz, and I wanted to see her stomp back to New York alone and become a real writer. (Sure, that once-a-week column may pay well enough to keep her in Oscar De La Renta couture—though God knows mine doesn't—but couldn't she use the intellectual challenge of a novel?)

Unlike the simpering Bridget Jones's Diary or the reactionary Ally McBeal, Sex and the City, for all its normative heterosexuality and shameless product placement, always held female friendship higher than landing Mr. Right. Even on the nights when the voice-over puns were at their most unbearable and Patricia Field's costumes made you want to hide your face in shame (the blazer and no pants in public? the gingham dirndl? the plaid neon tam-o'-shanter?), there was a genuine warmth to the scenes where the four women met in a coffee shop to hash over their weeks. Sex and the City's concern, its raison d'être, has always been to investigate the many varieties of female pleasure, be they sexual, maternal, or sartorial.

A glance at the chat boards makes it clear that viewers are hardly experiencing the girls' fates as penitence for their six seasons in the sun, and I have to agree. Charlotte's got it all: an adoring Jewish husband, an adopted baby on the way, and four King Charles spaniels in Burberry coats. The last time we see Samantha, she's happily astride her Absolut Hunk of a boyfriend, while Miranda is cracking up in her new Brooklyn digs with long-suffering mate Steve (yay, Steve!) and their cute redheaded son (who seems to be growing at the rate of kudzu). And while it might have been sadistic to deny Carrie her own little chunk of happily-ever-after, when the series ended with the caller ID on Carrie's jeweled pink cell phone finally revealing Mr. Big's long-withheld name—it's John, which suits him perfectly—this 37-year-old single girl wished for a moment that our heroine had the gumption to put destiny on hold.

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.