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Sex And The City; In Defense Of Bad Journalism


By Malena Cortizo A.

A woman talking about sex? In a newspaper? Every week? In the 90s, it might as well have been a joke. But Peter W. Kaplan, editor of The New York Observer, was deadly serious.

On 20 November 1994, one Candace Bushnell signed the first of many columns called Sex And The City. When Kaplan offered her a space of her own in the Observer, she knew she had to write about her life, her friends and her bad experiences with men. At first, she used her own name, but soon invented Carrie, a "friend of hers" whose anecdotes she transcribed in the column; in reality, she was talking about herself, but she preferred to use a pseudonym so that her parents would not find out that it was her own sex life being aired in the paper on a weekly basis. The other characters also have made-up names: Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, Carrie's friends, and Mr. Big, her love interest.

Sarah Jessica Parker who plays Carrie Bradshaw in the TV show and Candace Bushnell.

"When the TV series Sex And The City began in 1998, it was revolutionary to see single women – single, childless women, mind you – in their 30s, making their way in the world and having active sex lives. Nowadays we wouldn’t blink..." - Candace Bushnell.

The column continued for two years, until 1996. Bushnell's writings became extremely popular, so much so that the same year it ended, an anthology of the best texts was published under the title Sex And The City. This book inspired HBO, who bought the rights in 1998 and introduced one of the most famous journalists in the audiovisual world: Carrie Bradshaw. The series is more theatrical and less cynical than the book, but it covers the same themes that the character recounts in the fictional newspaper, the New York Star. Each episode is structured around Carrie researching her next column, using the testimonies of her friends as sources. Each brings her perspective on sexual experiences and calamities involving men.

Journalism as practiced by Carrie Bradshaw is often referred to as lifestyle journalism. According to Folker Hanusch, Professor of Journalism at the University of Vienna, "it is a distinct field of journalism that addresses the public as consumers, providing them with factual information and advice, often in an entertaining way, about goods and services that they can use in their daily lives".

The famous cast of the series

Hanusch's definition highlights the consumerist aspect of this activity that can be paralleled with what the critic Carl Jensen would call junk food journalism and what David Jiménez refers to as "Sexyjournalism": entertaining and attractive clickbait for which truly important information is sacrificed. "You put your efforts into reporting on the massacres in Syria, the latest disaster in the Spanish economy and that there may be a coup in Pakistan, and it turns out that the most read news item reveals techniques for faking orgasms," Jiménez laments in Jotdown. For many, the content and topics covered in Sex And The City are secondary and even frivolous; they take up space in the paper when there are more pressing things to cover. If Carrie Bradshaw (or Candace Bushnell) were to publish her column today, Communications professors would dismiss it as infotainment: unserious, commercial, lacking in journalistic values. But one can't help but wonder: couldn't lifestyle journalism play a more profound role in society? Is Sex And The City an example of good journalism?

The journalist is seen as a watchdog, a gatekeeper, or a Fourth Estate that defends citizens by keeping an eye on their leaders. Perhaps this definition does not correspond to Sex And The City. In no episode does Carrie run around with the Pentagon Papers.

Folker Hanusch explains that cultural and lifestyle journalism is an under-studied field because of its lower status. Brian McNair, another professor of Communication, defines this professional activity as "an account of the existing world that is appropriated and processed by the journalist to suit the particular requirements of the medium through which it will be disseminated to a section of the public". Journalism can also be a reflection of society as told by the journalists themselves.

In the first episode of the series, Carrie Bradshaw presents herself to Mr. Big as a "sexual anthropologist". Bushnell describes her column as an "unsentimental analysis of relationships" in the preface to her book. According to its authors - the fictional and the real - Sex And The City is closer to a lab report than a personal diary. Bradshaw and Bushnell see themselves as journalists because they dissect the New York society of the time and share their observations with the public.

Bradshaw and Bushnell don't uncover government conspiracies or confront politicians; they expose their own reality. Holding a huge mirror up to Manhattan, they reveal the lives, feelings and concerns of single women in their thirties, something that was considered revolutionary at the time.

However, it is important to remember that they were not the first writers that chose to focus on their immediate surroundings. As Bushnell herself says: "Edith Wharton, Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote about New York society. I may not be in the same league as a writer, but I cover the same territory". So, what sets the Sex And The City columns apart from the many other texts written before them?

In an interview for The Guardian, Bushnell explained that "there have always been single women, and there certainly have always been single women in the big cities. It just wasn’t something that anybody was going to write about". That social reality didn't matter until Sex And The City was published. Bushnell said she had always written from that perspective in women's magazines. Everything changed because of the New York Observer's audience: it was smaller, but more sophisticated and made up of both men and women, which allowed her to reach a different audience than the one she was used to. The diversity and social status of the readership combined with her writing skills allowed Bushnell to achieve something more than just reporting: the New York Observer became her springboard to real change.

In addition to a purely reflective role, the journalism of Sex And The City contributed to a shift in public opinion. In 2020, Candace Bushnell wrote her first column since the last of her famous series was published. For The Daily Telegraph, she recalled early reactions to the column and the show: "When the TV series Sex And The City began in 1998, it was revolutionary to see single women – single, childless women, mind you – in their 30s, making their way in the world and having active sex lives. Nowadays we wouldn’t blink, but back then in 1994, when I first started writing the column, people felt there was something wrong with these women".

The reality of Carrie and her friends no longer seems so out of the ordinary, but at the time, it had not been told. Talking about sex, relationships and marriages in this sphere of society even provoked male reactions: "I had men saying, “You’re ruining things! Now the women are talking. Now my girlfriend’s asking me questions about this and that. Now she wants things!” Believe it or not, there were guys who were really pissed off", Bushnell recounts. Suddenly, the men felt scared and threatened. The journalism of Sex And The City helped change the public's view of these women. The women themselves questioned their role - what they should say and not say, do or not do - and the men had somewhat visceral responses to the changing tide.

According to Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, authors of Reading Sex And The City, the column and the programme paved the way for women's rights, since the discourse finally focused on women. The topics covered are varied: female sexuality and pleasure, love, relationships from a woman's point of view or the fear of growing old. It taught women that there is nothing wrong with being single, that loneliness can even be beneficial, but that negative feelings that accompany celibacy should not be ignored either. All this through articles full of what Bushnell calls "cruel humour". Even though they talk a lot about men, women are central to the texts. As Akass and McCabe point out, few male characters in the series have full names. They are either referred to as Mr. Big, without a name, or are given ridiculous nicknames like The Turtle or The New Yankee. Men characters are just props. Women are honoured.

For Bushnell, therein lies the secret to the success of her work: it contains a universal truth that speaks to all women. Of course, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Sex And The City was written from a privileged point of view: that of white, upper-middle-class New York women. Nevertheless, the column still appeals to a larger whole. "Yet even if the setting can feel very particular, the essential issues Carrie faces as a single woman are universal", writes journalist Hadley Freeman in The Guardian. The column captures a certain essence of what it is like to be a single woman in the 1990s. The show and the column suffer from problematic aspects, but they do not overshadow the importance that they placed on women first and foremost.

Sex And The City has a bad title. Contrary to what it suggests, sex and the city are only the background. What is crucial are the friendships and love between the characters, as well as their experiences and emotions. What Candace Bushnell - or her fictional counterpart - was doing was literally laying herself bare: talking about her sex life in a newspaper is was an act of courage, and that sacrifice did benefit society. After the column and series disseminated Bushnell's analyses and observations, the dialogue was liberated, and it became normalised for women to talk about their lives in that way.

This text is also mistitled: Sex And The City journalism is anything but bad. Lifestyle reporting may not be as crucial to democracy as watchdog journalism, but that doesn't mean it doesn't involve professional dedication and doesn't benefit the community. This kind of journalism is not the stultifying and easily produced rubbish described by Folker Hanusch's contemporaries, as long as the job is done well. Perhaps that is where the emphasis should be placed. Not on the grandeur of the story, the nature of its protagonists or the specificity of its setting, but on the quality of the journalistic work. For if it lives up to Bushnell's writing, lifestyle journalism also has the power to transform society.

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