Sex and the City found me as a high-school virgin, and I clung to it like a staticky skirt on tights. It was my escape hatch through college (and slimy Penn State frat boys), postgraduation (and early New York flings), and, finally, my most important firsts (my first serious boyfriend, my first meeting the parents, my first intense heartbreak) — and then more relationships, better sex, and more disappointment.
Today when I think of SATC, I think of season three. Carrie, then 34, meets Aidan, falls in love, and has her affair with Big. Miranda and Steve move in together, then break up the night before she makes partner. Charlotte marries Trey, kisses the gardener (!), and they separate. Samantha sleeps with an FDNY firefighter, with Viagra, with another very clingy Sam Jones, and with an Irishman, among others.
As a single woman living in New York City, I turned 34 in October, and yes, SATC was indeed the first and only television show that exposed me to the kind of glamorous, exciting life I could (and did) make here — one filled with book parties for best-selling authors, hairstylists who give good layers, and exquisitely mixed cocktails.
Thing is, I was told I wouldn’t be doing it alone.
Early-aughts pop culture artifacts like SATC (see also: Friends, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Bridget Jones’s Diary), which helped shape millennial women’s expectations and understanding of adulthood, are comforting because they follow a formula: bad dates, brunch, and repeat until you get a happily ever after surrounded by best friends. I realized I’ve been so focused on chasing new firsts and the sort of relationship milestones I’ve been taught to expect before settling down that I forgot to prepare for the acute loneliness that comes from being the only single person among my friends. (Here is where I say I love my married friends and my friends in serious relationships, and I really mean that. I do not want them to be single for me; they’ve found partners that make them happy, and that’s all we want for one another.)
SATC overlooked one part of cishet female friendship that happens when one friend is married and the other isn’t: The married friend stops talking about sex (exception: when trying to have a baby). In fact, they share a lot less about their relationship entirely. So, in turn, I feel silly sharing news of my first dates with them, as if I’m putting myself on display even when I’m ready to gush about something promising.
It sometimes feels like being the only naked person in the room.
Recently, a married friend told me she was “not worried” about me finding my person because — well, I forget her reason, but I sure do remember the “not worried” part. “Does this mean she does worry about single people,” I later asked my therapist, “and might think less of me because of it?” My therapist has been working with me on “cognitive distortions,” or habitual ways of thinking that are inaccurate and negatively biased. “You wouldn’t be so sensitive to what this friend was saying if, on some level, you weren’t already thinking these things about yourself,” she said. That friend wasn’t judging anyone but, rather, responding to the fact that I had just told her I’m ready for a new relationship. It stung only because it implied that I would find it on my own.
SATC wanted to make single women in their 30s feel more seen and less alone. But that’s the point. Many single women in their 30s, even today, do feel left behind. Most of our friends are married and have children. We see one another less. We have fewer meandering, intimate conversations over brunch. The idea of four friends who stay both single and tightly bound well into their 30s feels almost as extravagant to me as the show’s iconic clothing budget.
I couldn’t know this watching the show in my formative years. Now that I am the characters’ age, I can see clearly what a superficial construct it is. But did SATC really fail us single women? No, because it did get this right: Friendship can, and often does, transcend relationship status. My friends, whether or not they were with someone, have slept over when I’ve had too much to drink and lent me their apartments after bad breakups and surprised me with random immersion blenders from Target they thought I would like. Just as I will always be there for them.
Recently, I was on a second date with someone and was facing a table of eight friends, all young women seemingly from all walks of life. Throughout the night, traces of their conversation made their way to me. It sounded as though they were mostly single and were definitely commiserating about meeting decent men in New York. A waitress came by with a trayful of prosecco as seven women sang “Happy Birthday” to their friend.
It occurred to me then that while those early-aughts pop-culture artifacts might have ultimately left me feeling alone, real life is there to remind me that I’m not.