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I Went to a ‘Sex and the City’ Conference in a Basement
10.01.18

The Cosmopolitans are on sale.

It’s not even 11 in the soupy, gray London morning, but you can get a Cosmo if you’d like one and it will only cost you £6. (About $7.80, give or take.) “This is a safe space for morning drinking,” Nick, the enthusiastic organizer of today’s event – a full-scale, one-day Sex and the City conference – tells us. A pair of women sitting in the front row yelp in excitement.

I’m not going to have a Cosmo. Remember that episode from the second season? The one when Carrie turns up at the New York Magazine photoshoot blisteringly hungover, brandishing a cigarette and mainlining a cup of coffee? The same episode in which a young, alarmingly tanned Bradley Cooper cameos as a twenty-something fuckbro?

Well, that’s how I feel today. I had three plates of pasta and about as many bottles of wine last night and I feel like I’ve been washed, spun and hung up to dry. I can’t imagine a Cosmo would help. I find a seat in the back row of the sprawling basement in Shoreditch where the conference is taking place. The roof is covered with light globes that chime whenever someone upstairs engages in any kind of physical activity or even, given the chiming’s discordant frequency, breathes. I close my eyes and dread removing my sunglasses.

The day’s agenda is simple: immerse yourself in the world of Sex and the City to celebrate its recent 20th anniversary. Hosted by arts group Superculture, the morning comprises six talks from various academics and experts on subjects ranging from the show’s understanding of urban geography and its representation of female friendship to whether or not Miranda Hobbes is the show’s best character. (Yes, unequivocally. Emily, the “Hobbes-head” giving the presentation, also has a particularly spicy take that Steve is the epitome of toxic masculinity and that Miranda could have done much, much better. Don’t @ me, I’m just the messenger.)

The afternoon will be taken up with panels hosted by journalists and commentators. Then, Cosmos in hand, the evening will end with a garrulous quiz, promising to be “the trickiest this side of the Atlantic.” The winner takes all. The exact specification of “all” is unclear, but it probably has something to do with bragging rights and a coupon for more Cosmos.

The morning is for the true fans.

“The morning is for the true fans,” Edwin, a 27-year-old musician and one of the most active users on the r/sexandthecity subreddit tells me. He’s here to give a talk called “Straight and the City,” a deep dive into his passion for the antics of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha as a heterosexual man.

After his talk, Edwin tells me that he’s a mixture of all four main characters, plus Steve. “But we all are, aren’t we?” he muses. I think I have Charlotte’s romantic streak, though as a writer I probably ought to be more of a Carrie. I’m not convinced I have any Steve in me whatsoever. When Nick, our esteemed host, poses the question to the audience, most women in the room self-identify as a Miranda, though there’s one who pledges allegiance with Samantha while everyone else laughs bawdily.

We settle in to watch the pilot episode together. There’s a party atmosphere in the room now, with about 60 or so people gathering around the projector. The Cosmos are flowing. People are cracking jokes about the Woke Charlotte meme and gushing over the @everyoutfitonSATC Instagram account.

“I still get excited when I hear that theme tune!” Edwin says to me, grinning, as the sultry vibraphone kicks in. I don’t know what’s more entertaining: listening to the panelists dissect the gender politics of the first episode – “None of their conversations pass the Bechdel test,” journalist Harriet Hall poses – or Edwin’s sotto voce commentary to me from the back of the room.

“This is dirtbag, man, this is really bad,” he groans when Capote Duncan, the lecherous publishing executive, heads off to find someone to sleep with (Samantha) after Charlotte makes him wait. “Just brilliant,” is his summation of Mr Big’s iconic “Abso-fucking-lutely” line at the end of the episode. He knows this 30 minutes of television like the back of his hand.

Edwin has loved the show for more than a decade, he tells me, after he stumbled upon the episode “Splat” late one night as a 14-year-old boy. Edwin’s friend, who has traveled from Bath to watch him speak today, binge-watched all 94 episodes and two films over the past fortnight in anticipation. When I ask if she enjoyed her first viewing, she shrugs: “It was good.” But she couldn’t help but wonder what it was, exactly, that endeared the show to so many people — many of whom are in this basement drinking £6 Cosmos with us.

Why this show? It’s the question of the day. All the speakers are asked how they came to adore Sex and the City and why they decided to dedicate their professional lives to it, as if pinning down each personal a-ha moment might reveal something deeper about the series.

Edwin is here for the dialogue, the humor, the soundtrack, the big city setting, the everything. I like the clothes, I love the frankness, and I cry every time I watch the final two episodes and see the quartet all together again. I’m here for Sex and the City’s portrayal of female friendship in all its messy, frustrating, alchemic glory. Do I think that I am as obsessed with the show as today’s speakers? Not nearly as much. But can I think of a moment in my adult life before Sex and the City? Impossible.

I’m here for Sex and the City’s portrayal of female friendship in all its messy, frustrating, alchemic glory.

Sex and the City has always been there, like the freckles on my nose and gin & tonics and pap smears. When I was in college, there was an unspoken rule among my friends that at least one of our screens should display an episode from season two through five at any given moment. Sex and the City taught me how to be comfortable on my own and to express my wants and needs and desires. It was the background noise to some of my most formative years.

Brian, a performance artist whose talk explores the similarities between his personal cancer journey and that of Steve’s, has his own reasons. “[Sex and the City] showed us that we are vulnerable,” he muses, when someone asks him where his love of the series came from. Carrie is messy and so are we. He posits that we love her, in spite of — or perhaps, because of — ourselves.

It’s normal to feel nostalgic about a watershed cultural product 20 years after it first became a thing. That’s why this conference exists at all. But in a year of 20-year anniversaries — Will & Grace, Charmed, Felicity and Dawson’s Creek also premiered in 1998 — what’s so special about this one?

Looking around the room at the gaggles of women and the few stray men in attendance, all enamored with the simple pleasure of this television show, I think the answer is more straightforward than we give it credit for. Sex and the City made the stuff of life — frosted cupcakes and new shoes and good sex and Cosmos and waiting for a table — into a perfect, picturesque fantasy that was pure escapism with no judgment.

While it glossed over many of life’s hardships — especially those that plague people of less privilege that its protagonists — it did give a level of agency to its female characters unprecedented in television. It gave those four women the freedom to think and feel and act in accordance with their own beliefs in a way that was inspirational, against a backdrop that was aspirational.

That’s why we cling to it. “There’s something magic about [Sex and the City],” Brian adds, at the end of his presentation. “And I find myself wanting magic more and more these days.”

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer and podcaster living in London.

Feature image via Everett Collection.

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