Why You're More Inclined To Call Yourself A "Charlotte" Than A "Marnie" Shows How 'Sex And The City' Gave Way To 'Girls'
By the time that Sex and the City came to an end in 2004, the entire TV-watching population had already considered if they were a Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, or Charlotte — regardless if they had ever seen the show or not. With Girls — that other HBO series about four female characters living in New York — ending on April 16, the Girls series finale is bringing me back to when Sex and the City ended, but also to the inevitable comparisons that have persisted and desisted between these two shows over the years. Even before Lena Dunham's TV series premiered, it was being compared to its predecessor Sex and the City, something that Dunham embraced by having Shoshanna assess which Sex and the City characters Jessa and she were in the very first episode. But as the years have passed, people have been less inclined to state which Girls character they are like they had previously done with Sex and the City. And it turns out, the reasons for that are more complicated than you'd think.
When Sex and the City was on the air — and in the years after — which character you thought you identified with was almost as telling as which character you named. For example, if you said you were Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw, I'd probably assume you were a bit self-centered — not just because that was a trait of Carrie's, but because you picked the lead of the show. (As a Carrie person myself, I say this with no judgement.) If you said you were Cynthia Nixon's Miranda Hobbes, I'd probably assume you had a superiority complex — yet again, not just because that was a trait of Miranda's, but because you chose the less obvious character.
However, regardless of which character you named or the fact that there were only four women to choose from once you included Kristin Davis' Charlotte York and Kim Cattrall's Samantha Jones, debating which character you and your friends were provided hours of entertainment and thoughtful insight.
Although it's certainly not unheard of for people to say they relate most to Dunham's Hannah Horvath, Allison Williams' Marnie Michaels, Jemima Kirke's Jessa Johansson, or Zosia Mamet's Shoshanna Shapiro, it's not as pervasive as it was for people to do with Girls as it was with the Sex and the City characters. At first, I thought this might be exclusively because the Girls characters are often considered "unlikable" — even for people who like the show. After all, the characters being unlikable is nothing new and certainly isn't a surprise to the people who create the show. As Williams said to The Washington Post:
"Of course, Marnie is insufferable to almost anyone who watches her. And I think part of it is that she serves as a kind of funhouse mirror reflection of our culture, and a certain subset of our culture, that people don't want to lump themselves in with."
But while the awful behavior that the girls on Girls exhibit sometimes is probably one reason someone would be more willing to say she is a Carrie rather than a Hannah, that's far from the only reason. After all, the women of Sex and the City weren't perfect and made mistakes too.
One thought is that if you grew up on Sex and the City, there might be this germ of embarrassment because pop culture — and the two movies — have made it seem like the series isn't as good as you remember it being (something Emily Nussbaum masterfully debunks). And the coolness of Girls in the 2010s might make this contrast more apparent. The women in Sex and the City lived in Manhattan and some of them unironically desired serious relationships with serious men. The girls in Girls lived in Brooklyn and were mostly too consumed with themselves to even consider any longterm romantic plans.
The Girls in all of their unglamorous glory have actually ended up — at least when it comes to pop culture in 2017 — being cooler than the polished characters of Sex and the City. Maybe that's because of their youth and the way the years can be unkind when it comes to what's trendy, but choosing which character you'd be is something Jessa would certainly mock you for. So perhaps the practice has died in the pursuit of the bohemian nature that Girls epitomizes. Fans who started on Sex and the City and progressed to Girls may just think they're too cool to do that sort of thing today, even if it isn't a conscious decision.
Then, there's the internet. When Sex and the City ended, Facebook had just started on the Harvard campus, there was no such thing as BuzzFeed, and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was the preferred method of communication. Comparing yourself to a Sex and the City character preceded many of the think pieces, essays, and "Which character are you?" quizzes that would emerge about both shows in later years. In the same train of thought that people think they are "too cool" to identify as one of the Girls characters, maybe it's the internet that has made it less socially acceptable since the pastime has been overplayed.
Despite that, all of the Girls characters do have a pretty clear corresponding Sex and the City character. Hannah, as the lead and a writer, is Carrie. Jessa, as the most uninhibited, is Samantha. Marnie and Shoshanna have shifted between Charlotte and Miranda over the seasons with Marnie, as the most conventional and uptight, ending up as Charlotte. And Shoshanna, as the most independent and bullsh*t intolerant, becoming Miranda.
However, there's no need to put these characters — or ourselves, for that matter — into boxes. The reason why Sex and the City and Girls were such revelations were because they highlighted complex female characters, who aren't always likable, but are wholly they're own. How ironic it is that viewers then feel a desire to identify themselves by using another woman's persona? And isn't it a bit sexist to compare two shows just because they have the same setting (the most populous city of the U.S.), similar lead characters (females who occasionally have sex), and are on the same channel (HBO, which prides itself on its original series)?
There are other reasons why it's a good thing that Girls isn't surrounded by the same obsession of naming which character you are as Sex and the City was. In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Cynthia Nixon and Allison Williams discussed the phenomenon when interviewer Philip Galanes asked them, "Have you noticed that when people talk about your shows, they love to make the characters stand in for all women — and in the case of Sex and the City, for all gay men, too?"
Nixon noted that Sex and the City was intentionally leading people to make those types of comparisons. "But I think our show was deliberately written that way," Nixon said. "There's Athena, Aphrodite, Hera — and Sarah Jessica [Parker]. I'm not sure who she is." (Presumably, the connections are Miranda is Athena, Samantha is Aphrodite, and Charlotte is Hera.) Nixon also stated the positive aspect of the character associations. "Anyway, before, when you were a girl, you were forced to identify with the one girl on the show. But now it's like, which one of those girls am I? You're not usually given a sampler plate."
This idea that TV series before had only ever had one female lead and that Sex and the City introduced four strong and unique personalities to give women to compare and contrast themselves to is a testament to the revolutionary nature of the HBO show. (Don't worry, Golden Girls — you're part of this legacy too.) Now, perhaps because of the strides that shows like Golden Girls and Sex and the City have made for women in television, it's not a game that needs to be played as much when it comes to Girls.
As Williams said during The New York Times interview, "It's strange, because other shows aren't expected to speak for large groups of people." To which Galanes responded, "We don't do that to men." Possibly people not caring about associating with a specific character from Girls is an indication that the representation of women on TV has improved. Instead of being blown away by the fact that you could relate to Carrie's or Miranda's emotions, you can acknowledge how Hannah's or Marnie's struggles relate to you without feeling the need to say you are one of those women.
Rather than think that people are just too ashamed to admit that they are anything like Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, or Shoshanna, I prefer to go with the rationale that it may be proof of a little step toward equality on television. After all, even though the eight women of Sex and the City and Girls have wildly different personalities, they could all agree that more accurate representations of women on TV leads to women — no matter which character they associate with — having a better understanding of themselves.