Carrie-ing the Torch: Deep Down, We’re All Still A Little Bit Bradshaw

As "The Carrie Diaries" premieres, we ask, "What would a post-recession SATC look like?"

Photo by Kyle T. Webster
Illustration by Kyle T. Webster.

A few weeks before the premiere of The Carrie Diaries on The CW, The Observer drove to Connecticut to meet the “real Carrie Bradshaw,” who now lives by herself on a small farm with two large poodles.

Candace Bushnell is not an easy woman to find. After several wrong turns on a chilly, overcast Tuesday, we found ourselves driving up a small dirt road in the middle of nowhere (technically, Roxbury, Conn.). A sharp right, and we were in the gravel driveway of what appeared to be a steeply pitched farmhouse. In a puffy blue parka, bomber hat yanked over her ears, the slight blond figure bounded down the steps of the barn, calling away her dogs and exhorting us to park somewhere else so she could get her car out. She seemed so unnerved by our arrival that we weren’t even sure she was the woman behind the cultural juggernaut Sex and the City.

“I’m one of those people who don’t get lonely,” Ms. Bushnell, 54, told the Observer later in the afternoon. “I like being alone. I write and I read. I’m not interrupted. Friends live nearby.” She’s taken up dressage riding at a nearby stable, which houses her German Warmblood, Mr. Winters.

There was a time when Ms. Bushnell more closely resembled her famed alter-ego. Raised in Connecticut, an hour away from her current home, she arrived in New York, arms open, after selling a children’s book to Simon & Schuster at age 19.

“I would literally go up to people and say, ‘I’m a writer. Can I write something for you?’” She remembered. “I wrote for this paper called Night Magazine, which was mainly just a bunch of pictures of people at Studio 54. I would do little interviews and profiles.”

Ms. Bushnell’s darkly satirical ‘Sex and the City’ columns, written for this newspaper when she was in her 30s and already established, read more like the savage humor of her friends Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis than those fictional musings of Ms. Bradshaw. Still, it was easy to confuse Carrie and Candace. They both had Mr. Bigs. They had friends named Miranda and Samantha. They were smart, savvy and knew everybody. If the ’90s in New York had to take on a single voice, Bushnell-as-Bradshaw was as good an option as any.

But at some point—around the time her show became a hit, it seems—the personalities split. Ms. Bushnell retreated. Asked if it was strange to see her creation become such a cultural touchstone, the writer shrugged. “I was traveling a lot when that happened,” she said vaguely.

Carrie Bradshaw, however, never left New York (except for that one time she went to the Middle East). Her legacy lives on in anyone who has ever smoked a cigarette in a Patricia Field knockoff and blogged about guys. Her apparition hovers over every “girlfriend brunch.” Her spirit possesses every college girl who still clutches onto her identity by declaring that she is “totally a Carrie!” (Or a Samantha, depending on the time of night.) She does not age, lose her New York celebrity status or suffer the effects of a recession and a media winter.

And thanks to Candace Bushnell and HBO, we can still fantasize about being Carrie Bradshaw, even when the real Carrie Bradshaw no longer does.

Despite leaving us with the taste of its terrible big-screen sequel film in our mouths, the SATC franchise fantasy is as strong as ever. Not only in The Carrie Diaries, a high school prequel which premieres next Monday on The CW, but in HBO’s show about four women—headed by a self-obsessed writer—trying to make it New York.

Before the first season of Girls had even premiered, creator/writer/producer/actress Lena Dunham was forced to answer for the show’s Sex and the City-ness. Despite the unending, indistinguishable line of quirky detectives who live on USA, and despite HBO/AMC/Showtime’s boundless well of misanthropic and misogynistic anti-heroes (Walter White, Rick Grimes, Tony Soprano, Dexter, Don Draper, etc., etc.), it was implausible—nay, impossible!—that there could be a second popular show about women, sex and urban life.

Rather than bristle, Ms. Dunham embraced the comparisons. As she told Laura Sullivan on All Things Considered, Girls owed a lot to the series, “not only because [Sex and the City] carved the space for women,” but because “the girls this show is about probably moved to New York three-quarters because they watched a Sex and the City marathon and thought, like, ‘I want me a piece of that.’”

Since similarities were inevitably drawn even before the cameras rolled, Girls set about in its premiere episode to prove that it existed in a post-Bradshaw world. In the pilot, flaky NYU student Shoshanna Shapiro was exactly the kind of young woman Ms. Dunham had described; a SATC obsessive whose dorm room was plastered with posters for the film Sex and the City … arguably the furthest, most consumer-warped product to come from the original Bushnell series.

Candace Bushnell takes part in a Q&A event at the Star on July 25, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. (Caroline McCredie/Getty Images)
Candace Bushnell takes part in a Q&A event at the Star on July 25, 2013 in Sydney, Australia. (Caroline McCredie/Getty Images)

With that wincingly painful lack of self-awareness that would go on to define the show’s unique tone, Shoshanna described her cousin as “a Carrie, but with some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair. That’s like, a really good combination.” She continued, oblivious to her cousin’s (and the audience’s) dismay, “I think I’m definitely a Carrie at heart, but sometimes? Sometimes my Samantha side comes out. And then when I’m at school, I definitely try to put on my Miranda hat.”

Girls wasn’t about to mock Sex and the City—the way 30 Rock once did, with Liz Lemon telling four lookalikes, “SHUT UP! That’s horrible!”—but it wasn’t above savaging the very-real stereotype of women who still walk around trying to find their identities in four characters who haven’t been on television for almost a decade.

So why are the women of Sex and the City so ingrained in the city’s cultural subconscious and stamped indelibly on its soul?

Maybe it’s an age thing. Sex and the City certainly did provide role models for young women who grew up believing that becoming a glamorous, famous writer was as easy as moving to New York and finding three friends with different hair colors. Just as plucky Mary Tyler Moore did generations before, Sex and the City proved that we all were “gonna make it after all.”

The Daily Beast’s Rebecca Dana began her career by following in Ms. Bushnell’s footsteps, becoming a society writer for The Observer directly out of college. More than once, she wrote about her mixed feelings toward the franchise.

I started watching the series as a wide-eyed Pittsburgh teenager and was quickly seduced by the whole fantasy. Carrie Bradshaw became a totem in my life, a lure to the city so powerful that I’m now embarrassed to think about it.

After growing up on a diet of SATC, is it any wonder that young women like Ms. Dana and Ms. Dunham are still reflecting and refracting a cultural zeitgeist that no longer exists?

Because there are no two ways about it: the New York of Carrie Bradshaw and the gang is gone. It was pre-recession programming, and the signs of excess wealth—the shoes, the clothes, the endless parties, cabs and brunches—were everywhere. Even if out of our immediate grasp, that lifestyle seemed within reach. Somehow, we were convinced that a woman working off of Carrie Bradshaw’s salary as a columnist (as she started out) would be able to stock a closet with Manolos in her Manhattan apartment.

But today? Forget about it. It’s impossible to give voice to your secret Carrie aspirations—or, even worse, socialite Charlotte—without immediately feeling like kind of an asshole.

With the second season of Girls premiering one day before The Carrie Diaries, it’s doubtful anyone is still comparing the dark, unredemptive, messy tone of Ms. Dunham’s creation to the chirpy, pun-obsessed world of Sex and the City. As Peter Stevenson, who edited “Sex and the City” at the Observer, told us, “Girls makes SATC look like Downton Abbey.” It was as much an iconic snapshot of New York in the ’90s as Bonfire of the Vanities and Wall Street were of the ’80s.

Peter Stevenson, who edited “Sex and the City” at the Observer: “Girls makes SATC look like Downton Abbey.”

And that’s how we arrive at The Carrie Diaries. Stuck in its era and unable to move forward without drastically changing its protagonist’s lifestyle, the SATC franchise had to rewind. The show, based on Bushnell’s 2010 book, takes place before Bradshaw ever moved to the city and scavenges the picked-over bones of ’80s nostalgia to bring us the story of Carrie’s formative years.

The “origin story” idea doesn’t really work. The show so clumsily belabors its ’80s milieu that episodes have more pop-culture references than a VH1 flashback. (Space Invaders! Madonna! Interview magazine!) And woof, the early-Bradshaw metaphors: “It’s then that I had the realization that I had just lost my innocence, my virginity. And not to the guy I had hoped, but a different man. Manhattan.”

It’s not a bad show—its premiere showed promising chemistry, and AnnaSophia Robb does a serviceable pre-Sex-Bradshaw. But maybe actress Freema Agyeman, who spoke on the red carpet during the New York Television Festival, said it best: “The best part is the fun costumes!”

“I know some people think it’s a cynical move,” showrunner Amy B. Harris told The Observer by phone. “‘Oh it’s a franchise, you’re just trying to wring some more money out if it.’ But this is a time of my life I feel so strongly about, it was my life. My hope is that women will want to go back to their experience.”

Ms. Harris recognized the irony of The Carrie Diaries now competing with a show like Girls for an audience. “Lena told me Girls wouldn’t exist without SATC,” she said. “I’m totally prepared for the comparison, but I would be lying to say it wasn’t a concern. I hope people will stay with [The Carrie Diaries] because they feel like its their own.”

Ms. Bushnell herself might not be among them. “I really relate to Girls,” she told us. “I feel like it’s what my 20s were like.”

A common theme in The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City (Ms. Bushnell’s sequel-to-the-prequel novel) as well as the author’s own self-narrative is the conviction that one could come to New York and make it as a famous writer. Not out of sheer willpower or hard work, but because of destiny.

“I do think there’s something in people’s DNA,” Ms. Bushnell pondered while we made some coffee and settled in. “The decision to leave your small town and leave your city, that’s a certain type of person.”

By way of explanation, Ms. Bushnell asked us to consider the lowly ant: most of them, she said, lived and worked in the colony. “But the colony would die if there weren’t ants that ventured outside their little box,” she said. “The human population would either die or be living in a dark age if some people—the right ones—didn’t move to big metropolitan areas and bring us all culture.”

This is not the story, of course, provided in the TV show The Carrie Diaries. If anything, that “certain type of person” that Ms. Bushnell described was Lena Dunham’s stubborn Hannah Horvath, who moves to Brooklyn from Michigan and founders in underemployment. Much like Ms. Bushnell, Hannah has minimally tried her hands in other types of work, but is convinced that her path is that of a writer. Specifically, one who only writes about her own life. She’s “a voice! Of a generation!”

Too bad Carrie Bradshaw has already claimed the title as the voice of every generation. About as far away from a banquette at Moomba as one can get, Ms. Bushnell acknowledged the grip her creation still holds on American culture. “Of course they’re saying Girls is like Sex and the City,” she said dryly. “It’s a TV show involving women.” Carrie-ing the Torch: Deep Down, We’re All Still A Little Bit Bradshaw