Like any New York City dweller worth her salt, I’ve seen the entirety of Sex and the City multiple times. I never particularly identified with any member of the show’s central, expertly coiffed quartet—all things considered, I’m more of a Steve moon, Magda rising—but even coming of age in the Girls generation, it was near impossible to escape the long shadow cast by Carrie Bradshaw’s stilettos.
As I grew up and began to grapple with my sexuality, I realized I was even further afield of the Sex and the City gals than I’d thought; they were, with very occasional exceptions, shining emblems of compulsory heterosexuality, and the show was part of a blaring set of societal messages telling me I couldn’t have the life I saw onscreen unless I was straight.
In fact, as I watched Carrie repeatedly overlook and disappoint her “gay boyfriend” (aka obligatory gay BFF) Stanford Blatch without ever being forced to reckon with the reality of what she was doing, I was all the more torn. As I watched Carrie drag Stanford to parties in between boyfriends, ignore his problems, and blow him off from a big night out by telling him that “tonight is just the girls,” I unwittingly absorbed the idea that being gay meant being sidelined from the real story. I wanted to be a lead character, not some forlorn, often-forgotten cliché who was only trotted out for punchlines once every few episodes.
For a show about sex, SATC was never particularly forward-thinking when it came to sexuality; in season one, Miranda—portrayed by Cynthia Nixon, who is now married to a woman—is insulted to be mistaken for a lesbian before leaning into it to score office points. The girls are openly skeptical when Samantha starts dating a woman, and male bisexuality is dismissed as “a layover on the way to Gaytown.” Then, of course, there’s the episode in which Samantha wages an all-out war against the trans women sex workers in her neighborhood...yikes.
There is that one beautifully aspirational, L Word–adjacent episode that sees Charlotte get scooped up by a posse of gallery-going power lesbians, but in general, the dated sexual politics of Sex and the City were, as Salon writer Thomas Rogers put it in 2010, “bad for the gays.”
Carrie’s treatment of Stanford is different from these oh-so-early-aughts shocker moments, though; it’s more subtle and insidious, not something that can be called out in a listicle of “Five Times SATC Was Problematic AF.” Throughout the series, Carrie genuinely seems to view Stanford as less than, not deserving of the same consideration that her straight female friends warrant. She shows up late to a shoot his boyfriend organized, snapping at Stanford when he dares to express disappointment; she ignores Stanford’s new relationship to whine about herself, prompting a rare confrontation (over brunch, natch) that doesn’t actually end with her changing her behavior.
My issue with Carrie’s treatment of Stanford isn’t that it lacks realism; after all, the show was created by openly gay writer and director Michael Patrick King, who, if he’s like many queer people, might have been on the receiving end of a similar dynamic with a straight friend who sees them as a sequined accessory. But on a series with the guiding thesis “Your friends are the most important people in your life,” it was painful to watch Stanford continually jockey for a position in Carrie’s orbit, especially because he rarely seemed to expect anything else. The show—not to mention the young people watching it—might have benefited from a further exploration of Stanford’s sweet, nebbishy, excellent-glasses-wearing world, instead of yet another episode devoted to Charlotte’s quest to secure an engagement ring.
Carrie taking Stanford for granted, again and again, on a TV series that’s been wrapped for 15 years is hardly a number-one concern for today’s LGBTQ+ community, which is wrestling with far bigger issues, like workplace discrimination and violence against trans people. Still, this stale dynamic between a girl and her gay bestie can be seen as a benchmark we’ve surpassed; today’s generation of TV shows finally allow queer characters to occupy space beyond the gay bar or the Bergdorf’s dressing room.
We haven’t perfected the art of representing the queer experience onscreen—white, cis narratives still rule the roost—but if Sex and the City premiered today, it’s likely Stanford would be less “straight-from-central-casting gay guy” and more “actual human being.” On the Hulu series Shrill, protagonist Annie’s best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) is still a side character, but she’s aspirational, inhabiting her body with a confidence that Annie can only dream of. Plus, she gets a genuine, complex storyline with a woman that doesn’t revolve around her function as Annie’s sidekick.
Shows like Vida, The Bisexual, Pose, and Tales of the City do even better, giving LGBTQ+ characters their long-overdue moment as protagonists and, in the process, showing that queer experience is far from monolithic. Unlike Stanford, these characters are freed from the sidelines at last, navigating their own complex worlds rather than helping to round out someone else’s; they’re loyal BFFs, sure, but they’re also lovers, villains, heroes, and everything in between. With friends like these, maybe Stanford could finally have ditched his frenemies.
Originally Appeared on Vogue