20 years later, 'Sex and the City' has aged badly (except for one key episode)

Kelly Lawler

I'm not listening to Carrie Bradshaw's advice anymore. 

When I first started watching HBO's Sex and the City, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week, I was enchanted by the charmed New York lives of Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis). I ate up their romantic and sexual exploits and I listened to Carrie's voiceover with reverence. But two decades after it premiered, I'm not so sure I believe everything the ladies who brunch had to say.  

Rewatching the series a few years ago, I had to stop partway through because the show's sensibility became so irksome I couldn't enjoy it anymore. Part of the problem was just the passage of time. The cultural zeitgeist has changed, and Sex has some episodes that now seem homophobic or racist, just like you'd find, for instance, with other 1990s shows like Friends.

Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall in a 1999 promo photo for "Sex and the City."

The series has aged badly all around: Divorced from the relentless hype, many of the episodes just aren't as good as we remember. Carrie's narration sounds clichéd, Samantha's dialogue feels unnatural and Charlotte is just plain tiresome. The show has simply lost its luster. 

What's more interesting now is what still resonates, not what doesn't. Because while much of the series could make you cringe, Sex occasionally hits on some universal truths that haven't changed. I will never shut up about one 2003 episode, "A Woman's Right to Shoes." After years of scrutiny, it's the one episode that has aged the best, a microcosm of all that we loved about the show that manages to skirt its pitfalls.

Sarah Jessica Parker on "Sex and the City" in 2002.

If your memory of Sex isn't encyclopedic, I'll remind you that, at this point in Carrie Bradshaw's life (and the show's sixth season), she's single. She attends a baby shower for a friend, Kyra (Tatum O'Neal) where she's asked to remove her shoes at the door of the apartment. 

By the end of the night, someone has stolen Carrie's Manolo Blahniks, a catastrophe that surprisingly doesn't embarrass the party's host. When Carrie returns, hoping the shoes have turned up, Kyra awkwardly offers to pay to replace them. But when she discovers the Manolos cost $485, her generosity fades. She thinks the shoes are a waste and refuses to subsidize what she sees as Carrie's extravagant lifestyle. 

But as Carrie later points out, she's the one who's been subsidizing Kyra's lifestyle, and her other married friends', through bridal showers, bachelorette parties, weddings, baby showers, kids' birthdays and other celebrations.

The episode argues that single people stop getting gifts after they graduate, and yet are still tied to the wedding and baby industrial complexes through their friends, one more way in which society punishes people for being alone. But in this instance, singledom triumphs. By the end of the episode, Carrie "registers" at Manolo Blahnik, and Kyra buys her the shoes that she lost. 

It's not the flashiest or the most beloved episode, but I can't tell you how many times single friends have referenced it as we've marched to showers and weddings throughout our 20s. It's something I'm acutely aware of, even planning my own wedding, and I know my friends are, too. We really try to avoid becoming financial burdens going through one life stage or another. 

Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall and Sarah Jessica Parker on "Sex and the City" in 2003.

To me, "A Woman's Right to Shoes" is what Sex was really about. Sure, eventually Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha found partners, permanent or temporary, but inevitably the show was strongest when it focused on single women navigating a world built for couples. Its most radical aspect wasn't the sex and the nudity, but its insistence that women needn't pair off with a man right away to find happiness in life. It showed a group of single women constantly pushing back on a society that didn't know what to do with them. This was radical in the late '90s, and still was a decade later, when I watched on DVD. It resonates even more in 2018, when women are increasingly waiting until they're older to get married, or not marrying at all. 

A lot has changed since the series debuted. Nixon is running for governor of New York. Cattrall has publicly feuded with Parker. Hopes and dreams of a third feature film have fizzled. (They should have stopped at one, anyway.) But single women are still making their own way in the world, and they don't have to pair up to get by. If there's one assertion from Sex and the City that lives on, I hope it's that.