As a cisgender white guy, I’m aware that my perspective on pop culture is easily the most over-represented when it comes to online commentary. That doesn’t mean my views are worthless – or at least, if they are, it’s not the reason why – but it does mean I tend to take a step back when certain film, TV or comic book debates go viral, to avoid drowning out other, less well-represented viewpoints.
Such was the case with the brouhaha caused by author Hadley Freeman’s recent tweet which called out what she perceives as a double standard between how Sex and the City and The Sopranos are treated by contemporary critics. Although I thought Ms. Freeman raised an interesting point, I felt she was a little wide of the mark, too – but equally, that I also wasn’t necessarily the right person to make that argument.
And yet, in the days that followed, my thoughts continually drifted back to Freeman’s tweet. I kept asking myself: Is The Sopranos‘ legacy really treated as more “untouchable” than Sex and the City‘s? If so, why do we treat these two ground-breaking shows so differently? And does this have anything to do with one of them being headlined by and targeted at women?
In the end, I came up with answers to each of these questions – so, at the risk of coming across as yet another mansplaining straight white guy, here’s my belated take on the great Sopranos/Sex and the City debate!
Is The Sopranos really that “untouchable”?
Let’s start by unpacking a core component of Freeman’s argument: that The Sopranos – a show ostensibly about the violent exploits of a New Jersey crime family – is treated as an “untouchable classic” by TV buffs, while Sex and the City – which follows four female friends trying to navigate life and love in New York City – is unfairly criticised for content that’s offensive by modern standards.
If anything, Freeman argues, shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the series about murderous white guys be treated with more restrained praise, not the one about women supporting each other and exploring their sexuality? It’s a fair point, and one I can (broadly) get behind. But the thing is, this argument doesn’t fully stack up, mostly because The Sopranos isn’t as quite as untouchable as Freeman suggests.
Since The Sopranos debuted back in 1999, it’s frequently been taken to task by the likes of prominent social critic Camille Paglia for perpetuating dated, negative stereotypes regarding Italian Americans and their cultural values and supposed connections to organised crime. Then there are the heated spats that continue to rage across the internet more than a decade after The Sopranos‘ final episode aired over whether the series finale was a masterpiece or a misfire – yet more proof that the show isn’t unanimously praised in all quarters.
Does any of this compare to the more pervasive, retrospective assessment of Sex and the City as a somewhat embarrassing relic? Not really, and Freeman is right to highlight how most commentators have glossed over (or even flat out ignored) the Sopranos‘ alleged shortcomings in ways that Sex and the City‘s detractors certainly haven’t.
Nevertheless, it’s wrong to imply that The Sopranos is some untippable sacred cow that’s exempt from the same retroactive reappraisal as Sex and the City, since it does cop at least some flack. However, that doesn’t mean that these two HBO heavyweights aren’t held to very, very different standards by modern critics…
Sex and the City is treated differently to The Sopranos – but for a different reason than you’d think
No matter what anyone says today, The Sopranos and Sex and the City are (and always will be) two of the greatest and most influential TV shows of all time; despite this, they’re also kinda hard to compare. Sure, The Sopranos is arguably far more creatively ambitious and has greater thematic scope, but Sex and the City was the first TV show to really address sex and relationships through a female lens in a sophisticated, unflinching way – and these qualities are why we’re still talking about both shows, all these years later.
So why has Sex and the City‘s reputation suffered – and Freeman is right: it has suffered – when The Sopranos hasn’t? It’d be easy to chalk this up to unconscious bias and lack of diversity among critics and online commentators, and these elements likely do play a part. However, I think there’s one key, overlooked factor that explains why Sex and the City is held to a different standard than The Sopranos: both shows’ characters, or rather, the nature of our relationships with those characters.
We’re not meant to identify with Tony Soprano and his fellow gangsters, not really. Yes, they’re compelling and we occasionally empathise with them – the genius of the show is how it explores a whole gamut of human issues entirely separate from crime – and even root for them, in our weaker moments. Yet showrunner David Chase never lets us forget that these aren’t nice people. Whenever we get too close to Tony and the gang or start to glorify their lawlessness and wealth, all their vices – their brutality, their misogyny, their racism, their homophobia, their philandering, their greed – are shoved right in our faces.
And since this behaviour wasn’t presented as acceptable when The Sopranos first aired, we don’t have to re-evaluate it in 2021: we already know it’s wrong and, crucially, that we’re supposed to think it’s wrong.
By contrast, we’re supposed to connect with Carrie Bradshaw and the ladies of Sex and the City.
Are they shown to be flawed and capable of questionable behaviour? Of course; creator Darren Star needed to develop proper, three-dimensional characters, after all. Ultimately, though, we are supposed to root for Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda, and their actions and attitudes are presented (in the main) as being morally sound and progressive.
This means that when we see them behave in ways that clash with more modern values – such as using transphobic or racially insensitive language – it hits so much harder, because it feels like they’re letting us down, and that by extension, so is the show itself. The upshot of this is that appraising Sex and the City‘s legacy will always be a trickier proposition than evaluating the enduring appeal of The Sopranos, simply because we engage with them so differently.
Is this an unfair double standard? Almost certainly. But then, if anyone is capable of standing tall when faced with such circumstances, it’s the irrepressible gals of Sex and the City.