‘Sex and the City’ redefined the way women talk on TV

"On Language"

Chicago Tribune

As “Sex and the City” reached its series finale Sunday, eulogists duly examined the mark it made on popular culture, from its snazzy shoes and outfits to its portrayal of single women. But few paused to note another aspect of the show’s legacy: its language.

Its adult language, to be exact.

If “fabulous” was one of the most recurring words on the show, so was a shorter word beginning with the same letter.

In fact, “Sex and the City” was the first major television show to feature female characters regularly—and blithely—using what comedian George Carlin identified in a controversial 1973 routine as the seven words you can’t say on television. They also added a few.

“I think it was very liberating to hear women using the language that was previously reserved for men’s locker rooms—Samantha more so than the other characters,” said Cindy Chupack, writer and executive producer for “Sex and the City.”

“I don’t think that was the point of the show, but it was an aspect of it … Sarah Jessica [Parker, who played Carrie] would kind of wince once in a while at the table.”

While crude dialogue often serves to darken the mood of a script, in the case of “Sex and the City” it punctuated typically upbeat storytelling amid bright sets and chipper conversations, often over breakfast.

During one meal, Samantha finishes Charlotte’s sentences with sexually explicit talk, prompting Carrie to ask, “What is this, dirty mad libs?”

Over another, the women (well, all except Samantha) worry about their vocabulary in the presence of Miranda’s new baby.

“Originally we were criticized: ‘Women don’t talk like that,'” said Chupack, who noted that the show’s residency on subscriber cable and lack of sponsors gave it more leeway with language. “Our rule in the writers’ room was, Do women think like that?”

Chupack added that whether her staff was writing dialogue or coining catchphrases such as “secret single behavior,” “goodie drawer,” “sim-u-date” or “gay-straight” and “straight-gay” (long before “metrosexual” was in vogue, she proudly notes), the goal was the same: to give women a voice about their experiences in relationships.

“We wanted to put out in the universe things that women were thinking but didn’t have the courage to say out loud,” said Jenny Bicks, who wrote for “Sex and the City” since the first season.

For better or worse, this marks a change, said Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who is co-writing a book on gender and leadership.

“Women using forbidden words is just another sign of gender equalization, which has generally taken the form so far of women taking on masculine behavior patterns—the bad ones along with the good ones,” she said.

In her book “Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender and Culture,” Julia Wood notes that a male typically is the subject and a woman the direct object of expressions describing sexual behavior: he is the actor, she is acted upon.

“Language in media and everyday conversation reflects social views of women as more passive than men in relationship contexts,” Wood writes.

But not on “Sex and the City,” where the women clearly described and discussed themselves in terms that were anything but passive. Bicks said the “Sex and the City” writers sensed the fine line between dialogue that is empowering and language that is degrading. She emphasized they created a show that was character-driven and tried to avoid gratuitous use of nudity and adult language.

“We wouldn’t define what we were doing as vulgar. We would define it as honest,” said Bicks.

“We never did something for vulgarity’s sake. If it was vulgar, we didn’t do our job.”

But society often has different definitions of what is vulgar for a man to say versus what is vulgar for a woman to say, Eagly said.

“It used to be [assumed] that men were interested in sex and women weren’t, and so men could use [vulgar or obscene] words … and women couldn’t,” Eagly said. “It is progress to get rid of that sexual double standard.

“It’s another question whether people [in general] should talk like that,” she added. “But we shouldn’t say that women shouldn’t talk like that.”

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