One minute, Sex and the City was wildly popular — Sunday night appointment television. But shortly after the show went off the air in 2004, it quickly descended from being considered prestige TV to a guilty pleasure thanks to viewing the antics of Carrie Bradshaw and her three closest friends by ever-evolving societal standards. Carrie came across as shallow and self-centered, and then there’s the whole issue of people of color being noticeably absent from a show set in New York City.
But those (very valid) criticisms aside, in addition to getting people more used to women as sexual beings (no small feat in itself), Sex and the City was also groundbreaking in terms of its portrayal of women’s health issues. Sure, the ladies on The Golden Girls frequently discussed health problems, and Elaine Benes on Seinfeld was one of the strongest (and earliest) pro-abortion rights voices on TV, and then there’s Maude, which tackled abortion, menopause and everything in between — but the women on Sex and the City got in a bit deeper (sometimes literally in the case of Carrie’s missing diaphragm).
As Jennifer Keishin Armstrong researched her new book Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love, she says she was struck by how much the show dealt with women’s health.
“I think it just shows how much women’s health issues affect their lives,” she tells SheKnows. “We just have so much intricate machinery, and any of it going awry genuinely affects our romantic and sex lives.”
Here are a few of our favorite examples of times when Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte helped to normalize the conversation around women’s sexual and reproductive health.
Charlotte has a depressed vagina
“Vulvo-what-ia?” Carrie asks Charlotte when she first tells her friends about her recent diagnosis of vulvodynia — a condition characterized by pain or discomfort of the vulva. Charlotte’s doctor describes it as having a “depressed vagina” and prescribes antidepressants accordingly.
The women make jokes about how you know whether a vagina is depressed (per Miranda: “It always wants to go to Krispy Kreme”), but once the episode aired, not everyone was laughing. In fact, the National Vulvodynia Association released a statement maligning the show for what they thought was an inaccurate portrayal of the condition — particularly the part where Charlotte’s gynecologist made it seem like taking antidepressants would cure the vulvodynia and that the condition itself isn’t that big a deal. (Try telling that to the people with chronic vulvar pain — some of whom are to the point of being left bedridden.)
The NVA did concede that having such a widely viewed show like Sex and the City talk about vulvodynia did put the condition on the radars of many people who didn’t know it existed previously… which is better than nothing, right?
Samantha gets an HIV test
During one of their signature brunches, it comes to light that Samantha has never had an HIV test. But faced with a possible sexual partner who won’t do it until she’s tested, Samantha decides to bite the bullet. While we don’t love the fact that it was ultimately a guy who prompted her to get tested, we do appreciate how honest Samantha was about being terrified of the results.
Miranda has a lazy ovary
Given that the show focused on women in their 30s and early 40s, it’s no surprise that various reproductive health issues came up. One example came in the 11th episode of Season 2 when Miranda finds out that she has a “lazy ovary” — meaning that one of her ovaries has ceased production. She decides to go out on a date with a guy she had previously not been interested in, but quickly realizes (thanks to his bizarre and offensive rant about assisted reproductive technologies) that she doesn’t have to settle.
Samantha gets breast cancer
When one of the Sex and the City writers was diagnosed with breast cancer in real life, co-executive producer Michael Patrick King encouraged her to turn it into a storyline. The result was Samantha’s bout with breast cancer, which, Armstrong notes in her book, is rooted in reality and features “the hot flashes, the good and bad wigs, the postmastectomy breast implants, the sexual side effects.” The most memorable moment of her cancer journey was when Samantha whipped off her wig during a speech, which inspired other women in the audience also going through cancer treatments to do the same thing.
Charlotte gets crabs
During the women’s trip to the Hamptons, Charlotte meets a handsome younger guy and engages in a weekend of breezy beachy sex. Unfortunately, she assumes that her itchy crotch is from getting sand in her bikini, but it’s actually a case of crabs she contracted from the young dude. This serves as an important reminder to practice safer sex — even during weekend flings.
Poor Charlotte. She really got stuck with an endless parade of loser guys and medical problems, but her struggle with infertility was one of the most memorable (and for a lot of people, relatable) parts of the show. It first played out when she was married to Trey and then she found out she had a 15 percent chance of getting pregnant. Then we watched as she went through it a second time with Harry before eventually deciding to adopt.
Although as a society, we’re getting a little better about talking about miscarriage and infertility, we still have a long way to go, and this storyline was ahead of its time. When Charlotte couldn’t bring herself to attend Miranda’s son Brady’s first birthday party because she didn’t feel like she could be around children, that’s a very real sentiment people experience every day.
In addition to these, there are plenty of other examples of times the show tackled women’s health, including when Carrie got her diaphragm stuck and Samantha had to pull it out, when Charlotte found out she had a tilted uterus and when Carrie and Aidan discuss abortion. (Full disclosure: These are in this category because there aren’t YouTube clips of these scenes.)
It’s also worth noting that Carrie has noticeably fewer health issues on the show than the other main characters. Perhaps this is because the writers wanted to focus her storylines on relationships and used Samantha, Miranda and especially Charlotte to delve into the health problems that affect a lot of women. Either way, for a show that took on a lot the complications of life as a single woman in the city yet had its shortcomings (seriously, where are the people of color?!) incorporating these health-related scenarios into the show has helped to normalize sometimes-difficult conversations around sexual and reproductive health.