In Defense of Charlotte York
What daddy's little Episcopalian princess teaches young women about love, Beauvoir, and the myriad of reasons why Sex and the City has endured as a cultural touchpoint.
Before I watched HBO’s romantic comedy-drama Sex and the City, I will admit, I had a number of preconceptions. Something like the American import of French Girl style – a Baudrillardian map of nonchalant, vaguely metropolitan It Giirl-ness with no real territory. This was the which-pretty-girl-are-you? media on which the first cash cows of modern content creation nursed themselves: listicles on how to dress like Carrie Bradshaw; how to manage your finances like Miranda; how to fuck like Samantha; and, most importantly, how to live your life like Charlotte. While pretty much everyone in the original series ends up with their own happy ending, there’s no denying that Charlotte made out the best. Part of why this is — the most disillusioned among us might say — is because she already had it the best.
Working what clearly seems to be an extremely low-stress job at a trendy Upper East Side museum, she admits multiple times — often at Carrie’s terminally broke freelancer behest — that her position is financially more like volunteer work. People have a tendency to write off her character as the most “regressive” of the bunch. She’s WASPy (until she converts to Judaism), she’s sheltered, and her idealistic outlook on life reflects the fact that she hasn’t really had to struggle in any meaningful way. And yet, when I talk to my friends about the show, I hear that magic phrase more often than any other character: “I’m such a Charlotte.” I get it — identifying with Charlotte signals that you value the traditional things in life, that you want love and marriage and family, and that you’re not ashamed to put those needs at or near the very top of your hierarchy of goals. Most of the fandom surrounding her character seems to be a projected reaction to modern feminism knocking the stars out of young women’s eyes. I get the sense they feel it is somehow taboo to want a husband before you want a job, to rely on a doting father, to love and rejoice in your own femininity. Herein is my thesis: Charlotte York-Goldenblatt is far more than a trad calling card, and the character nuances developed over the show’s 6-season run prove that, quite frankly, not everyone has what it takes to really be a Charlotte. Some of you are Carrie-Miranda cusps at best. And as Southeast Regional Chapter President of the Such a Charlotte Fanclub, I feel called to set the record straight on a few important matters.
Firstly: Charlotte may be sheltered, but she is no prude. People neglect the fact that while she is certainly the most conservative girl in the Fun Girls Gang, she is still a part of that gang. She goes to the same parties as the rest of them do, hooks up with just as many guys, and wields her sexuality deliberately as not only a mechanism for her own pleasure but also towards a second goal — one that comes to define not only her character but its evolution throughout the series: love. Where Samantha fucks for sex’s sake, Charlotte is ever-hopeful that at the end of some mediocre Meatpacking District liaison with a man — well, packing meat — there is the hope of a future husband, one which she has already envisioned spending summers in Cape Cod with. That said, even from the show’s very beginning she is realistic about her own desires; even if acknowledging them directly proves uncomfortable, she is always able to act on them.
Then there is the notion that Charlotte is the most prejudiced of the quartet. Firstly, have you heard the soundbites Samantha gives? And secondly — more seriously — something interesting happens when Charlotte, the beacon of repression and upper-class nicety, is confronted with social situations she finds uncomfortable: she keeps her mouth shut. She is a silent salad-eating observer when Carrie bemoans her dreamboat bisexual boyfriend not picking a side, or Miranda complains about Samantha sleeping her way to the top. Hell, Samantha calls herself a try-sexual, but Charlotte was the only character on the show to willingly do drag. She hangs out with the lesbian power elite. She might not eat pussy, as Patty Aston points out, but after a day or two of social clubs, she was ready to embrace the fluid nature of the human spectrum of sexuality and go on a big sapphic ski trip.
It is this version of Charlotte York that we are introduced to in the show’s first few seasons, and that is challenged by perhaps the biggest source of development for her character: the completely ineffectual and annoyingly cute Trey MacDougal. It’s really hard for me to not like him, given the casting of Kyle Maclachlan. He is introduced as the embodiment of her wishes: a wealthy cardiologist of the proper pedigree, social standing, religious affiliation, and romantic inclination. A whirlwind courtship turns into a whirlwind engagement turns into a surreptitious drunk premarital encounter turns into a whirlwind wedding, and then — albeit fussily and confused — Charlotte is a wife. She is given what everyone thinks she wants, and yet something troubles her. It’s played off as somewhat of a joke at first, but it soon becomes clear that she is utterly sexually incompatible with Trey. The specter of Bunny – Trey’s austere and withholding appearance-obsessed mother — looms too large in this man’s oedipal center to ever see Charlotte as anything other than a demure virgin. She is essentially forced via the project of maintaining her marriage and upholding the family values she longed for to confront one of the principal perceptual issues of modern feminism: the Madonna-Whore complex, nestled inside her husband’s psyche. Sex has been taken out of the city or even the bedroom, and into the battlefield of the mind.
If Sex and the City is to be considered one of the first post-feminist case studies in American media, with women portrayed as active subjects in a landscape forever affected by Women’s Lib, I would argue that Charlotte – not Carrie – in her existential struggle to navigate her own personal path through sexual tradition and the urgency of desire is the show’s protagonist. At first, she earnestly believes her purpose lies in the facilitation of man’s purpose. She dreams of being a wife so that a man, the special man made just for her, might gaze upon himself as a husband. Then that special man comes and goes, and Charlotte realizes the joy of matrimony — and the ounce of true feeling held in the heart of the sexual revolution comes not from the complete adherence or dissolution of all sex boundaries, but play. If Beauvoir describes the body as “not a thing, [but] a situation” — we must understand Charlotte’s temptation, sacrifice, and annunciation in love as the justification for that situation’s capacity to dance happily both through and around the delicate gold rings of heteronormativity. And indeed that dance is not undertaken alone. The necessary progression of the feminist project will alter but not break the fragile, permeable, surly, and nonetheless electric bonds between men and women. As Beauvoir again writes in the flowering, hopeful speculative conclusion to The Second Sex:
It is nonsense to assert that revelry, vice, ecstasy, passion, would become impossible if man and woman were equal in concrete matters; the contradictions that put the flesh in opposition to the spirit, the instant to time, the swoon of immanence to the challenge of transcendence, the absolute of pleasure to the nothingness of forgetting, will never be resolved; in sexuality will always be materialised the tension, the anguish, the joy, the frustration, and the triumph of existence. To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles – desire, possession, love, dream, adventure – worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us – giving, conquering, uniting – will not lose their meaning.
The future is not gender abolition — it is merely gender collaboration. An equal collaboration inherently does not disallow the nature of each sex’s metaphysical essence. This is where I think people misunderstand Charlotte’s arc. The fan wiki for her character says and I quote: “She spends the first three seasons trying to find the perfect man who checks off all of her boxes, but as the series progresses, lowers her standards.” As the show would seemingly self-evidently reveal, I believe that her standards have hardly lowered — they simply matured. She no longer wanted a lens through which she could imagine herself in perfect happiness; rather, her dream was her and someone she truly loves in an imperfect, genuine sort of interpersonal happiness. After everything is said and done, she didn’t need her perfect fairytale princess dream to come true — she only needed a man to dream alongside her.
Enter divorce lawyer Harry Goldenblatt: a messy, frazzled schlub who makes money off unhappy couples’ misery. Clearly, both Charlotte and the audience themselves would never expect this man to serve as Charlotte’s romantic counterpart — and yet, as the latter half of the show hastily unfolds, we learn that what Harry yearns for isn’t his own genderswapped Casanova to sweep him hastily off his feet, but rather, simply a beautiful woman to adore.
At the risk of going on for days about their romantic dynamic, there is something extremely classical — medieval, even — about the way in which Harry devotes himself body and soul to Charlotte. In a sea of Gen-Z boys crying simp at any break in the steely facade of self-serving masculinity, Harry is a mensch of fresh air. This is not to say he is inhuman. He faces insecurity in their relationship; he is often humorously unkempt and slobby; he wonders if she would be better off with someone more glamorous; he takes his time to propose. In essence, what Charlotte needs to prove to him is that she is willing to play out the other half of their dynamic — the beloved — not out of a need to be loved, but out of a need to be loved by him. I see parallels here to a distinctly non-heterosexual form of butch-femme dynamics. (Maybe that’s too cynical. Maybe locating the erotic heart of this relationship I’ve idealized for so long outside of men is a form of heteropessimism. I don’t think I’m completely there yet.) Maybe what I mean to say is that, generally, the men I’ve found who are Harry’s aren’t men at all — they’re butch lesbians. But, then again, maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. If he wanted to he would, ladies! Never forget that for a single second.
That said, Charlotte’s character is not introduced to Harry until after she has been tempered by Trey. Quite frankly, the Season 2 Charlotte wasn’t ready for Harry. She would have most likely dismissed him — even on the basis of ethno-religious identity alone. It is only after she reaffirms her values to herself that she is willing to look for love in the most unlikely of places, and it is precisely there that she finds it. This is perhaps the central plot mechanism behind why Charlotte’s character is narratively rewarded. She must, in essence, completely humiliate herself and become stripped of all her WASPy identity signifiers — her creature comforts, her social sway — before she can then be rebuilt in happiness that others may not understand, but that will matter to her. Nowhere is this more evident than in her Jewish conversion arc.
Listen: I will be the first to say that Jewish American Princessdom is often envied and rarely adopted. You have to have been born in it. Molded by it. But when Charlotte realizes marrying a gentile is Harry’s one thing he can’t compromise on, she does what she needs to do for love. That said, I also think this process of her literally humbling herself, stripping naked in a mikveh, and cleansing herself of her Christian elite status is part of how her character develops to privilege the happiness of herself and those she loves over the image she projects to proper society.
This is perhaps where Charlotte shows her love. She might not outwardly worship at her husband’s feet as he does to her, but she puts in the work where it counts and is willing to meet him where he’s at — even if that place is an hour-long Metro North train to Scarsdale.
This brings us, naturally, to how perceptions of her character have changed in the recent reboot to the main series, And Just Like That. I think the funniest thing about that show is that it casts itself as an attempt to modernize the original show into relevance — despite currently being in a cultural moment where the original Sex and the City has never been more relevant to the lives of stylish young women living in New York. The irony is one of the main ways it attempts to modernize itself. The reboot proffers a performative and self-chastizing embrace of sexual fluidity, whereas the anxious romanticization of sexual difference in the original show is one of the biggest reasons young women have returned to it. Charlotte is perhaps one of the most emblematic examples of this mindset. She clearly wants her men to act like men, and she values girls’ time as a refuge away from not only a certain set of behaviors but a certain definite sex. And yet, her closest friend Anthony Marentino is an out and proud gay man who is anything but masculine. Indeed, in what you should know by now as typical Charlotte fashion, they start out as enemies, butting heads at fashion shows over who can out-diva the other until eventually they truce. Charlotte amends and updates her values, and privileges friendship and love over public appearances.
This is one of the purest distillations of Charlotte’s character in my mind: drinking Diet Snapple through a straw in Central Park, having a kiki with Anthony about closet queens off the street, and ending with a mediation on mutual romantic experience and the true nature of love. If this is not a testament to how her character has developed over the years, then nothing is. The Charlotte I love and relate to is not defined by her shelteredness, but rather by her capacity to learn and grow from it, while never sacrificing or apologizing for her traditional values. She isn’t trad in the completely image-based way that has received popularity today — but rather in the way that is willing to sacrifice image for heart.
This is why Samantha works so well as her foil; her provocative, self-serving experimentalism is as much of a facade as Charlotte’s prudishness. What each of these girls value is love. Samantha just values carnal love, and Charlotte spiritual love. Their opposing acts are just that: ways to camouflage their valuable vulnerability, only offering up their unfiltered hearts to people who truly matter. For reference, Carrie and Miranda are perfect foils because of their differing views on success, and thus complete the cube of influence for young girls looking to assert themselves in the world. The oft-asked question of the second-and-a-half wave: If women can truly have it all, is demonstrated herein to be a false dichotomy. Work and love are not things that need to be divorced for the sake of integration into a male-dominated society, but rather, things that inherently strengthen each other, making women of the city into both stronger business partners and stronger wives.
It is not a matter of whether or not a woman should be considered capable of having both love and success — instead, it’s a matter of whether or not you specifically are willing to work for it in ways that are vulnerable, humiliating, sometimes unfair, but ultimately rewarding. In this respect, Charlotte York remains a model to women everywhere. You don’t need to sacrifice your values in order to achieve your dreams, but you will have to be open to reconsidering what those values are — especially when the stakes are nothing less than true love. 🌀