At her first appearance at the Television Critics Association press tour, where stars talk about their upcoming projects, Lena Dunham was already on the defensive about her show, Girls, being compared to Sex and the City. She told reporters they were two totally different shows, even though both of them are about four single women in New York. Still, Dunham had to soften the blow. “There is no Sex and the City revenge plot,” she said. “I revere that show just as much as any girl of my generation.”
Despite her protests, it seemed like every single person writing about the show had to conflate the two anyway, even if only to note that there were absolutely no similarities at all. Here is a handy list of all the ways the two were compared before Girls had even graced screens in 2012, eight years after Carrie Bradshaw and her gaggle had signed off.
What’s surprising is that six seasons later, in the run up to its final episode, the comparisons still haunt Girls. The Boston Globe reminds everyone that the two shows are often compared. Vanity Fair starts an article about the Girls finale with yet another dissection of the comparisons. The New York Post, always the antagonistic tabloid, whines about how Girls made us hate millennials and then yearns for the Manolo Blahnik and Cosmopolitan days of yore. “At least that HBO show made the behaviors of a generation of women seem glamorous,” Jennifer Wright scoffs. Even Lena Dunham, when asked about a possible Girls movie by the Guardian, said, “I’ll have to examine how long they waited before that Sex and the City movie.” Lena, you are not helping!
These shows were never alike at all, other than the fact that they were both on HBO and were about women in New York. Even those similarities are flimsy considering that Hannah and her cohort are of an entirely different generation than Carrie & Co. And the dingy, barely employed Brooklyn world of Girls is a universe away from the sparkly surfaces and burnished Manhattan of Sex and the City. You can’t even compare Carrie Bradshaw’s Upper East Side one bedroom with Marnie Michael’s crappy Chinatown squat, but, as recently as 2016, the New York Times did just that. Describing Carrie’s ridiculously large, completely unaffordable apartment with a walk-in closet to Marnie’s dinky studio with a shower in the kitchen, Ronda Kaysen writes, “But the real estate landscape has shifted so profoundly over the last two decades that this generation’s girl-about-town occupies a very different kind of space.”
No, this is not about New York real estate. This is about the creative decisions of two very different shows. Carrie lived in a fantasyland, and Marnie lives in (something closer to) reality. There are many ways you could describe Marnie (beautiful, narcissistic, controlling, self-centered, delusional, egotistical) but she has never been a “girl about town.” Sure, maybe in season one when she was trying to be a gallerina and sleeping with skeezy artist Booth Jonathan, but there is nothing about her quasi-folk starving artist lifestyle or her doomed marriage to Desi that could be considered “girl about town.” The one gown we ever see her wear, she bought second-hand in a thrift store and it made people think she was a Russian hooker.
I could tick down a list of ways that the shows are not alike, like Carrie’s fetishized outfits to Hannah’s insistence on wearing rompers that are especially unflattering for her body type. Or the fact that, compared to the rotating list of hookups and boyfriends on SATC, the girls of Girls are practically chaste, usually jetting from one monogamous relationship to another. (Even Jessa, the “Samantha” of the group, doesn’t get it on very often in comparison.) And while Sex and the City always focused on its central quartet, Girls, particularly in its later seasons, was equally as invested in the inner lives of its male characters, particularly Adam, Ray, and Elijah.
But the major difference between the two is one of tone and craft. Sex and the City is a sitcom in a very classic vein. Sure, it can sometimes be bittersweet, but most episodes end with the story lines tied in neat little bows and a sense of uplift. Week to week, season to season, we knew exactly what we’d get when tuning in. Girls was never as interested in that, vacillating wildly in terms of focus and quality (sometimes to its detriment) and willing to experiment with form in a way many series never do. It’s most classic episodes are the bottle episodes with Hannah (or Marnie or Shoshanna) off on their own escapades. Even when Carrie goes to L.A., she needs to bring her girls along for the ride. Girls also never had the same illusions about trying to play nice with its characters. Carrie Bradshaw is a somewhat monstrous person that we’re supposed to love; Hannah Horvath is a somewhat monstrous person that we’re supposed to hate (although sympathetically).
That’s not to say that Girls shouldn’t be compared to anything in television history. My colleague Jen Chaney compared it to Sex and the City when writing about how it broke the rules of the friendship comedy, but put it in the context of Friends, Seinfeld, and Will & Grace as well. The Globe also notes that Girls is more appropriately compared to Friends. What both of these articles get right is that Girls belongs alongside the greats, not just other shows about women in New York.
The saddest comparison between these two shows in recent days was when Heat Street starts off an article comparing Girls and Big Little Lies by, you guessed it, bringing up Sex and the City, as if any show that features four women needs to be compared to SATC, particularly if it’s on HBO. You never see critics comparing Silicon Valley to Entourage, two very different shows, just because they’re about four dudes who all work together. Heck, they don’t even compare Entourage to Ballers, and those shows are essentially Siamese twins.
This is the real, depressing reason the two shows always have to stand shoulder to shoulder: There just aren’t enough other shows that focus on women (particularly young women). And the cycle continues: A similar narrative played out last fall when Issa Rae’s HBO series, Insecure, which follows two black women living in Los Angeles, premiered. Ahead of its release, the show was constantly compared to Girls, and Rae herself to Dunham. “I don’t like that,” Rae told Vulture last fall. “That’s the dumbest and laziest thing to do. It’s insulting to me and to her, especially to her. We’re not telling the same stories. Yeah, we’re both young women on HBO, but … I wish I could think of men on HBO — they don’t do that shit with them.”
Back at her first visit to TCA, Dunham said of her show and Sex and the City, “I knew that there was a connection because it’s women in New York, but it really felt like it was tackling a different subject matter. Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in-between space that hadn’t really been addressed.”
There is still a lot that has yet to be addressed in the whole wide space in between, and until it is, Carrie and Hannah are going to have to stand side by side as sisters, even though they have absolutely nothing in common.