'The Sex and the City' Equation: Four Women You Always Meet in Female-Led Sitcoms
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INT. A BRUNCH SPOT. We see FOUR WOMEN sitting around a table. Their plates are full, but they are, of course, not eating. Instead, they’re gabbing and laughing away about life, love, and the pursuit of their own happiness. If this sounds familiar, then congratulations -- you have seen a sitcom starring four female leads.
The four-female-lead sitcom has been a tried and true staple of American popular culture television for quite some time. The obvious recent reference would be HBO’s landmark series, Sex and the City. However, four-female-lead sitcoms go back in television history to at least the 1980s, with shows from then until now like Living Single, Girls, Insecure, and the gold standard, The Golden Girls.
And now with new shows like HBO’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, and Amazon Prime’s Harlem, it’s time to finally put into words what makes four-female-lead sitcoms work. Because it is not random by any means. There is a definite formula, with four very clear archetypes that are used in these shows that work again and again. We'll break down each of these four archetypes, but before we do I want to clarify that this is not a man categorizing women… this is a gay man gushing over his favorite kind of sitcom. OK, now let’s finally break down the four archetypes so when you, dear reader, want to create your own four-female-led sitcoms, you will know exactly who/what needs to be in them.
The Dreamer is usually the lead. They might be new to the show’s world and are often confused by everything (Kimberly in The Sex Lives of College Girls). Or they lead their pack of girlfriends but are constantly searching for more out of life (Sex and the City’s Carrie, Girls’ Hannah, In Living Color’s Kadijah). Regardless of whether they lead with confidence or enter with curiosity, they are constantly asking questions. They can’t help but wonder: Am I the leader of this four-person ensemble?
This character is the glue of her four-friend posse. All the other gals rally around this person. If the show is a multi-cam sitcom, it is the Dreamer’s house in which most of the characters congregate. Khadijah of Living Single was the head of her house simply because she provided the house in the first place.
The Dreamer’s story drives the series, and it often revolves around her getting together with an ex-boyfriend. Will Carrie and Big get together? What about Insecure’s Issa and Lawrence? Or Hannah and Adam or how about Camille and Ian over on Harlem, or Dorothy and her ex-husband Stan? Ladies? We need to get off this never-ending train.
Alas, the Dreamer character sometimes can get downright insufferable. Take Camille on Harlem. She is constantly her own worst enemy: she misses therapy, she says the wrong things to her boss, and she constantly chooses to engage with her ex-boyfriend when she should move the hell on! Change can be painful to watch. Or take just about anything Hannah Horvath did on Girls. Because the Dreamer’s raison d’etre is to question everything, they often make really stupid mistakes that seem unforgivable. Like that cringe moment when Hannah pushed the Q-tip into her ear so far it popped her eardrum. Stop! Stop the madness, please!
But due to the inherent nature of change built into the Dreamer character, sometimes their evolution can lead to a brand new character. For example, the character Issa Dee changed so much over Insecure’s five-year run. She began as a selfish character who cheated on her boyfriend, abruptly quit her job, and wasn’t always good. But she eventually learned from her mistakes and evolved into a grown woman who owned her own business and had a strong relationship with her romantic partner. And that’s always rewarding for an audience to watch and root for.
While other archetypal characters in four-female-lead sitcoms can be aspirational (or a warning), we are meant to identify with the Dreamer. They are who we are now. We are supposed to root for these characters because they are the one character who is growing and changing. The Dreamer is an agent of change. And we will always want to watch her win.
- Carrie (Sex and the City)
- Hannah Horvath (Girls)
- Issa Dee (Insecure)
- Camille (Harlem)
- Kimberly (Sex Lives of College Girls)
- Dorothy (Golden Girls)
- Khadijah (Living Single)
The name of this archetype describes the Cynic to a T. This character is cynical with a capital ICK! She cocks an eyebrow at everyone and everything. Nothing is ever good enough, everything can be improved. Look no further than Miranda Hobbs from Sex and the City, the Cynic to end all cynics. A high-powered lawyer, she’s too busy trying to make partner to find time for love. Where the Dreamer searches for perfection, the Cynic is determined to perfect what she already has.
Emotionally, the Cynic is closed off. The journey we watch the Cynic take is one of de-frost-ation (new word) or the thawing of their cold, cold heart. The reason we love the Cynic is that we know their journey is one of self-rediscovery. Leighton on Sex Lives of College Girls came in not wanting to be friends with her college dormmates. She was a closeted lesbian who knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t a human connection. But wouldn’t you know it? She meets Alicia, her special someone, and her ice walls came tumbling down. That journey of melting the frozen heart is the cornerstone of every Cynic character arc: Leighton finds her girlfriend, Max falls for Kyle on Living Single, Harlem’s Tye learns there’s more to life than work, Molly gives up trying to control other people's lives on Insecure.
Alas, the Cynic has some negative qualities. The Cynic (more so than any other of the four archetypes) is prone to regressing. Sometimes the Cynic is so set in her cynical ways that she refuses to grow and change.
Take Marnie (please) from Girls. This character was one big Mobius strip of regression. She slept with ex-boyfriends she was sure she could change, she got engaged to a man she barely knew, and she refused to admit when she hit rock bottom… not even after the unfortunate Kanye karaoke moment. Woof. Hard to watch. And the whole time, she looked down on others and presented her life as if it were better than theirs. Marnie ain’t great.
Who is a great Cynic? Miranda Hobbs. Miranda claimed to know who she was and what she wanted. Enter Steve Brady, the charming New York bartender who after years (and years) of work wore down Miranda’s defense. The two fell in love and grew into a happy little family (with some drama that came later but hey, the movies and reboots have to be about something).
- Miranda (Sex and the City)
- Marnie (Girls)
- Molly (Insecure)
- Tye (Harlem)
- Leighton (Sex Lives Of College Girls)
- Sophia (Golden Girls)
- Max (Living Single)
So sweet. So chaste. The Innocent archetype is the virginal-ish character in the core group. But she's not necessarily an actual virgin. Innocents earn their name not only from their sexual/romantic outlook, but also in how they view the world.
Take the character of Whitney from Sex Lives of College Girls. Whitney is having an affair with her married soccer coach. He constantly tells her (i.e., lies) it’s over with his wife, and she believes him. With no damn proof, she believes him. Innocent Whitney. She, like all of the other innocents, believes that love can conquer all. The Innocent walks through the world heart first, head second.
Often, these characters may be described as the dumb or simple ones. Think characters like Synclaire (Living Single), Shoshanna (Girls), and Rose (Golden Girls). But this is an unfair characterization. It’s not that this character is dumb, rather their naivety comes from a lack of experience. Synclaire is new to New York, Shoshanna is still an NYU student, and Rose… well Rose is just Rose (RIP Betty White!).
The negative side of the Innocent character is simply put: snobbery. Tiffany on Insecure, Charlotte on Sex and the City, and Quinn on Harlem all have a WASPy air to them… which is a real feat considering Tiffany and Quinn are both Black women. Sometimes this character can be a bit insufferable to watch as they view other people based upon status and wealth.
But the redeeming quality of the Innocent character is that they will always have their world views re-defined. Every Innocent character realizes they will have to adjust something in themselves to get what they want. Charlotte must convert to Judaism, Tiffany must open up and deal with her postpartum depression, and Quinn has to admit she has real feelings for a hot male stripper. This character is very polarizing. They present views and ideas very different than any other character and are often conservative in their points of view. Your mileage with this character may vary.
- Charlotte (Sex and the City)
- Shoshanna (Girls)
- Tiffany (Insecure)
- Quinn (Harlem)
- Whitney (Sex Lives of College Girls)
- Rose (Golden Girls)
- Sinclair (Living Single)
Ah, the Samantha. The kind of woman girls want to be, and gay men want to invite to all of their parties. This archetype was probably also known as the Floozy, the Sex-Pot, or the Loose Woman when it referred to characters like Blanche on Golden Girls, or Regine from Living Single. But the archetype became permanently known as the Samantha after the iconic Ms. Jones graced our screens for six seasons of Sex and the City. We now bow before her altar and pray she gets written into the SATC reboot And Just Like That. Samantha Jones perfected being the Samantha in a group. You never knew what she was going to say, but you knew you were going to love it and quote it to your friends later.
This character is the FUN part of the show. Audiences tune in every week just to see what the Samantha does next. Often (and by that I mean always), she is a sex-positive force. The Samantha sees men as a snack that must be crunched. Always leading with a purr in her voice, the Samantha is a truly endearing character archetype who values her comfort over all else in the world.
Is this a realistic representation of an actual person? Maybe not. But we have other archetypes for reality. The Samantha is there to fulfill a fantasy. We wish we could keep up with the sexual exploits of this woman. My God, we wish for that so much. Not to say that every Samantha is an uncontrollable sex monster (but what’s wrong with that?).
The Samantha also usually comes with a dark past. See Jessa on Girls. She was the UK transplant trying to outrun her past and find a life for herself in NYC. There was a darkness to Jessa’s story that showed her to be more than the wild child. Bella on Sex Lives of College Girls entered the show as the carefree Samantha but after issues of misogyny from her college comedy newspaper and finding a lack of female support on campus, Bella learned that she may have to occasionally reign in her sexual appetites if she wants to be taken seriously as an adult.
When these human moments happen to the Samantha character, the audience sees a whole new side of the character that makes us fall in love with her even more. The Samantha can have a lot of sex AND grow as a person? What a woman!
- Samantha (Sex and the City)
- Jessa (Girls)
- Kelli (Insecure)
- Angie (Harlem)
- Bela (Sex Lives Of College Girls)
- Regine (Living Single)
- Blanche (Golden Girls)
And there you have it -- the four characters you’ll find in every four-female-lead sitcom. Now try not to examine your own friends and determine which one is the Samantha.
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