Thank you, Sex and the City, for rejecting the myth of “the hot friend”

The finale of Sex and the City aired 15 years ago on February 22nd, 2004. Here, a contributor reflects on what the series taught her about attraction and its fluidity.

The idea that one specific friend is “the hot one” and that all female friendships—whether a duo or group—exists inside a set hierarchy of hotness is pervasive in television shows, especially those marketed to female audiences.

Take Gossip Girl, with its frequent plots propelled by friction between Blair (Leighton Meester) and Serena (Blake Lively) due to Blair’s frustration with the ease in which everything, including the male gaze, comes to beautiful Serena. There’s a Gilmore Girls scene in which Paris (Liza Weil) actually asks Rory (Alexis Bledel) to hide in a closet for fear that her expected date will want to take out Rory instead of her. Friends features an episode in which Jean-Claude Van Damme wants to date Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) instead of Monica (Courteney Cox), resulting in the iconic marinara-in-a-purse catfight. And when one considers the narrative of the flashbacks, in which Rachel is the typical prom queen and Monica is overweight and overlooked, these two characters fit neatly into the roles of the hot one and the friend of the hot one.

Even The Office suggests Pam (Jenna Fischer) is the hot one in the entire office through Michael Scott’s repeated comments. This dynamic between female friends is also seen on New Girl, Modern Family, and most recently on Stranger Things with Barb (Shannon Purser) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer). It’s a trope that spans narrative settings, television networks, and genres. Yet, Sex and the City, a show perhaps more interested in exploring sexual attraction than any other, stands as a refreshing rebuke.

In Sex and the City, there was no “hot one.”

Take Kristin Davis’s Charlotte and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie. In one episode, a man hits on Charlotte at a bar, adding that he’ll “even buy blondie here one,” in reference to Carrie. He essentially suggests that he finds Charlotte so attractive that he’d even be willing to buy her less hot friend a pity drink. Then, in a subsequent episode when the women visit Atlantic City, a man asks Carrie to blow on his dice. Carrie suggests that Charlotte do it instead, since it’s her birthday. The man’s friend, however, insists “the hot one,” meaning Carrie, should blow on the dice. These scenes mirror each other; the male characters assess Carrie and Charlotte based solely on their outward appearances and come to opposing conclusions about who “the hot one” is.

One may argue that Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is the group’s resident unattractive friend—she suffers some of the harshest, oddest rejections on the show. In the first season, she goes through a self-esteem crisis when she feels like none of her friends would want to have a three-way with her, prompting Miranda to ask her therapist if he’d hypothetically have a three-way with her. In the second season, Miranda thinks she’s been flirting with her neighbor through her apartment’s window, even flashing him, only for him to tell her that he’s actually been flirting with the man who lives below her. Not once but twice does Miranda have a plot revolving around the fact that she hasn’t had sex in a while: In Season 1, she substitutes documentaries for sex; in Season 4, chocolate. On the surface, it does seem that Miranda faced much rejection, relegated to bizarre flirtations because of her small dating pool—there’s the guy in a sandwich costume, the long-distance phone sex guy, the pretend-surgeon who is really an assistant manager at an Athlete’s Foot—but that’s not actually the case.

In the episode when Carrie is mugged, she files a report with a handsome detective who doesn’t bat an eye at her. Then in walks Miranda, and the detective is, as Carrie puts it, smitten—so much so, he flirts by making a cringy-but-cute Miranda Rights pun. So a character wasn’t attracted to Carrie, but turned to human Jell-O at the site of Miranda. When Miranda loses her baby weight and fits into her skinny jeans, a group of men bicker about which one of them gets to buy her a drink. And then, of course, there was Miranda’s relationship with Dr. Robert Leeds (Blair Underwood), perhaps the best character any of the women dated. The unattractive and ever-rejected friend, Miranda, is not actually unattractive and ever-rejected.

Samantha (Kim Cattrall) perhaps suffered the least rejection on the show because many of her plots relied on her having some sort of hilarious, weird, or interesting sexual encounter. But Samantha is rejected in the pilot episode by Mr. Big. Yes, Mr. Big, who later marries Carrie, coolly rejects Samantha’s offer for a private tour of the club where they’ve gathered. In the course of the same episode, Charlotte doesn’t sleep with her date (you know, because of her rules) and said date ends the night with Samantha.

So, really, even from the very first episode, Sex and the City highlighted how attraction is often fluid and unpredictable. There is no definitive pecking order in which one person is forever and always “the hot one.”

If you’re keeping score, it’s something like this: Miranda > Carrie > Charlotte > Carrie > Samantha > Charlotte. Confusing, I know, but that’s the point.

The reality of attraction is much closer to Sex and the City’s version of it than any other show’s I’ve seen—though, what even is the reality of attraction? Many have attempted to determine what, exactly, defines attractiveness: an asymmetrical face, confidence, pheromones, culture, availability, success, wealth, intellect, a sense of humor. The list goes on because attraction is a mysterious magnetic pull that is influenced by many different factors, thus “the hot one” doesn’t really exist. Or if it does exist, “the hot one” depends on who is looking, as was the case on Sex and the City. Each main character was flattered and pursued or embarrassed and rejected simply depending on the guest male character that episode.

Many shows suggest the idea that female characters—and, by extension, real-life women—exist within a universally agreed-upon hierarchy of hotness.

They imply that women can be filed neatly, like a pyramid, with the tippy top being reserved for the Serena van der Woodsens, Rory Gilmores, and Rachel Greens of the world.  But if the idea of the hot one exists at all, it’s in the form of a circle that rotates, placing one person, then another then another at the top. Some more recent shows, like Girls, Insecure, and Broad City have also bucked the idea of a static hot friend and the other friend who only gets pity drinks. But for me, none of them have rejected the idea of “the hot one” with as much subtlety or nuance as Sex and the City, which employs inconsequential background characters to assign their own versions of “the hot one” to a friend group—but the assignment constantly changes and the friends are never beholden to these strangers’ ideas.

In the world of Sex and the City, as well as the real world, the myth of “the hot one” is much like the male characters offering their opinions on the subject: inconsequential, in the background, and often recast.

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