“I have heard your pro-Aidan arguments, and they will not move me—because Aidan Shaw is bullshit and will remain bullshit, for as long as his five almost-empty deodorants gather dust on a bathroom shelf. (So, forever.)” —Hillary Busis, Vanity Fair
Today is the 21st anniversary of the first ever televised episode of HBO’s cultural phenomenon Sex and the City. Which of course means this time last year was the 20th anniversary. Where were you on that momentous milestone day? Me personally, I was just over a month into changing every cosmetic surface on the house my husband and I had just purchased, so I was reading all the tributes and hindsight-is-2020 analyses between breaks from sanding baseboards and painting walls and hanging new light fixtures. It was tedious, mind-numbing drudgery, the kind that gives one’s mind quite the opportunity to wander; as such, I spent an abnormal amount of time thinking and reminiscing about Sex and the City, and how I too spent my mid-twenties obsessed with it.
So twenty years after the fact, it seems most of us agree it was too white and didn’t age well and that Carrie Bradshaw is really just a narcissistic asshat.* Sure. What struck me though, is the still-lingering Big vs. Aidan debate. Oh I’m not surprised we still like to talk about it, I’m just somewhat confounded that Aidan is still seen as the good guy (that either Carrie was stupid for not marrying, or that she never deserved). Aidan Shaw was not a good guy! He’s an entitled, manipulative asshole who won’t be honest about his true desires, whose affection and intimacy comes with strings, and who should have left with his reputation pilloried.
Everyone likes to compare him to Mr. Big, which is to be expected given the significant role each lover played in Carrie’s life. We all know Mr. Big is a self-absorbed, vapid, commitment-phobe. But he’s honest about who he is and how little he has to offer. He gets by on his looks and his money and he’s okay with that. By comparison, Aidan is supposedly caring, sensitive, and emotionally available… but let’s be fair here. I feel like rabid badgers would come across as loveable next to Mr. Big. Thanks to the existence of a penis, Aidan is being judged by the merest of standards and then given a trophy for crossing that pitifully low bar; in other words, water is wet. In reality, I maintain that Aidan is none of those things, that it doesn’t take much to crack his Good Guy Veneer and expose his ulterior motives.
First, let us make some presumptions about Aidan’s background. Sex and the City was intentionally a present-tense, in-the-moment kind of show, and the writers admitted they were loathe to delve too far into any characters’ childhood or backstory. So we’re left to fill in some gaps. Based on what we do know, I feel almost positive Aidan is not from New York. I think he’s from a small town somewhere in rural flyover America, possibly the midwest, or maybe the southeastern United States. I think his childhood home had lots of land, and he and his siblings spent most of their summers outside. He likely filled his time climbing trees, doing outdoor chores, and chasing rabbits out of his mother’s zucchini garden. His teenage years were spent driving some environmental nightmare of a hand-me-down pickup truck on its last legs. He lost his virginity on some hastily thrown blankets tossed in its bed on a warm, starry, summer night. On Saturday nights he’d sneak out his upstairs bedroom window to meet his guy friends at some designated spot in the woods, then attempt to sneak back through his bedroom window simultaneously puffing too much Binaca, hoping his parents wouldn’t notice he smelled like cheap beer and Marlboro cigarettes. His father was possibly a carpenter, or maybe he built or rehabbed houses. Aidan trailed him and worked for him, learning how to use power tools, install water heaters, paint evenly at the edges, and build bookshelves from nothing.
Aidan’s parents are likely still married, still living in the house they raised their kids in. They say grace before every meal, bring casseroles to church potlucks, and vote Republican. Aidan was raised with good manners, financial frugality, a strong work ethic, and fairly conservative values on issues like sex and gender norms. We don’t know what brought him to New York. I don’t think it was college. I feel like he attended a southeast or midwest state school, possibly University of Georgia? Or Iowa State? Perhaps he graduated with a business undergrad and then got hired at one of those slick corporate consultant firms in midtown Manhattan doing entry level grunt work. He hates the job, but is having fun with this new city experience, until one day he decides life is too short to write jargon-filled reports in some windowless cubicle, permanently seated next to a coworker wearing way too much cologne. So he makes the leap into entrepreneurship. He decides to marry his business education with his childhood passions, and selling the furniture he builds really works for him. He’s finally happy and feels on track to the life he really wants. He’s feeling professionally fulfilled and successful, and now it’s time to apply that same determination to his personal life. It’s time, he’s decided, to get serious about finding a life partner, a wife he can settle down with, who will want the children and the serene family life he craves.
See, despite Aidan’s success in New York, he’s still a bit homesick deep down. He doesn’t talk about it, but it’s always there. In reality, he wants the kind of loving, stable, tranquil, gendered marriage his parents had, just translated to his current surroundings. So he’s now more purposeful in his dating life. He’s made new rules for himself, like no more flings or casual sex, and he’s being choosier about his dates. No smokers! It’s at this life stage that he meets Carrie Bradshaw. She’s gorgeous, charming, and capable of abstract thought. They form a relationship that is far more serious for him than her, and she breaks his heart by cheating, prompting him to end things and walk away devastated. This is where the story should end for him. She obviously wasn’t the right woman on so many levels. But all fans and ex-fans know where it goes one season later.
A year later she calls him up and makes a (stalkerish?) case for a second try. He’s … not enthusiastic about the prospect. He should have left things there. A good guy would have trusted his instincts and continued the honest, often painful work of building the life he wanted. Carrie still wasn’t the girl for him. We don’t precisely know what compelled Aidan to take Carrie back, but we do know it doesn’t go well. Perhaps justifiably, he still doesn’t trust her. And he’s definitely still angry at her, despite his initial assurances to the contrary.
The problem with Aidan is that he’s fundamentally not an honest person. He’s not honest with Carrie, and he’s not honest with himself. Instead of recognizing that a second chance with Carrie will not further his life goals and just saying no, instead of realizing that he’s not ever going to get over being cheated on and retreating, he spends the next nine episodes of Season 4 essentially trying to change Carrie into his Ideal Wife, AND using her past sin of cheating as a cudgel to excuse his disingenuous behavior. His commitment and emotional intimacy always come with strings: stop smoking, simper and weep with gratitude when I buy you things you didn’t want or ask for, give up your life to spend weekends being ignored at my un-air-conditioned fixer upper in the middle of nowhere, don’t go out so much, be happy when my dumb dog eats your shoes…
But what really always got me about Aidan, the incident that, in my humble opinion, laid bare his toxic underbelly, is when – and how! – he buys Carrie’s apartment when her building goes co-op. It’s clear Aidan is someone who retains certain values about marriage and gender norms from his childhood. I think he’s one of those people who isn’t okay with cohabitation unless it’s accompanied with a ring and a set date. And that’s fine. But what’s slimy is that he never communicates this value system to Carrie. He takes advantage of her financial predicament by not only asking her to move in, but also offering to buy her apartment by way of asking her to live together, knowing – hell, creating! – her vulnerability. But the thing is: he only asks her to move in. He never mentions engagement or marriage. He never mentions that that’s one of his strings. He never gives her the option to discuss it like equal adults. She thinks she’s agreeing to one thing, but he’s over there plotting behind the scenes to propose – and he knows damn well she’s in a precarious position and can’t really say no. This messy deceit shoots a straight, bulls-eye arrow to the final break-up scene, where Aidan puts his full crapitude on display for us all. After promising to back off on marriage talk until she’s ready, he immediately goes back on his word, almost menacingly pressures her, and is angry that she won’t budge.
The thing is, Carrie was always upfront about who she was, what she wanted, and her flaws and limitations. He wouldn’t accept that their desires and values didn’t align, and somehow that’s her fault? Aidan is the least feminist thing about the entire show. He demands that women change for his agenda, he hardly supports a woman’s right to choose (remember how much he judged Carrie for her prior abortion, and Miranda for considering one?), and he goes out of his way to give himself the financial upper hand in his relationships. SATC was a groundbreaking show about centering women’s voices, celebrating women speaking frankly about once-taboo subjects, and being as empowered as possible in the realm of sex and money. And it befuddles me that Aidan somehow emerges from that show as A Good Guy. It seems like of all shows, SATC would be willing to display those kinds of pernicious agenda-pushing and unfeminist ideas for what they were. But no. Even on the (at the time) most unapologetic, female-empowering television program, not only can we not escape that domineering male behavior – we still have to call it sensitive and caring.
*For the record, I’m in agreement that Carrie sucks. She’s needy, irresponsible, and self-absorbed to the nth degree. But I don’t think she hid any of that from Aidan. Nor did she hide her lack of desire for marriage, children, or a quiet life in the country from him. Certainly, she didn’t always treat him (or anyone) well. But I think she was honest. And I think he took advantage of her personality flaws, selfish mistakes, and financial irresponsibility to push his own agenda on what he saw as an easy mark.
Buckwheat Crepes with Smoked Salmon and Tomato-Cucumber-Dill Relish
- 1 cup whole milk
- ¼ cup plus 2 tbs cold water
- 2 large eggs
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ cup buckwheat flour
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 3 tbs unsalted butter, plus more for sauteing the crepes
- About 4 oz. softened cream cheese
- About 4-6 oz. smoked salmon
- 1 medium tomato, seeded and diced
- 2 Kirby cucumbers, diced
- 1 smallish red onion, diced
- 1 3.5 oz jar capers, drained
- Juice of ½ lemon
- 2 glugs good olive oil
- Salt (not too much) and lots of black pepper
- Couple tbs minced chives
- ¼ cup minced fresh dill
- Combine the milk, water, eggs, both flours, and salt in a blender. Blend for 15 seconds, until the batter is smooth and lump-free. Scrape down the sides of the blender and add 3 tbs of melted butter. Blend it again just to incorporate. Refrigerate the batter 1 hour to let it rest.
- Put an 8-inch crepe pan or other nonstick skillet over medium heat and brush with butter. Pour ¼ cup of batter into the pan and swirl it around so it covers the bottom evenly; pour back any excess. Cook 30 to 45 seconds, until the crepe batter sets. Flip the crepe and cook another 30 seconds. Slide onto a platter and repeat until you’ve used up all the batter.
- Combine all the relish ingredients into a small bowl and stir to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Let it hang out and marry together while you make the crepes.
- To serve, smear each crepe with thin layer of softened cream cheese. Layer sliced smoked salmon on half, then fold crepe over in half, then fold again for a quarter. Liberally top with relish and serve immediately.