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Main character syndrome, explained by Carrie Bradshaw

The heroine of Sex and the City and its new reboot embodies the self-centered trope that’s all over social media.

Kristin Davis and Sarah Jessica Parker wearing black coats while filming “Sex And The City” in New York.
Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), right, bullied Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) into giving Carrie her engagement ring so Carrie could put a down payment on her own apartment.
Mark Mainz/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

If you’ve ever started to wonder exactly when Carrie Bradshaw turned from plucky, charming rom-com heroine to raging narcissist, the answer is in season four, episode 16, “Ring a Ding Ding” of Sex and the City, at precisely 18 minutes and 57 seconds.

The episode is the final one addressing Carrie’s broken engagement with Aidan (John Corbett). After he leaves, she receives a legal document asking her to pay for her apartment, which he had purchased under the premise that they would live there together. Carrie doesn’t have the money for the down payment; by her own accounting, she has spent all her money on shoes. She proceeds to try to scrounge up cash any way she can, notably by zeroing in on the expensive engagement ring left behind in the wake of her friend Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) broken nuptials.

“Why didn’t you offer me the money?” Carrie demands, before launching into a lecture about the ways she herself has always supported her friend.

Charlotte’s reasonable, loving response — that Carrie is a 35-year-old woman who needs to fix her own finances — offends Carrie to her very core. She storms out of her friend’s apartment.

At the end of the episode, a sufficiently browbeaten Charlotte does give her the 2.17 carat Tiffany ring and goes so far as to tell Carrie that it was wrong not to offer her $30,000 for her down payment. Carrie accepts the money and tells Charlotte she will pay her back. The series never shows Carrie cutting Charlotte a check. (Not to mention Paper-Covers-Rock-Gate, two seasons later, in which Carrie bulldozes the news of Charlotte’s new engagement by bemoaning a recent breakup. Suffice to say that scene involves a Post-it note and will make you want to scream.)

The truth of the matter is that two Carries Bradshaw exist: The flirty, quirky one we’re supposed to follow through her ups and downs and the sociopathic psychic vampire who leaves her boyfriends as husks of their former selves and bullies her girlfriends for unconditional (financial!) support, all while refusing to let them have even one moment in the sun.

The line between the Carrie we love and the Carrie we hate is thin, give or take a re-watch or two.

The thing is, though, while this type of selfish behavior is outlandish, it isn’t unfamiliar to most people; it’s a set of traits based in reality. Today, we have a name — a nonmedical diagnosis, even — for this way of being: main character syndrome. The concept, popularized on TikTok by Gen Z, is as an affliction where someone acts like and believes the world centers around them. Just like Carrie.

Carrie Bradshaw is obviously the main character of Sex and the City and its forthcoming reboot, And Just Like That, but what’s really annoying — and relevant — is the way that character acts like she knows she’s starring in her own show.

How Carrie Bradshaw became an avatar for main character syndrome

Main character syndrome as a term is thrown around, often sardonically or ironically, to define behavior where someone acts like (and maybe even believes that) the real world essentially serves as a TV series about their own life. This is characterized by behavior that indicates that everything that happens exists only to further their story or contribute to their own enlightenment, and that they feel and understand things with greater clarity than the people around them.

Platforms like Instagram and Facebook have been goading us to curate and romanticize our lives for years now. It’s gotten to the point that what’s put on social media has become a performance that we’re all in on, that we all know is just another fantasy. And since we are all the main characters of our own social feeds, it’s not a big surprise that this behavior has tipped over into something of an extreme.

Vox’s Rebecca Jennings spotted the main character trend in the summer of 2020 where young women would ironically (or not) imagine themselves as the main characters of their own scenarios on TikTok. Since then, the term has become more and more self-referential and self-deprecating as a way to recognize our own moments of self-absorbed behavior.

Carrie Bradshaw is a useful avatar for main character syndrome because yes, obviously, she is the literal main character of her show. Beyond that, though, her, at times, absurd lack of self-reflection becomes a mirror for the viewer. She’s a conduit through which you can feel free to laugh at your own overwrought behavior: Maybe you’re experiencing sadness so powerful or such intense emotional clarity that it feels like nobody but you could ever possibly understand. Of course, that’s not the case, but it can feel good to wallow, and that’s why the pull of MCS — of “being a Carrie” — is so strong.

“I’m a Carrie” might have meant being flirty, romantic, or charming back when the show premiered in 1998, but the meaning has evolved along with the character. Now it can mean something a lot closer to “sure I’m egotistical, but smart enough to clock it for what it is.”

Carrie Bradshaw was never meant to be relatable

One of the best analyses I’ve read about Sex and The City that’s helped me understand my own howling dislike of Carrie is Emily Nussbaum’s assertion that Carrie is an anti-hero. Carrie, Nussbaum argues, is more like Tony Soprano or Don Draper than she is Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Lucy Ricardo I Love Lucy. This isn’t true from the beginning, but the turn happens when she dates, breaks up with, and later has an affair with a character known throughout almost the entire series only as Big (Chris Noth).

Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall on Location for “Sex and the City: The Movie” - September 21, 2007
Carrie Bradshaw shows you that only a main character can use a hatbox as an accessory.

“A man practically woven out of red flags, Big wasn’t there to rescue Carrie; instead, his ‘great love’ was a slow poisoning,” Nussbaum wrote. “She spun out, becoming anxious, obsessive, and, despite her charm, wildly self-centered — in her own words, ‘the frightening woman whose fear ate her sanity.’”

This critique makes all the unlikable stuff Carrie does — shaming Charlotte into a down payment for her house; being a jerk about Samantha’s chemical peel at her book party; physically striking Big because he rolls on her while asleep; inviting Big to Aidan’s country cabin; stalking more than one ex’s ex; telling her friends that it makes sense they’re in therapy and that she doesn’t need it, ad infinitum — make some sense. We’re not supposed to like her or her actions because they’re genuinely bad, perpetrated by a woman who we’re not supposed to be rooting for.

But Carrie being a rotten person is only half of the answer. The problem that elicits my howling groans is that the show never really seems to understand just how deranged her behavior is. Because SATC functions as a serialized rom-com, the breakups and heartbreak that are the cause of (or just as often caused by) her behavior are considered real moments of pain and loss — yet the fact that so often they’re the consequences of her own actions gets overlooked.

Above all, the show is supposed to be about friendship, which is where it truly falls flat to me. I don’t expect someone like Carrie to fully acknowledge the boundless nature of her selfishness, but the logic of the show would lead you to expect that someone else should. Here’s a woman who is always with her three fully grown, professional adult besties, and none of them point out that she’s a terrible, horrendously selfish friend. By not really pushing her, they just flatten into accessories.

Wouldn’t Miranda, in all her self-righteous sarcasm, ask: “Carrie, tell me you did not shame Charlotte into giving you her engagement ring?” Or wouldn’t Charlotte firmly but politely remind her about the payments from time to time? Wouldn’t Samantha turn it into a sex joke, wondering if her friend is this self-obsessed in bed?

I’m excited to see if, with the many years between the original series and the new reboot And Just Like That (which premiered December 9 at midnight), the show’s writers will have Carrie possess a self-awareness about her own selfishness that she didn’t before. Keeping her self-absorbed and righteous would maintain the character’s integrity, I suppose, even though it might turn the miniseries into a Carrie hate-watch or tale of caution for some dedicated fans.

But it would also be fascinating to see her grapple with or be embarrassed by her past behavior or have a throwaway joke about how awful she was (justice for Charlotte). Having seen the first two episodes, it seems like the show is setting up a huge life shift for Carrie. If that does lead to a major mental or emotional evolution, we’d have to find another patron saint of that pesky syndrome, but it’d be reassuring to know that people, and maybe even main characters, grow.

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