Candace Bushnell on #MeToo, Millennial TV and Ageism Facing Middle Aged Women

Photo illustration by Gluekit; Source: Monica Schipper/Getty; joe daniel price/getty; Tetra Images/getty

In her ninth book, the chronicler of pre-millennial female sophisticates on the Hit TV show Sex and the City (which aired from 1998 to 2002) checks in from the other side of the menopausal divide. Candace Bushnell's Is There Still Sex In The City? is a sad, but amusing, tour through the lives of women navigating what she calls "Middle Aged Madness." Bushnell, who lost both her parents and got divorced during the last 10 years, moved to the country with a new group of friends looking more for sympathy than pink Cosmos.

The stilettos were tucked away in the closet, presumably in her country house, when an editor enticed Bushnell back into New York. The result: a new taxonomy of the mating habits of men and women while relating the trials of a variety of composite female friends in their 50s. In the book, she explores online dating, meets young men "cubs" in their 20s and early 30s with a fetish for older women, and drops thousands of dollars on a Russian anti-aging scam on Madison Avenue on a low day. She tries to take up cycling, but finds herself too unmotivated to join what she calls the "Super-Middles"—health conscious aging jocks who reach their 60s looking younger than they have in decades.

In an interview with Newsweek, Bushnell, 60, looks back at the Sex and the City era, and talks about her own middle age, among other things. Edited excerpts:

Why "Middle Aged Madness" instead of menopause?
Because menopause is just too simple. I'm talking about women in their really early 50s and into their 60s. Chances are those women have gone through menopause. It's really about life circumstances and about losing your mojo and having to find it again in a new iteration as an older woman in a society where you are not valued. This is a psychic passage. The reality is that there is loss in this time for many women.

The New York Times ran a correction on its book review, saying yours is not a nonfiction book. It's a novel. How is it a novel and not nonfiction, because it looks like a lot of your real life?
That's a good question. I used myself as an example of somebody who's going through this passage, but the others are really composites. There are parts of it that just are fiction, where I don't know of anybody who this happened to, but these are the kinds of things that could happen.

The book has been optioned to be a TV show. Who should be playing you now?
I don't know that the character will be me. The character will probably be me eight or 10 years ago when I started embarking on this journey. I don't know and I don't make any assumptions about casting. Honestly, whoever ends up playing the part, I will be happy, I'll be grateful.

What do you think of some of the newer, younger female comedy shows that have sort of taken the place of Sex and the City? Broad City. Fleabag. Do you have a favorite?
I do love Fleabag, but I don't feel like it is Sex and the City-ish at all. I think that because Sex and the City was a success, it opened the door for people in the entertainment business to think, "Hey, shows about women and shows about complicated women characters can work and make money," because honestly, all that they're looking at is the bottom line. There are lots of shows out there with lots of different young women expressing themselves in different ways. I think that's what's really great. Does one of them in particular stand out to me? No, but that's just because I don't spend a lot of time watching Netflix, because my streaming doesn't work.

The cast of Sex in the City Paramount Pictures/Getty

You're not a binge watcher?
No. In my spare time at night, I'm usually reading.

Well, what are you reading right now?
The Farm by Joanne Ramos. It's a really interesting book about a business where the women are surrogate mothers and they all stay at a place that's like a spa, but of course, they can't leave.

What's on your playlist when you're on a road trip or when you're tooling back and forth between your Hamptons house and the city?
Occasionally I'll make a playlist of pop hits, but I listen to a lot of '60s and '70s rock. I'm usually driving on the LIE, the Long Island Expressway. There isn't a lot of time to rock out because you're speeding up, then you're hitting the brakes, you know? It's not easy.

You've written nine books. Do you have a favorite? And why?
I think it is Trading Up. It's about an unlikeable heroine and I was just so much in that character's head. I think that book is a pretty brilliant description of New York society at the turn of the century.

When you go to book signings these days, what sort of things do fans ask you, or the most common thing that you hear?
People always want to know if there's a real Mr. Big. And there was. I get a lot from fans that they really feel like Sex and the City helped them through a certain passage in their lives. I'm always impressed with my fans; these women are smart and they're aspirational. They've got it together, they've got questions. They get it and they get the humor, too.

Let's talk looks. You write about how you dropped $4000 on a Russian face cream scam. How has your beauty routine changed given that you're 60? Do you have a position on Botox and fillers?
In the '90s I worked for Vogue magazine, and I used to do these guinea pig pieces where you go and get the procedure done and write about it. So, I got collagen filler in my lips in the early '90s, when it first came out, for a story. I didn't really like it. But then as time goes on, when I think I was around 40, I got Botox. I might have even done a story on it. I can't remember. I do get Botox and I do get filler, but one tries not to go too far. I don't have a problem with it. Now that I'm 60, I don't have a problem with plastic surgery, either. But plastic surgery is expensive, so I'm not rushing to get it.

What's the difference between a cougar and cubbing?
Cougars and boy toys, that's the old-fashioned idea of an older woman [pursuing] a younger man. This cubbing phenomenon is the opposite, it's about the younger guys pursuing older women. There are a few reasons for it. One is probably due to porn and this idea of the MILF, a sexy older woman. Interestingly, for younger men, a sexy older woman, it's not taboo. It's not strange to them. Let's face it, we did not grow up with the idea that a woman over a certain age could possibly be attractive, nor could she possibly attract the interest of a younger man. That's something that society has drilled into our head again and again and again, but we live in a less rigid time.

A cub is in his 20s, by definition?
Twenties or early 30s. One of the first places that I noticed this phenomenon was when I did the story on Tinder and I changed the age range to younger guys. I did it as a joke and I got so many hits I could have gone on three dates a day with guys under 30.

Going back to the Manhattan of the '90s, the Sex and the City era, is there one place or aspect of life that you would love to have back from that era?
I think that there was a certain excitement and now that one looks back at it, maybe a naivete. I think what I miss is that feeling of going out and seeing friends all the time. It feels like that just doesn't happen so much anymore.

Do you feel sorry for the digital natives who hook up online or do you feel like it's just a different universe from the one you inhabited?
No, I don't. I don't feel sorry for them. I remember when I first published Sex and the City, a friend of mine's mother said, "Oh, I feel so sorry for you girls these days." That's a very easy attitude to adopt, but it's not true.

This brings us to the #MeToo movement. What would Carrie have made of Harvey Weinstein's sexual habits?
I think you should say, "What does Candace Bushnell make of it?" because I was Carrie. And I will tell you that certainly the underlying anger in the book comes from years of women in a #MeToo environment. I came to New York in 1979. It's interesting that what would be categorized as #MeToo now happened all the time and with a regularity then. Those incidents were so incredibly common. As women, we were told, society told us, "There's nothing you can do about it. This is the way men are. Deal with it or go home." There was no middle ground. It was a regular part of the work landscape.

And now? Do you sense any change?
Interestingly, if I go into an audience and ask a group of women how many of them have had a #MeToo experience in the workplace in the last couple of years, it's going to be maybe one or two older women who will raise their hands. The awareness of it is terrific because it seems that while this still goes on, it doesn't seem to happen with the regularity it did in the '80s. Then, it was just blatant. For me, that was the most disheartening thing about coming to New York and entering the workforce, was how many men wanted sexual favors and how you couldn't win. You don't do the sexual favor, you don't get the job. That was the reality.

Your book has funny anecdotes, but it also has deaths and is filled with frustration about the indignities of middle age that are very specific for women.
I think one of the differences in this age group of people is that the men are very entitled—in the sense that they feel like they're the movers and shakers in their own lives. They have more options. They have more money. And men who are still able to provide for a potential family are sought after and will always be sought after. Many studies have shown that middle aged women find themselves in diminished economic situations. It's not easy to go out there and get a job. There's another side of this equation too, which is the very pretty women who relied a lot on their looks, discover that they can no longer do that. I think it's easy for us to try to dismiss those women, but that's pretty much what women are encouraged to do in our society.

Do you feel invisible?
I do. One's got to look at it as a superpower. You can find out what people are saying without them noticing. Ageism, it's a real thing. But the good news is that this is a cohort of women who are used to being out there and doing something in the world. This is the group of women who stormed the offices and banks and law firms in the '80s. These are the women who were the independent single women in the '90s. It's a vibrant group that's a bit overlooked.