Ever since The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970, young, independent single women on TV have flocked to the cities to pursue their careers. But Mary Tyler Moore made it big in Minneapolis. In more recent single lady sitcoms—Cagney & Lacey, Living Single, Friends, Felicity, Sex and the City, 30 Rock, Ugly Betty, Don’t Trust the B—– in Apt. 23, Girls, and The Carrie Diaries—storylines emphasizes that, for young, unattached, career-minded women, New York City is the only place to be. These shows suggest that, if you take your career seriously, you simply must move to Manhattan.
But conflating ambition, glamor, and New York City is has a major drawback: Living in New York is a lot easier for people who come from money. For working class girls like the title character of Ugly Betty, the dream will, more often than not, remain out of reach. If you have no trust fund, it will be hard to pay tuition to earn the “University of New York” diploma seen on Felicity’s wall. If you need to support your family, there will be no hanging out at Indochine, like in The Carrie Diaries. If you need to pay off over $25,000 in student debt, Sex in the City’s Fifth Avenue professional-outfit shopping sprees will remain a Manhattan myth.
There is an inherent barrier to entry for underprivileged young women who have Manhattan-sized ambitions. For disadvantaged young women of color like the title character of 2006’s Ugly Betty (America Ferrera), success seems to be just across the Queensboro Bridge. But Betty’s career is mitigated not only by her social class but also by her live-in father’s chronic health problems and undocumented immigrant status. For Betty, an ideal career seems more like it’s a continent away.
Contrast that to the Manhattan career in the prequel to Sex and the City, The Carrie Diaries. The show features privileged Connecticut high schooler Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb). We see right away that Carrie has bought into the myth of Manhattan. In the pilot episode, she says of one recurring reverie, “It’s always the same dream. I’m in the city and I belong. Manhattan is mine.” And of course Carrie can afford to dream of New York City; her lawyer father hooks her up with an internship in Manhattan and drives her there once a week. Carrie’s father supports her, not the other way around as with Betty. Carrie has the luxury to pursue her dreams. But without a financial safety net, the climb is so much tougher for working class gals like Betty and Mad Men’s Peggy.
The seductive lure of New York is nothing new to young, ambitious women. I think it was best captured by author Joan Didion, in her 1967 essay “Goodbye To All That,” which captures her own heightened expectations of the city:
To those of us [for whom]…Wall Street and Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue were not places at all but abstractions (“Money,” and “High Fashion,” and “The Hucksters”), New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu.
Are there any struggling girls onscreen who can make it in the city? Perhaps we will see this on Girls or 2 Broke Girls. In the Girls first season episode “The Return,” insecure new college grad Hannah (Lena Dunham), visits her parents back home in Michigan and pep talks herself in the mirror before heading to a party: “You are from New York, therefore you are just naturally interesting.”
But, of course, she’s from Michigan. And secondly, ever since her parents ceased giving her an allowance, Hannah’s New York existence has meant miserably scraping by. As she says says to her not-boyfriend on the phone, “Why doesn’t everyone just move here [to Michigan] and start the revolution? It’s like we’re all slaves to this place that doesn’t even want us.” In the second season episode, Hannah’s back in New York and finally landed a freelance writing gig at the fictional website JazzHate. So perhaps she’s gonna make it after all?
Television would have us believe that, in order to lead independent and successful lives, we must live in New York City. And while that works out well for privileged Carrie and—while she had an allowance—Hannah, it’s sometimes devastating for working class girls like Peggy and Betty. Television entices us to pawn our financial security for a dream job and a dream lifestyle. But in both television and in real life, it’s not a level playing field. There’s a price tag for Manhattan ambitions, and the growing wealth disparity in America has made those dreams even more elusive for women of the 99%.
Author John Updike once said, “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” While this makes for excellent comedy on TV, for ambitious women who struggle in real life, trying to fund a career in New York is truly no joke.