Can ‘Sex and the City’ Still Matter?

by nyljaouadi1
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Shortly before the end of the TV run of my beloved Sex and the City, I was discussing the show with a friend of my mother’s, a smug yuppie then obsessed with getting her son into Harvard. We didn’t like each other much, but we both hated the suburbs we lived in, sharing an interest in the world beyond malls, megachurches, and SUVs. I told her I was sad the series was ending. She said, “Well, they had to end it. You know the reason why.” The year was 2004. I was a teenager who fully expected to become a darker-skinned version of Carrie Bradshaw. I actually didn’t know the reason why.

With the odd air of triumph that comes from crushing someone else’s fantasy, she explained, “They’re too old.” What she meant was: They can’t be running around sleeping with strangers anymore, drinking until 3 a.m., baring their midriffs. She seemed extremely satisfied with time catching up to the foursome, as if it validated something for her. I wonder what she would make of the revival.

Filming is due to start any day now on And Just Like That…, an upcoming 10-episode run that reunites most of the cast with showrunner Michael Patrick King for Carrie’s fresh take on a brave new world. I tend to be cynical about the reboot/reunion cash grabs that have taken hold of the television industry; there is no hotter product these days than a beloved property that could be milked some more. Sex and the City, which dominated its cultural milieu when it debuted in 1998, has already sustained two movies, both of them terrible. I struggled even with several episodes in the show’s late period, when it got a bit dumber—or at least ran out of ideas about how to make Charlotte interesting.

In its prime, the show electrified with its effortless capture of the zeitgeist. But looking back, I’m shocked by how casually the purportedly queer-friendly show threw trans and bi characters under the bus when it wasn’t using gay characters as props or punch lines. It was always a show blinkered by its own privilege, a fantasy of New York so circumscribed that the characters barely left a 60-block radius. Still, Sex and the City asked big questions with openness and sincerity, playfully tweaking our sexual mores. And youth, and the way aging comes down on women, is one of the taboos that Sex and the City always toyed with, stretching the edges and pulling at the seams.

After all, the show began by worrying about the end. Sex and the City’s most memorable moments may have been the frothy, flirty sexual escapades, the hot clubs, the on-trend workout classes, and the to-die-for footwear, but what animated the series from the start was the specter of obsolescence. The soon-to-be-iconic Carrie Bradshaw—played by a pre-blond (in that first episode, anyway) Sarah Jessica Parker with dark brown curls (!)—attended the birthday dinner of her good friend Miranda. “Another 30-something birthday with a group of unmarried female friends,” she deadpanned in her dreamy, playful voiceover. “We would all have preferred a nice celebratory conference call.”

In 1998, being single and female in your 30s, no matter how successful or satisfied, thrust you into our idiotic but powerful culture wars. Because of the intense pressure to “settle down” and reproduce, the unmarried woman was assumed to be in a state of rebellion, even if all she wanted was that exact domestic fantasy. In Sex and the City, Carrie offered the valuable perspective of ambivalence. She enjoyed her carefree life, but the tug of romance—and the knowledge that the party can’t last forever—made her wonder what else was out there. Without mentioning that dreadful term “biological clock,” the pilot episode of Sex and the City examined the suffocating expectations of women even in the midst of Manhattan’s ostensibly no-strings-attached dating circuit. The characters were constantly aware that their worth, in this ruthless city, was measured by their hotness—and, in their 30s, it was already perceived to be running out. Even attractive women were expiring in favor of an ever-replenishing supply of 20-somethings and the men who wanted to fuck them.

One of the most beautiful things about Sex and the City was that it was an act of defiance against this idea of what a woman could be. As the characters grew older, they maintained their rigorous self-reflection and raw sex lives, drawing the camera into the most embarrassing and formative moments of their fourth decade. As the show wound down, they were still at times baring their midriffs and sleeping with strangers, but they were also having children and moving to Brooklyn. They remained in the ambivalent space that Carrie opened up in the first episode, even as they moved forward, made choices, and, in some sense, settled down. Our image-saturated digital world has made us more oriented toward appearance than ever, and to be sure, there’s no escaping the innate beauty of youth. But aging is shocking, embarrassing, hilarious, and even sexy: Perhaps revitalizing middle age will be Sex and the City’s last transgression.

Which is why—and I have to be honest with you—I’m worried about the absence of the shameless, ruthless, adventurous Samantha Jones. The rift between Kim Cattrall and the show stretches all the way back to SATC’s run on HBO, when Cattrall reportedly felt she deserved more money for her role. But onscreen, Samantha’s magnetism is certainly undeniable. Opposite Carrie’s equivocation, Miranda’s frustration, and Charlotte’s prudery, Samantha embodied the drive for fun that made the show so addictive. She did whatever she wanted to, and unlike the ever-narrating Carrie, didn’t stop to question it.

To be sure, sometimes she was more of a caricature than a character—the show’s patter got so reliable, in later seasons, that you could guess not just when Samantha would interject with a cool aside but also what she would say, starting with an “Oh, honey” and ending with a bon mot—but her flat affect served to emphasize her function. If Sex and the City crossed any boundaries or broke any barriers, it used Samantha to do it while the other characters looked on dumbfounded: She dated a woman, fell for a Black man, got Botox, sneered at marriage, complained about children, and most importantly, lived like a horny teenager well into her 40s, even through the breast cancer treatment she got in the last season. She was New York’s femme id, a crusader whose superpower was cock. In a neat package that evaded intra-feminist argument, her desire didn’t embarrass or degrade her, it simply turned her on. In season five, when her friends judged her sex life, she retorted: “I will wear whatever and blow whomever I want as long as I can breathe and kneel.”



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