In the first episode of the HBO series “Girls,” Shoshanna asks her cousin Jessa to admire her “Sex and the City” poster. “You’re definitely, like, a Carrie but with, like, some Samantha aspects and Charlotte hair,” Shoshanna says. “That’s, like, a really good combination.” And in the first episode of “Run the World,” on Starz, Ella, a writer who has a tumultuous relationship with an ex, describes her former beau to her friend Sondi as “my Big.”
Her friend rebuffs her, saying he’s no Big. “There’s a very clear, well-established pop culture road map for this,” she tells Ella.
There is, in fact, a well-established road map for this; it’s no coincidence that so many shows use “Sex and the City” as a reference point. The show, which debuted on HBO in 1998 and ran for six seasons (and produced two heinously bad films), changed the game with its depictions of women as complex, sexual beings.
But when “Sex and the City” comes up now, it often comes with a qualifier: “It was great for its time.” Over two decades have passed since that series premiered on HBO, and it’s not just our culture that’s changed; the genre for which “Sex and the City” became the standard-bearer, the lady-gang rom-dramedy, about four female friends navigating sex, love and dating, has also evolved.
Two years after its premiere, “Sex and the City” was followed by “Girlfriends,” a show about four Black friends working and dating in Los Angeles. In 2012, “Girls” became known as the “Sex and the City” for millennials. Now, nearly a decade later, 2021 has been a year of bounty, including the premieres of “Run the World,” “Harlem” and “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” and the last season of “Insecure.” We are in a new era of shows about contemporary female life that either react against or are in conversation with “Sex and the City,” broadening the depictions of race and class and freshly engaging with more of the nuances of being a woman in the world.
In the middle of this wave of new lady-gang shows, “Sex and the City” returned this month with a revival on HBO Max, “And Just Like That …,” in which Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte (Kristin Davis), all in their 50s now, have settled into their lives with their respective families. The ’90s are long gone. So is the fan-favorite Samantha (Kim Cattrall). And now the new series has the difficult task of reintroducing itself to a genre that has matured beyond the model it built.
The ‘Sex and the City’ Universe
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It’s immediately apparent how self-consciously the revival attempts to update “Sex and the City” for 2021. Carrie has an Instagram! And a job on a sex podcast! Miranda must deal with her now-teenage son having sex! Charlotte has a Black friend! The series has a lot of work to do to account for all the changes the culture — and TV, in the wake of “Sex and the City” — has undergone in the last 23 years. Across the four episodes released so far, its progress is suspect.
Two decades of dates, drinks and relationships
In “And Just Like That …,” Miranda, enrolled in a Columbia University course with students decades younger than her, struggles to figure out what it means to be an ally to queer people and people of color. Identity politics were one of the main areas “Sex and the City” avoided like … well, like four of the five New York City boroughs. Not only did the series star four white women, but the number of people of color and queer women present throughout the series, even as walk-on characters, was so small that one might wonder if any lived in New York City in the ’90s. (They did.)
Many of the shows that cropped up after “Sex and the City” starred casts that offered a stark contrast to the show’s overwhelmingly white, straight characters: “Girlfriends,” “Harlem,” “Insecure,” “Run the World” and “The Sex Lives of College Girls” depict friendships among more than just white women. In fact, most of their main casts are made up entirely of Black women. To have women of color who own their sexuality without being hyper sexualized and who are full characters — with real concerns, gathering with friends for drinks or making moves in their careers — is revolutionary in the way that Carrie and Co. once were for white women.
At least for white straight women. “Sex and the City” distinguished itself in the ’90s by being a series with recurring gay characters — Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson) and Anthony Marentino (Mario Cantone) — but what passed for progress then would be called out as problematic now. Stanford and Anthony fell neatly into the “gay best friend” stereotype and were eventually paired off. As for the ladies, the “sex” of the title was almost exclusively of the binary, heterosexual variety.
Later, shows like “Girlfriends” and “Girls” mostly followed this pattern as well. But as the culture’s sexual politics have developed, so have those of the lady-gang series. For example, “The L Word,” which premiered the year “Sex and the City” ended, provided a groundbreaking depiction of queer women that TV hadn’t seen before.
Of the most recent shows in the genre, “Harlem” is one of the few to feature central queer female characters. And there isn’t only one: Alongside the masculine-presenting Tye (Jerrie Johnson) is Quinn (Grace Byers), who first comes across as the show’s Black Charlotte but eventually begins to question her knee-jerk heterosexuality when she becomes attracted to a female friend. And in “Sex Lives,” there’s the reputation-obsessed socialite Leighton (Reneé Rapp), who spends the first season closeted.
“And Just Like That…” tries to remedy the franchise’s earlier deficiencies by introducing friends of color (each of the ladies gets at least one, including those played by Sarita Choudhury, Nicole Ari Parker, Karen Pittman and Sara Ramirez), but these characters aren’t granted significant story lines or development of their own. The series has also introduced new queer characters (Charlotte’s daughter Rose, played by Alexa Swinton, who has gender dysphoria, and Carrie’s boss, Che, played by Ramirez), who challenge the main lady cast’s conservative notions of gender and sexuality, or, in the case of Miranda, steer them through personal breakthroughs about their own sexuality. The show’s attempt at diversity is commendable but shallow, mostly there to educate the three central straight white women about new identity politics and assist them along their own character arcs.
And then there are … the less fun parts
“Sex and the City” was surprisingly open about a woman’s right to choose in an episode when Miranda considers an abortion, but otherwise it was largely apolitical when it came to women’s health. Its successors have largely followed suit — indeed, given their emphasis on sex, there is generally not much attention paid in these series to the thorny issues that arise from it. For all the ways “Sex and the City” and its successors capture the nuances of womanhood, many have skirted the more serious, less fun parts of being a woman in our current age.
The issue of abortion comes up some, and occasionally one of the women gets an S.T.D., but it disappears as quickly as it appeared. In the “Sex and the City” descendants with Black casts, there’s the additional challenge of discussing the medical problems more common to Black women — in “Girlfriends” and “Harlem,” for example, characters suffer from uterine fibroids. And in “Insecure,” one character sinks into postpartum depression, another common but rarely addressed health issue for which Black women are at higher risk because of inequitable social and economic conditions.
Still, the lady-gang series has evolved significantly in one realm of sex-based politics: Nowadays, it would seem odd not to include story lines about misogyny and toxic relationships, harassment and consent in shows about women. Of the more recent shows, those with younger characters — first “Girls,” and now “The Sex Lives of College Girls” — have been the most dedicated to addressing those issues, reflecting the frequency at which younger generations are having these conversations. “Sex and the City” has and continues to avoid such sexual politics largely, although the issue shadows the new series regardless because of the multiple sexual assault accusations leveled against Chris Noth, the actor who plays Mr. Big.
At some point, most of us also have to work hard for a living, especially in New York, and in general “Sex and the City” didn’t need to drop its blinders with regard to career politics and class in order to have a successful series. On the contrary, the show was probably a more attractive fantasy without it. Newer series have taken a more realistic tack. For the women in series like “Insecure,” careers are real and present concerns; “Girlfriends” and “Sex Lives” have depicted class difference to great comedic and dramatic effect.
Carrie and the girls, meanwhile, have always seemed to live lives of great leisure for reasons that weren’t always readily explicable. The most the original “Sex and the City” did to tackle class among its women was an episode in which Carrie was humbled by the fact that she had to — gasp — take the bus. “Girls” wore those same blinders 14 years later. Both shows existed in an impenetrable bubble of upper-class living, which made these shows exclusionary to many audiences who fell outside that narrow perspective and provided a 2-D image of modern life. And yet, there’s still an audience for “And Just Like That …” just as there one was for “Sex and the City.” But now, for fans who want more from their fiction, there are many other options.
The return of ‘Sex,’ to a changed city
At one point in “And Just Like That …,” Carrie giggles uncomfortably through a podcast episode on masturbation. Later she recounts the experience with Miranda, saying she has to get more explicit with her sex talk. “That’s not who you are,” Miranda replies. Carrie counters, “Well, we can’t stay who we were, right?” These formerly swank, modern women appear like museum relics dropped into a modern age.
One thing women have to face is the unique brand of ageism that creeps up like a boogeyman when they get to a certain age. In this respect, very little has changed. The lady-gang genre still mostly targets youth, beginning in the late teens with shows like “Sex Lives,” and extending into women’s 20s, as “Girls” and “Girlfriends” do. Some carry through to their characters’ 30s, like “Insecure,” “Harlem” and “Run the World.” Beyond that, the genre offers very little. It’s as if once women reach their late 30s, they dive into an abyss of celibacy and irrelevance.
So what happens to these shows when ladies get older? Does the genre fall apart? It shouldn’t, because women still go out and have sex beyond their 20s and 30s. (Consider another foursome that did just that, years before “Sex and the City”: the Golden Girls.)
“And Just Like That …” should be a success in these terms, and in some ways it is. But it often feels uncomfortable with the new demographic box its characters fall into. Where “And Just Like That …” fails in this department, it’s not because of its characters’ ages. It’s because the writers have largely failed to recognize the ways women middle-aged and beyond can still be funny, sexual and relevant.
Things have changed since the ’90s, but so much has stayed the same. We still love shows about women dating. We still need shows about women friendships. Without “Sex and the City,” we may not have all the bingeable series that we have today.
There’s space for more of this genre but for women who aren’t just Carries or Charlottes or Mirandas or Samanthas; 23 years later, there are so many more types of women having sex in the city, and TV is better for it.