In this cultural moment where there are a bevy of TV shows that (successfully or otherwise) center around the sexcapades of women in New York City—Girls, Broad City, Love Life— it can be difficult to remember how groundbreaking HBO’s Sex and the City was when it first debuted in 1998. As a young woman who was born that very year, I have only come to cultivate a secondhand familiarity and nostalgia for the show because of the providence of the internet.
Sex and the City, which like Friends replicated the structure of classic American sitcom Living Single, catalogues the friendship between four women. There’s sex columnist / rent wizard Carrie (Sarah-Jessica Parker), cynical lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), traditionalist gallerist Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and of course Samantha (Kim Cattrall), an all-around sex ba-bomb and PR titan. Aside from reinforcing television’s love affair with the allure of white-washed Manhattan, where ragtag groups of friends frequent New York City’s hottest clubs, Sex and the City’s legacy lies in its unabashed exploration of friendship, fashion (hello unnecessary belts!) and female sexuality. In the world of the show, women get to exist, as they do in real life, as sexual agents rather than mere sexual objects. More so, these characters’ sporadic, enthusiastic pursuit of casual sex disrupts the cultural notion that sex for sport is something only men are interested in.
Reboot culture has pervaded television during the Trump administration, with ‘90s network sitcoms like Full House, Will & Grace and the aforementioned Friends getting second chances. Considering the groundbreaking nature of Sex and the City’s premise and style, and its enduring popularity, it may come as no surprise that HBO Max decided to greenlight a revival project for the show entitled And Just Like That…. But this decision has generated some reasonable backlash from Sex and the City’s devotees for two primary reasons.
First Kim Cattrall, who can be seen here poorly scatting while her ex-husband plays the upright bass, will not be reprising her role as Samantha in the forthcoming revival. Additionally, some Sex and the City fans worry that the show, which ended in 2004, will not be able to offer audiences an enticing season’s worth of new half hour episodes that resonate within the current social climate. As aptly pointed out Washington Post writer Lisa Bonos “This is not a great moment for a series about three upper-middle-class, white, post-feminist women partying their way through a city even they shouldn’t be able to afford—amid an economic climate where the conspicuous consumption of thousand-dollar shoes calls to mind the excesses of Marie Antoinette….” Bonos’ cogent critique and the concerns of fans prompt the following questions: How will the show adjust its Y2K sex-centric romp energy to the lives of affluent 50 year-old women in modern day New York City? And how will it successfully adapt its distinct tone sans the overt “sex” (Samantha) of the original series?
Cattrall’s absence from And Just Like That… may come as no surprise to people who are well aware of the strained relationship she has had with fellow cast members for the past few years. But losing Samantha from the legendary quartet will in fact completely change the dynamic of the show. Samantha’s affinity for sex anchored the show’s premise and usefully juxtaposed, for example, Charlotte’s preoccupation with marriage and motherhood. Calling Samantha a careerist would be a pinch reductive, but she did love her work and her sex life in a way that reminded audiences that her choices were not quirks or a libido-driven phase, but her crystallized humanity. Her choices were hers. Losing Samantha means losing the opportunity to explore how this character would navigate and ostensibly thrive in a social environment that has only become more sex positive and averse to the subtle slut-shaming she received from her friends. Thus, the problem isn’t that sexcapades are far from the realm of possibility for women of this age or even that audiences would be uninterested in viewing them. Rather, much of the apprehension with embracing And Just Like That… is that the character whose experience would have arguably been the most intriguing to see will not be present at all.
While fans scoff at Samantha’s absence, one erasure that may actually benefit the reboot—albeit definitely warp the tonal consistency—is a decentralization or at least acknowledgment of its own whiteness. As heartily as Samantha will be missed, she and her friends were not strangers to racist behaviors and preconceptions. In Season 3, Episode 5 Samantha pursues Chivon (Asio Highsmith), a black music mogul because of his “big black cock.” Chivon’s sister Adeena (Sundra Oakley) accuses Samantha of racially fetishizing her brother and expresses her frustration with Samantha’s motivations. Ultimately Samantha kicks Chivon to the curb because he does not defend her [Samantha’s] desires to quash Adeena’s disapproval. The poorly-aged episode and the quintessential quippy line that solidifies Samantha’s “triumph” at the end of it is something cringey like, “even though Chivon had a big dick Samantha had the bigger balls.”
Are you wincing yet? Because you should be. When people of color are leveraged as sexual objects it reifies the false idea that they are literally and metaphorically side characters who exist at the whim and pleasure of white characters. Moreso it reinforces the idea that the world of the story does not happen to focus on white women characters but that the world they move through is in fact white and that whiteness is the default. So while we mourn Samantha’s absence, perhaps we can also collectively brainstorm what (if anything) And Just Like That… can do to address the legacy of the series’ whiteness. As Carrie might pontificate, how can this classic HBO show about NYC, sex, and some of televisions favorite gal pals thrive without a core member? Moreso, can it intentionally address its own shortcomings in a way that feels less like an afterthought and more like a choice?
Bu-bu-bu-da-bu-ba-da da, Da-da-dum-de-dum-dee-dum-duh-duh dum….
Adesola Thomas is a screenwriter and culture writer. She loves talking about Annette Benning’s performance in 20th Century Women and making lasagna.
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