The news came unexpectedly, refreshingly trivial among the coronavirus gloom. Sex and the City, that most Nineties, most New York of TV shows, is returning. Sarah Jessica Parker (who plays Carrie Bradshaw, columnist for the fictional New York Star) and co-stars Cynthia Nixon (high-flying lawyer Miranda) and Kristin Davis (pearl-clutching romantic Charlotte) posted brief teaser trailers on their social media channels over the weekend, featuring ambient shots of New York City and the words “the story continues”. HBO Max has commissioned a ten-episode reboot of the show about four thirty-something ladies – which would now be about three fifty-something ladies – and renamed it And Just Like That. A controversy is the absence of Kim Cattrall, who played Samantha, the empowered, glamorous PR maven and possibly the most beloved character of the series. She was the one who didn’t need a man to make her happy, and the one most frequently engaged in hilarious sexual escapades.
Memes using pithy Samantha lines soon circulated online, while her most devoted fans swore they wouldn’t watch a show without her. Journalists speculated over the reason for Cattrall’s absence (was it her reportedly “toxic” relationship with Parker? Was it the trauma of the poorly received Sex and the City 2 movie?) and wrote opinion pieces on whether the series could work without her – and whether this white, wealthy, heteronormative and, some would argue, sexist Nineties show could work at all today.
It’s embarrassing, but I’ll admit that I might have watched Sex and the City in its entirety more than once. Maybe even more than twice. When I first saw the show, I had little-to-zero in common with the four glamorous New Yorkers eating expensive brunches in their designer clothes, sipping cocktails, or hanging out in inexplicably expensive flats.
When Sex and the City first came out, I was a grungy teenager with maybe two pairs of shoes, soon to become a woman in her early twenties with three pairs of shoes. The world of Sex and the City was nothing close to how I lived or wanted to live at the time. I didn’t dream of getting married to my own Mr Big, or of going to fancy bars and buying designer clothes. But what I did see in Sex and the City was the creation of a world of women, and that was comforting. It felt like the first show made largely by and for women on TV – I felt seen by it, even though it was so many miles away from who I was. There was something empowering and radical about a show that made men a side dish, the main course the lives and friendships of the women (even though these women, apart from Samantha, all ended up with that feted prize: marriage or monogamy).
A friend told me once that she couldn’t enjoy Jack Kerouac’s On the Road because women barely feature in it. She said she felt like she was reading about a party she hadn’t been invited to. Sex and the City was the opposite of that. It was Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte swapping notes on their “secret single behaviours” – private rituals you say goodbye to when you no longer live alone. It was the (admittedly often trite) inner monologue of a single woman, Carrie, which brought us into an exciting, modern world. It was storylines that, however shallow, dealt with matters long fought for by feminists: the right to live independent, free and empowered lives; the right to choose a career or motherhood (or both); the right to a safe and legal abortion. It showed the lives of thirty-something women transformed by the activism of those who came before them.
[See also: How the girlboss ruined the romcom]
Now I am in my late thirties, the age of the Sex and the City characters in the original show. Like Miranda, I’m married to a man, I have a kid, and I moved out of the city to the suburbs. I don’t live in an expensive flat, but I have developed a penchant for shoes. I ended up much closer, in a way, to a Sex and the City end-goal than I might have imagined. But no matter how distant it was from my own reality, Sex and the City resonated with me. Thanks to its success, at least in part, there is now much more TV that offers a variety of complex female perspectives: from Girls in the US to Fleabag and I May Destroy You in the UK. As Carrie might have typed out on her laptop in that Manhattan apartment that she could mysteriously afford, the return of Sex and the City reminds us of the power of culture to make a person feel seen – and of how absolutely not trivial that is.