June 2018 marks the 20th anniversary of Sex and the City, a revolutionary show about four independent women talking frankly about sex and their desires in New York.
Here’s one of the most popular Sex and the City analyses you’ll ever read: Everyone wants to be a Carrie until they grow up and realise they’re a Miranda. In the 12 years since these lady friends left our living rooms, time has been unforgiving to Carrie: With every season she became more whiny and selfish. And the math — that she pens a single (poorly written) column a week to afford a one-bedroom on the Upper East Side — doesn't add up.
And yet. For a generation of wannabe Manhattanites, Carrie’s life was a kind of Gatsby-esque platonic ideal. It wasn’t maddeningly unrealistic; it was dreamy. Carrie wasn’t tiresome, she was authentic.
I was never a Sex and the City fan in real time; I was born in 1994, and sipped cranberry juice while they drank cosmos. But even before I really knew about the show, it lingered on my periphery. By the time I started watching, Carrie’s cocktails and banter and cigarettes were field guides to a life I knew I wanted — being a writer, living in New York, dressing fabulously — but hadn’t ever seen.
Though, the thing about Sex and the City was that it never saw me. It was a show that was simultaneously progressive and regressive, where people of colour were either stereotypes or punchlines. Even when Samantha or Miranda — never Carrie or Charlotte — shared their bed with a Black or Latino suitor the lead characters’ empathy or curiosity never expanded beyond stereotypical observations whispered amongst their narrow, white social circles. New York was the main character on a show that featured only one type of New Yorker.
It was a show that was simultaneously progressive and regressive, where people of color were either stereotypes or punchlines.
Still, I return to it. These days when I’m bored, when I’m lonely, or when I’m homesick for my friends, I’ll boot up my computer and return to my favourite episodes. The truth is that I have no idea how to live in New York City. I enjoyed watching how to be young and date, but it was more important for me, in high school and college, to see that these things could coexist with the career I desired. It wasn’t until I read feminist and race critical theory that I could no longer ignore the obvious: Carrie Bradshaw, whose lifestyle I daydreamed about, had a “real life” that began and ended between thirty or so blocks on the East side. She didn't have any Black friends, but in the 2008 movie, she had a Black assistant. The optics of that power imbalance are not insignificant.
Oftentimes the narrative around racial visibility is pointing out where you’re invisible and flagging the shows or stories that erase instead of enhance. The fundamental lack of curiosity within Sex and the City about anyone who didn’t live in a certain neighbourhood or get invited to a certain type of party makes me think that if Carrie Bradshaw were real, I’m not the kind of person she would notice in a restaurant, or whose work she would seek out to read. This whole experience of watching Sex and the City while Black, though, makes me ask myself a deeper question about why I enjoy a show that never saw me or anyone like me, and never wondered about any other kind of lifestyle. Showing that people of colour also have full romantic lives would have made a such a difference in making the show not thinly "politically correct" but a show with a much deeper accuracy to everything it pretended to be about: love, sex, friendship, and New York City.
These characters provided some central (and corny) metaphors for my life. Cut through the classist and incredibly narrow understanding of New York and it had a real value: It taught me how to have girl talk and what exactly a booty call text was. I also learned that it was okay to desire a full sex life. But when your identity lies on the outskirts of the show’s white and heteronormative gaze, sometimes it’s enough to piece together disparate scenes or characters to fill in its blind spots. This frustrating cognitive dissonance — loyalty to a show that has never done right by people who look like you — is learned from every aspect of a culture intent on ghettoising stories by and about people of colour.