Imagine a purgatorial dreamscape so dazzling it blinds you to your own misery, and certainly to other people’s. Let’s call it New York City. Imagine you are living there at the end of history. Let’s call it the nineties. Not the real nineties, of course – the nineties of the crash, the crime bill, the First Gulf War and the Battle of Seattle – but a loop of parallel time. A time when all sins are forgiven by a free market whose sharp-suited saxophonist bureaucrats have only probably sexually assaulted people. This, ladies, is as good as it gets.
Viewers of Sex and the City have spent six seasons and two movies in the company of a quartet of wealthy white women drifting aimlessly between upmarket clothes shops and downtown eateries, and these women, in turn, have spent six seasons and two movies mostly unhappy – not in the leaden slump of depression, but the peppy malaise of people living in what they are told is the best of all possible worlds. As the franchise’s long-rumoured reboot kicks into gear, I couldn’t help but wonder: when will these women be released from their opulent purgatory? When will they finally be free to die?
SATC has been hailed a masterpiece of women’s television. It has been derided as a baffling hangover from an unrecognisable time. It has been called “Just a TV show, for the love of God, let’s not overthink this.” It is, in fact, what happens when feminism is cannibalised by a gang of ad executives stranded on a raft after their cruise ship sinks, only to be nailed back together with Swarovski crystals.
Late capitalism is so boring FML
Look, I loved SATC when it came out as much as any other 00s horny teen but is the best we can do in 2021 really tell the story of three white middle class straight women (the fourth and perhaps slightly more sexually complex one not even in it)?? https://t.co/7YGxzy0WGU
In the show, we follow a troupe of gal pals whose wealth all but untethers them from reality. They have jobs, sure – Carrie churns out an entire column every week – but those jobs seem more like temporary distractions from the full-time work of being rich. Then again, the women do pause occasionally to marvel at the plebs’ problems: an entire plotline is dedicated to one of Miranda’s boyfriends being a bartender who wears corduroy; Charlotte has a breakdown when one of her children ruins her fancy skirt (“How do women without help do it?” she cries).
They are beautiful – or at least, skinny. And yet, they remain tortured by their inadequacy compared to the “models” who overrun the city like insects after a nuclear disaster. Of course, their insecurities are framed not as an indictment of the beauty standards designed to ensnare us all in self-loathing, but as their own personal failures to overcome feminine paranoia.
They are white, so white that their multi-ethnic metropolis fades into the smog. Their forays into interracial dating are often accompanied by ribaldry about hypersexualised black men or, in Charlotte’s case, a clammy, hairy Ashkenazi Jew. Yet it isn’t until Sex and the City 2 (2010) – when the women go on a jolly to Abu Dhabi to reassure themselves of their own empowerment by comparing themselves favourably to the yammering serfs of the Orient (though they are pleased to discover that beneath the burqas, many of the women wear designer clothes) – that franchise reaches its bigoted apotheosis.
They are straight, and they want you to know it. A show sold on its central female friendship doesn’t have to go in as hard on the “no-homo” as an equivalent bro show, but you struggle to miss the mockery of queers – trans people and bisexuals get it in the neck. A few cartoonishly gay sidekicks pop up to deliver their opinions about shoes.
Also this Sex and the City discussion? It is objective fact that the show aged poorly and almost immediately. Why? Because by the mid-to-late 2000s, we needed to stop treating gay people as fun sidekicks and Black people as nonexistent.
And so we come to the sex. The first episode asks a question that becomes more or less the show’s central premise: can women have sex like men?’. Broadly this means without connection or consequence. The women seek to free themselves from the ritual humiliations of Full Doom Heterosexualism, and so, perhaps, unmoor from humanity altogether. This might sound like it’s going to be a rollicking shag-fest, a paean to the pleasure principle – but often, the answer is a big honking no: the women cannot shake their humiliating desire to be loved. The men they envy are shallow, friendless, fascinated by nothing except the mystery of their own unhappiness, hunting down anonymous orgasms not because they enjoy it, but because that is how a powerful man behaves. The two nice guys are confirmed nebechs who either bore or panic their partners by wanting to spend time with them. Meanwhile, Carrie orbits a series of jowly, emotionally stunted salt-and-pepper bachelors with suspiciously vague affluence; Mr Big has what can only be described as “oil baron energy”).
My biggest fear about the Sex and the City reboot is we’re going to find out Mr. Big is a huge Trump donor.
— Brandon No Fly on Pence’s Head List Burkhart (@BurkhartBrandon) January 14, 2021
Our heroines have passed nearly every test that capitalism says should guarantee their flourishing – and yet they do not flourish. On the contrary, theirs is a cataclysmic lovelessness and grand romantic failure which gets temporarily plugged by more alcoholic cocktails, more elaborate shopping trips. The reason is that the women are unable to confront the fact that the same system confers on them power and comfort also stymies their sexual emancipation. Sexuality is never, in the words of Shulamith Firestone, “released from its straitjacket”. They cannot progress, heal, be freed. They can only pantomime their failures over and over again. This is their purgatory, doomspiralling around the plughole of their own contradictions, cycling through small tragedies in an attempt to torque their lives into some meaningful shape, weeping in cavernous hotel rooms and wrangling existential dread over brunch.
Some have mistakenly credited Samantha’s absence from the reboot to a longstanding feud between Kim Catrall and Sarah Jessica Parker. In truth, Samantha has been released from the endless cycle of suffering by embracing the emptiness of her existence. She is the only one who successfully “has sex like a man”, namely by being a weapons-grade turbo-bastard to everyone who earns less than six figures. She is by far the most watchable; her absence of anxiety means she’s the only one having any kind of sustained fun. In Sex and the City 2, she screams “I am a woman! I have sex!” at a crowd of Arab men. That’s it, that’s the revelation: I am a woman, and I have sex. A marvellous embrace of the nothingness at the heart of a liberal feminism which has mistaken its own banality for daring. Thus she was released from the spiral of fruitless meaning-seeking into the loving arms of oblivion.
my only thoughts on Samantha not being in the Sex And The City reboot is please do not say her cancer came back. Please do not kill her off. Say she lives in Cabo now and sleeps with hot vacationing college guys, anything but “oh she died.” Let that horny bitch live.
Perhaps it should have ended there – so perfectly skewering the narcissism, brain-rot malaise and deluded limitations of capitalist feminism. But I can only assume that this next season will spell some kind of seed change for the franchise. In a time of spiralling inequality, those delusions look less charming and more vicious by the day. Something has to give. Either the women must abandon their vain quest for emancipation, or undergo a revolutionary moment where, as the Cosmopolitans flow freely, they realise what sexual liberation truly demands of them. My money is on Charlotte taking a pro-life politician hostage and hog-tieing him in her basement until he agrees to fund Planned Parenthood. Maybe Miranda blows up a pipeline. Whatever it is, I can’t wait.
Eleanor Penny is a writer.
Published 14 January 2021
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