This is the mid-week version of the newsletter Men Yell at Me, which is a mixture of journalism, essays, and interviews, about our lives and politics in red state America. If you regularly read this newsletter, consider becoming a paid subscriber.
Warning: This newsletter contains some spoilers.
I didn’t watch much of Sex and the City when it first aired. In college, my two best friends would watch it on cable in their dorm room, and I’d come over and we’d watch and laugh. But I don’t remember much of the show, beyond the shoes being stolen at the baby shower, Berger and the post-it note breakup, and the baby-name stealer.
At the time, the show felt so foreign to me. So completely incomprehensible. What was this world where women lived alone, bought shoes, fancy shoes, and had sex? I had been homeschooled and raised conservative Christian. Just going to the small Minnesota Lutheran liberal arts college I attended against my mom’s wishes felt enough like its own revolution.
I was barely hanging on. I lived off Doritos and stolen peanut butter from the cafeteria. My parents had financial trouble and had to have my boyfriend at the time cosign a loan so I could stay in school. And in my senior year, when my sister told us about her sexual assault, even the loose threads of the world I had put together unraveled.
I got married. And like a Charlotte, tried to be the good kind of girl. The one who had a home and a family. By then, my friends were living alone in various cities, watching the show Girls. A different kind of Sex and the City, but a show, too, about women and sex and freedom that felt so far removed from my life of coupon clipping, garage-sale shopping for pots and pans, DIYing, and having children in Iowa.
But that life fell apart. Years of frustration, and loneliness, and work, and raw hands, and matching socks, and “What’s for dinner?” So, okay, it didn’t just fall apart. I blew it up. I let it go. I had tried to build the life that I’d been told was good and right—a life in a little white house in Middle America, with two children, a vintage Pyrex collection, and a Roth IRA. But instead, I got stuck beneath that life. Lost somewhere in a pile of laundry, and bloody, raw nipples, and the martyrdom of motherhood and expectations of being a wife. That I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it.
I blew it all up. And I found myself, three years into a pandemic, nearing 40, living sometimes alone, sometimes with my children, dating, and failing, and fumbling into a new sort of life. A new kind of narrative of what does it mean to be happy? And what do I want from this one life I’m given?
I didn’t watch the new Sex and the City with any other expectation than something that could play in the background of my life while I folded clothes or answered emails.
Instead, for the first time, I finally understand the show. I’ve gone back and watched the movies and rewatched the series. The entire show is dumb sometimes. It’s ridiculous, sometimes cringey, a little offensive, and a lot of a mess. But I can’t look away.
The show began with Mr. Big, Chris Noth’s character, dying of a heart attack. A scene that a lot of critics and viewers mocked online, questioning why Carrie didn’t call 911. Why didn’t she save him? Miranda’s character arc as a woke white lady having cringe-inducing conversations with her Black law school professor and also her drinking and evolving sexual relationship with Carrie’s podcast boss, Che Diaz, has provoked a lot of criticism as well. And then, there is Charlotte’s inability to cope with the swiftly changing world, which is grating.
And Carrie is lost, in a world of aging, a changing body, and loneliness. But she’s finding new friends. One of the delightful new additions to the show is the character of the real estate agent Seema Patel played by Sarita Choudhury.
But, I love it. I love the inconsistencies. The incongruity. The complete audacity and the absolute humanity.
Last year, I had a conversation with my dear friend Anna—the same friend whose dorm room I watched Sex and the City in over 20 years ago—about a friendship I had with someone I had liked a lot at one time but who had rejected me years ago, in a way that resulted in me sobbing in the back of an Uber pool in suburban DC while 20-year-old girls handed me McDonald’s napkins from their purses and assured me that we’ve all been there.
“But I’m 35!” I had wailed. “And this is the first time I’ve been here.”
Their response was silence. And then one of them said, “Wait, you are 35?”
I can laugh about it now. But that comment at the time had devastated me. Both for its incredulity and its honesty. What those wonderful, supportive, slightly tipsy women seemed to say to me, was, “How can you still be here with us? Aren’t we supposed to evolve beyond this?”
Needless to say, it was fraught. And as Anna and I parsed out the details together on the phone, she told me, “Well, we are adults. Everything is a mess. Maybe expecting every relationship to be healthy isn’t realistic. Maybe everything is always just a little messy. A little unhealthy.”
Maybe we never really evolve beyond the horror and the heartache and the embarrassment of our wounded hearts.
That’s what the show is. Messy. Unhealthy. Annoying. Upsetting. Cringey. And well, a lot like real life.
As I read criticism of the show, I wonder what critics expect from these characters? They’ve always been awful, selfish, self-absorbed, and completely human. No amount of time is going to transform them into aspirational heroes. Nor should they be.
But things do change. Carrie is older. She has hip problems. Miranda is dealing with a changing sexual identity. And Charlotte is just trying to pretend nothing ever happened.
In one scene, after Miranda reveals her affair with Che Diaz, Charlotte insists that people shouldn’t change. And Carrie, now a widow, replies, “Some of us don’t have that luxury.”
I am not trying to make more out of the show than it ever was, a fun, glossy show about lives and shoes most of us will never have. But the way television and movie narratives wrap themselves around and through our lives, in some ways offers us scripts for the new narratives we are forced to create in the lives we’ve either been shoved into or thrown ourselves overboard into.
I think of a line from one of my favorite novels, Unbearable Lightness of Being, where the narrator notes “each individual organizes his life according to the laws of beauty, even in times of deepest distress.” Which, I’ve always believed, means that in these brilliant and hard new worlds and lives, we look for symbols, stories, songs, and other cultural ephemera to help us make sense of it all.
I text my friend Anna to tell her how much I love the show now. She’s surprised. She remembers my ambivalence. And how good is it to have a friend who knows you so well? I always thought romantic love was someone truly knowing you. But it turns out, that’s what I have in my friendships.
I tell Anna that I spent so much time trying to be in control, trying to create the perfect life, that I had to have everything fall apart, my life, my dreams, my body, everything before I could appreciate the absolute gorgeous mess of the show.
In sum, we need women to buy into romantic partnerships so that they will become the social safety net that our leaders and politicians refuse to create. But here we have a new kind of narrative. One that’s harder, less heterosexual, more full of friendship, and frankly, more honest.
In an interview for Vogue, show writer Sam Irby noted, “I think it’s revolutionary to do a show about middle-aged women, with their aging lady bodies.” I think, too, it’s revolutionary to continue to do a show where women aren’t perfect, not their bodies, not their faces, not their approach to aging and life. Nor are they trying to be.
But what is also radical about the Sex and the City reboot and so many of the new narratives emerging around women (Dolly Alderton’s wonderful book Everything I Know About Love and Kaitlyn Greenidge’s essay in the New York Times), is that always at the center is not romance, it’s friendship and community.
Another radical aspect of the show is that, with the exception of Miranda’s horny teenage son and his girlfriend, it has yet to depict heterosexual sex on screen. It’s a relief. Not that sex isn’t happening in the show, but it’s been sidelined for other pursuits. Recently, columnist Ross Douthat lamented the sidelining of sex and romance in kids shows. I know why he laments it, even if he doesn’t: Characters consumed with seeking heterosexual relationship reaffirms patriarchial values.
The primacy of stable romantic partnerships in our narratives is almost necessary for maintaining the social order of our American experiment. We need women wedded to their romantic partnerships so much that they’ll quit their jobs and dreams, so the men can pursue theirs and someone will be there to raise the kids. In sum, we need women to buy into romantic partnerships so that they will become the social safety net that our leaders and politicians refuse to create. But here we have a new kind of narrative. One that’s harder, less heterosexual, more full of friendship, and frankly, more honest.
Sex and the City, however, does not say “to hell with all that” about romance and depict the women traipsing off to create a commune. The show still grapples with romantic love in an imperfect way. But that’s because there is no perfect way to live or love. You can do all the right things, drink all the water, have the best sleep hygiene, and still have insomnia, because our world is full of disease and uncertainty. You can journal and plan all you want, but you could still wind up a widow, still have to quit your job to homeschool your kids in a pandemic, still be miserable, and blow it all up after 12 years of marriage.
My life has changed so radically since I first saw Sex and the City. But what has stayed true have been my friendships — those women who first gave me Fresca and explained blow jobs and birth control. And who now listen to me cry about pets and loneliness and the internet and reassure me that it is all a mess. But they’ll always be here. And maybe, that’s the real story of love.
More reading: This was a hilarious newsletter by Sam Irby about texting Cynthia Nixon. And I also really liked this analysis of the show.
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