'And Just Like That... ' has a Diversity Girlfriend problem
What's in a legacy?
Throughout the '00s, an entire generation of millennials such as myself found inspiration and aspiration in Sex and the City's fantasized vision of New York City. The outfits were fabulous – or at least, more interesting than what you might find at your local suburban mall – the money was bountiful and the sexcapades were plentiful. The series has spawned location tours and an untold number of personality quizzes, and has inspired groups of besties everywhere to proclaim one another some version of Miranda, Samantha, Carrie or Charlotte. (I have no scientific proof to back this up, but I feel confident in asserting that more people are Carrie or Charlotte than they'd care to admit.)
But time has not been particularly kind to the legacy of Sex and the City, about as zeitgeist-y a show as one can get. Fans reacted strongly against the first two films for blighting the spirit of the original series with rehashed storylines that ultimately pushed the narrative arc nowhere. And as my generation is wont to do, we've taken to reassessment and reflection on our obsession with the series, challenging its aggressive whiteness and heteronormativity – the presence of Samantha Jones notwithstanding – to the point where it now occupies a place in the collective cultural memory as a problematic fave, right next to Disney movies from the pre-Frozen era and Gilmore Girls.
Do many of us still love SATC? Yes, but with a whole lot of caveats, asterisks and reservations.
And Just Like That... , the new (Reboot? Rehash? Reheat?) of Sex and the City, is a very specific and of-the-moment kind of exercise in Hollywood's unending era of franchises. Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda are back (Samantha has absconded to the UK for an utterly ridiculous reason), this time as 50-somethings with fabulous wardrobes and a whole host of new problems. Instead of emotionally unavailable men, they're dealing with hip injuries and other pangs that come with middle-age.
But from the jump, the show suffers from its ambivalence about SATC's past. It's a reboot that is simultaneously nostalgic and embarrassed for the old days, and in search of repentance. And that's quite the concoction — one with a high possibility of going completely awry. Which it does.
Suddenly, people of color and queer people (who aren't cis white gay men) exist where they barely did in the show's previous incarnation. One of Charlotte's kids is questioning their gender identity. Carrie is now a host on a sex and dating podcast, and her boss and co-host is Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez), a nonbinary stand-up comedian. Over the course of the season, Che also starts hooking up with Miranda, who is now questioning her own sexuality and totally over being married to Steve.
But that's not all: Each leading lady has been assigned her own personal Diversity Girlfriend: Seema Patel (Sarita Choudhury), Carrie's real estate agent-cum-confidante; Nya Wallace (Karen Pittman), Miranda's Columbia professor-turned-confidante; and Lisa Todd Wexley (Nicole Ari Parker), Charlotte's fellow overly involved parent organizer and confidante.
The good-ish news is that the Diversity Girlfriends are given much more to do than nearly every other person of color in the SATC universe preceding them, Jennifer Hudson's Louise included. These aren't one-off guest appearances or one-liners; we learn just enough about them and their desires for them to exist beyond ugly stereotypes. Seema, in her 50s, longs to find her one great love, like what Carrie felt she had with Big. Nya and her husband are going through IVF treatments and having a hard time processing their unsuccessful attempts thus far. Lisa is basically the Black Charlotte – wealthy, posh and obsessed with taking the lead on school-related events.
Nevertheless, the whole affair feels Twitter-studied, as if the creators took every critical article that's ever been written about Sex and the City's least progressive facets and decided to confront them like items on a to-do list. The approach has been to make the insertion of these Diversity Girlfriends and queer characters a conundrum for Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda – especially Miranda. The trio are befuddled by and sent into a tizzy over the new arrivals, as though they had been frozen in time for decades and are just now thawed and awakening.
And Just Like That... mines its inclusivity via cringe comedy, which sets the women up as flagrantly out-of-touch but well-meaning. I guess it's supposed to be funny and cute that it's taken Charlotte until her 50s to realize the circles she runs in have been alabaster white, and that she then spends much of one episode trying to invite a Black person she hardly knows to a dinner party so that Lisa and her husband aren't the only Black people in attendance. Oh, that's just Charlotte being Charlotte!
Miranda's "meet-cute" with Nya includes a series of awkward errors and faux pas: mistaking Nya for a student rather than the professor on the first day of class, and later attempting to apologize for it by proving her progressive bona fides. "I was at home watching CNN when the Muslim ban was initiated, and I saw all those attorneys out at the airport offering assistance, and the next thing I knew I was in a cab, going to JFK, to do something – anything – because you know, my wearing a pink pussy hat just wasn't cutting it!" she yells at Nya on the subway platform, drowned out by the buskers and an incoming train. Miranda clearly dies a little inside from embarrassment right after this moment, but she's a fictional character. I watch this at home and I suffer more, because I'm real and this is not what I, or most any other critical SATC fan asked for.
As with the new West Side Story adaptation, you're left wondering: Who is this for, exactly? Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's version of the classic musical is actually more impressive in its execution of updating and fleshing out a story and characters that were originally very thinly conceived, bringing more sensitivity and sharper, distinctive perspectives to the Puerto Rican characters. But some have persuasively argued that even then, it's not enough – instead of creating fresh, new stories about Puerto Rican lives, the culture keeps recycling and returning to the same old well, one that has benefited white non-Latino imaginations much more than it has Puerto Ricans.
The same can be said for And Just Like That... Carrie wearing a sari while attending Seema's family's Diwali celebration is not cultural appropriation, Seema reassures both her and the non-Indian viewers at home: It's "cultural appreciation." (Indian viewers, on the other hand, might wonder: Why doesn't the show make it a point to note that Carrie ends up wearing a lehenga to the party, not a sari?)
I've given up hope that Hollywood's reboot train will slow down anytime soon, and I've accepted the inevitability of this show. But this return might have felt more justified if it took a different approach – like making Nya, Lisa, Seema and Che the main characters in their own series, with Carrie and the rest of the SATC gang popping in occasionally to gin up the nostalgia vibes and remind people this is a part of the SATC universe.
Take Che, for example. Whether you love them or hate them – the streets are divided! – they could be a fascinating character to learn more about in the context of their own world, apart from work and Miranda and Carrie's circle. We could see more of Seema trying to balance her family's expectations for her love life alongside her own, away from the lens of Carrie; or Nya doing more than just trying to get pregnant; or Lisa doing more than organizing school fundraising events. (Isn't she a documentarian? When does she find time to do all that documenting???)
As it is, the protagonists on And Just Like That... have been stuck in a hamster wheel of processing white, heterosexual guilt, apologizing for SATC's missteps. It's as if they were acquaintances who made fun of you in high school and then DM you years later to tell you they're so sorry. They want to sand over their legacy – even though most of us have already made peace with it all and moved on.
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