Editor’s Note: Ahead of the Dec. 9 premiere on HBO Max of “And Just Like That…,” the sequel to the cultural touchstone that was “Sex and the City,” we take a look back at the 1998-2004 series, noticing what makes us cringe now but also what still resonates.
There’s a still of Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City” that I thought a lot about during the pandemic. She’s sitting on the floor of her apartment, taking swigs from a liter bottle of Perrier, perched over her laptop, legs splayed, lips pursed in thought. Instead of her usual wacky mix of high fashion and cheap vintage, she’s wearing a buffalo-check flannel over a black T-shirt that I’m guessing, after a lot of squinting, is printed with the words: “I have nothing to wear.”
Like most television produced in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “Sex and the City” hasn’t aged particularly well: If it were made today, I would hope that Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda, an obviously queer-coded character played by a queer actor whose look is softened with every season, would be allowed to just be gay. I would also hope a contemporary show wouldn’t dedicate individual episodes to racist stereotypes and microaggressions (Samantha dates a Black character and immediately embraces cultural appropriation), biphobia (Carrie kisses a girl played by Alanis Morissette and doesn’t like it), and transmisogyny (Samantha, gentrifying the Meatpacking District, is horrible to the transgender sex workers who are her neighbors).
Indeed, one of the best criticisms I’ve encountered of the show comes from gender scholar Kathryn Bond Stockton, who argues that narratives like “Sex and the City” uphold a capitalist ideal specifically tailored to straight women, one that puts material acquisition on the same level as romance. In “Sex and the City,” this means that costly fashion and conspicuous consumption hold the same pride of place as Carrie’s love life.
All of this is true. I’ve seen (and can’t unsee) the movies, materialistic fever dreams only occasionally disrupted by story. But I also found unlikely surprises in revisiting Carrie’s world of antiquated laptops, takeout coffees and frank sex talk over brunch.
Carrie’s flannel was one of them. So was the fact that this show depicts unmarried women in their own domestic spaces, encountering small moments of pleasure in their daily routines, whether they take the form of Carrie typing away on the floor with a huge fizzy water all to herself (honestly same), or Miranda indulging in her Sunday morning routine of coffee and The New York Times on the couch (looks cozy).
The characters on “Sex and the City” buy themselves flowers. They bake cakes they don’t plan to share with anyone else. They go to dinner alone. “They have a lovely life,” as one episode puts it, meaning that regardless of their relationship status, the women on this show find small ways to keep themselves content.
That theme of solitary pleasure is something I found deeply comforting during the pandemic. I didn’t spend the entirety of the stay-at-home order single, but I did spend all of it living alone. And as I cooked meals for myself, drew baths for myself, went on runs alone, and set up a makeshift ballet barre, as I watched every movie directed by Nora Ephron and many episodes of “Gilmore Girls,” and my social life was reduced to walks through the rainy city with friends, I felt a deeper isolation than I’d ever experienced.
The importance of connection had never been so clear to me, but neither had my own resilience, or my own ability to find joy, however fleeting, like an off-duty Carrie: wearing a flannel or a band T-shirt, sitting on the floor barefoot, doing whatever I felt like within the four walls of my apartment, whether that was eating takeout and sipping a cocktail mixed in a tiny Mason jar, painting my nails while watching “Alien” (I had never related to final girls so much), or dancing in the kitchen to David Bowie.
“Sex and the City” is often maligned for its emphasis on, well, sex and love. That critique isn’t baseless: The original series ties things up neatly in a basic marriage plot ending, a late-breaking swing for the patriarchy that suggests returning to a toxic relationship is better than being alone.
But if “Sex and the City” didn’t always live up to its promise of independence and positive self-regard, the series was at least innovative enough not to conclude with a simple kiss and fade to black. It ends, instead, with a shot of Carrie walking alone down the street in New York, as she says, among other things in a crowded voice-over: “The most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.”