Sex and the City is such a pop-culture juggernaut that many Black women can make some reference to it, whether it be a love of the Cosmopolitan, a salute to Samantha’s sexual freedom, or — and this is just as embedded in its legacy as designer shoes — a callout for the HBO series’ lack of diversity.
Over the last 20 years, as new generations discover the dramedy and the show gains contemporary relevance, SATC has received backlash for its race problem. Most Black women who have appeared on the show were stereotypes whose storylines were on the fringe of the story, like Samantha’s Black boyfriend’s sister, Adeena, played by Sundra Oakley.
“When I was looking at it through the lens of 20-years-ago Sundra, I was happy to have this job and work on this fabulous show,” she told Vanity Fair. “[But] even a few years later . . . it’s like, oh man, why did it have to be that way? Why couldn’t it have been a different story?”
Even Jennifer Hudson, the first Black woman to play a major character when she appeared as Carrie’s personal assistant Louise in 2008’s Sex and the City film, was an underwhelming character that flew a little too close to Hollywood’s “magical negro” tropes. Her sole purpose was to fix Carrie’s life after heartbreak, and audiences learned very little about Louise outside of that. And now, the SATC revival And Just Like That on HBO Max is an over-correction for its past and a much-too-late attempt at inclusion. As a Black woman watching AJLT, I can already tell this show will never treat Black women as fully-realized characters — complex, nuanced and valuable.
A little after the height of its popularity, I was a 20-something moving to New York, but Carrie’s all-white, big-city misadventures didn’t whet my appetite for life in the city. That label belongs to Sidney Shaw in Brown Sugar and the iconic opening scene for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Still, when I finally watched SATC from pilot to series finale around 2011 while living as a Harlem transplant, I understood (and even adored) the dream the show was selling: a charming studio apartment, high-end threads, morning-after girl talks in cafes and a never-ending carousel of men. It highlighted the classic four-girl friendship we’ve seen led by Joan (Girlfriends), Issa (Insecure), and Khadijah (Living Single) but with a thick air of fantasy — because let’s face it: only Carrie could afford such a lifestyle on a freelance writers’ salary — and the glaring treatment of Black women as ornamental at best, nonexistent at worst. Immediately, I knew to manage my expectations for representation of authentic Black women characters. This show wasn’t written to be a realistic portrait of NYC’s racial landscape; it’s to watch white women live lavishly in a world cocooned by white privilege.
Instead of reading White Fragility, should white people stream And Just Like That every week for a class in race relations?
AJLT staff writer Samantha Irby, a Black woman, told Vogue: “I was a huge fan of Sex and the City back in the day. But there were some moments where I was like, if there had been a Black writer in the room, this would have probably played differently. Approaching the Black and brown people on the show this time around, it was important to me to make them feel real and not just plopped in. That said, this isn’t meant to be preachy. I’d never want to write a scold-y show, where watching it is like taking your medicine.”
While the show isn’t necessarily preachy, it uses its newly-joined Black female characters as vehicles for super-cringe lessons about race and social justice.
In episode four, Charlotte spends the majority of the episode spiraling and late-night studying African-American facts out of guilt for not having other Black friends to impress Nicole Ari Parker’s Lisa Todd Wexley, a Park Avenue mom and documentarian, at a dinner party full of well-to-do Black folks. Similarly, throughout the season so far (the show is seven episodes in), Miranda tries to prove her allyship to her Columbia Law professor, Dr. Nya Wallace (Karen Pittman), but only escalates situations with stereotypes and microaggressions. So, who are these conversations for exactly? Are they for the white audience? Instead of reading White Fragility, should white people stream And Just Like That every week for a class in race relations?
In the show’s defense, its storylines have allowed for seamless introductions to a few loaded topics. Take, for instance, Charlotte’s non-binary child, Rock. Charlotte’s love for them and desire to understand their experience tracks as a compassionate entry into that conversation for such an ultra-conservative character. However, that same delicate handling and honesty aren’t applied to the ladies’ interactions with the Black women on the show.
Let’s admit it: Maybe Charlotte doesn’t have a Black friend in her close circle at all because that’s not authentic to her lifestyle. Sprinkling some color into the cast, without offering them a storyline beyond aiding the main characters, is just diversity for diversity’s sake.
Sprinkling some color into the cast, without offering them a storyline beyond aiding the main characters, is just diversity for diversity’s sake.
Even though more diversity was the hook for AJLT, with Kim Cattrall’s rightful feud with Sarah Jessica Parker clouding the series’ revival, I wasn’t going to tune in at all. I was happy in my Succession bubble, but buzz about Big and the Peloton took over my Twitter timeline days after AJLT’s premiere. At first, I was thrilled to see SJP, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis’ portrayals of beautifully aging older women awakening to a more socially aware existence — one I thought would reflect the true vibe of NYC. But as the storylines play out, the Black women (as well as Sarita Choudhury, a brown woman of Indian descent who plays real estate power broker Seema) are merely accessories for the white women’s various identity crises. Miranda needs Nya to assuage her white guilt, Charlotte wants approval from Lisa and Seema is Carrie’s guardrails on sensitivity.
Nevertheless, at this point, I’m absolutely hate-watching. It’s exhausting to see each episode feature some nonsensical after-school-special-style dialogue (“My wearing a pink pussy hat just wasn’t cutting it!” — that gem was from Miranda) essentially teaching these white women about the real world, but I’m invested. If AJLT gets a second season, we can only hope Parker and Pittman’s characters become more three-dimensional.
In the meantime, though layered, complex, specific representations of Black women remain rarely seen in mainstream TV, shows like Harlem (RIP Insecure) and Abbott Elementary exist to provide us with the rich, well-rounded, dynamic Black female characters Black women need to see. And just like that… we can watch something else.
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