'And Just Like That' Needs To Do For Older Women What 'SATC' Did For Single Women

- Sex and the City -
'And Just Like That' Needs To Do For Older Women What 'SATC' Did For Single Women

I’ve built a life around admitting embarrassing things on the internet, and yet, this still might be the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever typed out: the original run of Sex and the City changed my life. In 1998, when SATC first aired, I was growing up in a small, uptight Connecticut town, where any single adult who wandered through was basically thrown into the town pond to see if they would float. Gossip about the middle school’s unmarried English teacher was so incessant that even I, a 16-year-old dork, knew about it. (The gossip was that she was… not married).

I’d read early feminist websites, and furtively checked Our Bodies, Ourselves out from the library — I knew enough to know I wanted something different out of life, and absolutely nothing about how to find it, or what it looked like, or what shoes I was supposed to wear once I got there. I needed a guide.

And then, one day, I suddenly had four. While flipping between Seinfeld reruns, a group of smart, glamorous, confident, thirty-something women appeared on my TV screen, crowing about their achievements, complaining about their exes, and deciding that the real solution to their romantic woes was to double-down on casual sex. In this first episode of Sex and the City, I’m sure an adult could have already seen the flaws that would dog the show through its entire original run — its fizzy goofiness, its obsession with broad generalizations, its total obliviousness about race, class, or any non-hetero sexuality. But as I watched it, I felt the same way people must feel when they see the face of Jesus in their Frosted Flakes and suddenly have a religious conversion experience. In the show’s bawdy banter and guilt-free sexuality, I saw a new way of being.

I obviously was not the only one — SATC upended American culture’s view of single women and dating, and we’re still feeling the aftershocks today (if you have a spare hour, I can draw you a Homeland-style wall of notes connecting the episode where Charlotte gets hooked on her vibrator to the sex toy ads in the subway today).

Because of that proven power to change hearts and minds, I assumed that the closely-guarded plot of the new limited series, And Just Like That, would bring that energy to bear on yet another great cultural taboo: aging.

After all, as you could see in the show’s short, zippy trailers, the gang, now all in their 50s, were still brunching, still kvetching, still wandering around looking impossibly glam… Carrie is even still wearing horrible tiny hats! Surely, this show would have the power to jolt our understanding of women’s lives yet again; to show us that being a woman in your 50s can be whimsical, breezy, a party, that Carrie and co. had figured out yet another way to turn a taboo on its head.

But as I watched the first two episodes — 90 minutes of our now-midlife heroines getting pretty badly creamed by small humiliations and big tragedies alike, almost non-stop, with little whimsy or banter thrown in to lighten the load — I couldn’t help but wonder: is aging such a taboo that even the show that made singleness sexy can’t change it?

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Today, it is difficult to even begin to convey how taboo it was to be a single woman in America in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Films like the hit 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction depicted single women in their 30s as so desperate and lonely that they had lost their grip on reality, and were likely to come at you with a steak knife. In 1986, Newsweek published a cover story proclaiming that single women over 40 were more likely to die in a terrorist attack than get married (you may best know this stat from 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, wherein Rosie O'Donnell proclaims "It's not true, but it feels true").

A 1995 dating guide called The Rules, which promised women they could finally get married by following advice like, "don't call him and rarely return his calls" and “if you have a bad nose, get a nose job; color your gray; grow your hair long,” was an enormous bestseller. Single women, the culture implied, had three options: 1. Change literally everything about yourself and marry literally anyone who will have you; 2. Accept that you are inherently unlovable and pick up a good hobby, like becoming the woman that all the children in town say is a witch; or 3. Chase Michael Douglas around screaming “I’m not going to be ignored!” until a nice, married lady puts you out of your misery.

Compare that with our current age of Bumble and Shonda Rhimes publicly declaring that she just doesn’t want to get married and magazines finally admitting that Jennifer Aniston is cool instead of lamenting about “poor Jen” and you can see the difference. It’s not perfect and it’s also far from all SATC’s doing — most of that credit goes to feminist and queer thinkers, who spent decades pioneering the liberating messages that SATC popularized.

But the show helped spread these ideas into mass culture. It took this situation that we were all told was dead serious — being a single woman over 30 — and turned it into a party, taking away a lot of the taboo's power in the process. The show was a candy-colored fantasy that reflected no one's actual life, of course. But the simple fact that someone had imagined that being single in your 30s was such a fun, whimsical fairy tale had the net effect of making being single seem less like the punishment so many of us were told that it was.

As a woman now turning 40, I often feel like aging is one of the greatest cultural taboos for women we have today. Fashion magazines ban the word "anti-aging," but still fill their pages with retinoids and fillers; culturally, we're still very much in the nascent stages of figuring out how to be body positive about wrinkles, or menopause. James Bond is still old enough to be the Bond girl’s father. A handful of shows, like Younger, Grace and Frankie, and One Day At A Time, have reflected, with warmth and humor, what it’s like to be a woman in middle age or beyond. But none have exploded aging in our culture on an SATC-like level — or been anywhere near as popular.

Maybe it was naive to expect the same show to strike gold twice. But I did. And instead, I found a total bummer. In the first two episodes, Carrie and Miranda both suffer humiliations.

Carrie gets told she’s behind the times by her younger boss, and Miranda constantly embarrasses herself with her white savior complex. Samantha is revealed to be absent from the gang’s life over a business dispute (perhaps close to the real life reason Kim Cattrall didn’t return to the show, but a bummer nonetheless). Big dies in Carrie’s arms, and Carrie blames herself for his death. Charlotte acts up during the funeral planning process, and makes it all about her. Sure, SATC always had some harrowing moments — this is the show where a woman once fell out of a window, after all – but AJLT showed little of the zingy, one-liner energy that made the original series such an irrepressible fantasy. No one is fifty, flirty, and thriving, to paraphrase one of the many pieces of SATC-influenced art that sprung up in its wake. Yes, everyone is still smart, glamorous, and confident. But they are also all having, to various degrees, a pretty shitty time.

In the first episode, especially, Carrie and Miranda are repeatedly told they’re out of touch, which had extra sting — to be a woman who has managed to survive past the age of 35 is to have been called irrelevant. But instead of proudly holding their heads high and moving forward, they seem a bit cowed, and a bit embarrassed, by their own irrelevance.

Is this how my favorite show thought of me now, how it saw my future? Did the revolutionary show that had imagination enough to reframe being single as not an ailment but a gift, struggle to imagine aging as anything besides a burden?

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I’m probably jumping the gun — I mean, we’re only two episodes in. And obviously they kept panning to the hot podcast producer for some reason, right? Maybe Carrie will take a second crack at love with him and feel good while she does it. Maybe Miranda will discover new sides of her sexuality. Maybe Charlotte will… do whatever it is Charlotte is doing these days. I want that to be true. I want this to be a situation where the show starts our heroines in a dark place, so we can feel inspired as they lift themselves back up. Getting older does bring most of us in closer contact with tragedy. Maybe the show is front-loading it all, so that we can finally get to the dance party.

And, obviously, AJLT can be whatever it wants — it can pivot to drama, it can say its beloved man characters are now out-of-touch dorks, it can say that tragedy and sadness are such an inherent part of midlife that we have to acknowledge them, can't just party past them in our Manolos (which now hurt our feet if we wear them for more than an hour, anyway).

But as a woman who is getting older, I am still looking for another show to liberate me — to say that all of it, the weird backaches and the random bodily changes and the strange midlife crisis cravings, they're nothing we need to treat with deadly seriousness. That whoever you are — be it single, over 50, or single and over 50 — is something to be celebrated. I’ll keep looking for it in SATC. Because I kind of, sort of have to believe that the show that said “the most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself” isn’t giving up on us all yet.

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