Miranda Hobbes mistakes her new Black law professor for a student and, in the process, misgenders another student. In self-defense, Miranda spirals into a monologue, which includes her saying, in a panic, “This is not at all who I am.” Watching this scene in the Sex and the City reboot, And Just Like That…, one might feel a deep sinking of second-hand embarrassment. Viewers know Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is a whip-smart lawyer, and they might want to believe she wouldn’t make microaggressions toward her professor (Karen Pittman). But, the truth is, we don’t have evidence that she hasn’t spent the last few years with anyone else but her white, upper-class girlfriends.
Regardless of how cringe-inducing it was to watch, it was believable—to me, at least—that there were white women of this generation just now confronting their own identities in Trump’s America and the space they occupy in the world. “Cringing is a bodily posture of turning inward, and laughter is an affect that opens us to others,” Lori Marso writes on cringe feminist comedy in Politics & Gender. “To cringe and laugh at the same time is an uncontrollable, disruptive response, a spectator reaction that exposes our collective investments in gendered fantasies.”1 Viewers may wince watching Miranda stumble around her life, and all the other characters stumbling around theirs. But, still, that very bodily discomfort is still useful information.
Put another way: the reboot of Sex and the City reflects how far mainstream media literacy on the nuances of identity has come. And, for those who rallied against the show, it shows just how much work is left to be done.
“Carrie Bradshaw,” “Miranda Hobbes,” and “Charlotte York” are, at this point, household names. And so, when they returned to the screen, they were sewn into the fabric of the post-2020 antiracist discourse, as an attempt to repair the original show’s prior missteps. As such, And Just Like That mirrors—accurately—a certain white, middle-aged, and upper-class segment of the liberal population that was clumsily attempting to come to terms with its privilege in 2020. It is this messy milieu that is depicted in And Just Like That’s first season, instead of merely showcasing our well-known characters on either side of the spectrum: as fully formed allies, or as privileged and unconcerned.
To address this gap, the show utilizes second-hand embarrassment and cringe as affective viewer responses. In this context, affect is a philosophical concept related to bodily and sensory response, a focus on the subjective experience of watching television. That is, AJLT consciously works to shape how viewers experience watching the show. Sometimes, it does so in a way that reminds me of the original series’ propensity for scenes of physical shock. But the reboot’s innovation is also to tap into viewers’ second-hand embarrassment regarding contemporary representational politics, like Miranda’s microaggressions.
Indeed, it was the “wokeification” of And Just Like That that dominated online discourse, from viewers pointing out that it didn’t make sense Miranda would be so uncomfortable discussing race to Charlotte’s scramble to find a Black attendee for her dinner party. These were certainly less than compelling attempts on the show’s part to unpack more nuanced conversations around race. After all, it’s not like there hadn’t been poignant stories about Black identity on television that, in the years since Sex and the City ended, had already paved the way, including some of HBO’s very own projects: Insecure, I May Destroy You, and Lovecraft Country. Instead, AJLT’s first season (with notable improvements in the recently aired second season) brings to mind Kristen J. Warner’s concept of plastic representation, or “a mode of representation that offers the feel of progress but that actually cedes more ground than it gains for audiences of color.”2
Ultimately, the promise of diversification through four new characters (played by Karen Pittman, Nicole Ari Parker, Sarita Choudhury, and Sara Ramirez) felt largely tangential. Each was only employed to legitimize our three leads as white women who may just have read How to Be an Antiracist for the first time.
Yet, at first, the criticism of the show flowed in the other direction. “And just like that … Sex and the City became woke, and that’s why we can’t have nice things anymore – 1 star,” an anonymous Metacritic commenter wrote in December 2021, days into the two-episode debut of And Just Like That. The comment section is splattered with bright red angry reviews, with users deploying words now too commonly found about storylines related to social justice and people of color: box ticking, PC, reverse racist, woke. This visceral reaction was in response to the reboot’s attempts to paint Sex and the City in a new light—one that imagines its cosmopolitan characters, 20 years later, as now tuned in to social injustice.
On and offline discussions that surrounded the announcement that HBO would be rebooting one of its flagship pieces of intellectual property focused largely on its lack of late 1990s self-awareness. Specifically, the original series constructed a white New York that erases its prominent of-color population. Meanwhile, it uplifts white women who conspicuously consume designer brands. When looking back on Sex and the City’s 1998 to 2004 run—followed by two lucrative feature films, the latter of which was so damaging to the brand it effectively alienated one of its four stars (Kim Cattrall) from returning to the franchise and put a script for a third film on ice—the word of choice became “problematic.”
Reopening the SATC universe for a reboot was placed into context with the George Floyd protests during the summer of 2020. At this time, books on white fragility and antiracism were surging on bestsellers lists, and social media was plastered with both well-intended, genuine support and more superficial performances of antiracist awakenings, black boxes, and grand statements from organizations pledging structural change.
Even representational politics aside, the reboot was probably doomed to a lukewarm reception. And Just Like That would never recapture the material conditions that led to Sex and the City’s explosive arrival on the cultural scene. From the beginning, there were major shifts in the show’s production. Darren Star, who cocreated the show with Michael Patrick King, was too busy producing Emily in Paris to return to the helm. Evidently, Kim Cattrall did not return to the series (until a cameo in the second season’s finale). Even the role of costume designer, an integral and much-lauded element of the original series, a character in and of itself, would be in new hands: this time by Molly Rogers and Danny Santiago, instead of Patricia Field, who was also tied up with Emily in Paris. Even the name of the series itself suggests the creative team were aware this was not, nor would ever be, Sex and the City. Not to mention, episodes of And Just Like That aired directly on the HBO streaming platform, Max, as opposed to the prestigious HBO cable network, and were decidedly more dramatic in tone (with a 40–50 minute running time to match). The reboot was set up to tackle new ground.
I can’t help but wonder if any show under the burden of mainstream success is doomed to try and fail to capture anything but nostalgia.
The original Sex and the City was transgressively concerned with the body, from its various graphic sex scenes to a cumshot landing on Miranda’s face during a tantric sex demonstration to Carrie asking Samantha to remove her diaphragm when it gets stuck. Who could forget Samantha Jones “losing” her orgasm and trying every sex position to find it again, discussions on “funky-tasting spunk” over brunch, or Natasha smashing her tooth on a stairwell while running after a cheating Carrie Bradshaw?
And Just Like That does awaken a familiar corporeal reaction from the original series: Carrie accidentally soiling her bed trying to pee after hip surgery, while Miranda is getting aggressively fingered by Che Diaz in the kitchen; Carrie burning her hands after spilling coffee on herself, shocked to have opened the door on Natasha in a public restroom; Charlotte’s period staining the back of her white jumpsuit. A more egregious example occurs when Carrie projectile vomits on the street with her date after drinking too much at dinner. On set, Parker—after a failure to make the mechanical vomiting tubes look adequately realistic—drank two liters of fake vomit in order to throw up herself: a gruesome scene sufficient enough to arouse revulsion in the viewer.
Performances and visual design, according to Marsha Cassidy in her analysis of Mad Men, can operate “to provoke deep-rooted sensations—but always made meaningful within socially charged circumstances. It is by means of cognitive understanding of a scene’s narrative subtleties that the viewer’s own viscera are called into response mode.”3
Even outside of the text itself, the show’s snowballing controversies were nauseating to keep up with. There were constant speculations around Cattrall’s involvement, or lack thereof; Chris Noth (Mr. Big) was wrapped up in sexual assault allegations shortly after his character’s death (all of which must have kept Peloton’s PR teams on their toes); and Willie Garson passed away during production which led to an awkward resolution of his character. Not to mention the attention surrounding Che Diaz, Sara Ramirez’s character that captured the internet’s fascination (“Hey, it’s Che Diaz!”) as a “queer, nonbinary, Mexican-Irish diva” and comedian who hosts a conversational relationship podcast with Carrie. Intentionally and unintentionally, the show relied on the viewer’s affective responses to shocking scenes and events to tell its story.
Still, in this new iteration of the series, the reflex is more akin to cringe. A viewer might feel an inward, red-hot flush of embarrassment on behalf of the show’s awkward attempt to virtue signal—affect of a different register. The embarrassment elicited by these body horrors spills over into the nonphysical realm: into language and identity.
At the height of HBO’s prestige emergence, The Sopranos and Sex and the City were its two flagship series: one, a masculine-coded drama; and the other, a fashion-forward, fun, “frivolous” (but salaciously groundbreaking) comedy. Rebooting SATC was always going to be a struggle against the cultural amnesia of the original impact the show had in telling imperfect stories of women on television. Of course, the original now contrasts sharply with how far those stories have evolved since the 2000s—an “unexamined hierarchy” within the “pink-tinted genre” of romcoms, writes Emily Nussbaum in her 2013 essay on Sex and the City for the New Yorker.4
To reboot cherished mainstream properties—to seek to recreate affect twice over—has seen failure before: think of The Many Saints of Newark, the 2021 reboot film of The Sopranos, which flopped at the box office and received a lukewarm reception from critics. In the face of such failures, I can’t help but wonder if any show under the burden of mainstream success is doomed to try and fail to capture anything but nostalgia. We may be better off with cult favorite reboots like Party Down or Twin Peaks.
Nostalgia is an inherent element of any reboot. After all, a network’s motivation to bring back an original series is the guaranteed, built-in audience. Television is a capitalist medium, and there is money to be made from furthering the Sex and the City brand around the world. When Carrie wakes up in her original apartment in episode four, or later rewears her Atelier Versace gown from the two-part SATC Paris finale, nostalgic viewers feel awash in warm familiarity: a sigh of relief from the cringe whiplash of watching Miranda trying to navigate race, queerness, and her dissolving marriage. And yet, a reboot without contemporary sensibilities, without self-awareness about the missteps of its past would feel disingenuous, and, at worst, ignorant.
Even so, in those nostalgic moments—in the softness of remembering who I was during those high school years when I binge-watched Sex and the City all night—I feel thankful we got to revisit this world at all. Maybe that’s all we should expect from reboots, in the end.
- Lori Marso, “Feminist Cringe Comedy: Dear Dick, The Joke Is on You,” Politics & Gender, vol. 15, no. 1 (2019), p. 108. ↩
- Kristen J. Warner, “In the Time of Plastic Representation,” Film Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 2 (2017), p. 36. ↩
- Marsha F. Cassidy, Television and the Embodied Viewer: Affect and Meaning in the Digital Age (Routledge, 2020), p. 59. ↩
- Emily Nussbaum, “Difficult Women: How Sex and the City Lost Its Good Name,” I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution (Random House, 2019), p. 53. ↩