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Ramblings on Sex and the City and Society Reacting to Media of the Past

January 11, 2021

I am absolutely thrilled at the conversation happening around Sex and the City at the moment, thanks to HBOMax’s controversial decision to greenlight a final season of the show without its most beloved and culturally relevant character, Samantha (Kim Cattrall). I’m thrilled because I ended 2020 binge-watching Sex and the City for the first time in a span of about a month and it’s been all I’ve wanted to talk about. The series was surprisingly life-affirming for me: a city-dwelling single gal navigating dating and sex in a time rife with changing attitudes towards the topic of monogamy and intimacy.

However, the level of problematic, transphobic, homophobic, kink-shaming, and cultural appropriation that takes place in the series is outstanding. In fact, there’s an entire episode that just gives me the willies and made me want to turn it off with its level of ignorant conversation involving transsexual prostitutes. But this isn’t an article to tear down a show that’s old enough to have a beer. That’d be silly, right? Even though the current social standard revels in that. Instead, I want to look at how certain episodes of the series reveal something very important about society at large.

When Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker)—30-something white woman and socialite of New York— snooped around her boyfriend’s belongings and discovered he bought her a gold engagement ring, she balked at the sight of it. I side-eyed the TV in harsh judgment of her bougie discernment. “Bitch, at least he got you a ring!” I said out loud into my empty apartment. But it wasn’t Carrie’s reaction that stuck with me, it was her defense of the reaction. “But you wear gold jewelry,” her trusty honest best friend Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) reminds Carrie over brunch with their girlfriends. Carrie retorts, “Yeah, ghetto gold for fun but this is my engagement ring.”

There it was, and ooooh it stung. I had already noticed in earlier seasons that Carrie was rocking bamboo knocker-styled earrings, usually worn by Black and brown minorities from my childhood and all over America in the 1980s and early ‘90s. I even noticed she had a gold-plated necklace with her name on it, a piece of jewelry that’s the focus on an entire episode in the series’ last season. Once a symbol of style and coolness in my neighborhood was now a symbol of class and high fashion in these women’s world. But Carrie’s frank conversation with her friends over breakfast said it all.

And you know what? I wasn’t mad. I could have had an understandably knee-jerk reaction in a time where Kimberley Crenshaw’s coined term “cultural appropriation” is as well-known as the term “tweet.” But here, in 2001 New York City and more specifically in Sex and the City, that term and the lessons it packs in its powerful punch were far from the reaches of ivory ears wearing 24-karat gold earrings inspired by the urban Black residents of the boroughs that Carrie and her friends wouldn’t be caught dead in. (And if you let the show tell, didn’t exist.)

We’ve come a long way as a society in terms of how we see one another and the ways in which we interact with cultures and marginalized groups that we don’t belong in. And, looking back on moments in media and history with a negative emotional reaction is us recognizing that. But what we keep doing as a society is scapegoating the blame onto other people: white people, white women, the rich, the elite, the ignorant, the have’s, the technology-advanced, etc.

I told this Carrie ghetto-gold story to a friend who had already watched this show during its original run. She remembered every single detail about the scene I recalled except the “ghetto” comment. She was stunned she hadn’t heard it at the time. I reminded her, “you heard it, you just didn’t think twice about it because that’s not where society was then.” When we look back, historically speaking, it’s easy to think certain individuals were the only perpetrators and purveyors of such culture ills like racism, homophobia, misogyny, whatever names we want to put to it to box it up to differentiate the past from our highly esteemed better selves today. What we don’t do is recognize how implicit society at large was in the normalization of disenfranchisement.

We block out and forget that we laughed at homophobic jokes or didn’t think twice about a joke that said “chick” and “dick” in the same sentence because we were all conditioned together watching the same media, learning the same things about each other, and coming to the same wrong conclusions about ourselves. We broke away from these on our own accord years later thanks to more education, more experience, more awareness, more friends and acquaintances, and more representation. But that doesn’t make us immune.

I don’t speak for every person’s experience during this era when I say “we.” I am speaking generally because when Sex and the City was at its height, I was a 13-year-old media hungry teen watching any and everything television would allow my eyes to take in. Because of this, I learned through television what was “normal.” The outskirts of society were relegated to HBO’s more late-night programming like Real Sex, a show I watched during this era before  Sex and the City ever remotely even caught my attention. These elements of sex and kink captured on Real Sex were for the weirdos, the oddballs, the sex-obsessed people on the edge of society. Sex dolls, sex changes, latex fetishes, group sex, all of these things were normalized to me as a youth because I sought media that focused on the dredges of society.

But that still didn’t make me immune to words and how I talked about what was “normal” with others. And the fact that  Sex and the City helped “normalize” certain aspects around what goes on in the bedroom is telling of our conservative instincts at the time. It’s so interesting to think that in the late 1990s into the early 2000s, we were similar in our notions of sex as the 1940s into the 1950s. On the mainstream end, we were obsessed with it, investing our dollars and energy into singers who revealed enough of their bodies to titillate but damning and shaming them for it all the same. All the while, sex that leaned away from the cis, heteronormative way of seeing the world still kept happening, but god forbid if it made its way into the mainstream. Remember when Diana Ross playfully touched Lil Kim’s breast at the VMA’s or when Madonna, Britney, and Christina kissed on stage and how society’s head damn near exploded? When looking back now, we looked dumb, but this is exactly what this rambling is trying to convey. We can’t witch-hunt the past. Only learn from it and take those lessons to teach us how not to do the same thing now.

My line of work is separating the negative conations of the past with the moral responsibility to do better in the now and for the future. I work in the industry of classic movies, and I’m often asked how can I enjoy these movies with all of the negative factors stacked against them in terms of social representation. My answer is simply because I recognize the historical context. That doesn’t make me smarter, more focused, or anything special. I’ve learned a specific type of cognitive dissonance when engaging with media.

It hasn’t been easy. I learned that it does me no good to become angry with these images of the past. It’s a process that has been years in the making. The first time I remember having a visceral reaction to cinemtic images—the deepest sadness I’d ever known at the time— was when watching Spike Lee’s Bamboolzed for the first time in high school. His montage scene of offensive portrayals of African Americans in media was a disturbing insight into how society once saw my people—me—as shuffling, fried-chicken eating, lazy, good for nothings. I cried for days. I refused to eat fried chicken in front of white people for years after that.

But now, instead of getting angry or sad, I recognize the importance of calling these issues out to my friends and colleagues or whoever will listen whenever I’m talking about media that I engage with. That’s the only way to open other people’s eyes to something that has been normalized. Who all got mad back in 2001 when Samantha and Carrie made all of those awful trans jokes? Who all got mad in 2002 every time Carrie made a shitty, rude remark about Stanford being gay? Who all cared or even noticed when Carrie wore designer Kangol-inspired hats and gold bamboo knockers? Did anyone chew out the top designers of that era for re-appropriating a culture that wasn’t theirs and then marking up the price for rich white women who find out they’ve spent $40k on shoes? Who all batted an eye when Carrie dated that guy but couldn’t get over that he had sex with men? Did anyone realize then they were denying bisexual validity?

Sex and the City was made in a post-Kinsey world where sexuality had been realized to exist on a spectrum for 60+ years. But does that mean mainstream society was ready for it? Turns out the answer was no. That’s not necessarily the fault of the writer’s room or the producers. It’s the fault of our culture. Nevertheless, what I do love most about this show, besides their frank conversations around anal play, marriage, children, rape fantasies, promiscuity, love, friendship, shitty diapers and baby weight, balancing careers, giving up careers, and so on, is its ability to be a time capsule of what was considered “normal” behavior back then. This begs the question if a widely popular, syndicated television show like Sex and the City reflects a transphobic, cis-gender homogenous America of the early 2000s, then what media are we ingesting without questioning today, and what does it still say about what we largely deem acceptable and “normal”?

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