How Sex and the City 2 singlehandedly destroyed the entire franchise's legacy
In its early days, the show was transgressive enough to forgive its missteps. By 2010, there was no excuse
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
I started watching Sex and the City at the start of tenth grade because my coolest, most adult-seeming friend couldn't recommend it enough. And of course, I couldn't relate. I was a toddler parading as a teenager trying desperately to seem like a grown-up while navigating the complexities of balancing high school and my part-time job at McDonalds. I didn't wear heels and was tragically single (the boy I liked did not like me back), and while I obviously understood the gist of what Carrie and friends were talking about, I also knew that their world was far from mine. Miranda Hobbes once contemplated hooking up with a sandwich; I once kissed a guy when my parents weren't home and then offered him a Diet Pepsi, which he drank as we sat next to each other in the living room making small talk. We were not the same.
But I, like so many, fell in love with it anyway. My friend and I would quote the show relentlessly, trying desperately to apply it to our own lives and using the characters' trajectories to help shape our own identities (since we thought we were square). And who could blame us? At the time, Sex and the City was a groundbreaking and even shocking revelation: Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte were all 30-something, sexually active, professionally capable, single women who helped introduce millions of viewers to a lifestyle defined not by marriage, but by a very privileged version of independence. And while the years since have rightfully addressed issues of homophobia, racism, transphobia, and affluence woven deeply within the show, the late 90s and early-to-mid 2000s recognized it as a powerful series that reflected the changing way we talked about women, about sex, about dating, and about friendship. It was a show made for and defined by the new millennium; a rejection of the gender norms that shaped much of the 20th century and a celebration of the way the world was so rapidly changing.
And then came the movies.
In 2008, the first Sex and the City movie was released and wasn't terrible. My pals and I dressed up in our Le Chateau best and landed a row all together so we could hold hands and cry and not for one minute think about how the film's characters were now entirely defined by their relationships to men, which was exactly what had happened. Where the beginning of the show saw its leads shy away from marriage and even monogamy, the movie's story — while still managing to celebrate female friendships — hinged on the notion of love as something reserved for a man, a woman, and their very expensive apartment. And even after Samantha goes on to break up with Smith (a man who is very nice, but who she realizes is not for her), she seeks solace in food and is shamed by her best friends when she gains the smallest amount of weight in the world. It was a shadow of the TV show that helped put HBO on the map and demanded female characters be seen as messy, complicated, and even unlikable people. The movie was a caricature, resurrecting tuckered-out tropes and plot devices that served as in-jokes while stripping the franchise of its relevance. It didn't break ground or usher in anything new; it was pre-recession fashion porn, and morphed its cast into two-dimensional cardboard cutouts.
But that was nothing compared to Sex and the City 2.
Released at the end of May 2010, the second Sex and the City film was about...actually, I'm not sure, because I spent half the time covering my eyes and asking the friend I was with what was happening and why. I know Miranda Hobbes acts like a reasonable person. I know Charlotte gets jealous of her family's nanny because the nanny is beautiful and doesn't wear a bra — which is eventually resolved when she realizes the nanny is a lesbian and therefore will not pose a threat to her marriage, thank God. I know Carrie decides to hate her husband, Big, for not wanting to go out for dinner as much as he used to, and that they have two mansion-apartments. And I know Samantha travels (along with the rest of the girls) to Abu Dhabi for work, where the story then devolves into countless examples of overt racism and xenophobia which I cannot believe — a full ten years later — not only happened, but were actually written, edited, filmed, and included in a major motion picture.
Even now, writing this on the front stoop of my parents' house in the middle of quarantine, all I can do is stare at the grass, wondering where it all went wrong.
Because it went so, so wrong. While the TV series was never a beacon of awareness (let us not forget the episode in which Samantha dates a Black man and then accuses his sister of reverse racism), its value lay in its subject matter — independent women choosing to live the way they'd like — and the uncomfortable truths of being a single woman. At the time it was on the air, it was novel and reflected the modernity promised by the new millennium. And, since we'd yet to be truly shook by a financial collapse, it introduced a lifestyle most of us would never live but still aspired to. It was bright, shiny, new, and even depicted grown-ups having sex, which, from 1998 to 2004, was a pretty big deal.
But by 2010, Sex and the City's subject matter was no longer a big deal. Many other shows had come to deal frankly with issues of sex and independence, and did so in more socially aware and respectful ways. Plus, increased discourse about the entertainment we were all consuming (thank you, social media) meant that we'd begun to push back on lack of representation, irresponsible language, and plot points that only perpetuated damaging stereotypes. Ultimately, viewers had come to expect thoughtful art from the people who made it — so two-ish hours of fake problems, unapologetic white privilege, and straight-up Islamophobia was embarrassing and shameful. And it broke the legacy of Sex and the City in two.
Which, well, I think is fair. With all the time and energy that goes into scripts and dialogue and the movie-making process in general, there were plenty of opportunities the writers could've taken to show how Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha had grown and changed in the decade-and-change they'd been familiar to us. We could've watched as they began to reconcile the people they'd become with the people they were. We could've seen Carrie educate herself on the issues of sexuality she was so uncomfortable with (remember when she dated a bisexual man and completely erased his experience while belittling him consistently?) or Charlotte begin to challenge mommy blogger norms by, say, celebrating her nanny instead of projecting her insecurities onto her.
But Sex and the City 2 did achieve one thing: it highlighted the ways we had all changed, even if our once-favourite TV characters hadn't. Where I once would've followed Carrie Bradshaw into the cold dark night, I came to see her as someone whose missteps I had an opportunity to learn from. I also discovered firsthand that being a writer does not pay well enough to live in a Manhattan brownstone. But, most importantly, I learned that nothing gold can stay; that who we were is not who we will always be; and that when something you loved disappoints you so greatly, it means you've learned to ask for more.