Fun fact: For a full decade after Sex and the City went off the air, anytime I heard the telltale static that preceded any HBO original show, I fully expected to hear the opening chimes of Sex and the City’s theme song. That’s how iconic the brand was, and how much I missed my weekly fix of the fictional antics of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) and Charlotte York (Kristin Davis).
Another fun fact: In the early 2000s, friends dubbed me “Carrie Blackshaw.” It was fitting; at the time, I was a stylish single girl, living the glamorous life in New York City, who had a way with words and a ridiculously large collection of overpriced stilettos (and a frequently overdrawn bank account, as a result).
Like many women of Generation X, I was a devoted fan of Sex and City, which, in many ways, seemed to mirror my own evolving life as a (not-so-native) New Yorker, replete with a squad of close girlfriends (and requisite gay male bestie), a series of charismatic lovers and a career as a creative freelancer trying to figure it all out—and look amazing doing it.
June 6 marked 20 years of the now iconic show, and in reading the many tributes and send-ups of the era that Sex and the City helped define, I was struck by how much of it still resonates—and how much never did.
Because there was, of course, one glaring difference between my life as a Manhattan “it” girl and Carrie Bradshaw’s: While my life was colorful in pretty much every way imaginable, Carrie’s life was distinctly absent people of color, a fact that my then-mid-20s self was obviously willing to overlook to participate in the cultural zeitgeist.
In fact, I remember clearly when I was first confronted with the ugly truth about the show, when a then-boyfriend told me he actually considered it “anti-black” for its absence of black people. I immediately went on the defensive, arguing him down. I may even have screamed something along the lines of, “Let people like things!”
In other words, let me have my guilty pleasure without feeling guilty about implicitly supporting its lack of representation.
The year was 2000. Not long after, Sex and the City aired its only episode to feature a black woman. The episode was predicated on the premise that Samantha was dating a black man. Unfortunately, his sister, who begins the episode as a friendly chef, takes issue with the relationship, culminating in a fairly vile confrontation loaded with racially charged and even emasculating language.
The Sex and the City screenwriters do just about everything to fetishize Chivon, a successful black music executive for whom the voracious Samantha falls hard. She says she “doesn’t see color; [she] only sees conquests.” She tells her friends that he has a “big black cock.” Samantha says she thought all hip-hop had a hard edge. Chivon’s sister, who is portrayed as a farcical angry-black-woman stereotype, doesn’t like her brother dating a white woman. Samantha responds by telling his sister that she has a big black ass and that the okra served in the sister’s restaurant isn’t “all that.” I’m going to throw up all over Samantha’s gold-leather “hip-hop outfit.”
It was a particularly low point in a show I loved, but it was far from the only instance of casual racism. However, in the six seasons that the show aired, it was the sole instance in which the writers even attempted a storyline featuring a black female character—save for the equally offensive “Cock-a-Doodle-Doo” episode, which featured transgender prostitutes of color.
Granted, it was likely a good thing, since their perception of black women en masse was clearly that of black women being angry, threatened and extremely fearful of their men—siblings included—being “stolen” by white women. Sundra Oakley, the actress featured in the infamous episode, now feels similarly, as reported by Vanity Fair:
“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 said in an interview. “[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?”
Why couldn’t it? Or why couldn’t there have been other stories, to counter this one? Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte had no black female friends, bosses or colleagues. No one, even in their extended circle of friends, was a black woman. In fact, there was no characterization of black women that would have countered the stereotype put forth by that episode until the first Sex and the City movie, when Jennifer Hudson was cast as Carrie’s earnest assistant, Louise.
I’d be lying if I said that episode didn’t feel like a betrayal. I’d also be lying if I said I’d stopped watching the series as a result. And I know I’m not the only one; despite its clumsy handling of race in general, the franchise remains beloved by a certain generation of women of all colors.
But we can’t appreciate Sex and the City without also acknowledging what it helped perpetuate. When Girls premiered on HBO in 2012, we were once again introduced to an all-white cast of characters in a predominantly white New York. And once again, we watched.
When asked why lead character Hannah Horvath had no black friends, creator and actress Lena Dunham explained that she’d wanted to “write from a place of accuracy and passion and understanding,” which she didn’t feel she could do from the perspective of a woman of color.
Similarly, when director Sofia Coppola removed a black character (a slave) from her 2017 remake of the period film The Beguiled, she, too, claimed to have backed away from including the character out of “respect”:
I did not want to perpetuate an objectionable stereotype where facts and history supported my choice of setting the story of these white women in complete isolation, after the slaves had escaped. Moreover, I felt that to treat slavery as a side plot would be insulting.
(Funny how Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees don’t seem to have those pesky stumbling blocks.)
What’s insulting is being presented with a world that doesn’t include you (even in a film set during the Civil War). However funny and fashionable, and for whatever reasons we were excluded from the Sex and the City narrative, the unspoken message was that we didn’t belong there.
It’s often said that “all our faves are problematic.” Reflecting on Sex and the City 20 years later, it’s an undeniable fact that it was. And as to what the show still represents in popular culture, it’s a fact that cannot go undeclared, even as we reminisce fondly about Carrie Bradshaw’s stilettos. As Sundra Oakley told Vanity Fair: “That’s the beauty of us as black women. We’ve had to learn how to walk in their world. They never had to learn how to walk in ours.”