Spoiler alert: The last few paragraphs of this story contain spoilers for the finale of And Just Like That.
If one adjective describes HBO's And Just Like That, it's "cringey."
In the late '90s, the original Sex and the City was an edgy show about single women's sexual independence. Decades later, And Just Like That not only contains minimal sex, it misses major opportunities to explore the complexities of sexuality. How is a series that once broke a mold now so... square?
In the reboot, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) resurfaces with an abridged entourage of Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), each shuffling through a midlife crisis: death of a spouse, parental alienation and erotic self-awakening. Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the character who pushed the most sexual boundaries, with a DGAF spirit and refreshing wit, left for greener pastures.
And Just Like That is a story about Gen Xers trying to navigate what feels like a foreign new world. In the first episode, Carrie gets flustered over the mere mention of public masturbation on a sex and dating podcast. Later, she awkwardly asks her long-term partner, Big, whether he... ever tickles the pickle.
Carrie and Co. also struggle to understand nonbinary characters: Rock, Charlotte's kid, and Che Diaz, Miranda's love interest. When Miranda reveals that she and Che had mind-blowing sex (in her words, "a finger"), Charlotte wonders if her friend is suddenly gay, bluntly concluding, "You are not progressive enough for this!"
Sex and society have a complex relationship. Mainstream television often either reflects that complex relationship or overlooks it. TV tells us what audiences desire and what is acceptable, acting as a moral and cultural barometer, according to the authors of the 2012 book Television, Sex and Society.
So what does And Just Like That say about today's sexual norms? For one, Carrie's squeamish approach to masturbation makes her the most noncredible sex columnist ever.
"It's a shocking sign of how much we're just indicating conversations around sexuality versus really having them," said sex coach Jessica Habie, who's developing her own drama series, Here She Comes, which she hopes will push the country toward new pleasure-filled dimensions.
And Just Like That can't get it up
Representations of sex on TV have exploded since the time of I Love Lucy, when showing pregnancy on TV was considered too risqué. Janet Hardy, sex educator and co-author of the book The Ethical Slut, remembers married couples on television sleeping in separate beds. Today "a popular mainstream show like Modern Family can show a gay family lovingly and without judgment," said Hardy, who grew up at a time when same-sex sexuality was against the law.
In the 1980s, The Golden Girls laid the foundation for women talking openly about casual sex and gay issues -- even topics like AIDS -- on mainstream television. (They were in their 50s, around the same age as the characters in And Just Like That.) After Sex and the City's last season in 2004, The L Word gave visibility to lesbian sex, and Girls invited us to view messy relationships that came with shame and vulnerability. Today, HBO's Euphoria and Netflix's Sex Education teach us not only about a multitude of gender identities and relationship models, but also consent, violence and disability -- and the main characters are in high school.
Compared with those shows, And Just Like That feels, for younger viewers, like a remnant of a bygone age. Generation Y (millennials) and Z (zoomers) have access to almost every sexual proclivity, via social media and through internet porn. As sexual representation becomes more inclusive and fluid, some people from older generations feel alienated, according to Habie.
The estrangements in the Sex and the City reboot aren't only about sex and gender. Race, which was barely dealt with in the original show, is inserted in a forced and tone-deaf way. Miranda can't comfortably navigate a university classroom where there's a Black professor with braids. And Charlotte tries to appear "woke" for a party with Black acquaintances, so she and her hubby preplan which Black artists and authors to name-drop.
These painful scenes seem at least somewhat self-aware -- the Black dinner party episode is called Some of My Best Friends. When an ideal is turned on its head and painted as absurd, that makes for parody.
"I'm very much reminded of The Brady Bunch Movie," said Damon Jacobs, a New York City-based HIV prevention specialist and psychotherapist. The 1995 film took the wholesome Bradys from the original 1970s sitcom and transported them into the modern world. Outside of their idyllic bubble, the popular family appears silly and naïve. Could the creators of And Just Like That succeed by inviting fans to mock their favorite characters' outdated narrative?
Women don't really come from Venus
When Sex and the City premiered in 1998, it had a winning formula. The main characters were well-off, white, heterosexual and cisgender New Yorkers. Sure, they talked about blowjobs over brunch, but they were also glamorous and didn't seem to be impacted by gender inequality -- in the bedroom or the boardroom. Their fantasy world was palatable to a broad array of viewers, from soccer moms to curious teenagers.
The dominant guide to relationships at the time was Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus by relationship counselor John Gray. The piece of pop psychology sat high on bestseller lists for years (as well as on my parents' bookshelf), describing men and women as members of "the opposite sex" -- an archaic term assigning two fixed biological categories, each with innate behaviors.
Less widespread was The Ethical Slut, a groundbreaking guide to relationships outside of conventional monogamy, which appeared a year prior to Sex and the City's debut. Talk of open marriage or polyamory was socially rejected then, but Hardy said 1997 had cracked open a few doors in mainstream depictions of sexuality -- Ellen Degeneres came out of the closet publicly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicted a powerful heroine having vampire sex. Still, she said, "I can't think of any television show that showed a fully sexual woman without judgment at that time."
That's why Sex and the City was considered cutting-edge and revered by so many, including gay and queer men, according to Jacobs. "For the first time you had this fictional depiction of people talking frankly and openly about sex in a way that promoted agency and empowerment," he said. The series -- which had gay creators and writers -- came out in the shadow of the AIDS crisis, when many people deeply feared the consequences of being sexually active.
The characters, chiefly Samantha, gave license to talk about sexual desire without shame or worry. Coinciding with the emergence of antiretroviral medications and treatment, the show rarely mentioned condom use and never dealt with HIV or AIDS. Jacobs, a great admirer of the show, appreciated how Sex and the City helped normalize conversations around pleasure. "It represented in my cohort this fantasy of freedom that we didn't really have," he said.
More colors of the rainbow, but no spectrum
Though Sex and the City had a large queer following, the show approached LGBTQ characters with stereotypes and tokenism: Carrie's gay bestie, Stanford, is more of a decoration than an independent person with lived experiences, and bisexuality is presented as mere experimentation and confusion. All these years later, And Just Like That hasn't done much better.
Though Che plays a central role in the new series, Jacobs points out that the audience doesn't learn about them through their own scenes or storylines. Beyond the show's discussion of preferred pronouns, there's only a shallow exploration of the issues facing trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming individuals. It's more like box-checking. We never hear, for example, what it's like for 12-year-old Rock to come out as nonbinary at school, or to face the disappointment of their heteronormative parents.
Habie notes that neither the original Sex and the City nor the reboot depicts the gender and sexuality spectrum, which spans a multitude of identities and orientations. And Just Like That tries to step out of its antiquated boy/girl divide by simply adding the "other" label. "Now you have your triangle -- you have one more option," Habie said. Case in point: Che's podcast is called X, Y and Me.
Younger generations truly get the idea of spectrum in a way that some older folks don't, according to Habie. Youth have been exposed to a flood of sexualized content, and though not all of it is sex-positive or authentic, it's far from the buttoned-up social norms that shaped pop culture before the sexual revolution. Plus, they have access to modern, science-based books about sexuality, like Emily Nagoski's Come As You Are, which recognizes the wide range of women's tendencies and preferences.
Young people are also sharing more about their sexuality publicly, giving us a glimpse into their lives that's made its way to popular television. HBO's Euphoria, a show about teenagers dealing with drug addiction, sexual abuse and trauma, has a complexity and expansiveness other shows don't, said Habie. The young characters are represented as unique individuals who just happen to be on journeys exploring their sexual and gender identities -- they aren't unique solely because of their sexual and gender identities.
Hardy appreciates Netflix's Sex Education not only because the teenage characters are empowered to make adult sexual decisions -- the show also emphasizes accurate and sensitive education as the key to sexual happiness. "Sex isn't treated as a bargaining chip or a status marker; it's shown as a way to give and receive touch, affection and pleasure," Hardy said in an email. And the show "does not judge anybody's kinks or orientations."
The best sex of our lives
Miranda's sexual storyline in And Just Like That is the most authentic, and the most deserving of more depth. Her relationship with Che is a catalyst for a journey of self-discovery that involves coming to terms with stasis in her marriage. At 55, Miranda realizes she's given up a part of herself, including her own sexual agency.
The struggle to maintain desire in long-term relationships is real. It's a topic addressed by Jacobs in his practice as well as by renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel. "The challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what's safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what's exciting, mysterious and awe-inspiring," Perel writes in Mating in Captivity. Miranda couldn't find passion inside her monogamous relationship, and maybe she didn't want to.
But the show only glosses over these common challenges. As a result, instead of empathizing with Miranda's choice to pursue her own happiness, viewers have bemoaned that her husband Steve was left in the dust -- even earning the beloved character a #justiceforsteve hashtag. Though the show acknowledges the existence of open marriages, the final episode follows a conventional template: a powerful sexual awakening is reduced to an affair, and the primary relationship terminates in divorce.
Still, the finale reveals how the three main characters are open to embracing change. "The future is unwritten," Carrie says on her podcast, as she transcends her grief to find romance as a widow. Charlotte learns to accept Rock's determination to be unlabeled, and Miranda allows herself to be vulnerable. Personal transformation at any age is a valid story that deserves to be told.
In Habie's view, if a show were to accurately address the sexuality of women in their 50s, it would focus on the role of psychological arousal -- things like masturbation, role playing and fantasy, which become more pivotal as women age and their hormones change. "Good sex is about expansiveness, discovery and curiosity," she said. Older women often go through a second puberty as they tap into their eroticism, leading many to the best sex of their lives.
It would be good for youth to see how sex changes as we mature, just like it's good for their parents' generation to learn how attitudes about gender, sexuality and relationships are evolving. Until we have more genuine stories being told, the younger generation is leading the way. Said Hardy, "I'm really looking forward to seeing the kind of world they create."