As the years have gone by, I have come to realize that “Sex and the City” is a lot like a cool aunt. For the sake of the analogy, imagine this aunt is white. As a child, you thought this aunt was glamorous, witty and exciting, but as you’ve matured, the façade crumbled. In reality, this aunt is not as smart as she thinks she is, she disguises prejudice as humor, and fetishizes Black men uncomfortably too much to be as colorblind as she claims.
I sighed with relief upon realizing “Sex and the City” turns 20 this year, because with two decades under its belt, the show, like the hypothetical aunt, is eligible to be deemed “of a different time.” It’s easy to write off “Sex and the City” as a problematic fav, a guilty pleasure, something not to be taken too seriously. After all, there is no clear malice in the show’s tone-deafness. It’s just that — tone-deaf. Ignorant. Despite this truth, it is undeniable “Sex and the City” had a hand in promoting the symbolic annihilation of women of color on screen. And as much as I would love to stop writing this article, sit down and watch a marathon of Season 2 (the show at its finest), I can’t. There needs to be an open discussion about the role “Sex and the City” and others have in indoctrinating women of color into the culture that heralds white women as beautiful, central and worthy of love while women of color, in contrast, are discarded to the margins without a second thought.
I grew up on “Sex and the City”. I’ve seen every episode, can identify seasons by Carrie’s hairstyle and for a while listed Carrie Bradshaw as my role model and sole aspiration for adulthood. To me, “Sex and the City” was infallible … until I re-watched an episode that threw my entire perception of the show into question. It’s called “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts”, and the B-plot centers around Samantha partaking in the “revolutionary” act of dating a Black man, Chivon.
Conflict quickly arises when Chivon’s sister, Adeena, tells Samantha she doesn’t want her brother dating a white woman. No deeper explanation is given as to why Adeena thinks this way, making her appear to be an irrationally prejudiced, cracker hater. Mild disapproval from Adeena eventually erupts into a fully-fledged altercation at a nightclub between her and Samantha.
While watching, I paused. Not only did I find myself mentally cheering for Adeena, but for the first time in all of my viewings of this episode, I felt a bizarre sense of connection to her that typically does not apply for one-episode characters.
I now assume that my long-standing ignorance of this episode’s (and in a larger context, the show’s) problematic nature was a result of its striking parallel to my everyday life. From second to eighth grade, I was one of two Black students (the only Black female) in a class of 60. The oversaturation of whiteness emanating from my television screen felt normal — I felt as though I was the thing that needed to be adjusted. This habit of adjusting myself was taken to the next level when I indoctrinated my middle school friends into the fandom. We all attempted to covertly alter our personalities to better match the women’s of “Sex in the City”. I was almost completely successful in my inhabitation of the role — the only thing missing was a love interest. To say the least, my friends did not have this affliction. I began to wonder why I was never asked to slow dance awkwardly to “Drops of Jupiter” at the winter dance. Why did all of my friends get special Valentine’s Day gifts while I was left with nothing but Fun-Dip stained fingers and a shitty attitude for the remainder of the day? The same exclusionary feeling I’d get momentarily while watching “Sex and the City” had begun to creep into my everyday life.
When you watch television, by definition, you are a detached spectator of the action. But, a part of you is supposed to relate to the characters and the situations. Without a doubt, I related to (as much as a middle schooler could) the central characters of “Sex and the City”, but I always knew I did not look like them. Characters that looked like me were either invisible or two-dimensional, stupid and buffoonish. For a while, my coping mechanism was to assert it was “just TV,” and it couldn’t be completely accurate in relation to my life. This resilience began to cave when the same scenarios that I had written off as “fake” started to occur for my friends — just not me. In addition, I began to question, with every new show I started, why did I always have to strain to picture myself in these everyday situations? Why can’t someone look like me and share my personality traits?
I began to see the world as solely white. I saw courtship, love, sex and dating through a solely white and heteronormative lens. I’d realize in my later teen years that by seeing only white people depicted as glamorous, complex, dynamic and witty, I and clearly others began to conflate those characteristics with the skin color with which they were most regularly associated. Spoiler: it wasn’t my own. Being white meant being the default, being regular. Being Black or another race meant you were there to serve a purpose. I could not simply be. Everyone wants to believe they are smart, charming and worthy of love. I thought I was these things. The television disagreed with me. I fell victim to one of American society’s greatest traps: Rather than vilifying the horrible depictions, I began to vilify my own Blackness and the over-pronounced “Blackness” of characters onscreen.
So just why did I relate so heavily to the treatment of Adeena that fateful day? Because I’ve been in her shoes. Following our eighth-grade dances, my friends and I would race back to someone’s house for a sleepover where we would gossip about the romantic developments that occurred at the dance. Despite my attempts to mask my frustration at another night full of blows to my self-esteem, my friends would pick up on my mood and avoid me for the rest of the night. I’d overhear poorly executed whispers of “Ally’s super mad.” My perspective on the matter was never delved into, my friends never cared that I was conditioned to feel uglier than everyone else. They didn’t understand and didn’t care. It was easier to simply write me off as angry. Comparably, on “Sex and the City” where rather than taking a deeper look into the complex issue of interracial relationships and allowing the character to appear rational in her suspicions of Samantha, writers of “Sex and the City” decided Adeena screaming “you don’t belong here!” and yanking at Samantha’s hair would do a better job handling the intricacy of the matter. Just as Adeena was expected to be A-OK with her brother running off with a white woman, I was supposed to be A-OK with wallowing in my feelings of worthlessness to appease my friends.
Watching “Sex and the City” and seeing these white ideals of romance, I felt as though if I did not disassociate from the unattractive traits of the few women of color on the show, then no boy would ever like me. Despite my high school being exorbitantly more diverse than my previous school, I would still overhear a chorus of disparaging comments made at the expense of Black women from guys of all races. It didn’t matter how I imagined myself or what precautions I took to assimilate — in society’s eyes, I was still a walking amalgamation of stereotypes.
We like to think things are changing, but in all honesty, it’s not moving as fast as we like to take credit. Sure, there has been a surge in feminist media in the past few years. “Big Little Lies”, “Girls”, “Girl Boss”, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the list goes on, but what do these things all have in common? I’ll let you figure it out. In jumping at the opportunity to critique our sins of the past, we let our guards down to repeat the exact same actions. Change takes time. I recognize that. I still find myself unlearning racist self-policing techniques, but the fact of the matter is we have to try. We, as a viewing audience, need to demand media that features a variety of people at the center of the stories. I want stories from the marginalized viewpoint. I want these stories to be as mainstream as “Sex in the City”. While things may not be changing, one thing has indeed. I am no longer the passive child watching whatever comes my way; I am in the position where now I can create something or be a part of a movement that does.