It was the landmark TV show that changed how women talked about sex and desire onscreen but with it set to return, Meadhbh McGrath asks whether the forthcoming portrayal of the fifty-something women will be as honest as before
When Sex and the City arrived on our screens in 1998, sex was already on the brain for much of the audience. The Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal was dominating the airwaves, and talk of incriminating stains, wayward cigars and phone sex was ubiquitous in media coverage and water-cooler conversations around the world.
Yet while Lewinsky was cast as a laughingstock and a "tramp" - a popular perception that has since undergone mass re-evaluation post-#MeToo - Sex and the City (SATC) took a very different view of female sexuality.
Carrie Bradshaw was introduced as a sort of sexual anthropologist, investigating whether women could have "sex like a man" - that is, "without feeling". Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha were single women seeking sex for sex's sake, and they weren't punished for it, nor depicted as "fallen women".
Now, 22 years on, the landmark show is set to return - without Samantha - into a new pop-culture landscape, where many of our most pervasive cultural moments feature women speaking candidly about sex, from Fleabag's shamelessly libidinous narrator asking viewers "do I have a massive a**hole?" to the women of Girls Trip demonstrating the "grapefruit technique" to the sexually explicit lyrics of chart-topping songs such as Ariana Grande's 34+35 or Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's WAP.
And though elements of SATC have undoubtedly aged poorly - most notably its glaring lack of diversity and its characters' outrageous standards of living - many of its girl-talk scenes are still relevant today.
"SATC was the first time I saw a realistic portrayal of how women speak about sex and relationships to each other," says Jenny Claffey, co-host of the It Galz podcast, which blends cultural commentary with unfiltered chat about sex and dating. She notes she was struck by "how frank the conversations are, how they're not always romanticised but often approached with comedy".
Over six seasons, SATC featured some of pop culture's most graphic discussions of female sexuality.
In a refreshing, even radical, departure from most mass-media depictions of women's sexuality, the central characters insisted on the female orgasm as an essential part of sex, devoting a season-four episode to Samantha's search for her "lost" orgasm.
"SATC signalled almost a 'giving permission' to women that the world was ready for them to express their sexuality and desires," says Muire O'Farrell, health promotion officer with Cork's Sexual Health Centre.
"It also portrayed single women as inherently sexual people with full lives. SATC enabled women - all different types of women - to see themselves and their own desires portrayed publicly and unapologetically for the first time."
Although the TV series was based on Candace Bushnell's book of essays, Aoife O'Toole, manager of the Dublin Feminist Film Festival, points out that the show was created by a man, Darren Star. And while many episodes were helmed by influential female film-makers such as Nicole Holofcener, Susan Seidelman and Alison Maclean, both films were directed by Michael Patrick King.
Aoife says that in the years since SATC ended, women have been increasingly empowered to tell their own stories in shows like Broad City, Girls and Insecure.
"A lot of 'mainstream' shows still struggle with depicting women's sexual desires without tying it to some sort of plot point or character trait - as in, 'She has sexual desires because of X/Y/Z personality issue,'" says Aoife.
"Often, historical shows and genre shows handle this better, like Outlander or Masters of Sex, [where] their sexuality is one facet of a multi-dimensional character. Lesbian film and television also seem to be pushing forward in novel ways, such as the recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire."
Elsewhere, the podcasting boom of the last decade has brought with it a new space for women to speak honestly about their sexual appetite, from sex-advice shows like Call Her Daddy to Thirst Aid Kit's musings on celebrity crushes to erotic scripted dramas such as Dirty Diana.
"I think the medium of podcasting is amazing as we are no longer dependent on producers and mainstream media to represent 'normal women'. We now have the ability to represent ourselves through open conversation," says Jenny, adding that some audiences are reluctant to hear what women have to say.
"From an Irish perspective, it is not mainstream. As a sex podcast, we're still seen as controversial and risqué, and some of our more sex-themed content exists behind a paywall for that reason. People get very uncomfortable when women talk about sex in the same ways that men do, and they judge women for it, but I do think that is changing, slowly but surely."
The stigma around representations of desiring women may have lessened, yet this coincides with what Diane Negra, professor of film studies and screen culture at UCD, describes as "the collapse of romantic hopefulness".
"Think about the great Hollywood tradition of romantic couples. That is meant to be a filter over the relationship between Carrie and Big: the idea that the couple stands at the centre of 'the good life' as it's meant to be lived. I think that kind of scene-setting has now been cast into great doubt," she explains. "So even though women are more licensed to express desire, the question of what women should want or how it can ever be realised has gotten a lot murkier."
Though female desire is now more socially acceptable, Diane argues that it's also "not purposeful" - as our faith in traditional social institutions, particularly marriage, has wavered, women have lost confidence in what they believe will make them happy.
Such uncertainty is echoed in shows such as Dublin Murders or Run starring Domhnall Gleeson, which Diane cites as examples of narratives that take an ambiguous, ambivalent view on whether their couples should stay together.
"I'm seeing a lot of hedging on romance, and portrayals in which there's a lens over the romance that suggests that it won't survive for very long," she explains, pointing to the rise in romances "marked by illness or dysfunction", such as Silver Linings Playbook and Five Feet Apart, where a character's mental or physical illness means the romance isn't permitted full closure in the classic Hollywood mould.
"The chick flick is in a deep state of decline," Diane says. Instead, we're seeing films where the generic terrain of the Hollywood rom-com is satirised, such as the brain-injury comedy Isn't It Romantic, which she suggests reflect a wider tentativeness around romance.
When SATC was on air, Diane notes, popular culture was in the midst of a lengthy phase of over-investment in what has been termed the matrimonial industrial complex, which reinforced the idea that making the "right match" was central to a happy, fulfilled life, as showcased in films like Father of the Bride and The Wedding Planner. "My sense is that that desperate, naked focus on bridal culture is no longer plausible," says Diane.
"This leaves us in a very unclear place when it comes to what sexual culture looks like and what intimacy consists of, because I think the bigger picture here is how technologised intimacy has become."
Technological advancements mark the clearest social distinction between then and now - the year of SATC's debut, 1998, also saw the release of the Nokia 5110 and, according to UK studies, only 25% of the population had a mobile phone.
A 2019 survey by Deloitte found that 96% of Irish people have a mobile phone, while couples today are just as likely to meet on Tinder or Bumble as in a glitzy cocktail bar.
"If you want to think of the consummate example of post-SATC intimacy culture, I might propose that it's MTV's Catfish, and that sense that we don't know who we're dealing with," says Diane.
"I think that intimacy culture has gotten very, very mistrustful, and what we're seeing in a lot of representations now is an openly transactional relationship to sexuality, in which older ideas about intimacy and a sense of deep affinity with another person have really, really declined."
How the SATC revival chooses to tackle technology will be fascinating, as will its approach to modern sexuality, although later instalments in the franchise roundly failed to capture the zeitgeist.
"On the one hand, it's a franchise that has shown that it can't evolve with the times, because everything kind of fell apart with that last film, which badly misjudged the early global financial crash moment," says Diane.
"But on the other hand, in this time we're living through, where you have these high unmet social needs, and television has emerged as the premier parasocial comfort for most of us, it's an opportune moment for pre-sold franchises that recall another era."
She notes that the big question going into the revival is how the show will treat the characters' age, given the leading actresses are in their mid-fifties - comparable in age to Dorothy, Rose and Blanche of 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls.
"There's a possibility for SATC to do something very interesting, which is to meaningfully engage with midlife women's experiences and concerns. That's something that our popular culture has tended to do hardly at all and very badly," says Diane.
"Inevitably, because of the nature of the series, it can only deal with what it's like to be a midlife, rich, white woman in New York now, and I think one of the differences between now and, say, 20 years ago, is a massive social transition in terms of privilege consciousness, so that will probably colour the reception of this series in a way the first series didn't have to account for as much."
In 2017, fans poked fun at the more dated aspects of the show with "woke Charlotte" memes that recast the group's most conservative member as its voice of reason. In 2021, however, Diane observes that the gang are more likely to be perceived as "Karens", the reboot arriving at a cultural moment when midlife white women are being excoriated for their privilege.
"I'm struck by the fact that SATC is going to be foregrounding the question of what white midlife women's lives are like at a time when it's become pretty common to satirise, mock and attack such women. I think the series is going to have to push back against that a little bit," she adds.
Jenny also wants to see the revival address the characters' age "directly and honestly", but not without humour.
"I would love for the women to approach topical things like gender and sexuality being more fluid, and things like OnlyFans and internet culture, but from the perspective of an older woman - I think they could approach this in a really funny way," she says, wary of an overly earnest meditation on privilege.
"I really hope they don't lose the comedic element of the show, especially when approaching more sensitive topics."
With Samantha absent, all of the women of SATC will be married for over 10 years. Muire is eager to see how the show will cover how desire evolves in long-term relationships, something rarely represented in our youth-obsessed popular culture.
"Realistically, how sexually active are you at that point? What is important in a sexual and physical relationship as you age with a partner? Does that relationship last? And if not, what does it mean to be 50 and single in today's world?" she says.
"You don't become sexually redundant after 50, and I have no doubt Sex and the City will make that known."