Stereotypes and the City

 What to make of HBO’s attempts to diversify an iconic show?

Cynthia Nixon, left, and Karen Pittman in Season 2 of <em>And Just Like That...,</em> 2023 (Everett Collection)
Cynthia Nixon, left, and Karen Pittman in Season 2 of And Just Like That..., 2023 (Everett Collection)

As a Black woman, I could never relate to the alabaster cast of Sex and the City. I couldn’t see myself in the characters or the plotlines. And Just Like That… 20 years later, I could see myself in Sex and City’s world—but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Sex and the City (SATC), which aired on HBO from 1998–2004 and spawned two feature films, focuses on four 30- and 40-something women living in New York City: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall). Sequel series And Just Like That… (AJLT) picks up with those characters—sans Samantha, except for a brief cameo—in 2021, and it introduces four characters of color. Nicole Ari Parker plays Lisa Todd Wexley, documentary filmmaker and Charlotte’s friend; Sara Ramirez plays Che Diaz, Miranda’s nonbinary sometimes-partner; Karen Pittman plays Dr. Nya Wallace, Miranda’s law professor and later roommate; and Sarita Choudhury plays Seema Patel, Carrie’s real-estate agent.

I was optimistic about the producers’ efforts to bring diversity to the new series. Yet, as soon as I began watching AJLT, I struggled with the plot. Initially, I couldn’t articulate why. Unlike in SATC, I could see some version of myself in this new show. The new characters are played by engaging actors, and they have storylines beyond the SATC quartet—we go to work with them; we go home with them; we meet their families. A few episodes in, though, I realized the main problem: AJLT might have provided some semblance of a mirror, but looking into it, I felt reduced to only a racial identity—a racial caricature. In AJLT, I only came to know the Black characters through issues specifically tied to their race.

To cite a few examples: In one episode, Lisa’s husband, Herbert (Christopher Jackson), struggles to hail a taxi, a stale storyline that perpetuates a tiresome racial stereotype; Charlotte reaches the age of 50 before realizing that her social circle is comprised solely of white individuals; Miranda initially mistakes professor Nya—who eventually becomes Miranda’s friend and roommate—for a student on the first day of classes at Columbia Law School; Lisa, who juggles motherhood while editing a docuseries, uncomfortably mirrors Charlotte in her commitments to traditional family values and social climbing. It’s as if Lisa and Charlotte are Black and white versions of one another. And it’s just creepy.

One particularly egregious scene takes place during a dinner party hosted by Lisa and Herbert. Tensions escalate when Lisa’s mother-in-law (Pat Bowie) begins criticizing Lisa and Herbert’s art collection, which includes works by renowned artists like Gordon Parks and Derrick Adams. Charlotte takes advantage of her background in the fine arts, and in trying to impress Lisa (whose friendship she covets) she launches into an impromptu lecture on the artworks’ cultural importance and monetary value. As a result, white audience members receive a Black history lesson—one delivered by a white woman to a Black woman, who would likely already know these artists and the value of their art (as would any Black person watching).

Scenes like this one dominate the storylines of the new characters. I was reminded of a famous quote by Toni Morrison: “I’m writing for black people, in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio.” It was clear to me that AJLT was made for white people. Not for me.

AJLT’s new Black and Latina characters, touted as representatives of diversity, in fact represent a wider problem in Hollywood: actors of color are inserted into storylines that critical race theorists would call “race narratives,” or stories contingent on the existence of race. And though racial narratives in the media have the potential to challenge stereotypes and humanize individuals from marginalized communities—as in Issa Rae’s Insecure, also an HBO show—they can also perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce existing power dynamics.

Inserting race narratives into shows with majority-white casts can also come across as an attempt by showrunners to meet diversity quotas, a practice that dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the law was enacted, a host of institutions responded with surface-level efforts at integration: simply adding enough “diverse” people to their numbers to get by without controversy. Those numbers are critical for cultural transformation, but on their own they’re not enough. We know this, because more than 20 years into the 21st century, we continue to experience the horrors that the Civil Rights movement attempted to thwart—horrors such as the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Floyd’s murder, committed by a police officer who did not care that he was being videotaped because he and his colleagues had behaved violently without impunity for decades, shocked many white Americans. Empathetic white people flocked in droves to read antiracist books, attend online workshops and lectures, participate in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) trainings, and initiate awkward conversations with Black people in trying to unpack the riddle of race relations in our society. Hollywood was no exception—celebrities joined protests and posted black squares on their Instagram feeds to show solidarity with the movement; industry executives apologized for past missteps and pledged to change. In other words, the media landscape that AJLT entered was very different from the one that launched SATC—and surely the producers felt that pressure.

And Just Like That… has received mixed reviews from its inception. “This return might have felt more justified if it took a different approach,” writes NPR’s Aisha Harris, “like making Nya, Lisa, Seema and Che the main characters in their own series, with Carrie and the rest of the SATC gang popping in occasionally to gin up the nostalgia vibes and remind people this is a part of the SATC universe.” Instead, Harris writes, the four new characters are more like “Diversity Girlfriends” propping up the original group—and creating “a conundrum” for them. It’s as though the producers of AJLT set out to confront every diversity misstep they had ever witnessed or caused over the course of their entire lives.

The primary issue is that AJLT tackles “diversity” as if its absence were a singular problem when it’s really an intricate tapestry of people and experiences, each layered with complexities and nuances. Though I suspect that the producers intended to be sensitive to this tapestry by addressing various stereotypes, they ultimately fail to delve deeper into these stereotypes, fail to explore both cause and effect.

The idea that I could, in the time it takes to watch an episode of AJLT, explain the history of race and racism to any well-meaning person is ridiculous. The same way that I learned about the history of white people—not only from years of schooling but also via religious institutions, advertisements, entertainment, and personal relationships—is how one would need to learn about my life as a Black woman in America. I couldn’t possibly convey the depth of race’s entrenchment in my life experience in a few examples of indignity. And yet, that is exactly what AJLT tries to do. Watching the show’s efforts to tackle centuries’ worth of embedded racism feels as overburdensome to me as did inquiries from well-meaning white people about historical racism in my life after George Floyd’s murder.

So, then, what’s the answer? Harris’s proposal—just give the Diversity Girlfriends their own TV slot—might sound like the easiest solution to Hollywood’s racial conundrum. But even that sounds too much like a recycled version of pre-1970s American segregation. What if, instead, And Just Like That… kept its premise—the Sex and the City gang coming to terms with aging in a rapidly changing world—but took an anthropological approach? Rather than studying broad segments of a population, anthropologists delve deeply into the intricacies of a single community group or even a single family over extended periods. Similarly, instead of treating diversity and inclusion issues as checklist items in response to criticisms of SATC, AJLT could benefit from focusing on depth over breadth. Why not just present the new characters as women who happen to be Black or Latina, dealing with their own multifaceted lives, versus Black or Latina women dealing only with the legacies of white America? After all, people of color should not be brought into an environment to represent all people of color in the nation. This mindset doesn’t work in corporate America—and it doesn’t work on television.

HBO has announced that AJLT is coming back for a third season. Sara Ramirez and Karen Pittman have announced that they’re not coming back. And neither will I. Because though I can now find myself reflected in the world of SATC, it’s a distorted reflection—a caricature that I don’t particularly appreciate.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sharon Sochil Washington has a PhD in cultural anthropology and is the author of The Educational Contract as well as the novel The Blue Is Where God Lives.


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