When I was in my early 20s I loved the TV show Sex and the City.
A group of friends and I dressed up and went to the cinema to watch the first film – complete with dinner, cocktails and a whole lot of giggles. But, watching it back in recent years, I found the telly series to be problematic. Not least because I found the show’s protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, irritating. Seriously, who breaks up with Aidan? And don’t get me started on the farce of a freelance writer being able to live alone and spend that much cash on shoes.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the iconic TV show but, despite being ground-breaking for its portrayal of singledom and straight female sexuality, it seems that I am not the only person who now views the show as troubling when it comes to gender, race and queer sexuality. By today’s standards, parts of the script writing are misguided (and let’s not go near the catastrophic second film).
But do we need to take a step back and look at the time when the series was written? Similar problems have been identified in cult American sitcom Friends since its airing on Netflix (not to mention the constant repeats on satellite stations), with allegations of offensive jokes and archaic tropes. But during their prime both Friends and SATC were pioneering telly.
For me, the revolutionary thing about SATC – aside from exploring the sexual liberation of single women – was the depiction of strong female friendships. There’s a famous (albeit cheesy) line where the cast are sitting in a diner and Charlotte says this: “Maybe we can be each other’s soul mates? And then we can let men be just these great, nice guys to have fun with?” Single women everywhere rejoiced. Finally we had a show that depicted women as funny, witty, together, successful and independent. But was it enough? And do the female friendships hold up in today’s society? Obviously we’re talking on-screen rather than off, we’ve all seen the Instagram SATC drama.
“[SATC] was the first time I remember female friendships being represented on TV and, even now, there’s so many things where, when they write women, they have to write them in conflict,” says actress and comedian Emily Lloyd-Saini at HOME. “If they write women, they have to hate each other. Sex and the City was one of the first [series] to write women who just love and support each other.”
At this event in Manchester, in response to the viral meme #WokeCharlotte where fans used used the hashtag to highlight errors of the show when addressing prominent issues, Pilot Light TV Festival teamed up with London’s Reel Good Film Club (the panel is headed up by founder Grace Barber-Plentie) to examine the impact the show had on women of colour and the progress made in on-screen representation in the past two decades.
The event began with a live script reading of the pilot recast entirely with people of colour which was both eye-opening and hugely entertaining. The talented panel all adopted various accents (the best was an incredibly Yorkshire Charlotte) which highlighted the dated content of the first episode. Suddenly, SATC became pure comedy.
After the script reading came the Q&A, beginning with a chat about how each member of the panel discovered SATC. “I wasn’t allowed to watch it,” jokes Babirye Bukilwa (actress in Ackee & Saltfish). “I really got into Friends and then, when I was old enough to watch SATC, I was kind of like ‘this is cute, let me get involved in this series that I missed out on in my early teens’.”
One thing that is glaringly obvious from SATC is the lack of diversity. When asked if it was noticeable, the panel unanimously agreed yes. “I don’t see anyone that looks like me, that looks like my neighbour, that has my wage,” says Bukilwa. “How was she spending $400 on Manolo Blahniks? $400!”
“I was so used to seeing myself not represented on TV, I never questioned it. I didn’t see the lack of diversity,” admits Lloyd-Saini. “It’s only when I got this job and you sent me some thoughts on Woke Charlotte and having more people of colour that I actually thought back. All I could think of was that one episode where Miranda thinks a black guy is obsessed with her and Charlotte’s Chinese baby.”
Nathan Bryon (writer/actor, Reality) adds: “I hope the new generation fall out because when I was in secondary school I was in. Because I was like, well, we’re never in so it doesn’t matter. Whereas now, I want lots more.”
It’s evident that things need to change. But how does telly do this?
“I think the people making the decisions at the top,” says Kiell Smith-Bynoe (Actor, Hood Documentary). “They need to seriously consider having a diverse cast and why they’re doing it. Don’t just do it because people are like ‘oh, there’s an outrage about diversity’.”
To read Northern Soul’s interview with the team behind Pilot Light Festival, click here.