Race and “Sex and the City”

I recently saw the “Sex and the City” movie, which continues where the television show left off (photo credit: drp).  If you’re  unfamiliar with this phenomenon of popular culture, “Sex and the City” was an HBO series about the deep friendship between four single women in New York City and their romantic and sexual relationships with men. The show has been alternately described as the series that made it “cool to be single,” and has also received attention for its depictions (often graphic) of women as sexual subjects rather than simply as objects. Carrie Bradshaw, Samantha Jones, Charlotte York (later York MacDougall and then York Goldenblatt), and Miranda Hobbes alternately questioned and reinforced commonsense assumptions about gender, sex, friendship, relationships, and love.

I can openly acknowledge that I enjoyed “Sex and the City” (the show and the movie) for its depictions of women’s friendships and the central role these ties play in contemporary women’s lives. However, watching the “Sex and the City” movie confirmed for me something unpleasant that I’ve long suspected about the show. Despite being sometimes shocking, often hilariously funny, and always provocative, “Sex and the City” has a real racial problem.

The show was frequently and heavily criticized for its racial homogenization of New York City. During the first and second seasons of the show, minorities were rarely depicted in any scenes. The four protagonists of the show are white women, and while this is technically sociologically accurate (in the sense that friendships, like most aspects of American life, are unfortunately quite segregated), the deletion of any people of color from background scenes, street scenes, and everyday life is a gross misrepresentation of the demographic realities of New York City.

In the third season, the show attempted to correct this by introducing an interracial “relationship.” However, in this episode, “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts,”  Samantha—the member of the quartet known for her voracious sexual appetite and appreciation for anonymous sex—has a sexual relationship with a black man that is eventually undermined by his disapproving sister. The sister is depicted as an “angry black woman” who irrationally opposes their relationship because Samantha is white. The black man is referred to on the show as a “big black pussy” who can’t stand up to his domineering sister to continue his sexual relationship with Samantha. This type of pandering to racial stereotypes—a controlling black woman who emasculates a black man—does not represent progress from the preceding season’s virtual omission of other racial groups. Racist stereotypes are not, in my view, better than nothing at all.

Miranda’s relationship with Robert, a black man, in season six, was in many ways an improvement over Samantha’s sexual/racial excursion in season three and perhaps represents some evolution on the writers’ and producers’ behalf. Unfortunately, any progress came to a crashing halt with the racial representations in the “Sex and the City” movie. In the film, we meet Lily, Charlotte’s ever-present but curiously silent adopted Chinese daughter. This depiction is uncomfortably evocative of other stereotypes of voiceless Asian American women, which reinforce the image of their passivity and controllability and further justify their labor market exploitation. There are also the Mexican workers at the resort who are only there to serve the four main characters. Lest I forget, there’s also Miranda’s charge to follow the “white guy with a baby” as a way to locate an available apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood.  Hooray for revitalization.

Then there is perhaps the most problematically-rendered minority character in this film.  In what some reviewers have described as an attempt to “pass the torch,” the movie features Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson in a supporting role (photo credit: Sharyn Jackson). Some have argued that Hudson’s character Louise is supposed to be a younger, newer version of what Carrie Bradshaw initially was—idealistic, romantic, and looking for love in the big city. However, if this is the case, then why is Louise cast in such an obviously subservient role as Carrie’s personal assistant?

This is a disappointing throwback to the Mammy image of earlier films—the darker skinned, full figured black woman who was content to tend to her white family at the neglect of her own, and who typically was responsible for providing emotional support and nurturance to a white woman who couldn’t take care of herself? This image is present in “Gone with the Wind,” “Imitation of Life,” and as noted sociologist Patricia Hill Collins brilliantly describes, is updated in several contemporary media depictions. I recognize that aspects of Louise’s personal life are shown, and this is a minor improvement from the prototypical Mammy who had no life outside of caring for her white family. However, it’s still problematic that an Academy Award winning, brilliantly talented young black actress is not cast in a role that is on equal footing with the central character. If the sole intention was for Carrie to pass the torch to Louise, then why couldn’t she have been cast as a young, up and coming writer that Carrie meets and mentors? Is it necessary for Louise to clean up Carrie’s apartment—and her life—as well?

The decision to put Hudson in this role has so many implications. Let’s not forget that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign season where many white women have accused black women of failing to follow a feminist mandate to vote for and support the (white) woman candidate. I have to wonder if the ways in which black women are packaged into recognizable media caricatures plays a role in shaping white women’s perceptions of us. Do these types of representations contribute to some white women’s ideas that they should lead and black women should follow? It’s images like these, though, that undermine the myth of sisterhood and some white feminists’ desire to believe that gender is the “most restricting force in American life.”  When your fictionalized “sisters” seem to believe that your primary job is to clean up their emotional and personal messes—not to mention their expensive Manhattan apartments—it’s hard to think that it’s only gender holding you back. When your real-life “sisters” astutely decry how sexism undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign but are silent about the racist and sexist descriptions of Michelle Obama as Barack Obama’s “baby mama,”  it doesn’t do much to promote the gender-based unity these white feminists want to see deployed to Hillary Clinton’s benefit. It does suggest to me that the longstanding idea of black women as best suited for servitude and denied their full humanity is still pervasive and dangerously in full force.


  1. Joe

    Adia, very savvy and on target, indeed. It is significant how rarely (almost never) that Hollywood even considers treating women of color as the equals in life to white women. The white men who run Hollywood always look from their white male frame of a gendered-racialized reality. And this is the third millennium. Progress?

  2. David

    I always thought that Hudson taking the “Sex and the City” role was a bit of a step down, but now I’m thinking it was a stroke of genius. Keep her name out there as a novice actress, etc.

    I still think that “Sex and the City” got HUGE pass on just how myopic their world was. I think it’s sad that the wealth of what black women are isn’t depicted on TV. The “sassy” black woman with hands on her hips and neck gyrating is a stock character. The “jezebel” is another. And the “cute black best friend” sidekick character is another role that black actresses are still asked to play.

    Great post.

  3. Morgan

    Yes, Adia!

    I just got back from seeing Sex and the City with my best friend and I feel dirty. As soon as I got home I googled “Sex and the City, racist” to see if critics and the viewing public were also appalled, at not only the racist stereotypes in the movie but the smug assumption that a self-centered, unexamined life of white privilege, complete with non-white servants, is desirable as an American white girl’s “happy ending”.

    Amazingly, this movie’s racism enhances, shapes and specifies its sexism. In Sex and the City, the image of white women as helpless is doubly and triply reinforced by the racist foil of Hudson’s character and by the pathetic choices the white women in the movie make with regards to men. The message is that it’s OK for educated white women to cling to white privilege, as long as they are ready at a moment’s notice to give up their own rights to self-determination and dignity when called upon to succumb to–and support–white male power.

    As I exited the movie theater with my friend, I said to her, “How sad, to see a movie in 2008 coming right out of the world-view of Gone With the Wind!”

  4. adia

    Morgan, I didn’t even get into the sexism inherent in the film b/c I didn’t want my post to turn into an epic narrative! But you’re SO right about the implicit sexism and the underlying message that its somehow romantic to continue remaining in a relationship with a man who is constantly emotionally cruel. I appreciate SATC for some things–as I said, the depiction of women as sexual subjects rather than simply as objects, the appreciation of women’s friendships–but the problems with the film, and the self-congratulatory way it’s unapologetically presented as a movie for “women,” really warrant further discussion. Thanks for your insightful comments!

  5. Whack

    honestly yes during the movie i was like ‘white man with a baby”? u know? but i mean people fuss and fight about ‘they made her the servant becuase shes black’ its like…no…she took the damn role, thast what it WAS. no one yells about family matters not having a white person or the cosby show not having a white person. honestly people needa get over this racism crap cause it only seriously exists because people MAKE it exist

    ex: black people and obama. black people, stereotypically/statistically don’t vote. but all of a sudden, theres a huge like breakthrough like all these black people are so interested in politics now. because of a black guy running for president? isn’t that racism for MCCAIN that he can’t get the black vote because he’s white?
    i dont think there was anything wrong with roberts role. he was a doctor. did anyone mention anything about how they made the black person educated and not speaking in ebonix? yes, lilly is a quiet little asian girl. but shes 5 and shes not a main character…what dialogue did anyone WANT her to have? brady is a little 5 year old WHITE boy and i dont think i’ve heard him say ONE word and he’s been on the show longer than she has.

    this is stupid.

  6. brighteyed

    Really interesting post, and insightful comments also, with the exception of “Whack”‘s, which I don’t personally agree with, nor do I think it is a well argued opinion! But that is not what I wish to go into now…
    I am doing some research for a politics exam on racism and feminism in the US and one of my readings (Taylor – Black Feminist Theory and Praxis) talked about the resentment black women felt about white women’s attraction to black men – not only on a level of sexual jealousy but also in a political sense, a “feared usurpation”of their role. I immediately thought of this episode (I am a fan of the show, though I hated the movie, but that is not relevant). I did a search on it because I was curious to see if anyone had written about it and they have! Thankyou. When watching the episode in the past, I had taken the view that you referred to, of the sister as an irrational, ‘angry black woman’, and the black man as whipped. When I started to research some of these issues and become more explicitly aware of the stereotypes that exist it became glaringly obvious that the portrayal of these characters was deeply flawed.
    What I’m trying to say, is that I found your post to be really interesting and well argued, and also really helpful for my exam (bonus), so thankyou!

  7. Chelsea L.

    Watching shows such as Sex and the City expresses such an image and how feminine woman need to be. Not only television, but magazines all present this image that woman need to be thin with long hair, and tan with big breasts and the perfect body. Or what about all the commercials about wearing make-up to cover up all the flaws. With this image constantly being throw in woman’s faces they shouldn’t be surprised that so many girls are growing up with no self confidence and eating disorders. When girls are growing up they look up to celebrities and people they see on the cover of magazines, but what the girls don’t know are these images are altered with machines and surgeries that most people can’t afford or don’t feel the need to do. Most woman can’t afford to go out and spend hundred’s of dollars on new clothes every week or when they get in a fight with a boyfriend or friend. These different publicity efforts uphold this feminine image that isn’t realistic. To be feminine doesn’t mean that you have to be in the perfect shape or wear designer clothes, it means that people should be themselves. Flaunt what you want to flaunt or what you feel confident about and don’t dwell on what’s wrong. Shop where you want to shop or where you can shop and know that you look the best you can in it. What girls need to realize is when it comes down to it people will only get so far with what’s on the outside it’s what is on the inside that really matters.

  8. Gavin Martin

    Phew! Glad it’s not just me then – have been re-watching the entire run of the television series again recently and the representation of ethnic minorities in the show has really started to bug me too – and I’m a 29 year old white male. I didn’t really notice it until I started watching episode after episode back to back but then I could see how much african-american characters (when they did appear) consisted of stereotypes. The aforementioned ‘angry sister’ for one, who objected to her brother associating with a white woman. Others that stick in my mind are the working class black woman in the bus queue who wants to know why Carrie needs to ride the bus when her poster adorns it, the black doctor Miranda dates in Season 6 (the show scores points for making him a professional, but I’m docking a few for falling back on the ‘well-endowed black man’ cliche) and the aggressively perky limo driver who gets way too excited about escorting Carrie home from her glitzy book signing. The remainder of SATC’s service industry staff is filled out by orientals, hispanics and asians. As for the movie – on the DVD audio commentary, writer/director Michael Patrick King indicated that he was prompted by fan response to the show to include more ‘sisters’ – hence the character played by Jennifer Hudson. Adia has a point – couldn’t Hudson have played something a little more high-flying than Carrie Bradshaw’s assistant?

  9. adia

    Gavin, your point about Jennifer Hudson’s role is exactly what many people (see “Whack” at #6) miss in their analysis of this movie. It’s not that the script was written with a “personal assistant” role, Jennifer Hudson tried out, and was significantly better than all other actresses who auditioned (and even that would be a bit suspicious, but still slightly better). But in the context of SATC’s whitewashed view of NYC, it becomes very problematic that they attempted to address criticisms about the show’s mostly monochromatic 6 seasons by making a black woman Carrie’s personal assistant. Seriously, they couldn’t’ come up with *any* other role for a black woman in this film? This choice ties into other arguments that the show presents a very narrow depiction of “femininity” that hinges on maintaining classed, sexed, and racial hierarchies in problematic ways.

  10. Even as a black professional man it MUST include SPORTS?

    When they finally have a minority who’s a professional, Dr. Robert Leeds, Miranda’s black boyfriend, I found it still to be racist.

    Why is he a SPORTS medicine doctor?
    Just because he’s black they found it most fitting and believable that if he was a doctor it MUST be sports-related?

    Even when they include minorities their rascism is included as well.

  11. Get Over It

    I live in New York City and am an attorney and also a person of color.
    The image the show tries to portray — of the glamorous, single woman lifestyle is true to life in many senses (perhaps it’s a bit TOO glamorous).
    In real life, the trendier places in New York City do not have many people of color (I am frequently the only one in the room). In real life, the majority of people of color do have subservient roles to the white folk int he working world. In real life, the way to find gentrified neighborhoods is indeed to follow the white man with the baby. Stereotypes frequently reflect what is really going on with the majority of the people within that stereotype. There are many exceptions to the rules of stereotypes, but they are just that — exceptions to the rule.

    The writers were probably writing to the world as they saw it. Especially since part of the show is “the City”. It may not be right, but that’s just what New York is.

    I have yet to meet a black doctor in Manhattan. If young black professionals do exist, they generally move out of the city to the suburbs and start a family, and don’t live that go out and party at trendy spots till you’re 50 stereotype that white Manhattan women have.

  12. Karabo

    Hey! I am a black woman who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. I missed the whole SATC movie hype when it came to South African screens. I finally got to watch it on television last night and the only thing I could think of was the Louise Beaver character in “Gone With The Wind” – and so I googled to see what other people who watched the movie thought about the Jennifer Hudson character. I found your review to be “right on point”! Sad, really….

  13. ellen says

    Unfortunately, Hollywood movie making is about predicting What Will Sell. Viewed from this stand point let’s analyze SATC.
    1. Definitely about White Professional Women From the Get-Go.
    2. No African American main characters From the Get-Go.
    3. The above Format makes millions and the show’s a Huge Hit.
    3. Enter Michael Patrick King script-writer gets some emails regarding ‘How about some more black women on the show?’

    Thus: he throws these commentators the proverbial bone and writes in Jennifer Hudson as Carrie’s assistant…thinking [correct me if I’m wrong please:I welcome comments] that ‘too many’ blacks might ruin the tenor of this Money-Maker [uh-oh..don’t want to risk that]. Still, why not just appease the emailers Just In Case somebody’s offended. In other words, Just a Little Touch Up, But Don’t Ruin the Winning Formula.

    As in, the movie version is a risk to begin with [aren’t all multi-million dollar ventures?] so the guy will accomodate But Not Change The Racial Format Too Much..cause that’s tampering with Success. Unfortunately, this is yet another issue about money, not consciousness or correctness or equality.
    I also notice there’s this surge of Black Comedy/ Romance Movies where virtually All the Characters are black and the stereotypes don’t even try to be anything other than! Is this because Hollywood sees these Color Films as an offering to Black audiences? I really dislike these movies, cause they work the stereotypes to death.
    What’s needed is more Mixing of Black and White characters who play in conjunction with each other in same movie. Whites and Blacks being equal in stature regarding professional status, relationships, socio-economic categories etc. At any rate, I totally agree with Adia’s very well-written post. Good Work.

  14. Michael Parker

    I find it interesting, given the number of inflammatory responses to articles we see on this site, that there has been such a lack of controversy in response to this one. Are trollers less threatened by women’s issues. Are the struggles of black women still so easily ignored? Thanks for the important observations, Adia.


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