When I graduated from college, I fell in love with Sex and the City. At the time, my life couldn’t look more different from Carrie’s, Charlotte’s, Miranda’s, or Samantha’s. I was living with my mom and enrolled in a dead-end postbacc program, with no romantic prospects or money to buy Jimmy Choos. Yet the show’s glamorization of adulthood managed to assure me that I could keep the “fun” of my college years up, just as long as I exchanged my bottles of beer for fancy wine and Cosmopolitans.
Eight years later, much has changed. Not only am I now officially a “30-something” — as Carrie and her friends used to say — but I am also 20 months sober; and while I will always love Sex and the City, I now think about the show’s treatment of drinking a lot differently. From its very first episode, which features a boozy birthday dinner and a wild “Friday night at Chaos,” the show intimately enmeshes drinking with women’s liberation, casting alcohol as not only the fifth member of Carrie’s inner circle, but a veritable feminist tool — as empowering as a promotion or a college degree. “For a show that was about sexuality and power, I think the Cosmopolitan was the female stand-in for a Martini,” Lauren Garroni, the creator of the Every Outfit on Sex and the City Instagram account, told Refinery29 in 2018. “The Martini is so synonymous with James Bond and the alpha-male persona,” said Garroni, “that by having the girls favor [the] Cosmo, it felt like establishing these women as alphas in their world.”
All while preserving their friendship (as well as their enviable careers, apartments, and complexions), Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha rely on drinking as a way to self-empower, relax, numb, and cope: “I’m not drunk, I’m sedated from my pain,” Carrie says following her first breakup with Mr. Big. What’s more, the characters in the franchise who do have drinking problems are all peripheral and hyperbolically depicted. In one episode, Carrie’s “legendary party girl” friend, Lexi Featherston, gets so drunk that she actually dies by falling out of a window. And in another, Carrie has a fling with a recovering alcoholic, Patrick, who in a week’s time becomes “addicted” to her. Though Carrie first embraces Patrick’s alcoholism as a fun experiment (“I love alcoholics. Hell, I hope to be one someday,” she says), she ultimately tires of him, leaving him half-naked and crying on the street.
If you’ve watched even a fraction of the new Sex and the City reboot from HBO Max, And Just Like That …, then you’ll know that Miranda has now been fashioned into the stereotype of a high-functioning alcoholic. Managing the stress of raising a teenager and a master’s program at Columbia, she drinks whiskey and Chablis before noon while regularly carrying alcohol on her person. “Yesterday, I found three tiny Tito’s bottles in her backpack — empty! Three tiny Tito’s bottles. That is weird,” a worried Charlotte says to Carrie at the end of the third episode. With characteristic cynicism, Carrie patronizes Charlotte’s concerns. “If we’re going to have this conversation,” she says, “then I’m going to need a drink.” But Charlotte, and the audience, are right to be unconvinced. In the latest episode, we see a dazed and groggy Miranda drinking a bottle of wine by herself while on the phone with Carrie. Consumed by her newly redecorated apartment, Carrie appears unaware of her friend’s condition. But to the viewer, it is yet another piece of evidence pointing to a supremely obvious elephant in the room.
In a way, I can understand (and actually really appreciate) what the writers of And Just Like That … are trying to do. With the rate of alcoholism among women rising by 84 percent between 2002 and 2013 and the number of alcohol-related deaths among women rising by 85 percent between 1999 and 2017, it feels like it was only a matter of time before someone in Carrie’s circle began to display signs of alcohol-related trouble. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, this likelihood has only increased. Last fall, a study from the RAND Corporation revealed that heavy drinking among women in the U.S. had increased by 41 percent due to COVID-related pressures — of which women have predominantly borne the brunt — as well as a heightened cultural permissiveness around binge-drinking as an acceptable strategy for stress management. Indeed, whereas Carrie and her friends used to rely on drinking as a way to relax, have fun, and occasionally dull their romantic pain, many women — like Miranda in And Just Like That … — are now drinking as a way to just make it through the day.
Yet for a franchise that has been glamorizing drinking for more than 20 years, Miranda’s problem at times seems like the narrative equivalent of a “please drink responsibly” disclaimer — added superficially and significantly ex post facto. “Drinking is totally healthy and normal,” the show seems to be saying, “but once in a blue moon, things can get slightly ‘weird.’” What’s problematic about this framing is that it ignores the threat that alcohol poses to women, regardless of the amount or manner in which it is consumed. While society clings to the idea that drinking helps us “take the edge off” (which it does, albeit temporarily), the long-term risks of alcohol consumption tend to outweigh any short-term relaxation. For instance, not only is alcohol a depressant that causes anxiety and low self-esteem, but it is also a group-one carcinogen linked to eight different types of cancer — including that which almost killed Samantha in the show’s final season. And while there is some evidence to support the long-touted cardiovascular benefits of, say, a glass of red wine, new research suggests that no amount of alcohol is healthy (or even safe) — particularly for women, who tend to experience alcohol-related addiction, memory loss, nerve damage, heart disease, and depression at a compressed or “telescoped” rate as compared to men.
In an interview with Elle U.K., Cynthia Nixon described Miranda’s worrisome drinking as “wonderfully subtle” — but to me, nothing about Miranda’s relationship with alcohol is “subtle” (or “wonderful” for that matter). Like the reboot’s treatment of other complex subjects like grief and gender identity, Miranda’s drinking slaps you in the face, caricaturing the complicated reality of addiction while failing to leave room for any nuance or inclusive reckoning. By making Miranda’s problem so glaring and unambiguous, the show isolates her drinking as “different” (Charlotte’s words) while ignoring the fact that alcohol is an addictive drug that affects everyone, everywhere, to some degree. Certainly, while we tend to subscribe to a Manichean view of alcoholism, in which “addicts” are kept dichotomously separate from “normal drinkers,” the reality of alcohol dependence exists on much more of a spectrum.
“Even drinkers that would be classified as ‘normal’ in the eyes of a doctor would find it unimaginable and horrifying to never drink again,” writes Catherine Gray in her book, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober. Theirs “may only be a thrice-a-week psychological addiction, or an ‘I have to drink at parties’ dependence,” Gray adds, “but it’s a bet-your-bottom-dollar dependence nonetheless.”
The writers of And Just Like That … clearly intend for us to be alarmed by Miranda’s drinking, but how should we respond to the reboot’s other, less visible markers of alcohol dependence? When Miranda smuggles a bottle of wine into Charlotte’s daughter’s piano recital, it is Carrie who expresses enthusiasm for “some good purse wine” and Charlotte’s friend Lisa who calls Miranda her “hero.” While Miranda responds angrily to Charlotte’s dismay, insisting that she needs alcohol to endure “tween Mozart,” it is Stanford who exclaims, “Fuck me!” after Carrie informs him that she can’t get a drink with him after the concert. And when Charlotte later opens up to Carrie about Miranda, it is Carrie who trivializes Charlotte’s concerns — “Well, maybe she was just having a tiny party in her backpack” — while licensing Miranda’s heavy drinking as a normal (and a necessary) part of modern life: “I mean, aren’t we all just drinking too much?”
At the end of last year, Quit Like a Woman author Holly Whitaker revealed in an Instagram post that Google searches for “How do you know if you’re an alcoholic?” went up by 1,700 percent in 2020 as compared to the previous year. During my own battle with alcohol, this question was one that I — and my Google search bar — knew very well. While drunk or hung-over, I would scour the internet, hunting for self-examinations, articles, interviews, and scientific studies — anything to reassure me that my problem wasn’t as bad as I knew it was. Now that I am sober, I am able to recognize Miranda as a kindred spirit. Yet if I were still drinking, I know that I would have used her relationship with alcohol as a justification for perpetuating my own. “I may be drinking four times the suggested limit and using every outing and ‘special’ occasion as an excuse to binge,” I would have told myself, “but at least I’m not drinking in the morning or hiding vodka bottles in my purse.” Besides, even Carrie said that it’s okay, because there is “a lot to drink about lately.”
In September of this year, paparazzi pictures surfaced of an And Just Like That … scene featuring Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda, all enjoying a picnic with a bottle of alcohol-free wine. Whether here or somewhere else, it is clear that the reboot is headed for some sort of reckoning regarding Sex and the City’s long idealization of alcohol. But my hope is that it won’t just be a reckoning for Miranda.