Sex & The City CPB London

The Sex and the City reboot shows why brands should be wary of nostalgia

Brands often nick their audience’s culture to play it back to them, but women need progressive and bold thinking from the brands they’re going to buy.

The Drum’s Agency Outlook Report aims to take the temperature of the industry going into the fourth quarter of what has been an exceptionally challenging year, and find out how confident agency leaders feel about the 12 months ahead.

I was 18 when Sex and the City launched. It was everything I wanted and needed – a refreshing view of women, female relationships, sex and work. I obsessed about the clothes, NYC, the drama. And I fell in love with Cosmopolitans. 

So you would have thought I would be thrilled to see its return, announced in the form of the reboot And Just Like That.

And yet, on the second Monday of the new year, in our third lockdown and facing yet another day of homeschooling mixed with WFH, the news didn’t really excite me. Why?

Over Christmas, I stumbled across the 2010 SATC2 movie. A die-hard fan of the original series, I watched it, but I was left feeling distinctly uneasy. There’s TV that doesn’t age particularly well, and then there was this: the jokes were inappropriate, the language dismissive and demeaning, the relationships seemed superficial, and I was struck by just how weak a female character Carrie ultimately was.

Now, nostalgia is a fine thing and can certainly help us cope during challenging times. But maybe the brutal reality is that good things should ultimately stay in the past. I’m no existentialist, but I did see on Instagram this quote from the venerable Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” It resonated, seeming as it did to explain my reaction to the SATC news.

It got me thinking about brands and how they often nick their audience’s culture to play it back to them. The watch-out here is that women don’t need brands to play “back” anything to them really – women need forward-looking, relevant, progressive and inspiring role models and bold thinking from the brands they’re going to buy. We want to be pushed forward, challenged, just like SATC undeniably did back in its heyday.

I’m not sure that even an updated version of SATC, as we’ve been promised, will be able to deliver the kind of provocative content today’s women are seeking out. Today’s real pioneers are shows like Fleabag and Catastrophe, binge-worthy series that delight us with an accurate and holistic representation of women – the highs, the lows. Warts and all. And minus the Manolo Blahniks this time.

Thinking about the dynamism of today’s best “true-self” shows versus their iconic (but now dated) forebears makes me realise that advertising is sadly still way behind. We limit ourselves to two-dimensional depictions of women, constrained by history, tradition or masculine ideals. It’s time the industry stepped up and did a Fleabag, embracing and accurately portraying the female experience for what it is in 2021. It’s time we take a good hard look at our work and with honesty and nuance move beyond the female archetypes – the slut, the prude, the career woman and the heroine – represented in SATC.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ll definitely be checking out the new show, probably with a Cosmo in hand. But that will be all about the opportunity the show will provide for a spot of guilty pleasure and a trip down memory lane – very much looking backwards, not forwards. 

Helen James

This article was originally posted in Campaign.

Picture: Getty Images