Editor’s Note: Rebecca Bodenheimer is a freelance writer and cultural critic. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On last week’s episode of “And Just Like That,” the HBO Max reboot of “Sex and the City,” Miranda Hobbes (played by Cynthia Nixon) blew up her marriage.
I could see it coming from a mile away, particularly after her steamy extramarital encounter a few episodes earlier with Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez) in Carrie Bradshaw’s kitchen, all while Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) was in the next room recovering from hip surgery. After Carrie dressed Miranda down for hooking up with Carrie’s boss instead of helping her friend as she’d promised, Miranda blurted out “I’m unhappy!” (HBO Max and CNN share a parent company.)
Nixon’s performance was stunning in this scene, the most well-written, honest moment of the whole reboot for me. With her voice catching, Miranda confesses to feeling trapped in her marriage to Steve (David Eigenberg), telling Carrie, “I don’t want to be this person anymore, I want to be something more. This isn’t enough.”
Fast forward a few months, and Miranda and Che have begun sleeping together regularly. When faced with the prospect of losing Che, who refuses to be a “homewrecker,” Miranda decides to ask Steve for a divorce. Alarm bells blare as we watch Miranda blow up her life to put all her relationship eggs in Che’s basket – Che professes love for Miranda but has told her that they “don’t do traditional” relationships.
Still, if we’re to take Miranda at her word, she hasn’t been happy in her marriage for a long time. Regardless of how Miranda’s storyline with Che plays out, as a 45-year-old woman who’s also been married for over a decade, I think she made the right decision. While the original show, “Sex and the City,” ended with Miranda, Carrie and Charlotte finding their true loves, “happily ever after” is never guaranteed in real life, and it felt good to see that reality be acknowledged so openly by a character known and loved by so many TV viewers.
But, apparently, I’m in the minority. After watching the episode, I logged onto Twitter and saw most people trashing Miranda for breaking Steve’s heart and ruining the happy ending Miranda and Steve got in the first “Sex and the City” movie.
Some critical takes insisted this character development doesn’t ring true for Miranda, who we have always known as a no-nonsense feminist who knows what she wants, and that “Steve deserves better.” There were also multiple mentions of the fact that in the film, a large part of the plot revolved around Steve’s own one-time infidelity and the couple’s efforts to address and move past it.
However, being a feminist and knowing what you want doesn’t mean your feelings can’t change. Miranda’s cheating isn’t payback for Steve’s infidelity; the reality is that it has nothing to do with him. It’s about Miranda and how she wants to live the rest of her life. Unfortunately, Steve is a casualty – and that’s how real-life breakups often play out.
What’s so wrong with ditching ‘happily ever after’?
The response to Miranda’s storyline called to my mind the backlash writer Heather Havrilesky faced recently when she recently published, “Marriage Requires Amnesia,” an excerpt from her forthcoming book. I loved the piece, which spoke openly about the very mixed feelings (of both love and hate) women can have about their husbands. Sadly, the internet’s response was to say she was terrible for airing the details of her marriage publicly, and suggest, like Steve, that her husband deserves better.
The problem is that “happily ever after” is a fantasy of forever that depends on unrealistic notions of complete stasis within a marriage. It’s still commonly reinforced in rom-coms and related TV shows (like the original SATC), but it doesn’t account for feelings that evolve over time or acknowledge that change is one of life’s only constants.
Of course, one need only look at how common divorce is to confirm this is true. There is a lot of misunderstanding around the term “divorce rate,” which refers only to the annual rate of divorce in a given place and not to how many marriages ultimately end in divorce.
This report from World Population Review provides a good explanation, noting that although the US divorce rate in 2019 was 2.7%, this is “a measure of divorces as a percentage of the total population, not in relation to the total number of marriages.” In other words, it includes people who aren’t married. If you take into account the marriages that took place in 2019, the divorce percentage comes out to just over 44%.
Furthermore, the divorce rate after the age of 50 has doubled in recent decades, according to research from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, and Miranda and Steve are in their mid-50s.
It makes complete sense to me, as someone who has been married for 13 years, that Miranda and Steve could have grown apart, stopped having sex and begun to want different things. It’s clear that Miranda still loves Steve but, as she told Carrie, she wants more from her romantic relationships, while Steve seems content with the status quo.
My views are also certainly colored by the fact that I was a child of divorce. In fact, I have no memories of my parents as a couple and it’s difficult for me to imagine them as such. I never believed in “happily ever after” and never assumed my own marriage would last forever. I still don’t, and admit to being surprised by our longevity!
But marriage is hard and filled with ups and downs, and that’s even before kids come into the picture. I make a regular calculation about whether the good outweighs the bad, and the balance shifts over time. And if the outcome is ever divorce, that won’t mean the marriage wasn’t worth having.
Seeing more of my own peers get divorced in recent years has reinforced for me that although not free from pain, divorce can be a positive development, particularly for women who don’t feel fulfilled in their partnerships. This is why, whenever I know a friend really wanted out of their marriage, I congratulate them on their divorce; I don’t assume any announcement of divorce is necessarily a sad one.
Say what you want, this show is turning sex and gender upside down
It’s also hardly a coincidence that Cynthia Nixon, an executive producer on the show, was once married to a man (with whom she had children) and later came out as queer. Similarly, Sara Ramirez, who is bisexual and nonbinary, recently left a heterosexual marriage.
Both of these actors have intimate experience with the storyline they’re portraying – which makes the negative public reaction to it that much more disappointing to me. As a bisexual woman (who, unlike Miranda, came out before I was married), I loved Miranda and Che’s sex scene – it felt amazing to see two non-male, queer actors having sex on a high-profile show.
While I agree with many fans that Steve has been sidelined in “And Just Like That” and that he comes off as kind of an “old fart” – especially because in “Sex and the City,” he was an ardent lover – I also saw Steve’s lack of interest in sex as a refreshing challenge of a gendered stereotype.
It’s commonly assumed (both in real life and onscreen) that married women are the ones who lose interest in sex over time, with their husbands constantly pawing at them and wanting more. But a casual Google search will bring up dozens of reputable articles (for example) about the fairly common situation where it is the male partner who has lost his sex drive.
As we move toward the season finale of “And Just Like That,” I suspect Miranda’s about to have a rude awakening about the fact that Che is not interested in monogamy. I did wonder why Miranda never considered asking Steve about the possibility of an open marriage before jumping to divorce; after all, Che mistakenly assumed Miranda was engaging in ethical non-monogamy.
But there’s no turning back with Steve now, and it will be interesting to see how Miranda reflects on her decision once things likely flame out with Che. I can only hope that the writers, following Miranda’s confession about how unhappy she had been for years, will not have her run back to Steve to try and get him back.
In a larger sense, we should remember that fictitious couples theoretically live on after the end of the movie or show. Perhaps if we got reboots of the most beloved rom-coms (like one of my all-time favorite movies, “When Harry Met Sally,” or a recent show like “Insecure”), we’d find our favorite couples in similar predicaments as Miranda and Steve.