I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about dating apps lately. There are 2 a.m. texts like: “Is 55 too old to go on Tinder?” And existential laments like: “I thought I was just leafing through photos but it turns out I was swiping yes, yes, yes, when I wanted to say maybe, maybe, maybe. Isn’t there any room for ambiguity? Not even an option to ‘save for later’?”
All good questions, though I don’t have the answers. I have no experience with Tinder or any of the swiping apps—I only made it to the browser-based era of online dating. But as the first person in my friend group to divorce, nearly 10 years ago, I’m the prime confidante for questions too embarrassing to ask the happily coupled.
But I might be relieved of those duties now that we finally have an elder stateswoman of mid-life dating: Candace Bushnell, creator of Sex and the City—the book and series that tackled all the uncomfortable dilemmas of 30-something single women in the 1990s—is back with a new book and upcoming Netflix series that asks, Is There Still Sex in the City? And while she doesn’t bring back Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte or Samantha, it feels a bit like we’re at brunch with middle-aged versions of those archetypes, and they’re still talking about love and sex because, well, of course.
The book, part memoir, part fiction, is a guide to the Ides of 50, a stage of life when kids depart (along with most of the local estrogen), marriages teeter and normally accommodating women stop being so accommodating. And because things are way more complicated now, they may also find themselves trying to figure out how to swipe maybe on a 27-year-old programmer from Connecticut.
Much like in the original SATC, Bushnell and her friends experience every romantic possibility so we don’t have to—from being courted by cubs (young men who pursue older women) to dating wealthy septuagenarians who think 59 is a bit old for them. She writes about re-dating an ex decades later and a laser procedure called the MonaLisa Touch that is supposed to rejuvenate a woman’s sex life like Viagra, except that it hurts and is almost never covered by insurance. You can hear Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice in Bushnell’s as she asks a new set of Carrie-esque questions: “Are -middle-aged women now catnip for younger men?” “Was Tinder an app for people that hated themselves?”
Bushnell, now 60, also touches on poignant aspects of what she calls “middle-aged madness”: the death of a parent, the isolation of divorce, the ache of realizing that even the most gorgeous among us will eventually become invisible.
Until recently, when we saw women in some midlife drama, it usually involved Diane Keaton in a gauzy romance set against a tasteful backdrop. No one was getting ghosted on Bumble at 49 with absolutely no explanation.
A slew of recent movies get at the lighter side of midlife madness. Wine Country, directed by Amy Poehler and released this past spring, sees a group of old friends travel to Napa for a 50th birthday only to discover that no one escapes middle age unscathed. It has some hilarious moments, but it’s no Sideways, the 2004 Oscar-winning Santa Barbara road-trip film that was not only funny but also piercing and sad. I hate to say it, but many male midlife-crisis films are often less earnest and take more fruitful risks, and we need more of that in stories about women.
And that brings me to the next beat in the 50-plus women genre: Otherhood, a good-hearted Netflix film that debuts this month. It’s about three friends, played by Patricia Arquette, Angela Bassett and Felicity Huffman, who must rekindle their identities, separate from their roles as mothers, now that their children are adults. Arquette tells TIME she cherished the opportunity to play a mom at this stage: “I haven’t had a lot of chances to do material where the leads are all women, talking about friendship and parenting with a female director and producer.” (Director Cindy Chupack won an Emmy for her work on Sex and the City.) But Arquette really lights up when she talks about something apart from her role as a mom—her work pushing for the Equal Rights Amendment. And that’s the problem with the film: we already know these three mom archetypes too well. This is in contrast to Gloria Bell, released earlier this year and starring Julianne Moore, which gets at the complexities of existing in the in-between of young and old, a parent but not so needed, attractive but with sexual irrelevance in view.
Otherhood was also overshadowed by news of Huffman’s bout of real-life middle-aged madness, when she admitted to paying $15,000 to get her daughter into college with faked achievements. The irony is that the real-life story might be a more powerful tale about mothers who need to separate from their children. It made us cringe, in part because we’ve all done things—albeit less egregious things—to help our kids, only to realize later we’d gone too far. It can be easier to see truth in extremes.
I welcome Bushnell’s new series, so long as it’s brave enough to take us to those outer edges of female longing, insecurity, vanity, brilliance and connection. That was, after all, the beauty of the original. The SATC women were not subtle creatures. Most of us don’t have 600 pairs of shoes, nor have we left a man at the altar, but we viscerally understood Carrie’s self-destructive obsession with both the shoes and the man. And while it’s common for us to choose one of the four characters as our avatar, in many ways we are all of them at once. The challenge for the new incarnation is to be as open and complex about post-menopausal life as the last one was about everything that comes before.
Bushnell and her co-creators would do well to take a page from Season 2 of BBC’s Fleabag, which features a now Emmy-nominated guest spot from Kristin Scott Thomas. Her character gives a raw and riveting soliloquy about female aging and the liberation that comes with it. Afterward, young Fleabag, on the receiving end, says she’d been told menopause was horrendous. Thomas answers with a wink: “It is horrendous. But then it’s magnificent.”
Correction, Aug. 12
The original version of this story misstated where in California the movie Sideways is set. It’s set in the Santa Barbara area, not Napa.