Joan Smith: Ignore the critics – 'Sex and the City' is still a hit

Lapping up a formula that needles men and cheers women

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They're back – and once again hostile reviews miss the point. On Thursday evening, the stars of the new Sex and the City movie appeared at the premiere in Leicester Square, arms entwined and as glamorous as ever. I loved Sarah Jessica Parker's very modern strapless frock, which was the perfect foil for Kim Cattrall's classic goddess dress. The actresses have always used clothes to express their on-screen characters and Parker's Carrie still comes across as chic and playful, a woman who doesn't care if she makes fashion mistakes.

It's more than a decade since Sex and the City began attracting huge TV audiences, delighting generations of women: Seventies feminists who saw the stars as living out the precepts they'd struggled for, and their daughters who suddenly found a language for their own aspirations and anxieties. The characters explicitly set out to have sex like men, and the inclusion of an "older woman" – in those days, anyone in her forties was heading for cardigan-land – made ground-breaking television. Cattrall's Samantha embodied the most liberated version of feminism, even if her struggle with breast cancer towards the end of the series felt like a punishment for the freedom she'd enjoyed.

There were always false notes in the series, but that's inevitable in a show that ran for so many episodes. The new film, unimaginatively entitled Sex and the City 2, is getting even worse reviews than its predecessor, but that's unlikely to damage its prospects at the box office. For the record, I saw the first film twice: once to write about it and the second time with my boyfriend, who loved it.

We don't watch Sex and the City for plot, unexpected twists or subtle characterisation; it's more like catching up with old friends, giving their clothes the once-over and plunging back into the giddy world of talking about sex and relationships.

That, I suspect, is why the new film has left New York behind for Abu Dhabi, sending the four women on a trip without their various husbands and children.

Married Carrie is less interesting than her single counterpart; the scenes in the first movie of her friends rallying round after Mr Big jilted her were far more engrossing than the wedding with which it ended. Not long ago, a friend of mine returned to London after the end of a relationship and we met in a bar where we hugged in front of startled strangers; it was spontaneous, but also a pure Sex and the City moment.

What the show has to struggle with is our appetite for more of the same and the producers' covert conservatism which demands that the characters have "real lives". Charlotte (Kristin Davis) was always the most conventional of the four, and in the new film she's been landed with two kids and a permanent anxiety that her husband will leave her for the nanny. The first movie ended with Carrie looking on approvingly as a younger generation of sassy New Yorkers stepped out for an evening on the town, signalling that the baton was being handed on to younger women, but that isn't what the audience wants.

The idea that the women have reached an age where, with the exception of Samantha, they have to settle for domesticity is a failure of nerve, and I wonder if it's linked to catty reviews which repeat unthinking prejudices about age. "No doubt they will be applauded in some quarters for their fashion bravery," a fashion writer observed in The Times last week, apparently surprised that "women over 40" can manage to look glam and unable to resist a snide remark about Parker's "knobbly knees".

Who cares? Sex and the City gets things wrong but it's still a fantasy of empowerment. You'll have to excuse me now – I'm off to see the movie.

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