Samantha Jones, midlife icon

With her penchant for one night stands, saying exactly what she thinks, and flaunting convention at every turn, the character of Samantha Jones from Sex and the City would probably laugh to hear that she’s a role model for anyone.

Yet, of the four characters from the famed sitcom-turned-movie franchise, Samantha is not only the last single woman standing, she has gone from being a character who is, arguably, the least representative of single womankind to the one who most embodies what it means to be a smart, savvy, fully realized unmarried woman in the 21st century.

In the second film, Samantha, like so many women her age, battles hot flashes — practically bursting into flames when she begins to lose her life-defining (or, at least, dignity-preserving) natural hormones. But mostly, Samantha has become a role model for women looking for an example of how to age gracefully — and without a husband.

And Samantha is getting more company all the time: In 1970, only 28% of the U.S. population listed themselves as divorced, widowed or as having never been married. By 2008, it was a whopping 45% — with single women 45 and older numbering 27 million strong. And according to a 2009 U.S. census report, 11.5% of women between the ages of 45 and 49 have never been married (up from 10.7% in 2005). That’s a hefty percent of the population — and characters like Samantha have done a great deal to shift the way we look at single women who choose to remain unmarried. Where so-called “spinsters” were once viewed with pity (or even scorn), now, they’re often envied.

Over the course of Sex and the City’s progression from hit TV series to films, Samantha is portrayed as being sexual and successful. She refuses to bow her head to men in business, often using her looks to her advantage. She is someone who does what she wants, when she wants. She puts her girlfriends first, makes a good living and — at least, so far — has not gone under the knife in a significant way.

Samantha isn’t perfect and has made her share of questionable decisions; surely we can all identify with that, at least! In the first movie, she let go of the fantastic Smith (OK, maybe that was only a mistake in the eyes of most single ladies) because she felt her own fabulousness being eclipsed by her ongoing relationship with a movie star. (She should have known her own fabulousness could not be eclipsed by anyone!) And in the sequel, Samantha showed a lack of sensitivity to foreign cultures that cost her both her vacation and her dignity.

Samantha’s character has changed over the years from a two-dimensional sexpot to a highly evolved woman who knows exactly what she wants. At first, she seemed to be living her life on the run — as if true emotions were so terrifying that the only way to avoid them entailed keeping every relationship superficial. (Shades of my 40s!) But meeting Smith changed that (remember the famous episode where he wanted to hold her hand while they walked together?) and opened up Samantha’s heart to real romance. Still, despite her obvious love for Smith, she made it clear that she was with him because she wanted to be, not because she had to have someone in her life to feel complete. And when she chafed with restlessness and decided to break things off, her reason was revolutionary. Samantha said: “I love you… but I love me more. I’ve been in a relationship with myself for 49 years and that’s the one I need to work on.”

Samantha is credited by some for being the original “cougar,” because she was historically nonchalant about the ages of her many lovers. But as her strengths developed, she became a great example of someone who’s not a cougar, but rather, a perennial; that is, someone who’ll be hot until she’s in a retirement home (maybe longer!) and simply loves men, no matter their age.

Kim Cattrall, the 53-year-old actress who plays Samantha, has historically claimed that she is very different from her siren-like alter ego — despite the fact that her most recent boyfriend, Alan Wyse, was 20 years her junior. But based on interviews Cattrall gave while promoting the release of the second Sex and the City film, she’s becoming more like her character over time. She was offered the cover of a “major women’s magazine” — IF she would pose with a real cougar. “No thanks,” she said. And Cattrall told Extra: “I think ‘cougar’ has a negative connotation and I don’t see anything negative about Samantha and her sexuality, sensuality and choices. I think that’s something that people who are uncomfortable with strong women have labeled [Samantha].”

You go, girl!

Cattrall lost the magazine cover, but retained her dignity — and her balanced perspective reverberated throughout the media. As the activist website opined: “If only more celebrities would dismiss the cougar fad as eloquently as Cattrall, maybe we’d be one step closer to a less ageist society — and women over 40 wouldn’t have to constantly reiterate that they don’t have to be either sexless matrons or sexed-up cougars.”

Again, Cattrall spoke for many when she suggested retiring the word “cougar.” I know many women who date younger men, but hate that word. They date younger men, they say, because men their age are also choosing younger dates — and because younger men can be absolutely lovely. As one friend put it, “they were raised by strong women to respect women, and they think we’re goddesses.” Is there anything wrong with that?

Like Samantha Jones, Kim Cattrall is driven to succeed. Not content to be just another pretty actress, she has published two books: Satisfaction: The Art of the Female Orgasm (coauthored with Mark Levinson) and the more recent Sexual Intelligence. And, like Samantha, Cattrall announced recently that she is satisfied with her husband-free life: “I’ll never marry again,” she told a British newspaper. “I am self-sufficient… I really don’t feel it’s necessary.”

Cattrall is echoed by Halle Berry, who recently made a similar announcement, adding: “I have a good, healthy love for myself and love in my life. I no longer feel the need to be someone’s wife and I don’t need the validation of a marriage certificate.”

Just a little over 10 years ago — when Sex and the City was brand new — Samantha Jones was a revolutionary character: child-free, ambivalent about marriage, sexually liberated and with an appetite for younger men. Single midlife women have come a long way; Samantha no longer seems like such an anomaly but, rather, more like someone we all know — and perhaps would like to be ourselves.

Jane Ganahl is author of Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife, editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age, journalist of two decades, and codirector of San Francisco’s Litquake literary festival.

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