Joan Didion, Meet Seema Patel
“And Just Like That” portrays a loneliness that isn’t empowering or aspirational or beautiful
In “A Hundred Years Ago,” the eighth episode of the second season of Max’s Sex and the City spin-off, new addition to the group Seema—played expertly by Sarita Choudhury—tells Carrie what many of us are afraid to utter aloud, lest we make the fear real: there probably isn’t a great love out in the world, waiting for her.
“From everything I’ve heard, it sounds like you’ve had these two great loves. And I’ve had none. No, please, don’t say I will, because I might not, and I can live with that.” She pauses, considering how to tell Carrie she’s not comfortable spending the summer as a plus one to her and her boyfriend, “But I can’t do this summer. That’s not true, I could, but I don’t want to.”
Seema’s mentioning her lack of “great loves” isn’t an admission; she’s not embarrassed by this fact. She doesn’t cry, she doesn’t whisper this declaration—she looks Carrie in the eyes, cigarette in hand, and candidly explains her perspective. Seema Patel gives And Just Like That viewers a visual demonstration of what Joan Didion elucidated in her pivotal essay, “On Self-Respect.” Didion’s essay doesn’t provide a how-to on self-respect; she’s divulging to the reader how those with self-respect conduct themselves.
Didion defines feeling the need to maintain the personae ascribed onto us as “alienation from self.” She writes:
“We are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out…their false notion of us. […] Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters to their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves–there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.”
Seema’s indifferent towards this topic, yet she finds herself avoiding Carrie during the episode’s duration.
Seema lives the dream: she’s rich, beautiful, and successful. Unfortunately, she understands those traits aren’t as impressive for a woman without the most coveted commodity of all—a great romantic love.
It’s rare for a female character to address being alone and not have it act as a plot device, an easy way to get the audience on her side before her love interest bumps into her at a coffee shop or makes fun of her dancing at a club. Seema’s declaration was not one of loneliness—it was her not allowing anyone to make her question the life she’s created for herself. Didion calls this displaying character: “character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self respect springs.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman reconcile with the worst fate of all—loneliness—quite like I saw this one. The most recent iteration of “lonely woman” I can recall is in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Saoirse Ronan’s “I Want to be Loved” monologue has a piercing pitch, almost like a dog whistle for women in their twenties: “I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for, I’m so sick of it! But I’m, I’m so lonely!” But Seema’s explanation isn’t romantic: there aren’t books or candles scattered about, she isn’t tearful, and she’s a brown woman in her mid-fifties. She doesn’t feel compelled to smile at Carrie’s well intentioned jokes and she feels no remorse about canceling their summer plans. Seema’s version of loneliness isn’t empowering or aspirational or beautiful, it just is.
The familiarity of Seema and Carries’s conversation sat at the pit of my stomach, anchoring me to my bed after finishing the episode. I’m at a precarious age, one where other twenty-somethings all somehow got the memo: “It’s time to settle!” Everyone’s either moving in with their partners for cheaper rent (though citing love and happiness), or ferociously swiping on dating apps with the hopes that soon, they too will get to move in with someone for cheaper rent. I didn’t get that memo; I was unaware that life had become a race. Social-distancing rendered dating nearly impossible, and that affected my desire to find a romantic relationship. I didn’t realize everyone else wasn’t undergoing that same shift. We are still encouraged to scour the streets for the most conventionally attractive twenty-something guy, faster than the next girl can. Finding a partner has become a full-time job; we’re expected to put hours into dating apps, go on multiple dates a week, and visit the bars with the most men.
But I was reminded of something that happened a few months prior. I got an impromptu call from my best friend, asking if his new boyfriend could join us on the trip we’d been planning for months. His asking me that felt like the end of an era. When Seema confronts Carrie she says, “When you invited me to dinner, you said ‘we’ wanna take you to dinner. Carrie, you’re already a ‘we.’” When I wasn’t paying attention, I lost my best friend to a “we.”
It’s a circumstance we think we can ignore out of our lives, the dissolution of our friendships. I was confronted by many fears at once: aging, loneliness, having to share those that mean the most to me. I started to understand the imaginary pressure everyone feels to get tied down. We’re all so lonely, why wouldn’t you always be on the hunt for a person to spend all your time with? Someone who asks you about your day, someone to hang out with, someone who validates you? Why wouldn’t you go out with the sole intention of finding the love of your life when our lives are devoid of it?
The romantic relationships I’ve been confronted with haven’t seemed filled with love and tenderness. Moreover, I see relationships where two former college kids found themselves lost when COVID hit. Couples who live together yet work opposite shifts, openly admitting they rarely see their partners. These kinds of relationships appear to be the product of social pressure. The fear of not having a romantic partner is why people strive to acquire one. Their deepest connections are to their societal roles.
Moving back to Alabama, my home state, from New York has plunged me into an environment of young women whose primary goals are to get married and have children. My coworker gushes about her partner over late night cocktails, but the source of the gushing is what stands out. When discussing rent and capitalism and existentialism—typical Friday night conversation for four zillennials—she lets us know that soon, she’ll be married and money will pose no question to her. Her boyfriend has been begging her to marry him and once he earns enough to grant her stay-at-home-wife status, then she will agree to matrimony.
I realized then how little I know about her partner. He’s often a focal point of our conversations, yet I can’t recall his favorite TV show. His hobbies. His personality traits. But I do know he makes $40,000 a year and is hoping to be a married father before he turns 27. I’ve met many women who boast about their partners wanting a girl who aspires to dote on her husband and children—with no other outstanding qualities—and subsequently how lucky their partners are to have found them at the bottom of the gallery screen in their Zoom class. And the women can’t provide any interesting facts about their partners either—wanting to get married is the primary trait they require. When they talk about their romantic partners, I don’t learn about funny stories or endearing moments.
Platonic bonds, in my experience, have been more enriching than romantic ones. Friendships have to be sought out and cultivated, maintained. You choose to go out of your way to sustain them; they’re voluntary. Yet friendship has managed to find itself at the bottom of our list of priorities. On the How to Talk to People podcast from The Atlantic, producer Rebecca Rashid says “the American mainstream culture of individualism and the voluntary nature of friendship is a tough thing to balance.” Having a relationship that feels reciprocated and supportive—that doesn’t involve sex as a major contributing factor—has allowed me the ability to connect deeply with strangers in a post-COVID world, and given me more confidence in myself. But then, why do I feel the same pressure as everyone else?
I’m scared I judge people as a defense mechanism; I want to protect myself from the reality that despite being financially independent, driven, and accomplished, I’m the weird one, and they’re socially on track. Didion’s concept, alienation from self, racks around my brain. Freeing oneself from societal expectations is what Didion considers “the great, the singular power of self-respect.” It’s hard to admit to myself that I am not there yet.
I live in a perpetual state of fear. I am incessantly caught in the throes of grotesque anxiety; I spend my days lying on my bed, staring up at the ceiling, reviewing conversations I’ve had. Reworking them, chastising myself for not coming off as put together or interesting. I am crippled by imposter syndrome. Didion says to “say no without drowning in self-reproach is an alien idea to [alienation from self],” which I’m deeply familiar with—I punctuate every no with an exclamation point. I hope it reads as coquettish and sweet, and not like I spent five minutes rearranging sentences so as to not come off as a mean girl.
The weird looks I may get from sitting at a restaurant alone, or people thinking I’m brave for attending a movie by myself plague me. Being able to divorce myself from any ability to worry about what’s being thought of me is a tenant of self-respect I haven’t conquered.
I found myself overcome with emotion at the episode’s conclusion: Seema surprises Carrie by joining dinner with her and the entire gang, boyfriend included. Seeing her take time for herself, without being portrayed as an antagonist or malicious—something not often afforded to women of color—and reentering Carrie’s life on her own, thoroughly established terms, was simultaneously powerful and loving. While it’s disheartening that this phenomenon might last my entire life, should I choose to remain single, the stunning display of self-respect illustrated by Seema showed that the frustrations are not only manageable, but worth it for other meaningful relationships.