As the first “Sex and the City” film closed, two vibrant images came into focus. One was familiar — Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha were together again, each back from her own adventure and ready to share and reconnect. The other was not so common — as Samantha turned 50, she and her friends celebrated, with Carrie proclaiming her “50 and fabulous.”

In conversations with the press after the screenings, it was that birthday celebration that was called “shocking,” recalls pic helmer/writer Michael Patrick King — not the frank sex scenes and bawdy sexual chatter, which were the stuff of controversy when the television series aired on HBO.

“Maybe the thing that was surprising wasn’t that we were showing Samantha turn 50 but that we were celebrating it with sparkly candles and pink cake,” says King. “It was a celebration of being 50 that they hadn’t seen, but I think this was about a shift in the culture of what it means for a woman to be over 30, and that has happened even since the first film was released.”

It’s easy to see King’s point. In the two years since the first film hit theaters, many actresses over 40 have hit high points in their careers — and not in supporting roles. Sandra Bullock had two enormous hits with “The Proposal” and “The Blind Side.” Meryl Streep appeared as a romantic lead in “It’s Complicated” and “Julie and Julia.” Julia Roberts is back with “Eat, Pray, Love” this summer. And Samantha’s celebration is even a break from the pilot episode of “Sex and the City” in which Miranda celebrates a thirtysomething birthday with an expression that says she isn’t exactly thrilled to be turning another year older.

Though there’s often a flurry of excitement when actresses over 29 appear in a hit film or television series, Toby Emmerich, COO of New Line, doesn’t believe it’s a new phenomenon.

“I think when you look back over time, you see that many actresses have had important successes in their careers after 40,” says Emmerich. “I think audiences are coming out to see these characters that they know from the series and because a good story is being told.”

In television, shows like “The Golden Girls, “Designing Women,” and “Murphy Brown,” where King got some of his early writing experience, female characters over 30 with real life experiences drew strong ratings.

“When I was pitching ‘Murphy Brown,’ they asked me if she could be 30 instead of 40,” says Diane English, series creator. “I told them ‘no,’ because someone who was 30 wouldn’t have the same experiences or be as interesting, and it was also important that she had a past and was an alcoholic because she needed to have struggles that made her human.”

Susan Harris, creator of “The Golden Girls” and “Soap,” had a similar discussion with network execs when her Jessica Tate character on “Soap” had an affair.

“There were a lot of questions about whether or not she’d still be likable even though her husband, the Chester Tate character, had all kinds of affairs and nobody ever worried about whether that would make him less sympathetic to audiences,” says Harris. “The same rules somehow didn’t apply to a woman character, but later we were able to explore the sex lives of older women on ‘The Golden Girls,’ so things keep evolving.”

“Designing Women” creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason believes audiences are passionate about projects that feature vivid female characters.

“People want to see us tell wonderful stories with three-dimensional female characters, and that was a big part of why ‘Designing Women’ had an audience,” says Thomason. “You would think there would be more shows like ours considering the audience always shows up for them.”

By the time “Sex and the City” hit HBO, TV execs — or maybe just HBO execs — had evolved.

“These characters were never put in a box, which you hear a lot about whenever you’re developing projects about women,” says King. “We weren’t asked if they were likable or redeemable or threatening. We held everybody to human values and let everyone make mistakes and be heroic.”

Sarah Jessica Parker believes it’s not so much the ages of Carrie and her friends as it is the one thing that trumps everything else — story.

“I think when the first movie had some success there was a lot of talk about women of a certain age in movies and that wasn’t really the story,” says Parker. “The story is that Michael wrote a script about a time in people’s lives that really connected. It had very little to do with age. It was the experience and the journey that took them to this particular moment.”

In “Sex and the City 2,” Samantha finds herself at a moment in which she faces menopause and what that will mean for her famous sexuality.

“It’s coming from a very funny place and laced with sarcasm and bitterness and a real sense of candor about it,” says Parker. “It’s something that Kim is very comfortable talking about herself, and I think this was very helpful to Michael, because she was so willing to play this part of this moment in Samantha’s life.”

And embracing the now — regardless of age — is just what King has always had in mind for these four women.

“They’re not freeze-dried in the package they were in when they were born on TV at the age of 33,” says King. “The ballsy move is to evolve them so now you get to see what it’s like for Samantha to go through menopause Samantha’s way or what it’s like for Carrie to be a wife her way. It’s about the journey more than the age.”