*note: trying not to drop any major spoilers, but if you literally don’t want to know anything about this film before you’ve seen it, look away now!*
I went to see Sex and the City 2 last Friday, with a group of girl friends. I was a huge fan of the show; imperfect, narrow and unrealistic as it was. I was excited. I was prepared for it to be cheesy, and silly in the extreme. I was prepared to groan and think it was nowhere as good as the TV shows. And for a while it delivered. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that they had me at the Liza Minelli number in the first few minutes. I leaned over to my friend, sorry excuse for a cosmopolitan in hand, and whispered “whatever else happens in this film will be worth it for this one scene”. Turns out I was wrong.
I get a bit bored by questions about whether SATC is ‘feminist’ or not. Apart from that being the sort of question that newspapers like to fill column inches with vapid wonderings, it doesn’t really matter to me. To paraphrase a friend of mine – where else are you going to see a major release movie exclusively focused on women over 40 this year? I don’t mind about the ridiculously implausible lifestyles, the clothes or the fact that they are all implausibly groomed and thin. It’s escapism. I thought the series was smart, warm, and funny and, yes okay then, feminist, if you want to get down to brass tacks. The first film wasn’t great, but I watched it, more than once, and I liked it. Fondly and indulgently, like a little sister who’s gone and done something really dopey, but it doesn’t stop you loving her.
For all that I love it, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that SATC has never been great on race issues. Women of colour have been noticeably absent from the series, something which the first film tried to correct with the inclusion of Jennifer Hudson (not especially well). But SATC2 is breathtaking in its attitude towards the Middle East, and to Muslim women in general. The treatment of Abu Dhabi as a kind of Arabian-nights style theme park raises an eyebrow. The cultural appropriation is cringe-worthy. The portrayal of anyone brown there as either Qu’ran-wielding fundamentalist, cowering wife, or a some sort of ‘poor but wise’ character to allow Carrie to demonstrate her benevolence made me wince. By the time the four Manhattanites are staring at a Muslim women wearing a niquab, first slack-jawed then openly sniggering as she eats a plate of fries, I had my head in my hands with mortification.
SATC2 is an epic fail on issues of race (so much so that even the Daily Mail has noticed). Challenged on this, Sarah Jessica Parker defends the film, saying:
“Certainly Carrie is loving the experience of this rare opportunity to observe women of faith who are really loving the idea of tradition or, in fact, loving their faith and re-defining tradition for themselves”.
This, basically, is bullshit. Sniggering at someone eating their lunch is not experiencing a rare opportunity to interact with a new culture. Neither is borrowing a burqa to make your escape from a group for ‘pitchfork wielding locals’. And, anyway, they’re not ‘discovering’ anything. There’s not a single conversation in the film about what Muslim women think, in fact there is barely a single line spoken by a woman of colour in the film. It’s a week now since I’ve seen it, but I can only remember one scene in which Carrie et al exchange a single word with a female resident of Abu Dhabi, and that’s a two-minute scene focused on the ‘revelation’ that the Muslim women long to see New York and wear the latest designer fashions under their burqas. The after-school-special message presumably being we’re all the same underneath? I can assure you that there was no discussion of culture, religion or tradition that I noticed.
This isn’t a problem in itself. I’m not going to SATC for discussion of any of those things. I’d be worried if I were. Not every film talks about every group of people (although a disproportionate number of them manage to talk about rich white folks), and whilst SATC has sometimes been problematic on race it has (mostly) been a sin of omission. But that’s not the problem with this movie. In fact, by the end of it, I was wishing that the worst I could say about it was that it hadn’t portrayed any local women. SATC2 doesn’t ignore Muslim women; it stereotypes them as either shrouded victims or bellydancers. It’s talking about them but not allowing them to talk for themselves. That is far, far, more problematic than not portraying them at all. The women of Abu Dhabi are there as objects of pity, of scorn, or of patronising, wide-eyed curiosity, but never as equals. If this is the best the screenwriters can offer, it’s about time they called it a day.