[Editor's Note: this review contains plot spoilers that are necessary in order to fully explain the controversy of the film.]
e liberal media’By Govindini Murty.Sex and the City 2 has just opened and is already arousing a great deal of controversy. Directed by Michael Patrick King and starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristin Davis, Sex and the City 2 is already being attacked by liberal critics for its supposedly racist, “troubling” and “offensive” depiction of Muslims. Having just seen the film though, I can tell you that Sex and the City 2 is fun, frothy, entertainment that every woman will enjoy (just ignore some of the cruder aspects) – and is also the only big-budget Hollywood film in recent years that dares to critique the repressive treatment of women in the Middle East. That anyone in the media would be offended by this film is completely ridiculous, given that that the film only portrays the truth – and to depict this truth is anything but racist. Given how cowardly Hollywood’s male-oriented films and filmmakers have been in addressing radical Islam though, perhaps it’s appropriate that the brassy, forthright American women of “Sex and the City” should be the first to venture into this territory.
Most of the film is not even about the Middle East or its religious issues, but is rather about the four “Sex and the City” gals and their relationships with their husbands, their children, their jobs, and each other. The film opens with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda attending a gay wedding. The scenes of the wedding have a bit of a TV sitcom quality. There is one standout moment though, and that is when Liza Minelli pops out onto the stage in her trademark tights and short tunic dress and performs a terrific cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” It’s great to see Liza back in top form singing and dancing, and let me tell you she has a lot of pizzazz left in her yet.
The movie then lingers for a time in New York exploring the various dramas that the women are going through in their lives. Carrie and her husband Mr. Big are having trouble adjusting to their two-year marriage: he spends all his time on the couch and just wants to watch the TV, while she wants to go out and have fun. Charlotte has a happy marriage and family, but feels herself overwhelmed by the demands of her two small girls – and by worries that her husband is hitting on her buxom blonde nanny. Miranda is also happily married with a son, but is stuck working at a law firm in which a sexist jerk is constantly trying to push her into the background. Samantha is the only one who seems to have no such problems – she’s a proud 52 year old cougar, armed with vitamins and hormone creams and Suzanne Somers books, determined to ward off all signs of aging and still sleeping around with every handsome stud in sight. Some will perhaps find this offputting, but to me Samantha’s outrageous, Dionysian vitality and refusal to cave-in to nature gives her a sort of bizarre heroism.
All of this is pretty standard Sex and the City stuff, so I kept wondering when the controversy that the media is currently in hysterics over would begin. This finally occurs when Samantha gets a call from an old flame of hers, handsome blonde actor Smith Jerrod. Jerrod has made a film called “Heart of the Desert” and he wants Samantha to be his date at the premier.
This is the first intimation of how un-PC Sex and the City 2 is going to be, because the poster of Jerrod’s film “Heart of the Desert” depicts him shirtless, in army fatigue pants, standing against a backdrop of sand-dunes – and holding an Arab child in his arms. Whoops – what was that? A poster depicting a handsome actor as an American soldier protecting Arab children in the Middle East? No wonder the critics are angry! This isn’t supposed to happen in Hollywood films! American soldiers in the Middle East can only be depicted as drooling morons or vicious killers who torture Muslims for pleasure (think In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, etc.). How did this one get by? Anyway, it’s just a quick shot of a poster, but it’s pretty unmistakable what it’s saying. (As a side note, the movie premiere also features Tim Gunn, the style mentor from one of my favorite shows, “Project Runway”).
At the after-party, Samantha meets an Arab sheikh, played by Indian actor Art Malik. (I have fond memories of growing up in the ’80s watching Malik play the tragic Harry Kumar in the excellent TV miniseries “The Jewel in the Crown.”) The sheikh is impressed by Samantha’s publicity work for Smith Jerrod and invites Samantha to come to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and see for herself “the new Middle East.” Samantha excitedly accepts, and soon she and the rest of the “Sex and the City” gals are flying in super-luxury first class to Abu Dhabi.
When the women arrive in Abu Dhabi, they’re amazed by how luxurious and modern everything is. Carrie even exclaims “We’ve arrived in the future.” However, even in the airport we see that this is not going to be the usual PC take on the Middle-East. Samantha gets her luggage scanned by a series of female security guards clad in black burqas. When they detect Samantha’s vitamins and hormone creams, they declare them to be drugs and take them away over her outraged howls of protest. We can already see that Abu Dhabi is not going to be the land of the free. More black-burqa clad women in the background of the airport form an ominous visual counterpoint to the colorfully-garbed “Sex and the City” gals as they leave.
The gals are then whisked away, each in an expensive white town-car, to their lavish, seven star palace-hotel. There, the gals are booked into the “Jewel Suite” of the hotel, a huge two-story mansion with an atrium, crystal chandeliers, multiple sitting and dining rooms, private terrace, you name it. They’re introduced to the four handsome Middle Eastern/Indian men who will be their butlers, and are treated with every courtesy by the staff (which includes a hotel manager played by Omid Djalili, whose film The Infidel we reviewed recently on Libertas). I kept wondering in the midst of all this – how can any of this be considered racist or culturally intolerant?
Other than the fact that Samantha’s pills and hormone creams are confiscated at the airport by women in black burqas, how can any of this portrayal of the Middle East as colorful, modern, luxurious, and hospitable be considered in the slightest degree objectionable? And that’s how it goes for most of the gal’s stay in Abu Dhabi. They get to go wherever they want, wear pretty much whatever they want, go shopping in the local souk (where the local stall-keepers are depicted as friendly and honest), party, sing, and drink up a storm at the local disco, have kind and courteous staff who take care of their every need, and get to ride camels and have a fancy picnic dressed in Dior and Louboutins in the middle of the desert. Where’s the racism here? All the Middle-Eastern and Indian characters in the film are treated with humanity and are not objectified in any way. (Frankly, the only people objectified in the film are the hunks of the visiting Australian rugby team – but I don’t hear any Australians shrieking about that.) The critique of local customs is extremely muted. There’s one scene where Carrie and her friends sit on the hotel terrace eating, and see a nearby table with two Muslim women in burqas having lunch. Carrie expresses some concern over how the woman can eat if she has a veil over her face. When the woman lifts her veil for every bite of a french fry, Carrie says to the others “Wow, a lift for every fry, that’s a serious commitment to fried food.” Then Carrie comments on how pretty the embroidered edge of the other Muslim’s woman’s black robe is, and the woman smiles at Carrie and indicates she likes her necklace. What’s culturally insensitive about that? There’s also a scene at the hotel swimming pool when Samantha points out two Muslim women floating by in “burqinis.” Is this offensive – to point out two women wearing burqinis?
Anyway, things start to hop when Samantha meets a handsome Danish architect in the desert. He invites her out for dinner, and she accepts. When she starts flirting with him at an outdoor restaurant and suggestively handling a hookah pipe, a nearby Muslim man becomes outraged and reports her to the authorities. Later that night, Samantha is arrested for kissing the architect on the beach. Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte are horrified to discover this, and Samantha isn’t released until the next morning. Then the women find out that due to Samantha’s arrest, the sheikh has cancelled their free tab at the hotel, and now they’re expected to cough up $22,000 a night to stay there. The women frantically pack and decide to check out asap. Samantha defiantly refuses to cover herself up for the return trip to the airport, and insists on putting on a tank top and short shorts instead. As Samantha exclaims to the other gals as they leave the hotel, she can’t wait to get back to America where her “legs aren’t the devil.”
Unfortunately, the women realize that Carrie has left behind her passport at a stall in the souk, and now the women must return there on their own, without the fancy town-cars or the protection of the sheikh. In the souk the women fall into the hands of some unscrupulous counterfeit watch merchants, and as they leave their shop, the men think Samantha has stolen one of their fake Hermes Birkin bags when really its her own real one. A tug of war between Samantha and the men over her Hermes bag happens in the middle of the souk, the bag bursts out of their hands, the contents fall onto the ground – and are revealed to be … a bunch of condoms. At this point the inappropriately-dressed Samantha has a large group of angry Muslim men surrounding her. She picks up the condoms and defiantly waves them in the faces of the men. The men get angrier and close in around her. Samantha continues shouting and waving the condoms, saying that they’re for sex, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. I suppose that this is the arch scene of cultural offense – but I have to say that there’s something oddly magnificent about watching an angry, defiant American woman stand up to a bunch of intolerant Middle-Eastern men. This is simply the truth: American women stand to lose the most if radical Islamic fundamentalists get their way. Why are we not allowed to depict this in American films? Why are we not allowed to get outraged?
Finally, Carrie and the other gals grab Samantha and look for an escape out of the souk. Several Muslim women in burqas who have been watching indicate to the gals to follow them into a flower shop. They do, and Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda find themselves with a group of friendly Muslim women. The women take off their veils and praise Samantha for standing up to the men. One of the women chuckles “Our men won’t be able to get over it for months – maybe years!” The Muslim women ask the American women where they are from. They answer “New York.” The Muslim women say how much they like New York, but when Carrie asks them if they’ve been there, they regretfully say no, and Carrie realizes that these women don’t have the same freedom to travel that she does. Then the Muslim women and the American women have an important Sex and the City bonding experience: the Muslim women take off their plain, black burqas and reveal underneath … the latest French fashions. ”Louis Vuitton?” Carrie asks one of the women, and she nods with a big smile “Yes.” After the women admire each other’s high fashion outfits, the Muslim women help smuggle Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda out of the souk by dressing them in black burqas.
There is then a final moment in the souk that poignantly reveals the erasure of identity that occurs when women have to put on a burqa. Carrie, Miranda, and Samantha lose sight of Charlotte, who has wandered off to buy some gifts for her kids. The women look for her everywhere, but can’t find her because all the woman in the souk look the same in their muffling black robes. Carrie remembers that Charlotte was wearing purple peep-toe platform pumps, and they run around the souk looking at all the women’s feet. They finally find Charlotte and hurry her out of there. Then when the gals try to get a taxi to leave the souk, they find that no taxis will stop for them because they’re women. Finally Carrie has a moment of inspiration, and recalling an earlier scene when Mr. Big had shown her It Happened One Night on the TV, she pulls up her burqa in an imitation of Claudette Colbert and reveals her leg to the passing taxi drivers. A taxi shrieks to a halt, the women get in – and they’re off to the airport, America, and freedom. The women are reunited with their husbands and families in New York. The film ends with Carrie stating in narration over a shot of Samantha and her architect hunk having sex on the beach, that in America, Samantha and the architect are able to “resume their date in the land of the free.” Thus American freedom is reaffirmed, Sex and the City style.
I guess if you find freedom, democracy, and women’s rights objectionable you will find Sex and the City 2 objectionable too. I suspect that many of the critics who disliked the film disliked it not because it pokes fun at Muslim men, but because it features such a defiant, unapologetic, yet amusing group of American women as the leads. The Hollywood left’s misogyny towards women is a subject for another column. As for the complaint that the film is culturally insensitive, all I can say is that Hollywood produces culturally offensive content all the time – going after everyone from Americans to Christians, Hindus, and Jews. The only group that no-one is ever allowed to have any humor about is Muslims. How refreshing that Sex and the City 2 breaks this ridiculous and un-democratic taboo.
And by the way, the line-up of shoes and fashions in Sex and the City 2 is fabulous as always … That may be another source of th
s ire: that Sex and the City 2, which is already doing huge business, may be the first female-led film to be #1 at the box-office for Memorial Day weekend, beating out Prince of Persia. Imagine that, Jake Gyllenhaal and his video game film beaten out by Carrie Bradshaw and her Manolo Blahniks …