I really don’t know what convinced me to watch Sex and the City 2. I suppose it was a case of finding something that wouldn’t require much brain power; some easy viewing for after exams. Little did I know the film would prompt some serious feminist and post-colonial rage.
Sex and the City 2 is, like the show that ran from 1998-2004, a romantic comedy. It follows Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda as they travel abroad to a holiday in Dubai. Like the show, the film engages with the issues of being a woman in a ‘post feminist’ age, but also involves itself in questions of cultural difference and orientalism. Sex and the City 2 was released in 2010, in the midst of the turbulent relations between the West and East defined by the on-going war in Afghanistan.
Firstly, the question of feminism. Sex and the City 2 is a salient example of a ‘post feminist’ film. According to Angela McRobbie, in her work ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’, popular culture of the 1990s reflects a turn away from the gains made in the second wave feminist movement, through an exhibition of what McRobbie calls ‘post feminism’. Post feminism, for McRobbie, entails the notion that contemporary culture relies on the achievements of second wave feminism. Indeed, it takes these achievements – equal rights, liberated sexuality, economic independence etc – for granted, takes them as socially ‘obvious’ and in existence without need for critical reflection. The widespread assumption that women are sexually, economically and socially ‘liberated’ allows popular culture to represent female characters who embody an autonomous, self-reliant and empowered lifestyle: this includes having high-flying career women, sexually-liberated women; women with choice, education, power. It doesn’t take much effort to see that Sex and the City is a prime example of this: there’s Samantha the PR businesswomen, Carrie the writer, Miranda the lawyer.
Nevertheless, the empowered women portrayed in popular culture do not fit the aims of feminism, even though on the surface they appear strong and ‘free’. These women are presented as self-made, fully in control of their own destinies, fully unshackled from the chains of patriarchy and power and also the feminist movement itself. Their achievements are represented as examples of personal triumphs rather than identified as part of wider shifts in female employment and gender roles enabled by the feminist movement and its transformation of the systems of power and social mores which formerly would have constrained them. Since these women are depicted as independent and disengaged from feminism, their representation contributes nothing to the political ambitions of feminism, and also undermines the need for any contemporary feminist movement. Indeed, many popular renderings of the modern, empowered women (the post feminist female subject) in fact not only detract from the political weight of feminism but they also associate this new freedom with certain practices which actually restore traditional gender roles – the gendered behaviours that feminism set out to radically change.
In Sex and the City, both the show and the films, female liberation and empowerment is predominantly expressed through sex and consumption. Yet it is debatable as to whether these practices actually enable the women to free themselves from conventional gender norms or whether they in fact throw the characters back into the cycle of cultural constraints that rigidly define ‘women’ and ‘feminine behaviour’. Samantha, for example, is frequently depicted as the most sexually voracious of the four women. She enjoys the kind of sexuality – one night stands and the like – that men have been enjoying for centuries; she offers no apologies for her behaviour; it is, at least from the two films I have seen, seemingly morally accepted. Moreover, as a successful businesswoman, Samantha enjoys an economic independence which allows her to splurge on clothes, holidays and anti-aging products. It isn’t difficult to see where post feminism fits in here: while Samantha does have an assertive sexuality and personality, her empowerment is presented chiefly through consumption. Rather than making any significant political statement about female power or positioning, the show and films seem to reaffirm the status quo by confirming consumption as not only the vital source of contemporary identity but also the glittering route to status and power; yet a route that leads continually to traditional female objectification, with the body becoming a cultural mannequin, dressed up with the latest dresses, shoes and anti-aging potions to create the perfect sexualised subject. Of course, there is an inherent ambiguity about whether the woman is in control of herself, as she travels down this route of credit cards and department stores, or whether she is pressured by the powers of female-directed advertising and capitalism.
In any case, Sex and the City may appear feminist but it certainly contributes very little to the political movement of feminism. The girls may spout their girl power in a karaoke session singing second-wave feminism’s theme song ‘I Am Woman’, but their empowerment is arguably a superficial concealment of how they are trapped by the mind-numbing machines of advertising and the fashion and beauty industry which continue to pressurise and mould women’s sense of self, perpetuating gendered regimes and practices. Samantha, the only unmarried character, uses her economic power in ways that confirm her adherence to standards of femininity that are perpetuated by the beauty industry in order to exploit and extend female insecurities. She enhances her libido in the wake of menopause through guzzling handfuls of pills, to ‘trick [her] body into thinking it’s younger’, to which Miranda adds: ‘I’ve tricked my body into thinking it’s thinner – Spanx!’. While feminism as a movement attempted to open up new kinds of beauty, which included those who were not young, white and skinny, the characters are depicted as mindlessly striving towards and approving the stereotype, rather than in any sense shattering it. As Hadley Freeman of The Guardian astutely describes this scene: ‘it’s like being lobotomised with a pink teaspoon’.
Well this is all fair enough: perhaps you could argue that she is making the conscious choice to do so. Other characters have different means of empowering themselves, after all. There’s Miranda, the lawyer, and Carrie, the fashion-crazed newspaper columnist. Yet all these women are privileged: rich, often from affluent backgrounds or have wealthy husbands. They are friends for one thing because they have a shared class position. Their empowerment through shiny New York careers and the shopping is more of a class privilege than a political statement about girl power, and in this sense I would argue that the show is highly problematic in its potential to be cast as ‘feminist’.
While the issue of feminism and Sex and the City is ambiguous, I would argue the sequel film leaves little ambiguity about the issue of racism; or, more specifically, orientalism. The film follows the four girl’s holiday escapades in Abu Dhabi, the second biggest city of the United Arab Emirates. Hadley Freeman contrasts the ‘smart, funny, warm and wise’ TV show with the ‘pink-fringed, cliché-ridden, materialistic, misogynistic, borderline racist’ film; while the show ‘had genuine emotional truth’, the films are all about the ‘sex and shopping’. I’ve never watched the shows, so cannot make a judgement other than my impression of the films. And my judgement is that their vision of women, homosexuality and ‘the East’ is distinctively narrow, shallow and hollow.
With Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte sent off to Abu Dhabi, the film immerses itself in a world of blatant, unapologetic orientalism. Edward Said in his book Orientalism described orientalism as a concept which encompasses the binary distinction often made between West/East. This distinction comes with other stereotyped and hierarchical binary pairings such as civilised/uncivilised, us/them. Charting the history of colonisation, Said suggests that Europeans have for many years set up Eastern countries as ‘oriental’, as exotic Others by which they may define themselves against. For Europeans, whatever the Orientals were defined as, they (the occidents) were not. This allowed the West to position themselves as an inherently superior ‘race’, which in turn provided the justification for colonisation by using the ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising the ‘uncivilised’ world to legitimise their imperial domination of Eastern countries. As with most stereotyping and binary oppositioning (think man/woman), this process involved enormous cultural and social simplifications and generalisations which shaped prejudices against the ‘orient’ commonly held in the West. You only have to take a glimpse at today’s papers, with the generalisations about Islam and terrorism, to see how Orientalism still operates. Indeed, the USA in particular has frequently justified its occupation and invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of tackling the women’s rights records of these countries; but it is possible that this constitutes an imposition of Western norms on different cultures, and moreover, the USA’s record for women’s rights is itself questionable, as it is one of the few countries that has refused to ratify CEDAW, the UN’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. This is just one contemporary example of how the West stereotypes Eastern cultures in opposition to its own cultural model, and reflects a complex entanglement of neo-imperialism, orientalism and feminist issues.
Back to Sex and the City 2. The representation of the Middle East is highly stereotypical, and makes a great effort to exoticise Middle Eastern men and women into characters which perpetuate traditional oriental images of the East found in films like Arabian Nights. The men are presented with a glamorous strangeness: with the mundane, clichéd dialogue and the glittering, stereotypical oriental music that accompanies their appearance. Upon arrival, the American women are treated like queens, each getting their own taxi and personal man-servant who stays up all hours to service their every petty whim. This sets up a kind of neo-colonial relationship where the ‘respectable’ Eastern characters are represented as intrinsically deferential to their Western ‘superiors’.
Additionally, the cultural status of sex is clear-cut into a binary issue, with Western liberation contrasted with a complete repression in the East – Samantha’s kissing on the beach is met with armed response and a permanent criminal record. Rather than acknowledging the nuances that characterise how sex is accepted and perceived in different contexts, the film forces the issue once again into stereotypical binaries.
Perhaps most significantly, the film also cashes in on stereotypes of the mysterious veiled Muslim women. Carrie and co ruminate over the sartorial restrictions of wearing a veil, and watch in awe as one eats her chips underneath the burqa. The Muslim woman is thus shown as an object of curiosity, and we viewers are forced to voyeuristically observe her eating chips as if she is some strange, voiceless creature. By minimising the actual interaction between the American women and the Middle Eastern women, the film negates any possibility for exploring the unique subjectivity of Muslim women and their experience of wearing a burqa as well as their religious beliefs. Instead, they remain Oriental objects of Western curiosity. Rather than respected for having their own minds, they remain quite obviously in this film, to borrow Chandra Mohanty’s phrase, under western eyes.
And indeed the moment that really struck me was when the Muslim women were given a voice. After helping the four girls escape a mob of angry Arab men (who Samantha has offended by spilling condoms all over the floor and announcing loudly that ‘yes, [she] does have sex!’, so yes – another stereotype about all Arabian men as women-haters) a group of Muslim women shed their niqabs to reveal they are wearing the latest New York runway collection. Delighted, the four American women laugh and praise their fashionable style. This is so obviously patronising that even after a film peppered with references to magic carpets and other Middle Eastern myths I was shocked. Being the primary scene where the main characters actually interact with Muslim women, it states, quite clearly, that Western and Eastern integration can only occur through consumption. Moreover, Muslim women can only be liberated from the ‘shackles’ of their own culture and religion (defined in the film by the recurrent veil image) by conforming to Western stereotypes of beauty and fashion. It’s a sickening simplification of the complexities of female identity within different cultural contexts, and seems to send out the message that globalisation (or rather, Westernisation) can only be a good thing because it is spreading a ‘liberated’ (or rather, shackled to consumerism) Western femininity to the poor, silenced Muslim women, who live in a culture that remains ‘backwards’. In doing so, it leaves out other more critical consequences of globalisation that could be explored, such as migrant labour in the Gulf, which is only skimmed over in Carrie’s conversation with her Indian servant Gaurav – who she benevolently bestows her money upon, as if this single lavish expenditure makes up for the capitalist restructuring which has necessitated Guarav’s move abroad away from his wife in the first place. Another example is in the nightclub where ironically the girls play karaoke and sing ‘I Am Woman’ while at the same time they are probably in the company of trafficked sex workers. Charlotte asks why the club’s belly dancers are allowed to show lots of flesh while every other woman in the East seems to cover up, and Miranda provides the pathetic response that there is a ‘nightclub loophole’. Many of the single women in Emirati nightclubs are indeed trafficked sex workers, but the film completely glosses over the possibility of critically engaging with this.
Finally, the wedding opens with another obvious stereotype that should’ve prepared me for the cliché trail that characterises the rest of the film. The wedding of two gay characters involves many stereotypes attached to homosexuality – infidelity, flamboyance, the pomp of a completely OTT ceremony, complete with boy choir and Liza Minnelli performing ‘Single Ladies’. It’s utterly cringeworthy and I had to temporarily mute the film so that my flatmate didn’t have to wonder what the hell I was watching. A fitting beginning to a film rife with caricature, condescension and cartoonish representation.
I can’t, however, completely make my mind up how I feel about the representation of women in this film. While there are many simplifications and the fact that the women conform to gender stereotypes through shopping, there are some moments where the difficulties of trying to ‘have/do it all’ are reflected. It is possible to look upon Samantha with pity, as a character who isn’t liberated but sucked too far in to the rigid, gendered standards of the beauty industry, and perhaps the patriarchal expectations of the area she works in – PR – which is based so much on appearance. Another example is the scene where Charlotte cries in the cupboard, hiding from her screeching children in a moment of genuine motherly breakdown. Nevertheless, these remain very limited representations, in that Charlotte’s troubles are the troubles of a privileged housewife. She’s crying because she worries about her husband having an affair with the nanny (an idea bizarrely stemming from the fact that the nanny doesn’t wear a bra) and because her daughter messed up her designer jeans. Not because she doesn’t know where her children’s next meal is going to come from, or because she’s overworked with three jobs to make ends meet.
So while the film touches on feminist issues, its dealing with class and ethnic difference is shockingly narrow. I couldn’t even enjoy it as a slice of indulgent consumerist fantasising, because the racial, sexual and cultural stereotypes, and the flat script and conventional female behaviour ascribed to many of the characters were so obvious and unsettling. It almost makes you feel guilty to watch. Of course, it all ends happily, with Charlotte’s nanny turning out to be a lesbian and thus in no danger of seducing Charlotte’s husband, and with Samantha finally consummating her passion for the Danish guy she got arrested for kissing in Abu Dhabi. Well, of course, the film suggests, everything happens correct and best in the West. Yet I’m not sure that all’s well that end’s well: the film prompts more questions about the implication of its depictions of women, homosexuals and the Middle East than it answers.
McRobbie, A. (2004) ‘Post Feminism and Popular Culture’ in Feminist Media Studies, vol. 4, no. 3 , pp. 255–264.
Said, E. (1977) Orientalism.