On an overly ostentatious airplane enroute to Abu Dhabi, everyone’s favorite no-nonsense lawyer Miranda says to the stewardess, “Haan ji. That means ‘yes’ [in Arabic].”
Sitting in the dark movie theater amid throngs of estrogen, I sucked in my breath and muttered, Here we go.
I have long been a fan of Sex and the City, the HBO series that followed four women in New York City through love, life, and career highs and lows. And I was not alone. Women everywhere are avid fans of the show, embracing each character as an extension of themselves, as friends they felt they knew for years.
It was this loyalty that drove me to see Sex and the City 2 last weekend, despite having hated the first film, and despite knowing the rumored Muslim stereotypes I’d be witnessing. I held my breath and hoped the “stereotypes” I had read about in reviews were harmless attempts by Hollywood to exoticize the Middle East. It couldn’t be that bad, right?
It was worse.
Most of the film was set in Abu Dhabi, the more responsible Emirate brother of Dubai, (though SATC2 was actually filmed in Morocco, see my sister’s related report for CNN). Samantha, oversexed-borderline-menopausal PR executive, was offered an all-expenses paid trip to the glittery city, so of course she took her girls along for the ride. Miranda instantly became the Britannica Encyclopedia of everything Middle East, with “Whoah-you’d-never-guess” factoids about the burka, niqab, the Arabic language, and even the burkini (yes, even the burkini made an entrance). I am sure if we slow motion rewound some of the scenes, we’d hear SATC creator Darren Star and director Michael Patrick King chanting, “Who’s culturally sensitive?! We are! America, Eff Yeah!“
But cultural sensitivity might be appreciated if it was actually done properly. Instead, the Arab culture references were sprinkled throughout the script more to polarize this foreign and mysterious “other” than to truly inform a Western audience about the nuances of Islam and the Middle East. Wajahat Ali said it best when he noted at Salon.com,
Our four female cultural avatars, like imperialistic Barbies, milk Abu Dhabi for leisure and hedonism without making any discernible, concrete efforts to learn about her people and their daily lives. An exception is Miranda, whose IQ drops about 100 points as she dilutes the vast complexities of a diverse culture into sound bites like this: “‘Hanh Gee’ means ‘yes’ in Arabic!” Only it doesn’t — it’s Hindi and Punjabi, which is spoken by South Asians.
Upon their arrival in Abu Dhabi, Miranda also incorrectly affirms that all women in the Middle East have to cover themselves [with a bejeweled burqa]. As Carrie looks on in horror at an Arab woman attempting to eat a french fry underneath her veil, Samantha states, “It’s like they don’t want [women] to have a voice.”
A couple points. First – not all women in the Middle East are covered. Saudi Arabia? Yes. But have you ever seen a Lebanese music video? Have you walked down the street in Cairo? Modesty may be key to most Islamic societies, but that doesn’t mean all women wear the niqab. Despite the diversity of women in the region – some covered, others not, some conservative, others liberal or moderate – the film instead portrayed a sea of silenced Muslim females shroud in black, sentenced to shove one french fry at a time underneath their veil. Poor, poor, hungry, Muzzy women.
Second – not all people in the Middle East are Muslims, and certainly not all Muslims are in the Middle East. For the love of God, do we still have to make that point? Abu Dhabi is not a representative of the entire “Muslim World.”
Third – Samantha [*cough* Star & King] may think that women are not allowed a voice, but if they had one, would they want to sound like her? The sexually empowered menopausal woman who screams, “Lawrence of My-Labia”? The one who throws condoms at angry souk men yelling, “I am a woman! I have sex!”? Somehow strung-out mental patient comes more to mind than empowered, opinionated woman.
I walked into the film not thinking I’d care so much about negative Muslim stereotypes. Sex and the City, (the show) for many women, was an escape from reality, a glittery and glamorous life we all wish we could live, with women we all wish we could be friends with.
But it was also a deeper discussion of issues we all faced but had not raised with each other. Sex and the City symbolized, for all its fans, woman empowerment through sisterhood. And while the second film was an attempt to enforce that idea, through the foursome’s journey to Abu Dhabi, it also failed to find a similar and deeper connection with women in that part of the world. Instead of the film using its ‘girl power’ appeal to explore the nuances and truly engage the Arab/Muslim/Middle Eastern woman, it polarized them as the “other,” victims of an oppressive patriarchal society. Ali, in his Salon.com piece, concluded, “After completely dissing the Middle East, its people, its religion and its culture, it’s “Sex and the City” that truly insults the Muslim women, by silencing them entirely.”