Yesterday, PJ and I saw Sex and the City 2. We both loved the series and the first movie, so we were looking forward to the new one. Each of our heroines is facing a problem: Carrie is worried that she and Big have lost their sparkle; Miranda is being silenced by her boss; Samantha is going through menopause and is worried about what it’s doing to her libido; and Charlotte is scared that her husband will have an affair with their bra-less bosomy nanny. Along the way, Anthony and Stanford get married, and the “girls” get an all-expenses paid trip to Abu Dhabi.

Here’s the trailer:

I enjoyed the movie, but everything we’ve heard about it has been negative. Reviewers have routinely been calling it one of the worst movies of the year. In writing about it, I recognize that I want to say two somewhat contradictory things about it.

First, Sex and the City 2 is not exactly the caricature that reviews are making it out to be. Lisa Swarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly, for example, complains that, with the exception of Miranda, “not one of the fashion friends lifts her head out of her luggage to get a clue” (June 4/11, 2010, p. 95). Accordingly, Swarzbaum presents a satirically simplistic summary of each woman’s storyline. As she writes, “Charlotte is upset that motherhood is hard; Miranda is upset that she is unappreciated at work; Samantha is upset that she can’t outrun menopause.” But her darts are really aimed at Carrie, who’s problems she sarcastically reduces to being “upset that she’s got everything.”

While Swarzbaum’s satiric barbs adequately convey her disdain for this movie, like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift before her, she achieves her goal by distorting what’s actually going on. (Plus, she’s not as good a writer as her eighteenth-century forebears.) Charlotte does irritatingly check her cell phone constantly after arriving in the Middle East. But she does so like any woman with her worries would — she needs confirmation that her husband isn’t cheating with the nanny. This is completely consistent with everything we’ve ever known about her character. Miranda isn’t just unappreciated at work; she’s experiencing active sexual discrimination that includes demeaning her in front of her colleagues. Samantha is worried that she’s losing her sexuality as she gets older, but she’s always been a cartoon character. Again, to object to that now is to object to everything we’ve ever been shown about her character. And finally, Carrie faces something every relationship faces at some point: the simple question, “Is he getting bored with me?” While Swarzbaum criticizes Carrie for complaining that Big has given her a TV for their anniversary so that they can watch old movies together, she seems to forget that Big’s present suggests he doesn’t really know what Carrie wants. Or, as importantly, he’s gone back to his old ways of not particularly caring what Carrie wants, of taking her needs and desires for granted. All in all, I’d say that these women’s lives are as relevant as they’ve ever been (though that certainly leaves room for the argument that they’ve never been relevant).

Some parts of this film are a little too subtle, I think. We see early on that Big and Carrie have downsized their apartment. While they’re still living a lifestyle well above the average New Yorker’s, the movie at least acknowledges that the people living at this economic level have nevertheless been touched by the economic decline. Again, we can complain that these characters live at that level, but that is to argue that we’ve always hated their lifestyles (in which case why were we watching it to begin with?). Perhaps if Carrie had made more of it, then critics would see this element of the film as more central to its point.

I also really liked a conversation between Miranda and Charlotte about the difficulties of being a mother. While we could again criticize these women for being rich, for lack of a better word, the movie itself raises this criticism and acknowledges that their problems are not on the same scale as those of middle class and lower class women. I thought this was well done and managed to stay away from being patronizing.

To sum up my point so far, I think to criticize the film for depicting wealthy, fashion- and sex-obsessed characters is like criticizing Tyler Perry’s movies for being about African-American characters. Each revels in its subject and should be allowed to do so. The question is what are they doing with that subject.

Sex and the City 2 takes its characters, puts them in the Middle East, and then depicts the clash of values. In doing so, I think it’s trying to critique American constructions of the Middle East. On the one hand, we talk about the “new Middle East” that is progressive, rich, and accepting of western lifestyles. On the other hand, we reduce the Middle East to a land of patriarchal oppression of women. While elements of these visions of the Middle East are true, they’re mostly as fictional as every other western depiction of Arabs, Muslims, and their cultures. As a nation (and as the west), we caricature the Middle East all the time. This movie pokes fun at westerners’ (in general) and Americans’ (in particular) simplistic views of the Arab world.

What Carrie and her friends learn during their visit to Abu Dhabi is that the new Middle East is as patriarchal as the old one and that women resist patriarchal oppression without any help from women like Carrie and her friends. The film has been criticized for his insensitivity to Arabs, but I think this insensitivity is exactly what it’s depicting and critiquing. In this regard, we are all Carrie Bradshaws.

Furthermore, the film at least tries to cast its characters as feminist icons. Their problems with their Arab hosts are largely about gender and sexuality — the very real limitations placed on women in Muslim cultures. Carrie’s fascination during one scene in which a woman is wearing a full abaya while eating a french fry. First off, haven’t we all wondered how women wearing these clothes can eat with them on? The answer is simple, and I thought the movie poked fun at our naiveté about it. Secondly, isn’t it also troubling that women have to wear these clothes and men don’t? Since when do we praise Islamic culture for more or less requiring such modesty from its women while allowing men to wear exactly what western men wear? And it’s insensitive to point out the difference? (But I will admit that the I-Am-Woman-Hear-Me-Roar-Karaoke-scene is totally stupid!)

On this level I think this movie is generally entertaining and relatively smart.

But I also have a contradictory response to the movie. I can’t help but think that my fondness for what I see as the film’s critique of American constructions of the Middle East and general feminism is really just sympathy as a gay man for another gay man’s depictions of fabulous women and their zany misadventures.

I can certainly see a critique of the film (which used to be make about the series a lot) that it’s really just a gay man’s fantasy. This fantasy is further born out in Stanford’s and Anthony’s wedding. While I appreciated that the ceremony takes place in Connecticut (and therefore makes a relatively subtle point about the limits of gay marriage), the wedding itself is a combination of the femme’s dream of an over-the-top wedding (complete with swans and Liza Minnelli singing “Single Ladies”) and the butch’s insistence that gay marriage doesn’t mean monogamy. In effect, one could argue that everything that happens in this movie is just gay fantasy about the fabulous lives of rich straights, lives we don’t have full access to. Charlotte’s fears reflect the maturing gay man’s anxieties that his husband will find a hotter, younger man to sleep with. Miranda’s silencing is still all too common need to remain silent at work about who you really are as a human being. Samantha’s menopause becomes a symbol of older gay men’s yearning to stay young and attractive looking. And Carrie’s search for sparkle is the same one that many partnered gay men embark upon.

The movie’s feminism and critique of western constructions of the Middle East can also be seen as filtered through the eyes of its gay writer/producer/director, Michael Patrick King. And maybe that’s what I’m responding to: another gay man’s confection of a heterosexual gay world in which the sexually liberated utopia of the United States is contrasted with the oppression of the Middle East. And perhaps that gay filter is actually what critics are negatively responding to — maybe it doesn’t seem so entertaining and smart if you’re not gay.

If I were to reject the Sex and the City world it would be because it no longer seems fruitful (no pun intended) to use women as stand-ins for gay issues. We can make our own movies now. They won’t make as much money or attract as many audience members or inspire cocktails. But we can still make them. We don’t have to live vicariously anymore — or at least it’s politically more effective to stop doing so.

But I’m not going to reject this world. I hope we see more gay misadventures from Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte. Even if they are over the top and culturally insensitive. After all, fun doesn’t always have to be realistic or politically correct.

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