Skip to content

Sex, Lies, and Videotape: A postcolonial look at “Sex and The City II”

2010 August 27
by Randa Tawil

On a summer afternoon in Beirut, I decided to escape the oppressive July heat and take a long stroll to the cinema. An afternoon at the movies in Beirut is one of the only times you are guaranteed uninterrupted air-conditioning for two whole hours. On some days, I really don’t care what movie I go to see; as long as I can munch on caramel popcorn and put an end to my continuous sweating the trip is a success. Hence, my decision to go and “Sex and The City II.”

I had heard the bad reviews about it from my friends in the US, with special warnings to me. “Randa, you are gonna find it so offensive. Like, not even funny offensive. Offensive offensive.” However, as a young Arab American I was interested in witnessing the way in which “the girls” experienced the big M. E. As if my friends’ advice was not enough, the reviews also tipped me off that the movie would not be a particularly enjoyable experience. However, while almost all critics ranted for paragraphs about the movie being “crass (Washington Post),” “painfully cliche (LA Times),” and about nothing more than “flyweight bubbleheads living in a world which rarely requires three sentences in a row, (Sun Times)” critics were rather curt about the offensive nature of the movie’s depiction of the Middle East.  The Washington Post said it was “culturally insensitive.” The LA Times said the “Muslim sendoffs” were “cringe-worthy.” What I found on that hot July day, however, was a strangely out-dated brand of racism that created a Saharan dreamscape for American women to play out their fantasies, desires, and fears.

As Edward Said writes in his classic text, Orientalism, the East has often been used as a landscape to play out western fantasies. Movies like The Sheik, Lawrence of Arabia, and Abbot and Costello in the Foreign Legion use the landscape of unmarked “Arabia” to generate adventure, romance, and mystery.  Sex and the City II anachronistically falls into this simplistic depiction of the Arab World. Much like some of the aforementioned depression-era cinema, this film is seemingly inspired by the bad economy, the unemployment rate, two wars that seem to never end, and the generally dismal reality of living in the US. In hopes of providing an escape, the film creates a dreamscape in which women’s bodies become frontiers to play out our own fantasies of a culture of ornate luxury fueled by simultaneous desire and repression. In this way, the women don’t go to Abu Dhabi, but create their own world that is more of a reflection of Western stereotypes than an actual peek into the Arab World (and it is worth mentioning, although it has been mentioned so many times, that the movie wasn’t even filmed in Abu Dhabi, but rather in Morocco. Apparently Abu Dhabi was not Abu Dhabi-esque enough to fit the movie).

The movie’s inability to penetrate any part of Arab culture (the only thing in the franchise that seems to have any trouble being penetrated) might have something to do with the lack of any meaningful Arab character in the movie. Other than a few lines here and there by very minor characters, the movie never bothers to discover anyone from the place in which it is filmed. Much like the veil that the girls so vehemently critique, the movie blocks out any real faces or experiences of people from Abu Dhabi. And why shouldn’t it? The movie is not about Abu Dhabi, but rather it is about the way Abu Dhabi is perceived in the Western imagination.  The girls are lavished with every sort of gift imaginable. A separate car for each girl, a $22,000 suite, and a personal butler are only the beginnings of their fantasy in luxury.

Furthering the movie’s disassociation with any sort of Arab reality, the only people shown in Abu Dhabi are foreigners. Samantha’s love interest is Danish.  The cute men at the night club are Australian. Carrie’s butler, who plays a pivotal role as the wise but tragic person of color, is an Indian migrant worker and Carrie’s closest connection to Abu Dhabi culture. When the film features Arabs, it focuses on Western problems with Arab culture, namely the veil. The women in the movie obsess about the veil, and gawk at how these covered women can eat french fries and drink soda. Carrie couldn’t possibly understand how identity could be formed around something like clothing, could she? Or that these women express their political aggression towards the West and their own opposition to Western standards of beauty by covering their bodies? I thought you were supposed to do that by writing witty puns about sex and wearing $400 high heels? At least that is what the movie is telling the viewer in the climactic moment of the girls’ trip to Abu Dhabi. In this scene, the girls get in trouble when Samantha acts out in public, proclaiming to a large group of men that she loves having sex. They seek refuge in a small room in an attic where they discover Arab women who are also hiding. When Carrie and the gang don’t know how to escape without being punished by the men outside, the nameless Arab women give them their burkas, revealing the spring line of Louis Vuitton under their wardrobes. In this moment, the film finally fulfills its fantasies of the Middle East; different, strange, and yet ultimately a distorted reflection of the West. The girls have not seen or learned anything new, because the world they explored was a projection of their own imaginations.

Wait. Okay. I get it. This is Sex and the City. Why am I wasting a Tuesday afternoon writing this when we all knew the movie was bad and offensive and not something to be taken seriously. Well, because, as I sit here in a cafe in Beirut, which is a ten minute walk from a Palestinian refugee camp, I can’t help but wonder if the United States will ever change its policies towards or views on the Arab World when all we choose to see is what we want to see: Arabs as mysterious, exciting, and ultimately inferior. By perpetuating the Orientalist gaze on the Arab World, the US furthers itself from humanizing and understanding a part of the world in which it is incredibly invested.  Obviously Sex and the City II is not the place to look for these solutions, but it did not need to add Orientalism to its already long list of social anachronisms.

Comments are closed.