Sex and the City 2 premiered May 24th, 2010, but I did not catch the film until yesterday, June 2nd. Typically I’m a fan of the Sex and the City franchise and love the strong, empowered women that Charlotte, Carrie, Samantha, and Miranda embody. The series is typically pretty progressive in its portrayal of what is acceptable for women and has never shied away from tackling taboo topics. This second film stays true to the franchise’s tradition of exploring issues that media typically remains silent on, including menopause, the difficulties of motherhood, being a woman in a career field dominated by men, gay marriage, cheating, and promiscuous sex. The most controversial thing I found about the film was the choice to portray the often-misunderstood Muslim world through a white American lens. While this could have been an opportunity to educate audiences and fight stereotyping, the film fails in this respect.
The girls take a trip together to Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. The purpose of the trip is for Samantha to become well-acquainted with the hotel belonging to the trip’s benefactor so that she can begin a public relations campaign for the hotel in the United State (Charlotte, Miranda, and Carrie are just tagging along for an all-expenses paid luxury vacation). The hotel owner tells Samantha that Abu Dhabi is the “new Middle East” and with this Samantha seems to expect that their destination will not hold any of the traditional Islamic tenants commonly associated with the Middle East. Miranda tries to become knowledgeable about these traditions, including modest dress for women and no public displays of affection, and encourages Samantha to respect these traditions while in Abu Dhabi. Miranda seems genuinely interested in educating herself about the Muslim world and is the only informative voice in the film. Carrie and Charlotte follow Miranda’s lead in following conventions for behavior but are not interested in educating themselves about traditions. Samantha completely rejects following these traditions and does not care who she offends. While Abu Dhabi is progressive in many ways, there are still many Islamic conservatives portrayed in the film. Samantha repeatedly runs into problems because she refuses to respect these traditions, including getting arrested for kissing in public and facing an angry mob when she is wearing shorts and many condoms spill out of her bag onto the ground in front of an entirely conservative Muslim crowd. Her answer is to make lewd gestures, and the girls are only saved by a deus ex machina in the form of a group of conservative Muslim women wearing the traditional hijab. These women celebrate Samantha’s controversial display and reveal that they are all wearing Louis Vuitton clothing underneath their coverings. While their approval of Samantha’s behavior does carry the positive connotation of universal sisterhood among women and that Middle Eastern women are not all that different from American women, I think it also carries negative implications about traditional Muslim values. While the Muslim world is notorious for oppressing women, many Muslim women embrace traditions and even look at the hijab as something that does not hinder but rather enables them to have richer lives. Conservative Islamic traditions are outright bashed in this film.
It shocked me that the Sex and the City franchise, which in many ways seeks out opportunities to be progressive and culturally competent, rejected the opportunity to explore the Middle East in a more well-developed way. It would have been wonderful to have the movie explore the Middle East in a way that promoted cross-cultural understanding. Instead, this film only serves to further stereotypes about the Muslim world and promote cultural ignorance.