Plot New York, present day. Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha attend their friends’ wedding. Charlotte frets about her husband being around her pretty nanny Erin. Miranda struggles with a bullying boss. Carrie worries that husband Big is a couch potato. Samantha offers her friends a free trip to an Abu Dhabi hotel she plans to promote. Big suggest spending two days apart weekly, to a horrified Carrie. In Abu Dhabi, Samantha’s anti-menopause pills are confiscated. Carrie runs into old flame Aidan in the souk, and Charlotte and Miranda bond over the difficulties of motherhood. Carrie and Aidan kiss after a meal and she confesses to Big by phone. Samantha is arrested by hotel security for kissing her date Rikard on the beach, and their freebie holiday is cancelled. Carrie has left her passport in the souk and returns to collect it. Samantha, suffering menopausal flushes, drops condoms on the floor and berates an appalled crowd of angry men. The friends are saved by a group of Emirati women, and escape to the airport disguised in burqas. Back home, Miranda finds a congenial job, Samantha has sex with Rikard, Erin is revealed to be a lesbian, and Big forgives Carrie (adapted from Stables 71).
Film note Before returning to Manhattan, the home of the franchise, Sex and the City 2 (2010) begins high in the clouds. The camera pans down to reveal the familiar city from above, but now the image is encrusted with jewels. Back on solid ground, Carrie calls a taxi while reminiscing about her first arrival on the island in voice-over. While her passion for the city hasn’t changed, her footwear has – the simple Converse sneakers have transformed into golden, jewel-encrusted Louboutin heels, emulating New York’s transformation in the opening shots. These scenes are nod to the audience’s knowledge of Carrie’s back-story in Candace Bushnell’s original novel Sex and the City (1996), the six-season long, HBO television series of the same name (1998-2004) and Sex and the City: The Movie (2008). Though, while it relies on these assets as a foundation, the opening sequence promises that the sequel will go bigger – shoes are more bejewelled, clothes more luxurious, parties more extravagant, and the characters are no longer confined to the titular city when later, they travel to Abu Dhabi.
Darren Star, creator and producer of Beverly Hills 90210 (1990-2000) and Melrose Place (1992-99), originally approached HBO with the concept for the Sex and the City series, believing that the network’s cutting-edge reputation would be a good fit for the project (Jermyn 19–20). He brought in Michael Patrick King, who had “an impressive television comedy pedigree” and went on to become an executive producer for the show (Jermyn 23). King then wrote and directed the first movie, which made $415m worldwide from an estimated budget of $65m. After this commercial success, New Line Cinema announced in February 2009 that a sequel was in production with King writing, directing and producing once again. With no script or shooting dates, the company nonetheless aimed “to fast-track the project in hopes of a summer 2010 release” (Mcnary). This plan came through and Sex and the City 2 opened worldwide in May of that year. Although the sequel was a domestic and international box-office hit, grossing over $288m worldwide from $100m in ticket sales, it did not perform as well as its predecessor.
“Abu Dhabi do(n’t)!” For a franchise whose title refers to New York City, the relocation of the main action to Abu Dhabi was a radical move for the second film. Just the title’s inclusion of the word “sex” was enough for Emirati officials to deny shooting permits, which suggests the potential incompatibility between the subject matter and the setting (Safdar 2010). In the narrative however, the women are luxuriously welcomed with open arms, including individual cars and butlers, and a $22,000 per night hotel suite. This is provided by a rich sheikh who sponsors the trip in pursuit of a business deal with Samantha. This reason is, however, soon forgotten since the Sheikh is never seen again. As a result, the film promotes the colonial presumption that for white Westerners “the simple act of travelling overseas automatically implies a dramatic leap of social promotion” (Ginneken 129). In another scene, the women go to the desert. After changing clothes in a luxurious tent, they walk in slow motion towards the camera. Their costumes flutter dramatically against a backdrop of vast, empty desert. This is the first time this landscape is properly seen and the new outfits invite the audience to admire the Americans. This crucial shot, which recalls the film’s poster, is free of the culture or people of the United Arab Emirates. As Lina Khatib argues, “Hollywood is notorious for its use of other countries and places for mere background locations” (31) and so while the original series was intimately connected with its location, Sex and the City 2 is disconnected from the specificity of Abu Dhabi, its people and its culture. The film here follows the Hollywood convention of representing foreign countries as ownerless, where the “virginity” of the land is implied and is “only waiting to be penetrated by Western explorers” (Ginneken 229).
As a post-9/11 film, Sex and the City 2 also has a problematic attitude towards Muslims. In Abu Dhabi, the four main characters stare at a woman wearing a burqa, as though they have never seen one before. They become fascinated by how she eats while covering her face, as though they were watching animals at the zoo. The woman is presented as a novelty to entertain the Americans. Islamic culture is portrayed as completely foreign to the West, belonging only to the Middle East, and Miranda underlines this by repeatedly emphasising the culture’s seemingly exotic characteristics, ignoring the existence of any American Muslims. In contrast, New York is represented as homogeneously white, since very few un-named characters of colour have speaking roles. This perpetuates the whiteness of the original series, where the first regular African-American cast member only joined during the final season (Jermyn 84). Foreign culture and customs are also explained by “a white ‘mediator’”, with Miranda constantly explaining aspects of life in Abu Dhabi rather than allowing Emirati characters a voice of their own (Ginneken 230).
Perhaps to counter the claim that the franchise features only white characters, the film introduces Gaurau (Raza Jaffrey), Carrie’s Indian butler. He is presented sympathetically when he talks about his marriage and the camera does not privilege Carrie in scenes where they talk. Gaurau, however, is one of the few non-American characters that have lines in the film. In Sex and the City 2, as for most Hollywood films, nearly all foreign people “remain literally speechless” (Ginneken 230). Also, Gaurau is never represented as sexually desirable to any of the female characters – his body is covered, he is framed simply in mid-shot and he is dedicated to his wife. Sexual attractiveness is a privilege given only to white bodies. Not only are all of the women’s partners white, but when the women travel to Abu Dhabi the only men Samantha gazes at, as emphasised by the extreme closeups of individual body parts, are white: a whole team of white Australian rugby players and the white, Danish Rikard (Max Ryan).
Sex and the City 2‘s representation of Abu Dhabi is marked by a lack of developed non-American characters that are able to explain their own culture. Instead, representations of the country are strongly tied to the American women who gape at an exoticised Middle East without gaining a deeper knowledge of it. The people of the United Arab Emirates are given shallow roles, and the culture becomes a playground for the Americans. As Ginneken argues, Hollywood portrays of the rest of the world as “a crowd of ‘extras’ with turbans, burkas, slanted eyes […] but no depth or central role” (232), and Sex and the City conforms to this throughout.
From woman’s film to girl power Generally, Hollywood films set in the Middle East fit into the action genre – one that is “characterised by a masculine, open space” (Khatib 16). Within the narrative of Sex and the City 2, the characters attend a premier for one of these movies, an event that ultimately leads to their trip. However, the film does not fit into this category. Rather, it lines up more neatly with the chick flick and romantic comedy – genres that have their roots in the woman’s film and screwball comedy respectively.
The woman’s film is a broad label for Hollywood films made from the 1930s to 1950s intended for female audiences, a “category which included classical cycles such as the maternal melodrama or gothic woman’s film” (Garrett 1). Examples of these include Dark Victory (1939), Rebecca (1940) and Mildred Pierce (1945). Recognising a large audience base, Hollywood carved out a space for female perspectives and female oriented issues in the cinema, such as family relations and female friendships. However, in the 1960s, the woman’s film declined, migrating to television and then later to the straight-to-video market (Garrett 2). Feminist approaches to the woman’s film in the 1960s and 1970s focused on thematic concerns, from celebrating the tackling of difficult issues, such as domesticity, to criticising problematic notions such as the pathologisation of the feminine. In the 1980s and 1990s however, feminists moved on to highlight “the significance and relatively high profile of the female audience during the classical Hollywood era” (Garrett 1). As feminism evolved, so did the woman’s film. It is possible to see the influence of the genre and it critical articulation in films such as Terms of Endearment (1983), Beaches (1988), and The Notebook (2004) (Ferriss and Young 17).
In the 1980s, an new wave of feminists began to re-appropriate words which were previously deemed condescending by second-wave feminists. These included phrases such as “girl power” and “you go, girl!” (Ferriss and Young 3). This “postfeminism” appeared in the popular media soon after and the term “chick flick” emerged in the 1990s, a genre with a dedicated address to postfeminist female consumers (Tasker and Negra 8). Chick culture attempted to reclaim femininity, and chick flicks expressed this by using a “postfeminist aesthetic: a return to femininity, […] a focus on female pleasure and pleasures, and [a valuing of] consumer culture and girlie goods, including designer clothes” (Ferriss and Young 4).
Sex and the City 2 can be understood as a chick flick. Returning to the first scene, Carrie nostalgically recalls her arrival in New York and the beginnings of her female friendships. Simultaneously, the camera frames a close up of her designer shoes. As Carrie meets each one of her girlfriends, the scene cuts back and forth between shots of their old selves and their current selves, distinguishing between the two by their costume. The late 1980s costumes look cheap, whereas the luxury of the modern day versions is emphasised. Throughout, the film continues to leave room to gaze at clothing, from Carrie’s androgynous “best man” outfit, to a costume change in the desert, to searching for a burqa-wearing Charlotte by identifying just her shoes. The film therefore allows for an appreciation of female friendships within the narrative alongside the beautiful costumes, two vital elements of the chick flick.
In contrast, the Sex and the City television might be considered a romantic comedy. The roots of this particular sub-genre lie in screwball comedies such as It Happened One Night (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Although not specifically aimed at women, the classical romantic comedy focused on issues surrounding heterosexual relationships from the perspective of female protagonists. Also, the quick-fire banter between the sexes in the screwball comedy “may prefigure the frankness” of contemporary romantic comedies (Ferriss and Young 17). With rapid shifts between locations, leading to over thirty scenes per half-hour episode (Jermyn 22), the series mimicked the fast pace of the screwball comedy. It also focused primarily on heterosexual relationships from a female perspective. The show’s frank but humourous representations of sexuality however, bring it into the contemporary, postfeminist, romantic comedy era. As the show went on though, focus was pulled away from romance, and towards fashion as Carrie left her position as a relationship columnist to pursue a career in fashion journalism. By the second film, the heterosexual relationships have been pushed to the edges of the narrative (McDonald 11-13). Even with scenes that seem reminiscent of the screwball comedy – the girls suddenly realise they have to get out of the hotel before paying a large fine, Samantha drops her condoms in the souk – and frequent references to It Happened One Night, the pacing is much slower: in almost five times the running time of an episode, there are only twice as many scenes.
While romance has been almost completely removed from the film, the women’s friendship becomes crucial, which is underlined after Samantha refuses Rikard’s date invitation in order to be with her real “soul mates”. What was taboo breaking in the original series, continues in Sex and the City 2; that a heterosexual woman’s significant others might be her girlfriends rather than boyfriends (Jermyn 56). However, at the film’s conclusion, the characters return to their significant others, reinforcing hetero-normative values (Jermyn 95). Even Samantha rounds off her story by sleeping with Rikard.
Burqas and Balenciaga Writer and director King said he was inspired by the 2008 recession and wanted to make an escapist film like those made during the 1930s Great Depression (Grove). To achieve this, Sex and the City 2 goes bigger, richer, more luxurious. The film is filled with extravagant set pieces including a wedding with swans, water features and a performance from Liza Minnelli; expensive designer clothing throughout; and an all expenses paid vacation via, as Samantha puts it, “super, super, super first class”. In this celebration of unlimited consumerism, Abu Dhabi was chosen as the setting because of the “glamorous high luxury free markets free of financial troubles” (Grove). Any class differences in Sex and the City 2 are only mentioned in passing. All of the characters are at least upper middle class and the closest the film comes to referencing people in less wealthy positions is when Charlotte and Miranda acknowledge how difficult it must be for mothers without a full-time nanny. The film seems more attuned to the 1990s economic boom than the current recession. Flying to Abu Dhabi seems like “flee[ing] into a never-never land that manages to be both an escape from contemporary reality and an off-key, out-of-touch mirror of it” (Scott). There is no criticism of the capitalist system that has caused a recession in the United States, instead materialism can be celebrated by traveling abroad.
While it does seem blind to economic inequalities, one could argue that Sex and the City 2 uses conspicuous consumption to avoid exploring issues of gender. The film’s postfeminist stance promotes consumption in that it “works to commodify feminism via the figure of woman as empowered consumer” (Tasker and Negra 2). Although the (arguably more) feminist nature of the original series was debated, its strong questioning stance – through Carrie’s columns, voice-overs and the women’s conversations – allowed the series to engage with feminist issues (Jermyn 3). This continues into the second film, but it is diluted. Carrie does not write, and the women’s conversations are stagnant and repetitive. As the film removes the women from New York and their professions, it reduces them to being “intellectually vacant” (McCartney). There are opportunities to tackle feminist problems, such the silencing of Miranda at her place of work and a misogynist review of Carrie’s book, but the film has its wealthy characters avoid them by going shopping or flying to a different continent. Scenes like these self-consciously raise gender issues, but don’t elaborate on them – ultimately, the film is more interested in shopping than feminism.
In another notably gender-aware scene the four women perform Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman” at a karaoke bar. The song was released in 1971, during the second-wave feminist movement, and lyrics such as “No one’s ever gonna keep me down again” and “I am invincible/I am woman” allow for a feminist reading. Although the scene attempts to put forth a strong feminist message, some of the meaning is lost against the backdrop of the luxury of their environment. While all the women have been empowered enough to make drastically different choices in their lives, from becoming a stay-at-home mother to refusing to settle down, at this moment it is their similarity that marks them as strong women – their whiteness in comparison to most of their audience, and their wealth.
Amongst all of the consumption however, Samantha is refreshingly different. She is what Kathleen Rowe describes as an “unruly woman” with assertive sexuality who is a “rule-breaker, joke-maker and public, bodily spectacle” (Jermyn 46). An “unruly woman” uses mockery to contest “the institutions and structures of authority” (Jermyn 47). Of the four women, Samantha is the crudest, and whilst the television series was filled with sex, by the second film Samantha is the only one who even discusses it. Towards the end of the film, Samantha, while “going head-to-head with Islamic sexism and Puritanism causes a scene in which she shows her condoms to religious men and shouts ‘I have sex!’” (O’Hehir). At this point, the friends get unexpected help from some Emirati women, who silently lead them into a secret room away from an angry mob of men. These women take off their burqas and reveal that underneath, they wear fashionable Western clothing. The women gasp in excitement. Here, the film loses all of its potential critique of any patriarchal system – whether in Abu Dhabi or the United States – as the women forget the possible threat possessed by the men. Once again, they just celebrate consumerism. Perhaps more damning is that, according to the film, for a woman to truly be free and happy, she must embrace Western fashion. For the Americans who have been suspicious of Islamic dress for their entire trip, discovering that these women would much rather wear designer clothing is a turning point. It confirms that their form of feminism is the correct one – that every woman around the world covets that lifestyle. The Emirati women win the respect of the Americans, who stop questioning the culture because they discover that their perspective was correct all along.
When Carrie returns from her trip to Abu Dhabi, her husband is nowhere to be seen – he is angry at her for kissing old boyfriend Aidan after a chance encounter in the souk. He returns later with a punishment – she must wear a diamond ring to remind her that she’s married. After dismissing the prospect of wearing one earlier in the film as too traditional, she gladly takes it now. At this moment, any remaining feminist ideals that the film possessed come crumbling down as even her feminist views on marriage can be traded in for, as she puts it, “a lot of sparkle”. The film is more that just racist, classist and Islamophobic, it is also sexist. Considering its feminist roots, this is a disheartening revelation.
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Written by Seidi Saikkonen (2012); edited by Evan Thomas (2015), Queen Mary, University of London
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