Yes, I’m asking that you take a second look at Sex and the City 2 during its first week of release. Why? Because most of the reviews out there say that it’s a terrible movie about overconsumption. Well, yes. It is ubermaterialistic and filled with many stereotypical orientalist fantasy elements. But SATC2 is a satire about how “liberated” we think our culture is.
The original television series advanced woman’s liberation. It celebrated the supposed sexual freedom of the modern woman, embodied by four different avatars: Carrie the neurotic girl, Charlotte the good girl, Samantha the bad girl, and Miranda the career girl. The show definitely did break down boundaries and made it okay for women from different generations to talk about sex. The avatars slowly changed into characters, into women making complicated and difficult decisions.
The first movie chronicled the rites turning Carrie from a single girl to a married woman. She finally achieved her supposed “happy ending.” The second movie attempts to answer the question – did Carrie really enjoy her happy ending? Of course not – at heart she’s still the avatar of the neurotic girl. Dramatically tackling those issues would be a downer of a film, not what the target audience wants or expects from the franchise. So the filmmakers chose another time-honored tradition to explore these issues: the satire.
Everything in this movie – the fashions, the settings, the choices, the desires – has been exaggerated. The characters have been flattened back into stereotypes, into girls. It definitely fetishes the superficial; but the assumptions underlying these appearances are overtly and covertly challenged throughout.
SPOILER WARNING – I give away plot points below, but really this movie is anything but plot-driven. If you can’t figure out what happens when Samantha cavorts in a sexually repressed society, well, just think about it a little bit longer.
The TV series began in the decadence of the 1990s and carefully navigated the post-9/11 world. The second movie begins with flashbacks to the 1980s – another celebrated era of overconsumption. The first set piece is the over-the-top-of-the-Empire-State-Building wedding of Stanford and Anthony, Carrie and Charlotte’s respective Best Gay Friends. Liza Minelli officiates, much to the amazement of the wedding guests and the Sex and the City Men’s Choir who were in attendance. One of the best sequences in the movie is Liza singing and dancing All the Single Ladies.
But all is not well at this gay wedding. A fan gushes at Carrie and Big until she finds out that her dream model couple are not planning on having children. They are knowingly going against their society’s traditions. Though they can articulate this decision and were prepared to accept some societal disapproval, Carrie and Big did not anticipate the coldness of the other couple’s reaction. The main characters’ expectations are also challenged. When Anthony relates that Stanford will allow him to cheat during their marriage, though, the girls become uncomfortable. Faithfulness in marriage is a tradition that the foursome did not expect to be challenged. To them, two men getting married is normal. Sanctioned cheating, however, is not.*
The last part of the movie takes place in a fantastical version of Abu Dhabi.** The United Arab Emirates has usurped Manhattan to become the epitome of decadence. SATC2 walks a fine line between two different Western myths of the Middle East. The “traditional” UAE is Muslim, sexually conservative, restricts women, and run by men. The sheik who treats the foursome to the junket in Abu Dhabi wants to hire Samantha to do PR for “the NEW Middle East.” Ostensibly he wants to prove to the world that his hotel and the UAE have become liberated, comfortable for Westerners. How does he do that? By catering to Western tourists’ Oriental fantasies. In the luxury Jewel Suite, each woman has a personal butler, complete with turbans. The women ride camels, drink tea in a tent in the middle of the desert, and go shopping for spices and shoes at the local souk.
Yet signs of the “OLD Middle East” abound. At least one of the butlers is actually Indian. His character is the nicest man the foursome meet in Abu Dhabi, and he’s not even a native. In fact, he seems to be an indentured servant, slightly better off than a slave since he can visit his wife every 3 months. In a restaurant, the girls stare at a table of women in burkhas and hajibs. None of them asks why these modern women eating french fries and talking on cell phones are still veiled while eating at a restaurant in a hotel that caters to Westerners. By virtue of their clothes, these women are deemed “other,” though Carrie does admire a bedazzled robe. Fashion is always on the surface.
Throughout the Abu Dhabi section, Miranda chastises Samantha for showing too much skin. Samantha (un)consciously pushes the boundaries of the “NEW Middle East.” For all of the “I Am Woman” karaoke and sisterhood pep talks, none of the foursome realize that they have only been viewing the culture solely through the male gaze. Men have arranged the junkets and their outings; most of the waitstaff they encounter are men.*** It is not until the end of the film that the girls make any connection with the female side of the “NEW Middle East.” Women wearing black robes invite them into a store to avoid a brewing lynch mob of men. These “others” have created a female-only space where they have a book club and wear couture under the burkas. Fashion is no longer a superficial signifier of status; it is rebellion. Suddenly the women in the so-called repressed society (Abu Dhabi) have much in common with the women in the so-called liberated society (Manhattan.)
All the problems that the girls (and the BGFs) experience are variations of expectations crashing against traditions. By having a large part of the movie take place outside the US in a foreign country it highlights the restrictive traditions and expectations of our own culture. Women should get married, have babies, love the babies, and not have careers.
Carrie navigates personal spaces and the choice of not having children in a marriage. Stanford and Anthony negotiate a relationship where they are faithful to each other only in the 5 states that recognize gay marriage. Samantha is fighting aging, trying to keep her body young through hormones, creams, and dresses that Miley Cyrus would wear. Charlotte tries to come to terms with the fact that she is not the perfect mother who loves her children all of the time. In fact, Miranda helps her realize that that this idea of a “perfect mother” is a mirage. Worst of all (or most relevant to my life), Miranda bumps up against male chauvinism in her law firm.
Each character confronts an expectation of society, a tradition, and makes changes in her (or his) life to vanquish it. Miranda changes law firms and becomes happy at work. Big and Carrie keep an extra apartment for them and their friends to temporarily escape from their overwhelming lives. But most of the changes are mental, accepting oneself while no longer worrying so much what “society” thinks of you. This theme is explicitly spelled out in the preamble to Anthony’s wedding vows: Stanford is the only man to accept him for who he really is. Too bad it takes the rest of the 2.5 hour movie for the girls to figure it out for themselves.
And if you don’t agree with my analysis, please read this review of SATC2 as science fiction story of “four damned immortals, condemned to live in a couture-drunk fugue state by a extradimensional puppet master (who may or may not be New York City itself).” I so love multiple interpretations!
Lastly, I wrote this review while watching a 1998 adaption of Vanity Fair, a satirical novel by William Makepeace Thackeray that lampoons his contemporary decadent and superficial society, London in the 1810s. Becky Sharp is a “heartless mother” and a “faithless wife” who uses her sexuality and intellect to rise way above her station. Both of these unlikeable heroines challenge their society’s traditions; we must have improved some since Becky Sharp is punished while Carrie Bradshaw is celebrated.****
* Unsanctioned cheating is normal, or at least not unexpected. In the first movie, Miranda’s husband had cheated on her.
** I’ve wanted to go to Abu Dhabi since I was a child. Some friends across the alley lived there for two years. They actually filmd SATC2 in Morocco; I want to go there too.
*** Exception that may prove the rule: the flight attendants on the airplanes were all female.
**** Weak ending, I know. Means I need another cosmo, stat!