Monthly Archives: May 2010

Sex and the City 2: Great Expectations

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!

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Fan Fic Kerfuffle

As some of you may have heard, there was a recent eruption of authors vs. fans on the interwebs. Diana Gabaldon wrote about how she really felt about fan fic. Fan fic writers responded, most somewhat unpleasantly and others downright troll-ish.  Other authors joined in on both sides. Gabaldon wrote a measured response, and another, and then poof! took down the posts and comments.

For a good recap, check out Fan Wank’s roundup.

I’m neither a writer nor a regular reader of fan fic. I’ve never read her works, though a friend of mine had recommended the Outlander series to me just last month. I do deal with copyright and fair use on a daily basis and often curse the estates of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein who do not want anyone to appropriate their images even though those artists appropriated them from elsewhere.

And yet, I do want to respond in my little corner room on the interwebs. I know that no one will read this post, but I feel the need to shout into the universe.  Note that I will not be discussing copyrights, trademarks, IP law, or money. No, I want to talk about emotional and ownership.

Watch the writer poke the snake pit! The first post took great issue with the amount of sex in the fan fic, especially the slash fic. Tee hee. I admit that most fan fic I read is slash fic. Because it’s fun. And according to my friend as well as many commenters, her novels are full of graphic sex.

In her second post, Gabaldon said that she was shocked – shocked! – to find out that people wrote fan fic out of love. That pissed me off, partly because I believe that most fan fic writers do it because they love the story/characters/universe. Sometimes they love it so much, they come up with satisfying alternatives to lousy plotlines (yes JMS, I am talking about the last season of B5.) Really, who hasn’t played with the idea of recasting a character or having one writer take over the universe of another.

What spurred me to actually write this post, however, was reading the cached page of her third post:

Characters—good characters, “real” characters—derive their reality from the person who created them. They _are_ the person who created them, refracted through the lens of that writer’s experience, imagination, love, fear, and craft. Another writer seeking to duplicate that character might equal—or conceivably surpass–the craft; they can’t touch the essence.

When you mess with my stuff, you’re not messing with my characters—you’re messing with _me_.

Wow, she really subscribes to the idea of the lone artist genius. What bullshit. Glad to know that so many collaborative writing projects, e.g. most television shows, and collaborative universes, e.g. the Star Wars books, are doomed to fail. Authors such as Michael Moorcock who are willing to share their characters must be hacks. If only one writer in the entire history of the world can get to the essence of a character, then who has done the perfect and definitive Faust. Or Queen Elizabeth I – surely no author can touch the essence of a real, live person historical person. Balderdash.

And then she goes on about how here characters are part of her. That can be a valuable way to interpret dreams, but she identifies so much with her characters that it seems quite narcissistic, enough to warrant therapy. And it raises the hackles of my inner literary critic.

Attention all writers, artists and creators. Sharing your art with other people is scary. As much as you try, you cannot absolutely control how another person will experience, feel, or interpret your work. In fact, they might find stuff there that you were not consciously or even subconsciously aware of. You may mightily disagree with your fans and how they reference your work. As the creator, know that your intentions and interpretations are privileged, but those of your readers, watchers, listeners are also valuable. And fan fic is a valid response. Get over yourself.

I know, you’ve put a lot of yourself into your work. Once you put your creation out into the world, though, let it find its way in the world. Don’t keep it in a walled garden where only people who agree with you may visit. The more people it comes into contact with it, the more it will mature, gain insight, become beloved. Relax and enjoy how your work moves people and moves through people. This process may spark new ideas and directions for your next work. Take a deep breath and keep on, keep on creatin’.