Since when is racism funny?

June 11, 2010

Sex and the City 2 is insulting in too many ways to count--but Elizabeth Schulte says there's no contest about who takes the brunt of the abuse.

OH SURE, I know what you're thinking. Do I not have anything better to do than pick on Sex and the City 2? What was I expecting, insightful political commentary? A feminist classic? Don't I realize that no one likes this movie anyway?

But there's a very important reason to pile abuse on the latest incarnation of the Sex and the City franchise: It's incredibly racist.

First, a few admissions: I wasn't much of a fan of the TV show, I don't care much about fashion, and I feel a little ripped off paying $30 for a pair of Vans. I do like comedy. I appreciated one of the common threads of the show--women are sexual beings, and they should be proud and confident about that fact.

The problem was that the characters were so self-absorbed and their lifestyles so removed from most people's that it was hard to care much about them or their sex lives.

In all fairness to the show, though, the movie is a hundred times worse. It creates a spine-chilling caricature of something that was already a caricature to begin with--replete with an endless litany of awful one-liners ("You knew when I married you I was more Coco Chanel than coq au vin") and slow-motion shots of Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and that uptight one, all wearing implausible designer clothes and shoes.

Carrie and friends vacation in Abu Dhabi in Sex and the City 2
Carrie and friends vacation in Abu Dhabi in Sex and the City 2

The hope is that the moviemakers are trying to tell us that they have a sense of humor and know this is a really, really stupid movie. A couple times, I actually thought that Sarah Jessica Parker looked right at me and the other people texting in the audience, winked, and said, "Yeah, I know this isn't funny, but I'm making a bazillion dollars off of it. At least."

But there are just so many things to hate about this movie. The scene where the two mothers of the group, Miranda and Charlotte, toast "all the women who don't have help"--while sitting in their private bar in a luxury hotel room. And the portrayal of people who don't have children, symbolized by Carrie and Big, as selfish, spoiled and living without purpose. The repeated shots of Miranda's bra-less nanny (they point it out in the movie, it's not just me) jumping and bouncing and jumping didn't help much.

And if you're a woman older than 40--or, god forbid, over 50--who thought it was okay to get older, since that is, after all, what happens...forget about it. Samantha's character is obsessed with beating aging, and has a suitcase of pills and treatments to prove that she can turn back the dreaded clock. If you like menopause jokes, this is your movie.

Review: Movies

Sex and the City 2, written and directed by Michael Patrick King, starring Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall and Kristin Davis.

But I have to say--in the contest for who are the most maligned and insulted people in this movie, it's Arabs and Muslims, hands down.

THIS FILM runs the gamut of movie racism--from the "Gee, aren't these foreigners and their foreign ways so funny and mysterious" racism of Old Tinsel Town, to the "Be very afraid, Islam is a danger to us all" of today's "war on terror"-obsessed Hollywood.

The premise of the movie is that Samantha has procured an all-expenses-paid trip for the four friends to Abu Dhabi, where a wealthy sheik wants her to promote his obscenely lavish hotel. They start the trip by being given their own white half-a-million-dollar Maybach sedan and a personal servant.

Miranda declares "Abu Dhabi do!" (I swear I'm not making this up), and they're on their way. Channeling the stupidity of an old racist Bob Hope harem movie, they get aboard camels and investigate the local customs. Here come Arab stereotypes as old as Hollywood itself--and don't forget the flying carpet reference.

Carrie marvels as a woman wearing a niqab eats French fries, and Samantha complains about having to cover up her tiny wardrobe, out of respect for the customs and beliefs of the people who live in the country she's visiting. Carrie muses about the woman in the niqab, "It's like they don't want them to have a voice."

Carrie is also surprised to learn that her personal servant waits three months--the time it takes to save up enough money--to see his wife in India. Carrie concludes from his story (again, I have to say: I kid you not) that maybe it's okay if she and her husband Big take time off from each other and live separately for two days each week. What a relief--I was worried that Carrie might be thinking about someone else's troubles for a nanosecond.

"The girls" go out on the town to a karaoke bar, complete with belly dancers, where they, in all seriousness, sing (really, really, really--I couldn't make this up) the 1970s feminist anthem "I Am Woman." Women in the audience cheer as the four belt out "I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman." And the men seem to like it, too--as they lift up their shirts and grind to the music.

It gets worse from there. Samantha meets a hunky Danish architect at the bar and makes a date. That date, of course, ends with Samantha getting arrested for indecency at the beach. She's released, but the incident forces the four to leave the country in a hurry.

And then, just when you think it's an impossibility, the movie gets even worse. The women find themselves in a local market, where Samantha--now dressed in short shorts and a halter top--is crawling on the ground to pick up the contents of her purse that spilled out after a fight with a shop owner. Menacing Arab men surround her and yell at her as she picks up rolls of condoms off the ground and brandishes them.

"The girls" are given sanctuary by some local women, who are part of a book club reading Suzanne Somers' new anti-aging book and who share with them their love of fashion, stripping off their abayas to reveal their Dior. Sisterhood is indeed powerful, as these women share the solidarity in their love of overpriced garments.

They narrowly escape, hidden beneath traditional clothing they've borrowed from the local women, but not before Carrie catches a cab by showing a little leg.

IT'S MADCAP and crazy, and we're all supposed to be laughing. But there's absolutely nothing funny about characterizing Arab men as religious zealots who corner women in the street. The makers of this movie want it both ways--they want to make fun of Islamic culture and joke about "burqinis" by the pool, and say it's just a joke, and then they want to wax introspectively about women having a "voice." It's Islamophobia wrapped in bad comedy, and also in fake feminism.

When they criticize Arab culture, they're standing on thin ice (in torturously high heels, I might add). The liberated women of Sex and the City are little better than right-winger Lynne Cheney--who demanded the war in Afghanistan because the U.S. was supposedly fighting for women's liberation. Cheney got her war, and the Sex and the City crew got to make their racist jokes, but nobody is getting liberated.

What lays beneath all of Samantha's "You can't tell me what to do" antics is just plain anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia. Maybe she should open a newspaper and read about women in France who view their right to wear the hijab as a question of religious and personal freedom and are protesting the government's ban.

Furthermore, Samantha's insistence that having sex "just like men do" and "dressing any way she wants" is the beginning and end of her freedom does a disservice to any idea of women's liberation. Sexual freedom is one aspect to women's liberation, but anyone serious about emancipation knows that it needs to embrace things like economic equality and reproductive rights.

But Samantha and her friends think that American women are already liberated in this so-called post-feminist world--since they have high-powered jobs and penthouse apartments and other women to order around in their offices and homes. Their experiences speak for a tiny minority of women.

Maybe there's a better ending to this movie, in which the Arab women in the market, or Charlotte's poor nanny for that matter, sit these four down and explain a few things to them about why there's more to life than shoes and handbags--and could you give us some of the money from that Louis Vuitton so we could buy some really sturdy picket signs?

You gals go have some cocktails. We'll throw off the chains.

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