Thursday, June 24, 2010

Sex and The City 2: An Insider's Take.



I am a HUGE Sex and the City (SATC) fan.

I lived and breathed that series for years. Not so much for the labels and the shoes (I can't be bothered with expensive stuff like that; would rather buy 100 pairs of $12 shoes and wear each of them one time before they fall apart), but because of the honesty. I loved the honesty of the relationships between the women, and the honesty of the relationships between the women and the men. I mean, who among us can say that she never let her heart be broken again and again and again by a Mr. Big? And who among us didn't look to an Aidan to kiss it and make the hurt go away?

So when I finally saw SATC2, after what felt like an eternity of waiting (the movie has been *banned* here in the UAE, despite the fact that it is supposed to take place here) (it was actually filmed in Morocco), my first impression was that, even with its occasionally amateurish script and somewhat unsatisfying plot, it lived up to its legacy and was... *honest*. About the UAE. From the viewpoint of a first-time American visitor.

Now, if you've read any of the reviews, you'll know that the movie was panned not only for its content (which I didn't think was *that* bad... but then again, maybe I was just SO relieved to see my four favorite fictional girls again), but for its portrayal of Muslims. I saw the film described on more than one occasion as "offensive" and, in one instance, guilty of "lampooning" the Arab people.

Part of me thinks that this was just a knee-jerk reaction by a bunch of movie reviewers who have never even *been* to this part of the world, and don't really know anything about Muslim culture, all just mindlessly pushing and shoving to be the first in line to show how PC and forward-thinking *they* are.

And yes, there *were* moments that Michael Patrick King did go too far. Among them:

1) The four women singing "I Am Woman" at the karaoke bar. I thought this was the low point of the movie, not only because it squandered the opportunity to create a truly memorable, fun moment (my husband suggested that, if the objective was to make a statement about women, they would have been better off with something upbeat like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun")... and not just because it's a song that people of my generation don't even know... but because it was way, way too obvious in its agenda. I mean, have you ever looked at the lyrics of that song before? (Let me guess: you haven't.) Well here they are:

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can do anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

You can bend but never break me
'Cause it only serves to make me
More determined to achieve my final goal
And I come back even stronger
Not a novice any longer
'Cause you've deepened the conviction in my soul

Oh, yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can face anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

I am woman watch me grow
See me standing toe to toe
As I spread my lovin' arms across the land
But I'm still an embryo
With a long, long way to go
Until I make my brother understand

Oh, yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to
I can face anything
I am strong (strong)
I am invincible (invincible)
I am woman

I am woman
I am invincible
I am strong
I am woman

We get it, uber-writer-director-producer Michael Patrick King (hereafter, MPK). You think the women of the Middle East are oppressed. They need to roar more. To be more strong and invincible. We get it. But hitting us over the head with it is beneath you.

2) The use of the abayas and the face veils as a comedic disguise for the four women on the run. Now I get that it was right there, and a hard punchline to resist... but maybe it should have been resisted anyway. Because those garments aren't a fashion statement (or lack thereof); they are pieces of clothing ostensibly worn in response to what Muslims believe is a directive from God. So to have Carrie, et al., goofing off behind veils is probably a little disrespectful.

and, last but of course not least...

3) The Samantha meltdown in the marketplace, which culminates in her thrusting her hips wildly at the agitated robed men who surround her and screaming, "Yes! I HAVE SEX!" Now here, too, you certainly get what MPK was going for-- a loud and clear message that women should be free to express themselves sexually, and that any society that prohibits women from doing so is (a) oppressive; (b) unenlightened; and (c) a fair target of ridicule.

But again, what MPK lost sight of with his script is that the Muslim prohibition on extra-marital sex is (I believe) a religious mandate. In other words, it's not some passing social convention; rather, it is an enduring religious principle that has, I assume, some express foundation in religious scripture. So to have Samantha make a scene like this is kind of like having her show up at a Hasidic Jewish household and run around pulling off all the women's wigs (if people even do this anymore, I have no idea) and telling them how much they are missing out on, while brushing her long, luxurious hair.

So okay, we can all agree that there was some religious insensitivity on display here.

However.

It is an insensitivity that is not wholly unfounded. If I can be so bold.

Rather, I think that, even in it's most cringe-worthy moments, the movie rather accurately reflects the (yes, sometimes-politically-incorrect) first impressions of a first-time American visitor to the UAE.

In truth, I didn't actually pick up on a lot of the "offensive" parts until I watched the movie a *second* time. The *first* time I saw it, I was too busy giggling at how similar *my* first impressions were during *my* first week here in the UAE.

Just like Carrie and co., I, too...

... was tickled by the Arabic script on the Pringles can;

... was grateful not to have a conspicuously Jewish last name;

... was fascinated by the abundant rhinestone embellishment sparkling on many a covered woman's veil and cuff hem;

... marveled at the process by which fully-veiled women have to painstakingly lift the veil for every bite of food; and

... chuckled at the concept of a "birkini" bathing suit.

Is this "insensitive"? Does it make me "intolerant"? Were these first impressions of mine "offensive" to Muslim people?

I hope not, and I don't think so. Rather, these first impressions were simply a product of my admitted ignorance of Arab culture, and a function of the vast cultural divide that currently exists between many Judeo-Christian Americans and the native Muslim population.

I mean, honestly, I am TRYING, every day that I live here, to silence the little voice inside of me that still gasps on the rare occasion that I see a woman who has her *entire* body cloaked in black-- not even those slits for the eyes-- just a solid black shroud walking through the mall. (She can see, I believe, through the thinner material over her face.) I try to tell myself that it is probably her CHOICE to dress this way (at least, that's what the official representative of the Center for Cultural Understanding told me), and that she probably is doing so out of a spiritual obligation to God.

But you must believe me, silencing this little voice is VERY hard. Perhaps it's just because, in America, I had never seen anything like this before... and because I was conditioned by my university women's studies classes to have a reflex-like aversion to any social classifications of people merely on the basis of their biological sex.

It is also very hard not to feel about the veils the same way that Carrie did when she likened them to the caricature with the tape over its mouth; it is *hard* not to think of those veils as a means of silencing women and trying to make them invisible. Now I *know* that the covered women don't *feel* that they are being silenced (again, this is what I've been told)... but it's hard. It's hard to see a woman whose mouth is covered by a veil, and still believe that she is free to speak.

But I am trying to see it that way. I am trying to accept unfamiliar religious traditions without applying my own Western judgments to them. We all need to try. We all need to make the effort to learn about the things we don't know, and don't yet understand.

That doesn't make those first impressions any less valid, though.

So I guess what I'm saying is that MPK wasn't wrong to have the SATC girls react the way they did when they first encountered the UAE culture: I consider myself a pretty open-minded person, and I felt much the same way when I first arrived. Perhaps his mistake was setting the movie here in the first place. Being schooled in a grand political statement on the status of Middle Eastern women, and the degree to which they need to start roaring, wasn't really what the SATC audience was coming out for. We came to see our old friends, and laugh with them, and cry with them, and leave the theater feeling warm and fuzzy and in the mood for a Cosmo.

In other words-- We love you, MPK. But next time leave the heavy-handed political commentary to someone who *doesn't* have Samantha Jones to account for. :)

2 comments:

Mama said...

These were pretty much my thoughts exactly, except that I have never been to the UAE but feel like I have some impressions just from your experiences. I am glad you felt that it wasn't as horrible as critics have made it out to be either. I too reveled just in seeing my old "friends." Glib quips and all.

nina said...

Everybody needs to lighten up - I'm admittedly not a religious person, so I definitely don't understand why we must treat others' religious dogma like a mandate that we must all follow. I can respect others' right to practice their faith and whatever their interpretation is of their scripture; but these days, it feels like we're demanded to do more than just respect others' practice - we're demanded to follow their rules (e.g., South Park coming under fire for depicting a certain someone). To draw a direct analogy: How many times have we seen movies depicting a criminal dressed as a nun as part of the "get away" scene? Too many to count. But you never hear those movies panned as "intolerant" or "ignorant" of Catholics. So, I say, we should resist the passive-aggressive attempts at censorship!