[SPOILER ALERT! This critique includes revealing plot points and quotes from the film.]
I had avoided the trailers for months, not wanting to taint my mind with the slightest hint of a spoiler. My sister, with whom I’ve savored many an SATC marathon, drove 6 hours to ensure we could view the release together. On the big night, Alicia Keys filled the theater with “Empire State of Mind,” breathtaking shots of my beloved Manhattan filled the screen, and I got goosebumps of anticipation as Carrie began her commentary. I didn’t know what to expect.
Weeks after viewing the film, I’m still not sure how to react.
Because I had avoided all reviews of the movie pre-release, I had been blissfully unaware of rumors it was politically incorrect and borderline racist. I later learned that Hollywood Reporter writer Stephen Farber was the first to write, “The rather scathing portrayal of Muslim society no doubt will stir controversy… ‘SATC 2’ is at once proudly feminist and blatantly anti-Muslim…” And New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein wrote: “The thinking behind the movie (written and directed by Michael Patrick King) is undisguised… weâ€™ll send the girls to Abu Dhabi so they can rile up the fundamentalists with their sexuality!” Oh, it was bound to be a disaster.
Comments on everything from burqinis to belly dancers deviated from the show’s Manhattan-based style, so the viewing experience was almost surreal. My least favorite part was Samantha’s cheap, lurid scene amidst appalled Arab onlookers (complete with crude pelvic thrusts and cries of “Bite me!”). However, the most memorable moment for me was when Carrie mentions that niqab “freaks me out” because it’s as if the woman wearing it doesn’t “have a voice.” Watching that part, my sister’s face fell. “I don’t like that they made her say that,” she whispered to me. At that point, the series was indelibly marred in my heart.
After the release, muslimahmediawatch.org posted a discussion between four Muslim women reacting to the movie. “Rather than realizing that they were guests in a country that has different rules from their own, the fearsome foursome acted like Abu Dhabi was a sandbox at the playground where they could play ‘Arabian Nights’ themed-dress up,” one girl writes. The four reviewers comment heavily on Samantha’s tacky display at the movie’s end, saying that it “seems intent on portraying American women as sluts who are proud of their promiscuity, and the Middle East as anti-sex and anti-women-having-sex. Of course neither is true, but watching this movie affirms every stereotype you have ever heard about the U.S. and The Middle East.”
Some Muslims are also disappointed in the film’s neglect to explore disturbing Middle Eastern truths: Gaurau, Carrie’s manservant at the hotel, is a potentially abused migrant worker, and the belly dancers in the nightclub could be trafficked sex workers. While these issues certainly deserve to be addressed, this film shows the Middle East through Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte’s eyes. Other than Miranda (who makes a valiant effort to respect Islamic culture throughout the movie), the characters have never given us reason to take their political or intellectual opinions seriously. So the movie’s failure to address important real-life issues that plague Abu Dhabi doesn’t surprise me.
In the scope of the show, the characters rarely attempted to understand cultures or religions other than their own. Perhaps that’s why the filmmakers didn’t go out of their way to portray more than a collection of cliche stereotypes. It sounds like an excuse, but it’s true: No one watched Sex and the City for accurate representations of lifestyle or culture, including that of the Upper East Side Manhattan dweller. I know New Yorkers who harbor mixed feelings about the materialistic, glitz-and-glamour reputation that the series stirred for NYC. So could we really expect a foreign culture to be portrayed accurately in this film?
Redeeming plot points
East meets West: Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha befriend a group of burqa-clad women at the movie’s conclusion. The women reveal stunning Western fashions under their burqas and then invite the SATC women to a discussion of Samantha’s favorite book. Some reviewers complain that the Muslimahs are deemed “normal” when they reveal their Western-based clothing and reading interests. On the contrary, this says more of the SATC barometer: As the characters value what is pretty, expensive or highly relatable to themselves, this scene portrays genuine acceptance and admiration.
A few good men: The women get along well with their polite Muslim butlers in Abu Dhabi. Gaurau, Carrie’s personal manservant, is portrayed as a gentle and courteous man who loves his wife.
Lost and found: When Carrie loses her passport, a kind old Muslim vendor safeguards it for her. When he returns it, she exclaims, “thank Allah!” Spoken in our current political climate by one of the most controversial and well-loved screen characters of our time, that line is monumental.
Silence is golden: It’s been ages since I’ve seen an American-made movie in which Muslims abound, yet there is no mention of terrorism. Yes, it is sad to spend half a movie praying that violence won’t creep into the plot. But in a time when the media often sees “Muslim” as synonymous with “terrorist,” the absence of such darkness is a distinct step forward.
Offensive? Yes. Anti-Muslim? No. When inspected closely, the film is actually an inarticulate attempt to advocate women’s rights. The main characters don’t target the Arab women themselves; they attack the conservative lifestyle, because they assume it is forced on Muslim women by Muslim men. While Arab women are portrayed as sophisticated, graceful and friendly, the civilian men are often angry, irritable or controlling. In Samantha’s controversial scene, she yells at the Middle Eastern men and gives them the finger. But when confronted by mysterious women in burqas, she smiles and quickly finds common ground. Carrie even admires one girl’s embroidered hijab and receives a compliment on her necklace in return.
As the movie insults what it considers to be a male-inflicted lifestyle, it inadvertently offends faithful Muslimah viewers. Variety critic Brian Lowry described this as “some not-very-convincing rumination on the treatment of Muslim women… that seems more condescending than stirring.” The plot fails to acknowledge that many women wearing hijab, niqab and/ or burqa do so as a proud statement of their religious faith. The anti-oppression message was most likely misconstrued because Islam is yet to be understood by the filmmakers and by Western society.
So how can Muslim fans nurse their wounds? An online Palestinian forum (PalestineNote.com) suggests, “…rather then label Sex and the City ‘anti-Muslim,’ maybe audiences should consider the film’s offending portrayal of Arabs and Muslims as an immature understanding of the Middle East. And just as Mr. Big vows to help Carrie better understand marriage, perhaps Muslims and Arabs should help the West better appreciate a part of the world greatly romanticized and little understood.” I agree. As a girl who can love the series while abstaining from pre-marital sex, I understand dichotomy and the satisfaction that comes from respecting it. The emotional sting will recede as we Muslims continue to educate the world about our choices and beliefs. â€”MARIAM KAMAL
Reviews cited in this article:
Hollywood Reporter (Stephen Farber)
New York Magazine (David Edelstein)
www.muslimahmediawatch.org (Fatemeh Fakhraie)
Variety (Brian Lowry)
www.palestinenote.com (Sarah Harlan)
N.B.: If your misgivings about the recent SATC film go beyond its portrayal of Islam, that’s a whole other can of worms! One astutely written opinion on the movie’s inconsistency with the series can be found here: The Death of Sex and the City (Hadley Freeman for The Guardian).
To view more movie stills and for additional information on the film, visit www.sexandthecitymovie.com.