Sex, the City and American Patriotism

“Why is Abu Dhabi so advanced, but so backward when it comes to sex?”
Spoken by the inimitable character of Samantha Jones, this is the dubious moral message of Sex and the City 2.  The movie has been justly disparaged for its absurd plotline, crass materialism, shallow feminism and palpable Orientalism.  But here’s a point the movie’s numerous critics have missed:  what’s really worrying about Sex and the City 2 is not its Orientalism or crass materialism, but how easily this seemingly benign bubble-gum flick ends up fighting a very macho war of global one-upmanship on the bodies of women and gay men.  Let me elaborate.

The movie is clearly inferior to the HBO series, which – within the parameters of crass materialism and shallow feminism – at least offered up some punchy writing during its seven-year run from 1998 to 2004 (in 2007, Time magazine honoured it as among the top 100 TV shows of all time).  Beyond this obvious difference in quality, however, movie and series share an interesting trait: each speaks to a uniquely American moment. If the series reflected the self-assuredness of the late 1990s, the movie is the face of post economic meltdown America – a country that’s struggling to cope with the loss of its once-unquestioned status as economic and cultural superpower.

The series, at its core, was a celebration of American strength and the ideal of individualism, albeit with a “girl power” twist that was regretfully mistaken for feminism.  The four central characters were independent women who could do anything they put their minds to; who wanted men, but didn’t seem to need them (Samantha famously rejected a lover because of the “funky” taste of his cum).

It was also a tribute to the modern, affluent American metropolis as a site of economic dynamism and self-discovery, where one could transcend the parochial ties of class and background, along with the small-mindedness of racism, ageism and homophobia. It wasn’t an accident that we knew little of the girls’ pasts and that Carrie’s favourite drink was ‘the cosmopolitan.’ The city was portrayed as an incubator of ‘progressive’ values – the kind that was thought to make America truly great, and New York City even cooler than Paris.  This wasn’t rocket science, but it was breezy, all-American oomph.

In the movie, there’s deflation all around.  Manhattan’s avant-garde chic is reduced to boxed Chinese take-out, a gloomily lit apartment and bad reality TV.  The girls are vulnerable and grasping, desperate to hold onto their depleted youth, vitality, and money.  There are multiple references to the miserable state of the economy.  One can’t help but feel sorry for these fallen icons, saddled as they are with stressful jobs, screeching children and clunky husbands (who, in one scene, haplessly gape the braless breasts of Charlotte’s Irish nanny).

It’s no wonder that when the girls finally do find relief, it is outside the city – and country – when a wealthy sheik offers Samantha a PR job in Abu Dhabi. The girls tag along as Samantha sets off on an all expenses paid trip to the “Middle East,” where Carrie anticipates “desert moons, Scheherazade, magic carpets.”

But the “new Middle East” far exceeds such standard Orientalist fare.  While there are camels, harem pants and picnics on the desert, there are also fleets of Mercedes, seven star hotels (with suites priced at $22,000 per night), and posh nightclubs populated by professional soccer players and other jetsetters.

Abu Dhabians are depicted as having a jolly good time, despite their “layers and layers of tradition.” The women, covered up though they are, have lavish, leisurely lives: they wear couture, eat French fries by the pool, and airily chat on bejewelled cell-phones.  This is no backwater, this “Abu Dhabi” (the film’s actually shot in Morocco).  In fact, in what seems to be the new global epicentre, Carrie casually bumps into ex-flame, Aidan, who’s out on a business trip.

Critics riled up about the film’s Orientalism should reconsider.  Though unwittingly, Sex and the City 2 actually challenges ethnocentric and colonial stereotypes of the world order, and the expectation that knowledge, goods and power will always flow from a (Western) centre to a (non-Western) periphery.

If anything, the film reflects the self-serving auto-Orientalism of new Arab capitalism, which markets cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi as enviable hybrids of mystical traditionalism and cutting-edge cosmopolitanism; where one can enjoy a romantic Arabian Nights lifestyle while achieving mega business success.  Not surprisingly, parts of the film roll have the feel of an ad for Emirates Airlines, and we’re also presented with a ‘purity’ that Americans apparently lack. There’s Carrie’s genteel butler, a migrant worker from India, who cherishes whatever little time he spends with his wife, and a kind-eyed shoe salesman, who returns Carrie’s misplaced passport while graciously refusing her cash reward.  An Australian financier, whom Samantha wants to bed, acknowledges that he finds the veiled sexuality of Arab women most alluring (he says so while she’s groping his crotch in public!).

In the end, the movie sets itself up for a culturally anxious question. Why should the girls return to their sagging lives in stale old Manhattan? What is America’s U.S.P.?

The answer, of course, is sex: loud, in-your-face sex, and the right of women to have it.

American cultural and moral superiority, it seems, boils down to its women’s ability to fill their purses with condoms, drop their panties in the office, and simulate oral sex at parties.  Abu Dhabi may be a paradise filled with peacocks and Lamborghinis, but it’s a “backward” land of sexually silenced women.  America may have had its butt kicked by this parvenu of globalization (symbolically, the girls are evicted from their plush hotel after Samantha’s arrest for indecent behaviour), but it’s where women run bra-less and free, wear tuxes to gay weddings, and radiantly sing Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” at karaoke bars.

Though overstated and caricatured in the movie, the message is one with tremendous appeal among American liberals and self-defined ‘social progressives.’  Director Michael Patrick King, who knows his audience, has shrewdly tried to cash in on it.  But if women’s rights and gay rights are a means of renovating America’s troubled identity, we should be very, very worried.

Don’t get me wrong. I celebrate the America of same-sex marriage and unapologetic, ageless libido.  However, turning hard-won sexual rights and gender equality into badges of national honour and smug patriotic pride is not only pitiful, it is dangerous.  Especially when one considers how easily doing so is exploited by and for power.

Colonial regimes have routinely used the “liberation of women” as a justification for imperial intervention and expansion.  Predictably, the bombing and occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine have been repeatedly legitimized along these lines.  Parts of Sex and the City 2 could believably have been scripted by a George W. Bush (in one of his more lucid moments) or a Bibi Netanyahu – an eerie quality that’s made this rather idiotic, forgettable movie stick in my mind.

MITU SENGUPTA is Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada. She may be reached at: