The latest Sex and the City film has been stirring controversy, just as Sex and the City always does. This time, the city is Abu Dhabi - the "new Middle East" according to the movie. Except that it wasn't filmed in Abu Dhabi; it was shot on location in Morocco.
The four female characters who first came onto TV screens in 1998 in the series of the same name are sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to Abu Dhabi courtesy of an "Emirati sheikh" (with a terrible Indian accent) who wants Samantha to do some PR work for his new hotel. She insists on taking her gal pals along with her to enjoy the opulence. This new luxurious futuristic bling-bling idea of the "new Middle East" (they keep repeating it ad nauseam) sits diametrically opposed to the film's other stereotype of Orientalist fairy tale characters that live in mysterious souqs, whose men can suddenly turn angry and violent and whose women are hidden away under black veils and cloaks.
Samantha is known to viewers as the independent, sexually promiscuous character of the foursome. When she hears the cabin attendant announce flight-safety measures in Arabic, she asks "I wonder what she's saying. It sounds so exotic!" She's telling you to put on your seat belt, Samantha. Get over it. And Carrie, the lead character who writes a newspaper column about sex and has a shoe obsession, describes their trip to the Middle East as "Aladdin with cocktails." Erm, Aladdin is a fairy story Carrie, it's not how people really live. Unless, of course, your travel is sponsored by Disney, which in this film it certainly appears to be. She also wonders: "what is a souq?" And this from someone who is supposedly a freelance writer for Vogue. Throw in a few references to Scheherazade and magic carpets, and by this point Hollywood has about exhausted its list of references to the Middle East.
Miranda solemnly informs her knowledgeable compatriots that to say "yes" in the Arab world, you simply need to use the words "haanh-jee". No sweetheart, that will get you far on the Indian subcontinent, but not in the Middle East. It seems that the costume designers were also confused about the difference between the continents east of the US. Carrie emerges from what is supposedly Abu Dhabi airport, having borrowed a turban from an Indian snake-charmer.
Miranda describes the face veil as the "nee-kwab", which I found rather endearing - well, at least she was trying, right? Slightly irritating is the fact that actors don't know how to wear their headscarves and veils properly, with the sheilas tightly wrapped but revealing the hairline and the face veils dipping to show half the nose, which just looks a bit peculiar. The problem is not only lazy recycling of 1940s Hollywood biopics about the Middle East; in addition, it's easy to believe that the comments the four actors make are in fact what the women might actually think in real life. And so the film is also an indictment of one kind of American attitude that has so little knowledge of the outside world that they make inane comments and have little self-awareness of how they are perceived in a totally different context. This does no favours to the four western women, who come across as ignorant, self-obsessed and lacking any dignity.
Muslims, Middle Eastern men and women should not be under the impression that they have been singled out for being turned into one-dimensional caricatures. Everyone comes off badly, especially the four female leads, who appear as ignorant, self-centred, luxury-obsessed, whiny women who don't know how to enjoy relationships and family. Ten years ago, SATC made it acceptable for women to be independent, single and interested in sex. The film leaves us with the sombre view that even the most independent of women will fall back into traditional gender roles: wanting diamond wedding rings, to be a stay-at-home mum and to take their husbands' last names as proof of ownership.
The acceptability of the ideas of independence and self-determination that SATC pioneered are no doubt aspirations of women in the Middle East and elsewhere, but this latest film tells them that in following the western feminist path it all ends up adhering to convention anyway. While independence and autonomy are important, maybe Middle Eastern women think there is a different way to achieve them than through the self-obsessed, fashion-focused, emotionally unstable way that this film displays. After all, who wants to end up bigoted and patronising, even if wrapped in designer outfits?
And we see this towards the end of the film, when two women dressed top to toe in black rescue the Fab Four, who find themselves in trouble in a souq after having angered a group of men. Yawn, yes, it's another stereotype of the "angry Muslim man" beside himself with rage at women in the souq. They are smuggled into a shop that turns out to be a front for a women's book club, and Samantha bonds with one of the niqab-wearing women over troublesome menopausal hot flashes. The Emirati women take off their abayas and veils to reveal that they are wearing the spring collection from Louis Vuitton. Suddenly, Carrie is overwhelmed with admiration, paying homage to the power of fashion to cross continents and cultures.
I imagine that the writers meant to show that the Middle Eastern women were inspired by their counterparts to throw off their veils and liberate themselves. And this subtle negativity and pseudo-imperialism is what critics have picked up on. But I thought the writers, purely by accident, managed to achieve the complete opposite with great hilarity, demonstrating that Middle Eastern women are feisty, have plenty of personality and that perhaps it's western women who have something to learn from them.
Anyone who has interacted with Middle Eastern women knows that they are extremely warm and friendly people who will bring others into their fold, as they did with the film's four heroines. And they will also know that beneath the abayas they often wear the most fabulous fashion-forward clothes. If anything, it is the four New Yorkers who become enlightened and liberated from their previous ignorance. And it is they who go on to don the abaya and niqab in order to leave the souq. Seeing them managing their abayas with dexterity - Charlotte even manages to go shopping for presents in her new outfit - was entertaining and refreshing.
In the end, the stereotypes portrayed in the film are so epically and universally one-dimensional that everyone comes off badly, turning it from dreadful rom-com social commentary into irritatingly watchable self-parody. Girls, take your best gal-pal if you're going to watch it, buy a box of popcorn and use your most sarcastic witticisms to heckle the terrible script. If you do that, you'll find that this film is so bad that you'll almost enjoy it. * The National