x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sex and the City's Hallowe'en horror show of stereotypes

It seems Hollywood's exoticised depiction of Abu Dhabi will be perpetuated by the Sex and the City 2 Hallowe'en collection.

With Hallowe'en just around the corner, there is a flurry of activity as people put the final touches to their costumes. Though many will recreate familiar personas – Alice in Wonderland, the Joker from Batman, Michael Jackson – 2010 will also witness an addition geared towards women who want a new twist on the Princess Jasmine ensemble.

Billed as a "Fabby Hallowe'en" outfit, a fashion website is offering a Sex and the City 2 collection. With costume ideas and accessories inspired by the fashionable attire of each of the four sassy women of SATC2, the website gushes: "Channel the girls' exotic belly-dancer-meets-city chic with gold jewels ($112) [Dh411], a turban-style head piece ($60), and luxe, desert-resort inspired separates. Reminisce with more of the girls on Abu Dhabi vacay … I can hear the decadence calling …"

The website provoked feelings reminiscent of those I had felt when SATC2 hit the theatres. As an Abu Dhabian myself, I could hardly sit through the movie without rolling my eyes at the cultural insensitivity. I was watching outright Orientalism in one of my all-time favourite shows.

Prior to seeing the movie, I was anticipating the positive media attention that my city would receive, especially considering its aspirations to become one of the world's most sustainable cities, a "world-class" cultural hub, and a "contemporary expression of an Arab city".

I have been following the urban and place-branding efforts of Abu Dhabi as it embarks on this journey. To those unfamiliar with the term, "urban branding" entails the ways in which public and private groups work together to "sell" the image of a town or city to make it attractive to economic enterprises, tourists and even inhabitants.

Marketing plays a large role. Advertising space is purchased, brochures and pamphlets distributed, and novelty items created to stimulate further interest. Press releases and media broadcasts are used strategically to promote a favourable impression while challenging or expunging detrimental ideas. City officials, for example, can attract films and television series to shoot episodes in the city with the hope that they will draw the attention of mass audiences.

Enter Sex and the City 2. The movie may initially seem like a media stunt that propelled the city into the global spotlight. What better way to get your city on the map than to attach it to one of the more popular brands of today?

But those familiar with the region could discern early on that it was not filmed in Abu Dhabi at all; it was shot in Morocco. The truth is that Abu Dhabi had no part in this and wanted none. When the blockbuster hit the screens, distributors didn't even send it to the UAE.

Although viewers may now be able to point out Abu Dhabi on a map, they may be averse to visiting the emirate because of the film's negative depiction. Instead of showcasing its diversity, the movie plot relies on old Orientalist images of a "backwards" society. Skewed perspectives of this "exotic" desert backwater are reinforced by the movie's use of preposterous outfits, despicable Arabic, and sensationalised social issues such as labour and women's rights. Predictably, the movie ends with the fabulous foursome running for dear life to get the heck out of Abu Dhabi.

The movie certainly spurred criticism across the Arab world and beyond. Articles surfaced in the emirate with titles such as Sex and the City slammed as disrespectful and Sex and the City 2 fails to impress. A majority of bloggers and movie reviews attacked the filmmakers for their lack of authenticity. As one reviewer wrote: "Someone got paid big bucks to glamorise the Middle East, yet we saw no 'real' Middle- Easterners."

Movie producers ought to take their responsibility to heart. Fair representation should not be sacrificed for the convenience of a plot. We live in a post-modern, post-colonial world, and discourses such as Orientalism have been around for at least half a century.

Hollywood has to move away from this genie-in-a-bottle representation of the Middle East and include a little more research and context in its productions. Alas, it seems as though this exoticised image of the city will only be perpetuated as fashionable SATC-crazed girls don their new costumes for Hallowe'en. Whether a Carrie, a Miranda, a Charlotte or a Samantha, the outfits will be nothing short of the caricatures of Aladdin motifs. Candy camels as trick-or-treat props, anyone?

Alamira Reem al Ayedrous is an Emirati PhD student in city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley