In Which We Don’t Want To Know Where That Hookah Has Been

The four stars of Sex and the City 2 sing karaoke while wearing ludicrous outfits

Sex and the City 2 is the sort of big Lady Event that most feminist/women bloggers feel the need to talk about, and Ellen and I are no exception. Below there are spoilers, rage, and the longest Lady Bits ever!

Zoe: So I thought I would kick us off! And I am going to do that by offering my background on Sex and the City, the TV show. Which is to say, I don’t really have one. It was never my sort of thing and I saw most all (maybe all) of the first season once in college, but it didn’t really grip me. I didn’t find it terrible, but it did annoy me how people would assume that, as a lady, I must love the show, because all ladies do, right!? That attitude probably turned me into a bit of a hater, but seriously I also don’t find the show that good.

Then Ellen dragged me to Sex and the City 2 and hoo-boy!

But before we discuss the film I wanted to talk about the previews, which were all for girly girl rom coms. Like the one where Jason Bateman accidentally knocks up Jennifer Aniston! Hilarious, apparently, instead of CREEPY! Also that movie where Tom Cruise just gives up and decides to Tom Cruise around the whole time. But most of all, the movie where Josh Duhamel and Katherine Heigl really hate each other. Like, really hate. But then their friends die and SURPRISE! Baby! Which, I don’t know about you, but if we’re talking about the guardianship of MY CHILD I think I would give them to a relative or a couple or people who didn’t hate each other because I feel like they might make a good team? But what do I know? I bet Heigl and Duhamel’s friends purposefully died in a car accident just to set them up, because that us the kind of pals they are! Anyways, Surprise, Baby! is in theaters soon and maybe I will drag Ellen to it as payback.

But what about you, fellow menhattanite?

Ellen: First, I would like to apologize to Zoe for dragging her to this racist, sexist, homophobic and deeply unentertaining film. Even as it was starting, I rashly promised her that she could pick whatever she wanted for us to view the next time around, including Twilight 3: I Haven’t Even Seen The Second One Yet. Or Surprise Baby! I probably deserve it.

I missed most of the previews, but the one that really stuck out for me was the Zac Efron-starring healed-by-my-dead-baby-brother drama. Normally I like to catch every minute, but I had a feeling that these would probably not be up my alley, and I would definitely put Surprise Baby! in that category. What Zoe isn’t telling you is that one of the friends that sticks the couple in that predicament is Christina Hendricks, who is cruelly killed off in the trailer so her two friends can finally hook up. What kind of barbaric world is it when Hendricks, shown briefly as a glowing bride, has to be sacrificed? I ask you. There was also a trailer for a movie about long-distance romance between Justin Long and Drew Barrymore with an amazing Jim Gaffigan sight gag that should have been saved for the film proper.

But I digress. My Sex credentials are as follows: I have seen the entire series on DVD,  some with my sister, some with my mom. We didn’t have HBO but on breaks we all bonded over the DVDs in college; even though I haven’t felt the need to go back and rewatch any of them, I had enough fondness for the characters to get me to the first big-screen outing in 2008. I have read Candace Bushnell’s original columns in the New York Observer, and they portend an engagement with their source much savvier than the show ever presented — but thus always to TV. (I have also seen two seasons of Entourage, enough to know that it is not up to the task of being the male SATC.)

What struck me about this movie that I think made it different from previous incarnations of the franchise (ha!) was how closely the concept had always teetered towards irrelevance. Carrie’s problems, even compared to other TV characters, are flimsy: She makes a great living without working that hard, good-looking guys pursue her, and she has the classic Unrealistic New York Apartment. Still, somehow the original series and to some extent the first movie found problems that she had, that anyone could have: She struggled between the urges to settle down and keep partying. She recognized mistakes made in her youth too late to correct them. She drove good people away with bad behavior. In other words, she was a human!

Even where there are problems in Sex and the City 2: The Fertiler Crescent, they feel either manufactured for the sake of giving one of the characters something to do, or (if they resemble normal human complaints) blown totally out of proportion. Carrie’s ongoing argument with her husband — she wants to go out, he wants to stay in — is reasonable until she demands that he accompany her to a red-carpet premiere, then blows up in his face when he flirts with Penelope Cruz there. How dare he go out and act like he’s having a good time! Just like she wanted! The only remedy is to go away and be alone for two days, thinking about whyyyy is life so unfaaaaair. She had no compassion, so I had no compassion for her or, with the exception of one scene, for any of her friends. Is that just my cold, black heart talking?

Zoe: As Ellen noted, I was basically dragged to this film well…not kicking and screaming, but defiantly. And the week prior we both read more and more reviews which basically fell in one or two categories: hilarious mockery or this sucks because it’s for ladies.

And while I can get behind mockery, I cannot get behind the idea that this movie inherently sucks because it’s about ladies for ladies. I mean, do not get me wrong. This movie is terrible. It is so bad that multiple times I smacked my head in frustration. It is also eighty bajillion hours long, but with no plot, really, so it just feels like the longest episode of a TV show that you hate ever. But none of that sucking has anything to do with the fact that it stars or focuses on women and everything to do with the aforementioned racist, sexist, homophobic, boringness.

Here’s the plot, in a nutshell: a bunch of rich ladies have rich ladies problems! And everyone is entitled to their problems, but it is hard to feel sympathy when the characters problem is “my husband wants to spend time away from our main Upper East Side apartment to hang out in our second, unrented, Upper East Side Apartment. Woe!” Or when the problem is that you are aging and apparently this drives you to take your underwear off in your ENTIRELY GLASS office? And…I cannot even begin to enumerate the atrocities, so I won’t.

But anyways, these rich ladies, they get like, an hour of screen time dedicated to their problems. Including a gay wedding that made me hurt inside, because nothing infuriates me more than the “gay best friend as pet” trope. Because what’s sad is this seems like progress. Because that is how much American sucks about gay people.

Anyways, after their many rich problems are enumerated they go The Middle East! Which is always called The Middle East! And rarely the name of the country it is (the United Arab Emirates) but also The Middle East. And, as far as I can tell, someone basically looked at Said’s Orientalism and thought “man, that sounds awesome!” And then worked very hard to recreate it. And then they run into problems with the law because ladies! In The Middle East! Are treated differently! Which was supposed to be the point, I guess, except the actual point I took away is that Samantha, she is sort of an asshole?

Here is what happens: Samantha is on a date and 1) decides to fellate her hookah. Which is a terribly idea because, um, hookahs are sort of gross? Anyways, this offends a nearby muslim couple (slash most people? Because dude!) And then 2) her and her dude decide to go have sex on the beach and the dude walks away with a giant BONER that the camera lingers on. Again, the couple is offended and calls hotel security over because, um, obviously these people are about to get it on. In public.

And I guess we’re supposed to see that as a reason that The Middle East is so uptight? But, um, I am kind of not for free-for-all public sex or waggling BONERS at people. And public sex is also illegal in America? I mean, if I saw people doing it outside or if some dude waggled his BONER at me, I don’t know if I would call over the BONER POLICE like that couple did? But I don’t think they escape the bounds of good taste by doing so. But then Samantha gets “arrested” (actually detained by security) for “kissing” and it’s supposed to highlight the oppressiveness that also comes with the sweet rich people delights of The Middle East. Instead of, you know, sometimes people want to eat meals without having to look at a dudes BONER and that is a-ok!

I could go on SO MUCH MORE (and will!) but I think Ellen deserves her say.

Ellen: You forgot the scene earlier when an entire Australian soccer team jumps into the hotel pool in Speedos and the camera zooms in on not one, but several boners in series. I assume these hip-level shots are meant to delight and titillate the primarily female audience of this movie, which indicates that the director (for the record, a gay man) misunderstands what it means to operate a camera catering to the female gaze. I appreciate the effort to reverse the Mulveian direction of cinema, but I don’t think most female moviegoers want to look at boners. (See also: the failure of Playgirl.)

During the public-sex sequence and arrest in which I never truly believed anyone was in any danger, my mind drifted back to a 2008 case in which two Britons vacationing in Dubai were arrested for indecent behavior on Jumeirah Beach. The female of the pair claimed they were “just kidding and hugging.” They were eventually found guilty and sentenced to three months in prison, followed by deportation — so not death or hard labor, but still not nothing.

However, media coverage at the time largely followed the same “cultural divide” script for which you are calling out this movie. Check out this MSNBC news story about the arrest, subtitled:  “Trial has exposed cultural divide between native Muslims, foreigners.” Yes, it highlighted it a bit, but a little respect for the place you’re in goes a long way — and what they were doing would probably have gotten them arrested in London, too.

Once the foursome heads off on their free trip to Abu Dhabi, they start behaving like Ugly Americans, in the Burdick and Lederer sense of the term. We are encouraged to buy them as cosmopolitan, educated women, yet they act like they’ve never been out of the country before — falling prey to street scams, speaking loudly in English everywhere, wearing ensembles that are not only inappropriate but hideous to boot. Then they’re shocked — shocked — to find that the people who are not paid to like them don’t really like them very much. Imagine, resenting the brash and entitled tourists throwing their money around. That’s never happened before. The gag of Miranda reading all the guidebooks, quoting from them and trying to speak Arabic (albeit badly, right?) was somewhat funny, but at least she tried.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering they behaved the same way at the wedding that opens Sex and the City 2: We Can’t Take Us Anywhere. I’m not sure if Emily Post has covered this area of etiquette, but I’m guessing her empire would say it is not good manners to stand in a knot with other straight people and talk about how gay the wedding is. Every time they said “gay wedding, gay wedding” I cringed. How about just calling it a wedding? As a supporter of the right of gay and lesbian couples to get married, I want to live in a world where no one has to qualify that ceremony. It doesn’t matter that the affair is completely tacky before Liza Minnelli even hits the stage — a lot of weddings are tacky. But as you say, America sucks about gay people.

However, I agree with you that we are not condemning this movie because it stars four women. These four women possess varying levels of acting skill — Cynthia Nixon is onstage quite a lot here in New York and I hear great things — but it’s nice to see an unapologetic two-quadrant movie in which the two quadrants are the ones with ladies in them. Now we need more that aren’t a complete waste of time.

Also, do you care to address the fact that most people in this movie aren’t having sex and their storylines don’t even address that they’re having any sex, good, bad or otherwise?

Zoe: The Austalian shows were crass, but I took them more as junk shots than BONER shots. The Dutch guy (did we ever learn his name? Do I care?) was definitely sporting wood, which made it…crass, really. I mean, I am all for the liberated woman, Out of all the terrible people that populate this movie, Samantha is probably my favorite terrible person (she wore a Koopa Troopa top and that takes guts), but, and maybe this is my Midwest/British speaking: isn’t there a way to be liberated without also shoving your genitals everywhere and demanding that people love it?

The same goes, I think, for the condom scene where the muslim guys are apparently horrified to see a lady with condoms. And I think you nailed it: this is really about a bunch of brash, loud, rich, ugly Americans going around and being shocked that other places are different. And I think, given the kind of tourism the UAE tends to encourage (i.e. that exact clientèle) that their shock and horror didn’t ring true to me. I’m not saying that all muslim guys are thumbs up condoms, but I would say that they 1) at least know what they are and 2) expect Westerners to have them (and to generally be more promiscuous, etc). In fact, fun fact! Many muslim feminists (of which there are so many guys, which is why so much of this movie was painful) that that Westerner woman are sadly pretty oppressed, running around in the clothes we do. It’s a classic second wave v. third wave battle, to some extent, and it’s interesting and culturally relevant and…not reflected in this film. Not that I expected it to be.

And I say the above not just speaking as someone with a desire to villify ‘Mericans, but as someone who lived in Cairo. Which, by no means makes me a Middle Easterner expert but I can tell you, that when you walk around the Westernized areas of town, people aren’t even scandalized by bare shoulders. It’s pretty much expected and, well, sort of seen as a mark of how brash and rude tourists can be. It’s not gold starred, but it’s not like people have never seen/heard/imagined it before. Which is to say: there are condoms in the Middle East. Really. Samantha throwing around condoms in the market is like if Samantha threw around condoms at the Vatican (oh, and Italy also has restrictive dress codes for ladies in churches). It’s not that people would be offended by their existence, but by how culturally tone deaf someone was being.

Which brings me nicely to your Arabic question! Yes, the Arabic in this movie was terrible, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. The biggest mistake is that Miranda says that “hanji” is Arabic for “yes” which…it’s not. So that was weird. The rest of her Arabic was technically correct, but pronounced very poorly. Which, I can’t tell if that’s because they were being accurate or just didn’t care, but it was grating. Like hearing someone mispronounce “burrito” as “barr-ito” for an entire movie. That said, many critics have noted how offensive their portrayal of Abu Dhabi is, noting that at one point Miranda goes off and says “la la la la”. Reviewers took this to mean that she was just saying stuff that sounded like Arabic, but no, “la” is actually the Arabic word for no. I mean, the rest was awful, but it turns out reviewers aren’t always right.

Along the same lines, there is a scene where Miranda and Charlotte talk about being mothers and how hard it is and end it with a toast to moms who (unlike them) don’t have help in the form of full-time nannies. Critics hated this scene and found the toast particularly cloying, but I think it’s the only scene in the movie I genuinely liked. Among other things, it was the only time in the movie I felt like two characters were conversing with each other, rather than talking at each other with terrible dialogue (which was the rest of the film). It’s a style of cinema I particularly dislike and it’s why I don’t really enjoy Woody Allen or the Marx Brothers (though they both have far, far, far superior dialogue). It was nice to see that done away with for a “real” moment and I found the toast nice, a recognition of the fact that no matter how hard they have it, others have it even harder.

I guess I would have expected more sex talk, as that is the nature of the show. And I would have expected it to be on par with what I have seen, rather than the kind of sex talk us ladies really have. I sort of liked that the conflicts weren’t “oh my god, our sex life is terrible” as that’s rather done with, but it also would have been nice if the problems, uh, actually seemed like problems.

And now I will nudge you to address the karaoke scene. Because if there’s a critical niche we have, it’s not liking singing and or dancing scenes in movies. Apparently.

Ellen: But I really like singing and dancing in movies! In musicals, for instance, or when it adds something to the narrative that isn’t already there. This performance — in which the four women sing “I Am Woman” in a UAE karaoke bar — didn’t particularly move me, nor did it make me cringe as much as I had expected, but it was pretty pointless. It followed the filmic convention of naturally having everyone else in the room recognize the song and sing along in ways that don’t interrupt the performance (which constantly happens at karaoke bars, a product of people who like attention being closely held in the same room). And of course, the women know the song and don’t even seem to need the lyrics.

More importantly, though, it seemed like the director really wanted this to be an emotional high note or some symbol of friendship and triumph. I didn’t feel that. It’s oddly placed in the movie, which also gave me false hope that it was close to being over (LOL), and exactly what were they triumphing over? That they survived their 13-hour flight in ridiculous first class (tangent: Why would a sheik’s private plane have an open bar in it? Speaking of cultural convention…) and their day trip to the desert with four butlers carrying all their stuff?

And if that’s what he was going for, maybe he should have picked a different anthem. Way at the beginning of the movie, we see Carrie arriving in New York in 1986, so let’s say she was between 18 and 22 at the time — then she would have been between 4 and 8 when “I Am Woman” came out. She might have heard and liked it, but it’s hard to believe she would have adopted it as ‘her’ song so strongly as to remember it 38 years later. It felt very retro, and there have been other songs that have come out since then that could serve as feminist anthems, right?! (I think we just hit on a topic for our next column?)

Just to prove I’m not a total hater, one film that gets both a dancing sequence and karaoke right was last year’s (500) Days of Summer. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s version of “Here Comes Your Man” will stay with me forever, as will his jaunty postcoital walk through L.A. I didn’t love that movie as much as a lot of other people I know, but at least I enjoyed those parts.

I appreciate that you called out the Miranda-Charlotte scene in which they admit to each other that being a mother is hard, that they feel like they’re failing and that no one understands that. One thing I noticed and appreciated was that even though Miranda was a working mom, for the most part (that is until quitting her job after 5 minutes of plot in this movie), while Charlotte stayed home, they did not divide along the ‘mommy wars’ lines I would have expected them to. I could go on for a long time here about the false image of the ‘mommy wars’ and how it exclusively applies to a small core of upper-middle and upper-class married (mostly) white women who have the option to stay home and can actually choose that instead of having it choose them. But I liked that they were both able to unite over that experience, which they shared (and not Samantha or Carrie). In that moment, it felt like old “Sex and the City,” in which problems were worked out over dinner or drinks and not resolved offscreen. Maybe this movie should have been talkier in this sense and not in the bad-one-liners sense. Seriously, interfriendtion?

On that note I’d like to sidestep and mention a conversation I had about this movie at work. I was complaining about how bad this movie was when one of my coworkers said something to the effect of, “Isn’t it interesting how everyone expected this movie to be more serious, instead of the light entertainment it was clearly going to be.” Are we being too hard on this movie, though? I don’t think so. I wasn’t expecting Hannah and her Sisters (suck it Zoe, I LOVE Woody Allen), but I think I can reasonably expect my light summer popcorn flick to be funny, well-paced and maybe a little moving. When I started reading bad reviews of Sex and the City 2: It’s Like The Crusades, I lowered my expectations even further, but at some point I have to bottom out. I’m not a professional critic, so no one would have made me see this movie; I was actually interested in it, so I feel my disappointment is warranted.

Zoe: Yeah the song scene, especially because everyone, from all over the world, seemed to know and appreciate the lyrics to “I Am Woman” even though, um, you and I did not know that song at all. I guess maybe, as young ladies, we are outside of the target demographic of this movie, but as you so rightly point out, so are the main characters. It’s sort of a bizarre set piece, a clear emotional high that would have been better done after the arrest? Or when their problems (so to speak) were solved? If only it had been the climax. I would have banged my head less.

But you bring us to another point that I found odd: the way Carrie met all her gal pals. As described in the beginning of the movie, Carrie moves to NYC at the age of 18-22 (and immediately starts living on the Upper East Side, I guess?). She makes friends with Charlotte on the subway, Miranda because she’s crying at the store Carrie works at, and Samantha because she’s the bartender at CBGB’s. Each one of those ways to make friends? is totally unrealistic, in my view. Well, no. Making friends with your bartender is totally realistic. And a requirement of being a regular. But it seems off that Samantha, who’s roughly ten years older than the rest of them, would still be working at a bar at the age of 32? But, in the intermittent 24 years becomes a powerful PR person? That’s a career jump that has surely happened to some people, but it does seem rare.

More importantly, though: you never make friends with people on the subway. It just. Doesn’t. Happen. You may talk to them. You may mutually roll your eyes at the weird person or laugh at something funny together. But subways are a weird public space, where you can converse, but everyone seems to agree silence is best. And even if you forge a bond, there’s hardly time to exchange numbers unless you’re getting off at the same stop. Ditto meeting someone because they are crying in the changing room. Unless Carrie is a kinder, better person than this movie portrays, she’s not exactly the time to reach out and form a life-long bond with someone who’s disrupting her job. It’s not totally implausible, but it’s definitely….off.

And the above may seem really nitpicky. It is really nitpicky. But the fact is, the movie is not so interesting that these nits didn’t immediately jump out at me, ready to be picked! And, even though I was somewhat of an anti-fan, I was expecting a boring, but serviceable movie. It’d lull at times, and be homophobic/racist/classist/etc, but at least there would be a plot? But instead it was a bunch of things thrown at the screen, almost at random, to lord riches over the audience or to Teach Us A Lesson About Foreigners or to dull us with some vague subtext of a romantic plot. Because we haven’t even touched the Aiden thing! Which was, for me, essentially: which dull guy will Carrie be dulling around with in this scene? And then she gets rewarded for making out with Aiden (spoiler!) with a big honking diamond. A plot about Carrie thinking about cheating on Big would have been dull and trite, but lord, at least it would have been something.

I guess my major point is, beyond all the truly offensive and just wrong elements of the film that make me dislike it, what annoys me is how it failed at even the very minimal goal of bad movies: to entertain. I can, and have, watched and enjoyed the National Treasures, because even though those films have many of the same issuesSATC2 does, at least it’s fun to watch. I don’t feel like that’s asking too much of my movies. And while I hate to add to the critical pile-on of this film, because of a good chunk of it engages in slut-shaming or woman-shaming or just straight up misogyny, the fact is this film was not a good film. It wasn’t even a good bad film. And I wish I had seen Just Wright instead.

Ellen: I mean, Zoe, you and I met through Internets, so I don’t know if that is more or less random than the subway. I think it plays well into the show’s vision of New York, and is more interesting than the ways that most people make friends here, either through their other friends or roommates or through work. Maybe Carrie used to be kinder when she was younger, before she developed her sparkly tan shell.

You would understand Aiden better if you had seen him in the series. (Capsule summary: Carrie and Aiden dated for years, even got engaged, before she decided she couldn’t marry him and cheated on him with Mr. Big, who she eventually married. Most women who watch the series prefer one of these men over the other.) I realize their chance meeting was supposed to provide Temptation! and a callback to the series, and for that I didn’t mind it — except it was obvious that she was going to do something she would be ashamed of when she decided to go to dinner with him. News flash, some women can go to dinner with their exes and not feel compelled to revisit that relationship. Pity the man who leaves this movie convinced that every time his ladyfriend meets up with someone she once dated, or was once interested in, that Sexytimes are imminent.

And then for Big to slap a giant patriarchal shackle on her, oh sorry, a large expensive piece of jewelry… that was the point at which I officially gave up on Sex and the City, the concept. It probably should have happened sooner, but there is nothing romantic about a “Don’t ever cheat on me again” present. I realize I’m probably quoting from an abstinence-only middle-school curriculum when I say this, but fidelity should not be purchased.

To sum up this movie I can only repeat my disappointment, as a person who you would think would be the target audience for this film. I may go back and watch episodes of the show someday, even the first movie, but not this one. Also, Cosmopolitans are kind of horrifying as a regular drink. I just needed to get that out there.