This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.
Honestly? It would have been a lot easier to write the Marxist/ anti-capitalist review of “Sex and the City 2” than the sex review. And I’m not even a Marxist. There is a bizarre dearth of sex in “Sex and the City 2″… and there is a lavish parade of repulsive, garish, bloated consumerist excess in the movie, on a level that could persuade the most ardent free-market advocate to storm the Palace and depose the Tsar. It would have been a lot easier to write up this movie for The Nation than for Carnal Nation.
But here I am at Carnal Nation. And there’s certainly enough sexual content in “Sex and the City 2” to justify reviewing it here. That is, if there’s enough content in it of any kind to justify reviewing it anywhere. Or if “content” is even the right word for this vapid, glib, tedious mess.
The “story”: Four characters from a television show — Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte, and Carrie Bradshaw, a woman who has now soared to the top of my “most loathsome fictional characters” list, just a notch or two below Yahweh — attend an extravagant gay wedding, in shameless pandering to the fantasies of the show’s gay male fans; travel to Abu Dhabi on an extravagant all-expenses-paid junket, in shameless pandering to the luxury lifestyle fantasies of their recession-stricken audience; and experience serious life crises that get neatly resolved in fifteen minutes or less.
The thing is almost entirely incoherent. Which makes it tricky to analyze. It’s hard to unpack the viewpoint of a movie when it has the attention span of a butterfly on meth and can’t keep its view focused on one point for more than three seconds. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this incoherence itself — including the sexual incoherence — is, in fact, the crucial point.
See, here’s the maddening thing. When it comes to the sexual “content” of “Sex and the City 2,” there are, believe it or not, a few germs of good ideas in there. There’s a germ about how straight men who get hit on by gay men don’t have to see it as threatening their sexuality — they can see it as a compliment that confirms it. There’s a germ about older women maintaining a proud libido, a confidence in their desirability, and an active sex life — in defiance of a society that keeps delicately suggesting that they give it a rest already. There’s an important germ that comes up more than once: a message about how relationships don’t have to be “one size fits all,” and how every couple gets to make arrangements that work for them. There’s even a gesture towards acknowledging the validity of non-monogamy. (Although I desperately wish to Loki and all the gods in Valhalla that they hadn’t described it as “I’m allowed to cheat.” “Cheating” means “breaking your agreements about monogamy.” If it’s mutually agreed-upon non-monogamy, it isn’t cheating. How hard is that to get right?)
So there are germs. There are what appear to be sincere gestures toward woman-positive sexual revolution. But the thing is such an incoherent, sprawling mess that these germs of good ideas never go anywhere. The “structure” of the movie — a series of barely-connected vignettes, in which complex life problems get glibly resolved as soon as they’re presented, quickly replaced with either another rapid-fire “serious problem/glib solution” story arc or a garish infomercial for the lifestyles of the rich and useless — completely belittles the germs of good ideas.
The serious problems in “Sex and the City 2” don’t just get resolved in dismissive and offhand ways. They often get resolved in ways that completely bypass the problems instead of addressing them. (Spoiler alert — that is, if you were still planning to see this movie after reading this review.) Samantha’s “My libido is a central part of my identity, but it’s waning as I get older” problem gets resolved, not by redefining either self or sexuality, but by her libido magically zooming back when the right guy appears on the horizon. Charlotte’s “I’m worried that my husband is going to screw our nanny” problem gets resolved, not by recognizing that you have to trust your spouse even when they’re around someone hot, but by the nanny turning out to be a lesbian. Etc.
And when the problems do get handled head-on, the solutions are often so shallow and thoughtless as to be actually insulting. My favorite example of this — if by “favorite” you mean “most inducing of both rage and physical illness” — was the climactic scene at the end. (Super spoiler alert!) Carrie meets her old boyfriend Aidan in Abu Dhabi, and kisses him. Her husband, Mr. Big, is (understandably) upset about this. So the problem gets resolved (within about fifteen minutes of it being presented, as is typical in this movie) when she kneels in front of him on a footstool like an over-indulged child who’s been naughty, while he gives her a diamond engagement ring she’d specifically said she hadn’t wanted, and instructs her to repeat marriage vows he’s written for her. Ew. Just — ew. As part of a consensual kinky sex scene, if she’d knelt in front of him and he’d slapped her face and shoved his cock down her throat and ordered her to say “Thank you”? My feminist ideals would have been completely okay with that. As a real-world resolution to a serious problem in a contemporary marriage? It made me want to take a shower. One of those industrial waste accident/ Karen Silkwood showers.
More to the point, the germs of good ideas are completely contradicted — plowed under, more accurately — by the lavish parade of repulsive, garish, bloated consumerist excess (I knew I’d get the lefty pinko rant back in here somehow!), in which human relationships get reified into consumer goods and services, and sex itself gets treated as a commodity and a status symbol.
The best example of this? The movie’s attitudes towards gender and sex in the Middle East.
For some weird reason, much of the movie takes place in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. (There’s about as much City in “Sex and the City 2” as there is Sex — which is to say, not a whole freaking lot.) In fact, much of the movie is taken up with what amounts to an infomercial from the Abu Dhabi Tourist Board, with extensive (read: mind-numbingly tedious) visual lingering over beautiful and luxurious hotel rooms, fixtures, furnishings, services, pools, meals, bars, cocktails, clothes… and men.
And much of the movie’s sexual “content” consists of shocked disapproval at the Middle East’s backwards and draconian repression of sex — in particular, of femaleness and female sexuality.
Now, I’m not an expert on the Middle East. Very far from it. I don’t know enough about Abu Dhabi in particular or the Middle East in general to know what exactly the movie got wrong or right about it. (I would actually love to see this movie taken apart by a serious scholar or journalist of the Middle East. If anyone’s seen a review like that, please drop me a note.)
But I do know this.
There is a freakish disconnect — a cognitive dissonance bordering on the deranged — between the characters’ (and the movie’s) scolding attitude towards sex and gender politics in Abu Dhabi… and their eagerness to luxuriate in the city’s self-conscious, pre- packaged exotica. An eagerness that’s somehow both sycophantically adoring and smugly entitled. It’s apparently never occurred to them — to the characters, or to the movie’s writers and producers — that perhaps, just perhaps, there might be a connection between the treatment of women as property, the simultaneous coveting and terror of female sexuality… and their own luxuriant indulgence in the Arabian Nights fantasy.
They want to wallow in this fantasy, a plastic, carefully packaged fantasy of the exotic Middle East… and ignore the ways that the degradation of women is part and parcel of that fantasy. They want to be treated as fully human liberated women… and still treat other people and human relationships as commodoties and status symbols. They want to have their cake — their garish, over-designed, obscenely luxurious cake, served to them poolside by achingly beautiful and courteously servile men — and eat it too.
They make me physically ill. They’re taking everything that’s good about the feminist rewriting of the sexual rules, and are burying it in a pit of garbage. They’re taking the idea of sensuality as a source of deep pleasure and human connection, and are mutating it into a luxury item/ status symbol, to be acquired and consumed. (I don’t think it’s accidental that the focus of the franchise has shifted from exploring sex and relationships, however vapidly, to drooling over expensive consumer products.) They’re fictional characters, for fuck’s sake… and they still make me want to start a class war, right this minute, against the bloated, useless, mindlessly entitled, obscenely rich monstrocracy.
Come on. Palace. Tsar. Anyone with me?