Sex in the City, But Lost in the Desert: Sex and the City 2

This piece was originally published on CarnalNation.

Sex and the city 2 poster
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.

Sex and the city 2 carrie aidan
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?

Sex in the City, But Lost in the Desert: Sex and the City 2
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12 thoughts on “Sex in the City, But Lost in the Desert: Sex and the City 2

  1. 4

    I’m a new fan.
    I don’t really watch TV, and not many movies. Its this kind of glorification of excess and horribly silly relationships, that tend to have me yelling and throwing things at the screen, in a manner that is quite inappropriate giving the cost of the screen. (and its not the screen’s fault, it could be playing something smart another day… One can hope.)

  2. 5

    Oh! I had a …(mumph, mumble)…guillotine…(munya, munya)…somewhere…back here in the… (mumble, mumph)…closet…hey, there’s my other Jimmy Choo, I wondered where that went… Be right there!

  3. DA

    What an awesome review, thanks.
    One thing I might disagree with though…Any equivalency between the fucked up gender politics of the middle east and those of the upper east side as seen by middle America. It’s like comparing rocks and oranges. Even the most liberal, progressive parts of the Arab world(probably the urban areas of Lebanon or Egypt would qualify) makes the Promise Keepers look like NOW.
    My favorite part of the review; “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.”
    To “Orthodox”;
    Have you actually READ anything here? If not, spamming for your death cult on atheist blogs is incredbly rude. Also, since the Orthodox church considers itslf the only true religion, why not pages like “Catholocism: The Denial of Truth”, “Judaism: The Denial of Truth”, et al? Oh right, time to circle the wagons and be ecumenical.

  4. 8

    I never saw the original, I had no interest in the sequel, and obviously I don’t give a flying fuck now, but… damn I love a good snark!
    Sometimes, it’s so hard to say something nice that it’s better to be mean with style. Like Dorothy Parker’s famous review: “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly, but rather hurled with great force.”
    Or, more on this blog’s subject, one of my favourite reviews of Laura Antoniou’s book in a feminist mag. In toto, it was: “Have rec’d something lurid titled Leatherwomen, supposedly written by a woman. Yeah, right. Real women don’t write like that. Or shouldn’t.”
    With a review like that, how can you not be fascinated?
    Orthodox: that link might be relevant to an atheism article, but WTF were you thinking spamming it here? Also, a vaguely intelligent person would think to warn people in an english-language blog that the link is 100% greek. But you’re none of those things, you’re a spammer…

  5. 10

    The worst thing is that if they had been grown up about the whole thing and explored the issues you mentioned in your wonderful review, it could have been a great film! I’d really like to see a parallel story done by someone with the talent: take four consumerist city women on an actual learning experience, explore the problem of enjoying a fantasy (of the exotic middle east) while simultaneously condemning it, let one of them learn how to deal with her changing identity and another get over her trust issues and so on. In my mind that would be a pretty interesting (and pretty pro-women) film!
    Stupid misguided Hollywood.

  6. 11

    “Wait for this movie to come out on DVD. Then DON’T rent it.”
    The most annoying part about the franchise is that it appears to be based on 4 strong new age feminists that embrace their femininity and sexuality. What it is actually based on is consumerism and sexism. Its a terribly misleading message for young girls who think they identify with the characters.

  7. 12

    I think this movie is a mixed blessing. On the one hand you have the consumerism and the co-optation of pro-sex feminism. You also have the perpetuating of body image issues which is another co-optation of pro-sex feminism (for example Annie Sprinkle is overweight).
    But it’s a mixed blessing because the character of Samantha played by Kim Catrall brings the pro-sex message of women’s sexual liberation to the mainstream. Now girls sport t-shirts that say “I’m the Samantha”. They have an abysmal lack of depth and knowledge about feminism but that’s definitely better than the old days of girls being squeamish and insecure about their sexuality.

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