Sex and the City 2: Strong and Invincible?

About halfway through Sex and the City 2, which opens today nationwide, the fabulous foursome of HBO’s hit-television-show-turned-feature-film-franchise perform a rousing karaoke rendition of the 1970s feminist anthem “I Am Woman” in a nightclub in the heart of Abu Dhabi. As Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte croon–“I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman”—belly dancers strut, pose and sway their hips on an elevated catwalk above them. An exercise in astounding campy discordance, this scene epitomizes both the unanticipated pleasures and the substantial foibles of director and writer Michael Patrick King’s sequel to the critically unacclaimed (yet commercially successful) first Sex and the City film in 2008.

Unlike its predecessor, Sex and the City 2 does not suffer from the growing pains of a television show aspiring to a misguided notion of what a cinematic narrative should look like. Instead of the first film’s contrived attempt at creating big-screen-worthy drama, this sequel feels a lot more like the television show, offering a series of smaller conflicts, relying on a few overarching themes and focusing on the friendship between the four women—something that should give comfort and joy to a great many fans.

Two years have passed, and this next stage of each woman’s life bespeaks a new and varied set of personal hurdles and relationship stumbling blocks. Carrie finds herself becoming more and more unsettled with Mr. Big’s “settling in,” worrying that as a married couple they’re losing their “sparkle,” and rankling at her husband’s new-found urge to eat in and watch television in bed. Miranda is struggling with an overbearing senior partner at her firm and a growing dissatisfaction with work that she used to enjoy.  Samantha is waging war on menopause and its feared effects on her libido. And Charlotte is fighting to keep her head above water at home with her two young daughters.

In the well-loved tradition of the television show, each woman starts off the film with her own problems, but the four friends inevitably find that they are more apt to find answers together.

The television show may have dabbled in feminism but refused to fully acknowledge it, reveling in the characters’ sexual liberation while remaining mired in very conventional, heteronormative notions of marriage, relationships and gender roles. SATC2, however, asserts a surprisingly feminist and gender-liberal tone, at least on the surface. Highlights include the opulent gay wedding that opens the film–in which Carrie gleefully cross-dresses as “best man” and Liza Minnelli performs Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” while gay and straight couples dance and sing along–as well as Carrie and Mr. Big’s refusal to succumb to societal pressure to have children when they’re happiest as “just us two.”

Unfortunately, the everyday trials and tribulations of personal relationships that framed the television show presumably wouldn’t be able to hold cinema-goers’ interest, so the four friends are whisked away from their native New York City and off to Abu Dhabi as guests of an obscenely wealthy sheik (a business trip on which Samantha manages to finagle invites for “her girls”).

In Abu Dhabi, the contrast between American sexual liberalism and the perceived conservatism of a city filled with moderately-to-completely veiled women becomes glaringly stark. But just as watching the four women belt out “I Am Woman” while surrounded by gyrating, half-naked dancers resonates as both empowering and disingenuous, it’s around this Middle Eastern interlude that SATC2 falters.

Certainly it’s hard not to fall for the aura of exoticism, adventurism and opulence that suffuses the girlfriends’ excursion to the United Arab Emirates, particularly since the cinematography revels in its vibrant colors and stunning vistas. The women coo over the city’s beauty, food and wealth, and over the generosity of their hosts and the individual town cars and personal butlers who cater to their every need. But glaring classism and conspicuous consumption notwithstanding, the most problematic aspect of this vacation narrative is that the film makes light of cultural differences, juxtaposing the lives of these “carefree” American women with their veiled counterparts in a way that is, at worst, thoughtlessly colonialist and, at best, naïve.

For example, in a moment of outrage Miranda proclaims that while men in the United States may say they’re comfortable with strong women, all “they really want [is] to see us eating French fries behind our veils.” While part of me loves that SATC2’s characters so openly acknowledge the continuing struggle for gender equality in America, I’m discomfited by the price of admission: a comparison that guilelessly erases a vast and complex array of religious, historical and cultural mores which define women’s lives in the Arab world.

It’s no small wonder that when a series of misunderstandings inevitably leads to a confrontation between the four women and dozens of angry religious men in an Abu Dhabi marketplace, the friends escape this volatile and potentially dangerous situation in an absurdly cartoonish manner that brings together burqas and haute couture. It’s a scene that’s supremely unrealistic, woefully incongruous and pure Sex and the City.

The question for fans is whether or not we’re willing to forgive the film its significant stumbles for the sake of our own long term relationship–10-plus years with Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. Sex and the City 2 flounders under the weight of its misguided attempts at cultural tourism, but the film ultimately recalls the central themes of the original show: love, relationships and “making your own rules” in the bedroom and beyond.

Check out the Sex and the City 2 trailer.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.' Scholar Writing Program.