Sex and the City and the Desert
High above Times Square a billboard of four women beckons with alluring smiles and glimpses of leg. The film’s title glitters like gemstones. Though air-brushed, the women are unmistakable to people the world over: Kristen Davis, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and, naturally in the centre, Sarah Jessica Parker, twirling a blue sheer dress with famed high-heels on display. Or are they Charlotte, Samantha, Miranda and Carrie? Not since the Spice Girls have a group of women so melded with their famous alter-egos, nor represented unabashed post-feminist girlishness to so wide an audience. As the creators of Sex and the City once gushed about the show’s far-flung international fans, “This is America to them!”
The girls are pictured not in front of the New York City skyline but rather in the desert, giving the unfortunate impression of a Las Vegas revue. As all fans of the show know by now, the desert represents not Nevada but the United Arab Emirates, where the girls go on an “all-expenses paid” vacation. “I can hear the decadence calling,” Samantha purrs in the trailer with the gusto hitherto used describing sexual conquests.
On Saturday, May 1st the ladies gazed down on Faisal Shahzad as he allegedly parked a white sports car filled with home-made explosives in Times Square. Two street vendors spotted the abandoned car and notified police, who evacuated thousands of people from the Square. Although no one was hurt, authorities claim that the car could have produced a “significant fireball”, spewing shrapnel in all directions and killing many people. Two days later, police pulled Shahzad off a plane at John F. Kennedy airport. He was resigned to his fate; according to the Toronto Star he told border guard who arrested him “I was expecting you.” The plane was going to Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, where he had spent eight months last year.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Sex and the City spiked in popularity, becoming a symbol of not only New York but of the resilience of the American way of life. The last episode filmed before the attacks was titled ‘I Heart NY’ and the first one of the next season featured shots of NYPD cops, the stars and stripes, and a navy dance at which Samantha, eyeing the cute sailors, declares “God bless America!” What comfort New Yorkers will feel when, perhaps still jittery from the failed Times Square plot and unearthed 9/11 memories, they go to the theatres on May 27th and see their ladies ditching their city to ride camels in Patricia Field’s flamboyant fashions, cruise hot men wearing either skimpy Speedos or ludicrous Laurence of Arabia drag, and sip brightly-coloured cocktails while discussing blow jobs.
One wonders what Middle Eastern viewers will think as well, for all of these activities may be illegal in the UAE. This is after all a country that just sentenced a young British couple to one month in prison for kissing in a restaurant. A month before that, an Indian couple was sentenced to two months in jail for sending flirtatious text messages, and earlier another couple were arrested for having sex on a beach. As with many decency laws, the authorities enforce the rules when they feel like it but can define them any way they chose, even arresting a woman for wearing a short skirt. Gay men, who have always played an important role in the creation and devoted following of Sex and the City (the trailer for the new film features what appears to be a gay wedding with special guest Liza Minnelli), fare even worse in the UAE: twenty-six men were arrested in Abu Dhabi in 2008, all receiving five year sentences and allegedly being forced to take hormone treatments.
Why would a show that celebrated single women as the ‘new bachelors’ and revolutionized what sexual topics people felt comfortable divulging to their girlfriends go to the UAE? Michael Patrick King, the director of the sequel, told Vogue magazine’s Vicki Woods that the theme of the film was women struggling with traditional roles, and because the Middle East is where women’s roles are most “conventionally defined” he decided to set part of the movie there. “Also,” he continued, “because America slash most of the world is in a bit of an economic crunch still, I felt like everybody needed a big, extravagant, splashy, expensive vacation.” But is this really the year to celebrate indulgent spending, especially in a Muslim country? Vogue being Vogue, Woods wanted to discuss the role Islamic culture played on the costumes. “You have to look at clothing and women and women’s bodies completely differently,” said Sarah Jessica Parker. “And you start to see how you can still see so much with someone covered. And how exciting that is and how beautiful it is and how draping can be incredibly sexy.” It is the denial of sexuality, rather than its expression, which is behind all that draping.
The irony is that the UAE didn’t allow the studio to film there. Instead, Morocco stands in for the UAE, which Woods points out “is a bit like saying Tribeca is standing in for New England.” Why did the film makers not just make it Morocco instead of directing a two-hour luxury travel ad, glamourizing the parties and sexy adventures tourists can have in a place which locks up people for kissing each other on the cheek? By ignoring draconian decency laws and reminding New Yorkers of a near-terrorist attack, the film makers may have abandoned both the ‘sex’ and ‘the city’.