It's been about two weeks since Sex and the City 2 premiered. Despite my initial excitement and anticipation about its release, being a big fan of the series and the first movie, the barrage of dismal reviews made me rather hesitant to cough up my $10 to see the movie in the theater. (Hey, it is a down economy). My curiosity however, eventually got the better of me. I had read a few reviews on the orientalist portrayal of Arabs, but given that I research and write a fair bit on the United Arab Emirates and Arab architecture and culture, I wanted to see for myself how Sex and the City, the series that made us fall in love with New York, depicted Abu Dhabi the city, the people and culture.
Yes, yes, yes, the movie is chalked full of orientalist images. I wonder if Michael Patrick King who wrote the script even visited any Gulf countries in doing his research for the film or did he merely reference old Hollywood movies in all their orientalist splendor. There were plenty of references to magic carpets, camels (which are damn hard to find in Abu Dhabi), crazy oppressive Arab men, oppressed Arab women, kitschy 'Arabic' music...and so on. But none of those portrayals really bothered me because everyone in this movie was a mono-dimensional stereotype. The four women, the main stars of the show, who originally for all their occasional shallowness and materialism were generally strong independent women whose love and support of each other, and brutal honesty made the show groundbreaking and a proponent of feminism, in this movie have become pathetic whiny caricatures of women themselves. (Such a shame! As a woman, their portrayal made me shift uncomfortably in my seat). Not only were they poor reflections of women, they also epitomized the ugly American. The ignorant traveler, who rudely disregards local customs and culture and superimposes their own.
No, what really bothered me was the depiction of Abu Dhabi. Perhaps that is the architect in me speaking. I knew from the start that the movie was actually filmed in Morocco and not Abu Dhabi or Dubai as the film makers had initially wished. The script offended the leaders of both emirates and their request was denied. So filming was moved to Morocco - although they still continued with the premise that four friends were living in the lap of luxury in Abu Dhabi. I wondered why King didn't just rewrite the script to be set in Marrakesh given that is where the Amanjena Hotel and Djemaa El Fna, where they filmed the hotel suite and souk scenes respectively are located. It would have made much more sense. But apparently, even though they allowed filming within the country, Moroccan officials also did not want their country mentioned in the film. So instead of creating a some random Arab Gulf city, or moving the movie elsewhere to a city that might be more accommodating - they stuck with Abu Dhabi - but made absolutely no attempt to liken their portrayal of the city to the actual one. Despite the fact that two thirds of the movie is set in this Emirate.
Abu Dhabi is a very young city. The medieval souk they had Miranda and Carrie wander through does not exist in Abu Dhabi. If they were really in Abu Dhabi and they wanted to go shopping they would have gone to a mall. And when they were inside the mall they would have discovered that the majority (over 80%) of Abu Dhabi's population is made up of expatriates. In these young Emirate city-states, you are really hard pressed to find yourself ever surrounded by a huge group of Arab men. If they did venture to the few souks in Abu Dhabi, they would have realized that the structures are a few decades old (if that) and not as ancient and historic as the Djemma El Fna, Marrakesh's main square, where they filmed. Real icons of Abu Dhabi skyline like the newly completed F1 Race track were also obviously missing from the movie as was the Emirates Palace Hotel (where the four friends are supposedly staying).
But why does Abu Dhabi's disingenuous portrayal bother me so much? After all it's Hollywood and it's all make believe. Well, because the series and the movies were and are called Sex and the City. The city for the most part has been New York City. The fifth character of the show. Part of the allure of the show has been how they depicted the glamor, the grit, the rich and diverse character and offerings of New York City. Living in New York when the series was airing, I would tune in - in large part to see the locations they went, the restaurants and bars they frequented. Even when Carrie moved to Paris temporarily in the final season, they visually captured the the grandeur and moods of Paris beautifully. It made me want to hop on a plane and go there.
Abu Dhabi is not merely a blip in this movie, it is the setting for the majority of this two and a half hour long movie. If you are going to insist to set the story in a real city, be honest about its depiction. Or at least try to. Instead Abu Dhabi, like much else in the movie, became a parody - and the movie and the brand are the lesser for it.