Sunday, 4 July 2010

I am woman, hear me roar...


It would be impossible to review SATC2 without talking about the response to it; review the reviews, as it were. Even though the movie was deemed "critic proof" (well, duh! Of course we're not going to take your word for it!) and cleaned up at the box office, it's generally agreed to be a limp, witless version of its former self. As Carrie would say, I couldn't help but wonder.... is this fair?

The first film was miserable not in quality but in subject matter it was truly a dark journey for Carrie. For some reason, when commentators decide that the characters are now bimbos, they will write very bizarre and untrue appraisals; Hadley Freeman, for instance, wrote that "Carrie's response to having been jilted at the altar was: 'How am I going to get my clothes?" (However, this is the same "journalist" who felt qualified to write a review of the second film on the strength of having seen the trailer. Guess whose opinion I have zero respect for?)

The word on the street from the beginning was that the sequel would be much more light-hearted, a "romp", if you will. (I was tempted to send a dictionary to one magazine who took this to mean there would merely be lots of sex.)

Bizarrely, the same media which complains that there are "never any decent roles for older women" gripe that the actresses look haggard and old. Make up your mind!

In between the first film's depiction of Carrie's mind-numbing depression, I did enjoy the sparky little fashion vignettes and, of course, the stony beauty of New York. Indeed, if the city is the 5th character and fashion is the 6th, they both featured pretty well.

So what was the wisdom behind NY barely being given a cameo in this sequel? The film's makers chose to move the location to the Middle Ein order to show opulence that would not fit into post-credit crunch America, and it has the added benefit of removing the women from their domestic set-ups as well as putting the famously "liberated" ladies in a country where kissing can actually get you arrested.

As I expected, the film was a little over-long. But this is merely my point of view as a cinema-goer; if this is the last instalment of the girls as we know them, then I can see why the producers wanted to get their money's worth out of them. But has SATC jumped the shark? Mark Kermode described it as "ghastly" and "consumerist pornography." However, I enjoyed it; like most people who went to see the film, I am a fan and my loyalty is guaranteed.

True to form, the movie opened with a grandiose gay wedding, complete with Liza Minelli and a somewhat toe curling cover of Single Ladies. But it's SATC, so we can forgive some minor lapses in judgement. At least the jokes were a reminder of a wittier time on the show.

I loved the 80s flashbacks I had been looking forward to them since seeing the "leaked" pictures. I would have liked more, but I appreciate why these scenes needed to be a) short and b) shot from a distance. (SJP has claimed she will find it hard handing the part over to a younger actress if they decide to make a prequel. As Miley Cyrus has been cited as a possibility (please, God, no!) SJP would get my vote every time.

The premise of SATC being the crimes and misdemeanours of four single women, it was always going to be tricky to keep the drama going when they settled down.

However, these ladies each have their own cross to bear. While Samantha is dealing with menopause, Carrie is finding married life with Big not half as exciting as the dating days; Charlotte is a mother (who finds this lifestyle difficult although she is a full-time mom with full-time help) and Miranda has to balance work and life. (Thus the first accusations of SATC "selling out" for daring to suggest that a woman's life might be more enjoyable if she didn't work a 70-hour week, and occasionally saw her children.)

Charlotte has acquired a nanny who is attractive and doesn't wear a bra, creating typically bawdy humour. The writers were evidently so proud of their joke about the "Jude Law" (the one against hiring beautiful nannies, of course) that not only did everyone laugh hysterically, they also referenced it later in the movie, with Carrie explaining her quip "I just had to go for it". I miss the old days, when witticisms were so commonplace that they were woven seamlessly into the conversation and nobody reacted, because it was taken for granted that the conversation would sparkle.

Their arrival in Abu Dhabi feels uncomfortably like a promotional video. Much has been made of the affluence displayed, and I must admit, it is staggering. But it's meant to be. People enjoy seeing richness beyond their means (it's why TV's Cribs is popular, after all). I might add that nobody ever complains that James Bond has too many fancy gadgets, or that his suits are too expensive... Why should "boy's films" have all the fun?

What's more, money and swanky parties were always part of the set-up. Samantha runs her own successful PR company, Miranda is a lawyer, Charlotte is a Park Avenue princess whose wealth only increased with each husband, and Carrie only struggled for money because she spent $40,000 on designer shoes not exactly a welfare case, is she?

The women have a short discussion on the wearing of veils and burkinis at the pool. Is this racist? Are they gawping at these women in an ill-mannered, judgemental way? Well, perhaps. But merely showing how the culture is different in another country is hardly offensive. Their conversation touches upon the fact that bellydancers somehow slip past the "modest dress" rule "Oh, those clever religious men!" (It's a fair point....) The much maligned "burkini" scene also features a men's sports team who take advantage of the double standards in place to prance around in budgie smuggling speedos.

Character development is pretty much limited to Carrie's adjustment to marriage and the revealing discussion between the two mothers in the film. I honestly feel that the film makers were trying to SAY something with this piece of celluloid. There is one scene which I still can't quite believe really happened; the karaoke rendition of a popular 1970s feminist song, which 40-something women would have grown up with, just as today's ten year olds sing along with Rihanna's Rude Boy. (There's nothing like hearing a pre-pubescent girl merrily belting out "Can you get it up? Is it big enough?" is there?)

I've never been a huge fan of the idea (so often repeated by our media) that women's liberation = promiscuity = freedom, (indeed, some would argue that it is merely a different form of servitude) but I do think it is vastly preferable to having entirely different laws for men and women.

The issue of being "sexually liberated" women in a Middle Eastern country with what we might call "old fashioned" values, leads to a climax which many have deemed ridiculous and racially insensitive. Samantha's defiance towards men who are quick to judge may be over the top ("Yes, condoms! I have sex!") but what's the betting that this scene was immensely satisfying for women who live in oppressive cultures? (If they were able to see it.)

Carrie also throws caution to the wind when she emulates Claudette Colbert's leg flashing antics to get a cab (so shocking in 1934); perhaps Samuel Johnson was right when he said "Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little." Right about the first part, anyway.

SATC always set out to be honest about the issues facing women today. Are we less valid as human beings if we never marry or have children? (We certainly get fewer presents.) Can a woman's career suffer when her sexual escapades become common knowledge? Is there ever a good time to have a baby? This film forces us to revert to old school feminism when the questions are about basic women's rights such as the ability to make decisions for themselves.

But are we really any further along the road to equality than other cultures? Miranda points out "Men in the US pretend they're comfortable with strong women, but really a lot of them would prefer us eating French fries behind our veils."

A strong theme is that of female solidarity; from a nanny who can be supportive without being a threat, to the universal love of fashion or understanding of the menopause.

The fact (apparently little known among film critics) is that women in the UAE actually DO wear beautiful designer clothes under their burkas. Andrew O' Hagan wrote a scathing piece for the Evening Standard in which he lambasted the scene in which the women remove their robes; patronisingly assuming their love of labels meant they were trying to be "American" like Carrie.

I actually think it's rather nice that women of certain religions dress modestly and cover their hair in public so that their husbands are the only ones who see them as nature intended. Perhaps it really is the girls who feel the need to hoist themselves into wonderbras and stilettos every day who are being controlled by a male dominated society?

The internet is heavily censored in the UAE, illustrated by Samantha's inability to get hold of her menopause herbs. But does the film represent the residents of Abu Dhabi badly? Er, no. The film is a reflection of the women as tourists. They gawp at burkas, may not be the sharpest customers in the market, and, without men running their schedule, can barely catch a flight by themselves. In contrast, the residents are shown to be hard-working and honest, with a hardline attitude to sex. Samantha is reported for being overly friendly with a man in public, which may seem draconian to those of us familiar with programmes like "Holiday reps in Faliraki woohoo!" but it is a realistic depiction of life in the UAE. Far from insulting the strict codes of conduct, I think many residents would approve of this demonstration that chastity and respect of morals are expected by both citizens and visitors.

As Kim Cattrall points out,"We've been doing Sex And The City for 14 years, we've been upsetting people for 14 years. We're kind of used to it, that's what the show is all about."

Helen Reddy was right; we really do have a long, long way to go. We tolerate oppression under the guise of "respecting" other cultures. Meanwhile, in the year 2010, women are still being arrested for wearing trousers.

While we pontificate about whether showing women wearing burkas in a film set in Abu Dhabi is indeed "racist" or not, there are still places in the world where women can be beaten and raped by their husbands with the full blessing of the law, where they cannot legally obtain birth control, and genital mutilation is rife.

Now, that really is offensive.

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