Sex and the City 2 is a Lesson in U.S. Exceptionalism, Homonormativity, & White Supremacy
“Once upon a long time ago, there was an island. Some Dutch, some Indians, and some beads. And those beads led to steamboats and skyscrapers; Wall Street and electric lights; newspapers, Ellis Island, the Yankees, Central Park and the first World’s Fair, Broadway, the Chrysler Building, and Studio 54. I like to think of that as New York City B.C.: Before Carrie.” — Sex and The City 2
In Sex and the City 2’s opening monologue, the film’s central protagonist Carrie Bradshaw waxes romantic about the European colonization that led to the development of the city we now call New York. If that isn’t a warning sign, I don’t know what is.
This little spiel sets the tone for the rest of the movie to come — not only does the movie frame the world to revolve around Carrie and her white friends, it also centralizes themes of modernity and U.S. modernity in particular. With its transnational settings (Carrie and her girlfriends travel from New York City to the “new” Abu Dhabi) and its emphasis on feminism, sexuality, and modernity, Sex and the City 2 presents especially fertile ground for us to consider and examine manifestations of white supremacy in popular culture.
If you’ve been on the Internet, read a magazine, or consumed any pop culture media in the past twenty or so years, you’ve probably heard of Sex and the City. Though somewhat dated, the show has had such an impact on TV, entertainment, and fashion that it’s become a household name in North America. Since its end in 2004, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte’s enduring popularity with the critics, the fashion populace, and girls and women of all ages has produced two feature film adaptations, a CW prequel, and even a Brazilian adaptation.
Sex and the City 2, the 2010 sequel to the first film adaptation, sees the four women attending a gay wedding in the opening act, which sets up the various conflicts the women face over the course of the movie. Carrie worries that her marriage to Mr. Big has lost its “sparkle;” Miranda struggles to balance work and family with a new misogynistic and overbearing boss in the picture; Charlotte begins to stress over the consequences of hiring a hot young nanny; Samantha, the oldest of the four, wrestles with the effects of menopause and aging on her sex life.
When Samantha receives an invitation to spend an all-expenses paid week at a sheikh’s decadent Abu Dhabi hotel resort, the four women gladly pack up to escape their troubles in one of the world’s most luxurious vacation destinations. “I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle East,” Carrie admits. “You know, desert moons, Scheherazade, magic carpets … just like Jasmine, but with cocktails!”
Although the critical reception of Sex and the City 2 has been overwhelmingly negative, the reviews mainly disparage the movie’s plot, its length, and the unlikability and unrelatability of the characters. Most of the audience reviews featured on Rotten Tomatoes call the movie some variation of shallow, basic, or boring. But only a small percentage of the overall reviews on Rotten Tomatoes headlined the racism and ethnocentrism of the movie’s themes.
The concept of white noise is particularly relevant. Jasmine Rault argues that media productions of uniformity creates the effect of a “white noise”—a continuous and indistinct drone comprised of bits of sound and information whose details are obscured by the equalization of their intensity. Rault compares the concept of white noise to the subtle influences of white supremacy in our media. This unifying white noise obscures the details of the experiences of people of colour, thus distracting from and blurring the deeper implications of these experiences and ignoring the material effects of structural white supremacy.
Sex and the City 2 pushes themes of modernity and liberation from tradition, evident in scenarios such as Carrie’s suit-wearing “best man” role in her friend’s lavish gay wedding. In fact, the main conflicts that each of the four main characters face depict trajectories of female liberation. But these conflicts and trajectories are rooted in white, U.S.-centric ideas of modernity and feminism.
This U.S.-centrism is especially blatant when we consider the cultural duality of the movie’s settings. Even in Abu Dhabi, on the other side of the world, Carrie and her girls apply their Western worldview to the people and culture they encounter. Sex and the City 2 demonstrates the use of white noise in obscuring cultural differences and establishing white, U.S.-centric ideas of sexuality and modernity on two fronts: ideas of homosexuality and ideas of feminism.
Sex and the City 2 features three depictions of homosexuality dispersed evenly among its three acts. The first is, of course, the extravagant gay wedding of Carrie’s and Charlotte’s “gay best friends.” The second depiction comes in the form of Abdul, one of the four butlers assigned to the women at their Abu Dhabi hotel suite. The women label Abdul as “gay” according to U.S. stereotypes: “I think my butler’s gay. First, he’s way too cute … I asked about his dating life and he said it was private … I asked how to pronounce his name, and he said ‘Abdul. Like, Paula.’” Abdul is later shown peacocking stereotypically, eyeing an attractive Danish man along with the four women, and doing a face mask along with Samantha even as he serves her.
The third and final depiction of homosexuality comes at the very end of the film. Carrie reveals that Charlotte’s attractive nanny, Erin, poses no threat to her marriage as she “prefers the company of other nannies” and we see Erin kissing another young white woman as they help set up Charlotte’s family’s dinner table.
Abdul’s stereotypical characterization especially illustrates a tone-deaf U.S.-centric view of sexuality and queerness — there is no mention or effort to represent what queerness and being gay is like in Saudi Arabia and how that might look different from being gay in the U.S. We only see the white noise of a “universal gay experience” as portrayed in the movie.
The obscuring of cultural differences here is founded in homonormativity and a homonationalist perspective. Let me explain — the gay wedding celebration in the beginning of the film sets a standard for gay equality and inclusiveness in society. In the U.S., it’s possible for a gay couple to have a wedding as elaborate as anyone else’s; in the U.S., a straight man gets flattered rather than offended by a gay man flirting with him; in the U.S., the gays have a part in Carrie Bradshaw’s opulent social circle.
This liberal gay inclusivity in high society reflects an upholding and sustaining of dominant and heteronormative assumptions rather than challenging them. This neoliberal politics separates the LGBTQAI2S+ rights discourse from a radical tone of liberation and takes it down a path of demobilization and depoliticization. Instead of rallying against the corruption of the state-nation (as black trans activists who founded the LGBT movement did), we turn to a mentality of privatization and nationalism (see: gay marriage). The high-society gays in Sex and the City 2 reflect this privatized and depoliticized culture of homonormativity not only in their newly legal marriage but also in their widespread acceptance by their straight peers into the elite social circle and upscale lives.
This widespread acceptance takes on a critical tone in Sex and the City 2 when it comes to transnational cultures. Homonormativity gives way to homonationalism when the discussion turns to sexuality in Abu Dhabi. Jasbir Puar describes homonationalism as a way to “understand … how and why a nation’s status as ‘gay friendly’ has become desirable” and how supposed modernity or progressiveness can be used to bring exceptionalism upon a nation.
In Sex and the City 2, the white American women comment on how “Abu Dhabi is so cutting edge in so many ways and so backward when it comes to sex.” Although Samantha had been referring to displays of sexuality in general, critiques such as hers, taken in the context of the homonormativity displayed from the opening act of the movie, point toward a statement of U.S. sexual exceptionalism. Samantha’s comment directly attacks the supposed modernity of Abu Dhabi, implying that the sexual freedom she experiences in the U.S. measures as more progressive and forward-thinking.
Indeed, Samantha finally loses it and expresses her frustration with Abu Dhabi’s sexual restraint when a horde of Muslim men begins angrily berating her after she spills a bag full of condoms on the floor of a crowded square. “I HAVE SEX,” she yells lewdly in rebellion, “I HAVE CONDOMS!”
The film also demonstrates a form of U.S. gender exceptionalism. Discourses of human rights frame Afghani, Iraqi, and Muslim women as oppressed and in need of saving while positioning American feminism as the morally superior standard. The Sex and the City franchise’s foundational themes of girl power and feminism contrast sharply with the figuration of the backwards Middle East in Sex and the City 2.
The movie is packed with “girl power” moments. When Samantha and Miley Cyrus turn up on the red carpet in the same dress, they smile and embrace instead of catfighting stereotypically; during karaoke, the four women sing the feminist anthem “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy as the camera pans to women of different ages, colours, and sizes in the nightclub.
But the supposed feminism of the movie roots itself in U.S. exceptionalism. After they arrive at the sheikh’s hotel, Carrie and her friends watch and whisper in fascination as women in niqabs enjoy some fries poolside. The facial coverings “freak” Carrie out: “It’s like they don’t want them to have a voice.” Later, they discuss how “men in the U.S. pretend they’re comfortable with us having strong voices but really, they’d be more comfortable with us eating french fries behind a veil.” The women push their ethnocentric feminist critique onto women operating in a completely different culture and context. The scene clearly frames the Abu Dhabi women as oppressed, and their culture and religion as barbaric, from a U.S.-centric standpoint.
The matter of the niqabs culminates in a scene toward the end of the movie wherein the four women, in their escape from the Muslim men attacking Samantha, are aided by a group of niqabi women who lead them into a secret room. The niqabi women reveal that they “quite enjoyed” the outburst the American women caused, expressing pleasure at the fact that “the men will be outraged for weeks.” Apparently, they’re discussing Suzanne Somers in their book club and “love the fashion” in New York. They uncover themselves, traditional black garb falling away to reveal colourful western designer clothes.
This scene embodies another instance of white noise: the Abu Dhabi women take on a very Western and U.S.-centric version of empowerment and femininity without any consideration for what empowerment and femininity looks like in their Saudi Arabian context. The scene (and the movie as a whole) views the Muslim women’s coverings, their religion, and their culture to be oppressive and restrictive. The Muslim women are happiest and freest, it seems, when they can let loose and dress like rich New Yorkers as they discuss American books in their secret room. Yet again, we see that U.S. ideals dominate the narrative and assume exceptionalism within the Middle Eastern context.
Sex and the City 2, marketed as an empowering feminist enterprise, certainly fulfills its role in the wealthy, white, U.S. context. But what the movie and the franchise fail to acknowledge is that the ideals and norms produced by this context do not apply universally to women and people everywhere, no matter how hard the movie tries to impose a feel-good mantle of sameness and unity. The film’s painfully ignorant portrayals of feminism in the Middle East generate an obfuscating white noise while producing a homonormative, homonationalist, and US exceptionalist narrative which places U.S. ideals at the center of empowerment. Sex and the City 2 is a lesson in how well-intentioned but poorly-thought out displays of “progressiveness” and “feminism” can do more damage than good.
Carries muses in her concluding monologue, “You have to take the tradition and decorate it your way.” But perhaps the film would have done better if it hadn’t attempted so futilely to decorate another city, country, and continent’s traditions in the American way.
About the Author
Grace Kwan (she/her) studies Sociology and Professional Writing & Communication at the University of Toronto. She writes both creatively and critically, and her speculative short fiction and prose poetry has been published in multiple anthologies and magazines.