For fans of Sex and the City – a television series and movie centred on the lives of four single women living in New York City – the summer movie sequel Sex and The City 2 promised fashion, fun, friendships and more. Viewers who watched it when it premiered on 15 July in Lebanon felt it delivered on these fronts, evidenced by the soaring laughter throughout the cinema.
Yet despite its humour, I found it followed the lead of a plethora of Hollywood movies that stereotype Arabs and the Middle East. Sadly, such stereotypes only widen the gulf between the West and the Arab world.
The film’s storyline takes the four main characters on a journey to Abu Dhabi, where they’ve been invited by a rich sheikh. These American women, who are extremely candid about their sexuality, find themselves in a country where conservative religious values rule. Obviously, trouble is around the corner. Samantha, the sexually open publicist, is arrested for kissing a man in public, only one instance of the provocation of conservative Muslim Emiratis’ sensibilities.
Throughout the film, the characters refer to the Middle East as one entity. For instance Carrie, a writer on relationships, says that the Middle East is a place that always fascinated her. She describes it as “Desert Moon, Scheherazade, Jasmine and Aladdin”, stereotypical references routinely employed in Hollywood films. In an effort to understand the traditions of the country, Miranda, a lawyer, declares: “Men and women don’t embrace in public in the Middle East.”
While this might be true in some parts of the Middle East, this claim is a sweeping generalisation. The Middle East comprises over 24 countries, and multiple religions, cultures, languages and ethnic groups. It’s a culturally rich and diverse region that deserves a more accurate representation in movies.
The film eventually brings Emirati women and American women together at the end over commonalities such as fashion, books, problems with men and the challenges of overcoming menopause. And despite the superficial nature of this film, and the prejudiced representation of Emirati culture, some viewers in both the Middle East and North America may still learn they have things in common even though they are worlds apart.
Yet although the movie highlights new and exotic experiences in Abu Dhabi for the American women, it mostly highlights the differences between American and Emirati women’s lifestyles and mentalities.
Some fans of the series defend it as being a comedy and it does have some hilarious sequences in it, but comedy can still be funny without resorting to stereotypes or generalisations.
With more thorough research about the people and the societies involved, and additional effort to write a wittier, more intelligent script, humour could have been used in a more constructive fashion to bridge the cultural divide. Sex and the City has a large following in the United States and around the world. Thus, the film had the potential to introduce millions of fans to the positive aspects of Emirati people, society and traditions.
Some Hollywood films have portrayed characters of Arab origin in a positive matter and can serve as models for other filmmakers, such as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a 1991 film in which Morgan Freeman’s character, Azeem, returns from Jerusalem with Robin Hood after the Crusades and becomes his respected comrade and friend. Additionally, in Kingdom of Heaven, a 2005 film about the siege of Jerusalem during the Crusades, Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud plays the role of Saladin. Though he is the enemy of the Crusaders, he is presented as an upright and respectful man.
Moviemakers have a responsibility, especially in these times of tense relations between the Muslim world and the West, to avoid shallow representations of others. Visual media is very powerful in conveying messages and should be taken seriously. When these messages are both entertaining and informative, they can help viewers understand their differences, a key ingredient for ultimately establishing common ground.
* Carla Haibi is a Lebanese freelance journalist. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 27 July 2010, www.commongroundnews.org