This week, my daughter's sixth-grade class visited a mosque. In advance, the teacher prepared instructions about how to dress and behave. At home, we talked about respecting others' faith (even when we find things difficult to understand), expectations of religious modesty, and differing roles for men and women in Christianity and Islam. On trip day, my Episcopal girl went to school in long pants and a long-sleeved shirt with a floral headscarf tucked in her backpack.
And, with an unusual day off, I went to see the new movie Sex and the City 2. I confess: as a woman of a "certain age," I'm pretty much the target audience for the old HBO show and its movie spin-offs.
Sex and the City 2 does not take place in New York; rather, Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte find themselves on an adventure in Abu Dhabi at the behest of a publicity-seeking hotelier who wants to show off the "new Middle East" to them. Set at a glamorous, western-style resort, the Sex ladies think they have discovered an exotic paradise that mixes high fashion with ancient culture and meticulous hospitality. But they quickly find themselves in a number of cross-cultural mishaps, the most damaging (spoiler alert!) being Samantha's inability to fit into the sexual mores of even the "new" Middle East.
All of this sounds as if it might make a good movie -- the sort of comedic road picture send-up of the mid-20th century in a post-feminist form -- and I was prepared to laugh. But I didn't. At least not very much. It just wasn't very funny to see four smart American women parading western consumerism and sexualized identity in blatantly insensitive and anti-religious ways in a traditional world. I knew that they wouldn't be robed in burqas (and I wouldn't want them to be), but I didn't quite expect the Sex and the City women to lead a religious-style revival meeting for America in the United Arab Emirates while gyrating to "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar."
Throughout the picture, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all trivialized. Christianity is, as it has been in the whole series, mostly invisible and seen only through the lens of materialist culture; Judaism receives strange treatment during a gay wedding scene and through Charlotte's conversion; and, well, there are no words to describe the mean-spirited stereotypes heaped upon Islam. I wasn't sure what was more offensive -- having American ideals of freedom depicted by freewheeling sex on the beach or having Muslims pictured as rich sheikhs, women-hating fundamentalists, and repressed female sexual power. What was this, the 1940s? Not even a vague attempt at post-9/11 Abrahamic interreligious understanding?
The filmmakers were quick to point out the inconsistencies -- or rather hypocrisies -- of Islam while saying nary a negative word about western cultural colonialism or corporate consumerism. Non-western cultures were joyfully trashed and western materialism was equally joyfully celebrated. As one of Carrie's t-shirts proclaimed proudly in the middle of a traditional souk, "J'Adore Dior."
In the end, Carrie and the girls flee the new Middle East back to the safe embrace of old New York. They return from their journey untouched, relieved to have escaped with their Birkin bags intact. You know, I like Dior, too. But the Sex girls, like their loyal fans, are now forty- and fifty-something women. And this whole film was vaguely insulting to the journey of womanhood that the film (I think) intended to celebrate. Mature women need to laugh; we like escapism, and we can sigh over beautiful clothes. But our journeys have taught us a thing or two -- for example, that it is good to be sensitive, open, and curious about the world, beliefs, and politics; that respect and modesty are not bad words and that sometimes you really need your sixth grade teacher to send along a set of instructions for the trip; and that going outside your comfort zone can be a good thing only if you choose to learn from the journey.
In the next movie, I wish Carrie and the girls would discover that growing up isn't a curse. Just once I'd like to see the sadly self-centered ladies of Sex and the City wearing t-shirts saying "J'Adore My Neighbor as Myself."
This blog originally appeared on Diana Butler Bass's Beliefnet blog.