Sex and the City, Just Wright, Gender Bonding, and RomCom Fantasy Worlds

by Latoya Peterson

“I mean, what did you think?”

My friend EJ asked me this as we were walking back to her car around 2:00 AM, having spent the last eight and a half hours on a Sex and the City themed bender.  She waited until we had separated from the larger group, knowing like I did that race and gender analysis would blow the moods of the other women.  I thought about my answer for a bit.  It struck me as hilarious that we were the type of women that Carrie and company would hate on if they met us . There was an episode where Miranda snarked on Steve’s new girlfriend for wearing cheap shoes and being from one of the bouroughs, instead of Manhattan proper – between the seven of us, we had all the wrong traits (including too many women of color and the “wrong” kind of white girls), rocked a mix of Benetton and knock off fashion, and went to the Cheesecake Factory for our big night out. Our dinner conversation revolved around friends, weddings, launching and starting businesses, and… Arizona SB1070 and racial profiling.* After the longest dinner ever, we trooped over to AMC Columbia to catch the movie.  Even at the last show that evening, the theater was still packed full of women.

While reading the criticism of SATC 2, I noticed quite a few comments asking do women of color even watch this stuff? The answer is emphatically yes.  When we took our sits, the crowd was multiracial and of varying sizes.  But I didn’t need to hit the theater to know that – the ads and give aways for SATC 2 were running on the urban radio stations and many sites for fashionistas of color were gearing up for the film.  One of my favorite spots, the Fashion Bomb, runs a contest around the launch of each movie and has women lining up to submit their best Carrie inspired fashions.

So, a better question to ask would be why so many women of color feel invested in a franchise that is dedicated to perpetuating stereotypes?

When I say invested, I mean invested. In addition to Tami’s great summary, there were a couple of other things that stood out to me:

The entire gay wedding

First of all, gay people are not accessories. For the entire series, Stanford and Anthony not only hated each other, but dated men who were their type.  So the condescending “oh, it was like musical chairs – after a while they were the last two standing” crack really grated on my nerves.  Everyone else in the series got to hold out for the match they decided they wanted – why not Stanford and Anthony? Samantha’s comment about bringing a dog because “what’s one more little bitch” was totally unnecessary, and Anthony’s assertion that he needs the option to cheat not because he is gay, but because he was Italian was the icing on that fucked up cake. Also of note: the characterization of the nanny as ‘Irish with tits” – traditional Irish music plays almost every time she is on screen, unless Charlotte is having a breakdown. The writers did make some attempt to humanize Stanford and Anthony by showing a brief moment of tenderness at the altar, but it was far too little, far too late.

Servants of Color

This SATC had a lot more brown folks than the last – but kept them mostly in servant/sidekick roles.  From Samantha’s assistant, who watches her put on vaginal cream from her glass walled office in Time Square, to the hotel clerks, to the nice guy selling shoes, the people of color in the SATC universe are only here to serve white people. The only exception is the fabulous Penelope Cruz, who makes a cameo as the fly President of the Bank of Madrid, and captures Big’s attention.  Most galling was Carrie’s personal butler Guarau (no, I’m not even going to mention “Paula” Abdul), who is definitely a magical desi.   Carrie drills Guarau on his love life, wondering how he and his wife make their marriage work with such a vast distance between them.  She never wonder is why Guarau is there in the first place or about the economic conditions that led him there.  A 2005 report out of American University notes:

The reality of low wages and high unemployment in regions like Kerala means that Gulf employers acquire labor within a buyer’s market. Even though the income offered to many laborers is low, high unemployment and even lower wages in South Asia pushlarge numbers of excess workers to “bid” for jobs. That surplus labor scrambles for scarce jobs is an all-too familiar aspect of the global migration experience. Given that institutional barriers, wage-setting customs, or efficiency wage calculations prevent the offering of lower wages that might limit the inflow of workers, then other administrative and market-based institutions facilitate this rationing of labor.23

Both the UAE and Indian governments have attempted to implement administrative regulations to halt the movement of excess labor. For a worker to receive a visa for employment in the UAE, the UAE government must issue a work permit or a “no objection certificate.” In addition, the Indian government also requires evidence of employment before issuing an exit permit. These administrative rules could in principal reduce the number of migrants to the desired amount without the emergence of markets to ration access to the Gulf labor market. In fact, however, such measures do not effectively permit the state to regulate the inflow of labor through bureaucratic command. Instead, a market in permits and “sponsorships” has emerged. Workers compete against each other for the papers necessary to obtain a visa, and this allows the seller of such certificates to extract rents through discriminatory pricing for agent services and “cheating”—the payment for services that are not delivered. These transactions costs can also be considered a rental payment. Workers are willing to accept a lower wage that that being offered in the Gulf, and thus part with purchasing power in order to gain access to jobs that pay above their reservation wage.

At the end of the movie, Carrie leaves Guarau money to fly back to India and see his wife.  It never occurs to her to ask him what he needs.

The Niqab-Fry Scenario

As I mentioned above, there are lots of people of color in the background of this SATC movie.  However, the IMDB listing of the cast tells most of the story:

Mohammed MoutawakilOutraged Man
Zohra SadikiOutraged Woman
Jamal SelmaouiSecurity Guard #1
Mostafa HniniSecurity Guard #2
Antony BunseeBeydoun
Waleed ZuaiterShahib
Piter MarekKhalil
Tarek MoussaOmar
Abderrahim DarisAngry Old Man #1
Mohamed KafiAngry Man #2
Adil LouchguiAngry Man #3
Belmjahed AbdelhakAngry Man #4
Mustafa AlyassriAngry Man #5
Sultan AlyassriAngry Man #6
Raya MeddineAnnesha
Goldy NotayBasimah
Anoush NeVartJihan
Marjan NeshatStewardess #4

Both Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael Patrick King deny that the movie has any racist overtones, saying:

Michael Patrick King, who helped create the hit show and has written both movie spin-offs, defended it against the charges.

“To me it’s not a political movie,” he told Sky News. “It’s an escapist comedy, but of course Samantha Jones in the Middle East puts a smile on my face only because she’s inappropriate wherever she goes.

“It has nothing to do with the culture of the Middle East she insults – she insults people in New York!”

Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays the film’s lead Carrie Bradshaw, said at the center of the criticism is a misunderstanding.

“Certainly Carrie is loving the experience of this rare opportunity to observe women of faith who are really loving the idea of tradition or, in fact, loving their faith and re-defining tradition for themselves,” she said.

“Then there is the archetypal Samantha who is trying to bust her way out of a paper bag and acting inappropriately and we are endlessly calling her out for it.

“I think all of us, and especially Carrie Bradshaw who is the narrator, comes back saying: ‘It’s really important to see the world through a different lens.’”

Clearly, I must have missed the “observing women of faith” and “see[ing] the world through a different lens” bits.  What I do remember seeing are Carrie and company sitting at a table a tee-heeing about a woman covered in a niqab. After Carrie remarks that the niqab frightens her, she is strangely gleeful when the woman orders french fries, openly staring to see how she will manage to eat with the niqab on.  Charlotte – who is paranoid about her husband boning the nanny – is on her cell phone, and Carrie reminds her that she is missing the spectacle of a woman eating fries through a niqab.  Yeah, that’s really seeing the world through a different lens.  The only other women they interact with are the women who save them after Samantha decides to do pelvic thrusts before shooting an angry crowd of religious men the finger. The women usher the four into a back room, where they reveal their love of couture and Suzanne Somers. Again, it’s cool to be different, as long as we are really the same on the inside.

The movie didn’t exceed my already low expectations, and was more disappointing as a fan of the actual series – even as the women trekked from their unabashedly smart and sexual skepticism in season one to the heights of materialism by the finale, there was always a little something there.  It’s pretty clear that Miranda isn’t shopping at bodegas anymore, but there was some plausible idea that the friendships between the woman would endure.  Watching both movies gave the impression that their friendships exist because of habit, more than any actual feeling.

However, women aren’t watching Sex and the City for its political message – it’s really about two other things:  Gender Bonding, and RomCom fantasy worlds.

Sex and the City is a phenomenon because of what it prompts women to do.  It isn’t so much about the characters, but the fact that millions of women have modified their behavior in accordance with the images shown on screen.  The idea of four friends dishing on life and love over cocktails didn’t begin with Sex and the City, but the cosmopolitan and the tartini owe their bar standing to the foursome.  Interestingly, it prompts many women into doing things like organizing entire parties around the release of the movie – it is a convenient excuse for a night off, and the women I was with (most with children or heading that way) were looking forward to getting dressed up and going out with friends as much as (if not more so) the actual movie.  And even those of us who are ambivalent about the series find ourselves heading off to the same gatherings because you haven’t seen your friends in a while and you don’t have a better idea.

Interestingly, this type of devotion extends to most, but not all, romantic comedies.  This is partially because of the bonding aspect, but also because the world that romantic comedies are selling.  Currently, it’s a world filled with fairy tale princesses with puffy dresses and sparkly shoes, looking for the right man to carry them to the wondrous world of matrimony. Many of these worlds sell a multilayered narrative – they give people the opportunity to take two hours and masquerade as a white, upper middle class woman with no unsolvable problems. People sigh about the fantasy escape, and pooh-pooh the discussions of plot and character development – after all, don’t we see these movies for the payoff, and not necessarily the realism of the narrative.

However, Just Wright which opened a few weeks before SATC benefited from none of the normal platitudes that sell romantic comedies. It had all the right ideas in place – the interesting meet, relatable main character, a touch of glamor, and the redemptive pay off near the end.  But Just Wright didn’t break $10 Million on it’s opening weekend at the box office, and when I went, I only spotted other African Americans in the theater.  The romcom was actually a bit better than others in its class – and trust me, as someone who sits through things like The Shopaholic and He’s Just Not That Into You on a regular basis, I know the routine. Just Wright was a very predictable movie, a good choice for a first date with someone you don’t know too well. The film was cute, a little nontraditional, and had a good soundtrack with the added bonus of Sanaa Hamri showing loving father-daughter relationships.  It was no worse than any of the romcoms I’ve seen recently – so why isn’t there the same slavish devotion to movies like Just Wright that are already fighting an uphill battle to be made in the first place?

Perhaps it is because far to many people don’t want the fantasy Latifah is selling over all these other carbon copy films.  Why put yourself in the shoes of a plus-sized rehabilitation specialist with a beat up old Mustang and a fixer-upper house, when you can be a thin white woman with money and a luxury job (or no job at all)?

We vote with our dollars, and women have spoken.

*I kid you not.  I was off duty that night, but one of the women at the table with us was married to an Asian American man, had seven mixed-race children who present as vaguely Latino, and recently found out she was moving to Arizona.  She told me an interesting story about being racially profiled because police officers can’t believe she’s married to an Asian guy…but that’s a story for another time.