Sex and the City’s Women of Color Problem.

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When I went to see the much-reviewed Sex and the City 2 this weekend with four other women of color, I was reminded of an essay by bell hooks, “Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators”:

Within my family’s Southern black working-class home, located in a racially segregated neighborhood, watching television was one way to develop critical spectatorship. Unless you went to work in the white world, across the tracks, you learned to look at white people by starting at them on the screen. Black looks, as they were constituted in the context of social movements for racial uplift, were interrogating gazes. We laughed at television shows like Our Gang and Amos ‘n’ Andy at these white representations of blackness, but we also looked at them critically. Before racial integration, black reviewers of movies and television experienced visual pleasure in a context where looking was also about contestation and confrontation.

I like this quote, because it recognizes the negotiation we have to make as people of color when watching things that are sometimes blatantly racist: finding moments of enjoyment while still critiquing them. If spectatorship has embedded within it both enjoyment and critique, then what does that mean for the horrifying spectacle made of women of color in the Sex and the City series, most notably in the latest SATC movie? Did they learn nothing from the embarrassment that was Jennifer Hudson’s character in the last movie?

There are so many other aspects of the movie I liked and didn’t like, but I want to focus on the representation of people of color, most notably women of color and how SATC2 played up archaic feminist ideas about women of color. After all, of the many, many reviews written about SATC (more than I can even link to), most have not prominently featured the voices of those most marginalized throughout the movie and its surrounding media: women of color that are SATC fans.

And, perhaps much to your dismay, there are a lot of us. Women of color* have laughed along with SATC, we have loved it, we have gotten invested in the characters. We could relate to endless stories of dating while being savvy, independent, and smart. We even managed to ignore the fact that they have never had a prominent person of color on the show. (Let’s be real, some of us like shoes and handbags, too.)

But despite this continued patronage from women of color, this time
SATC not only failed to deliver, it made our differences markedly
articulated to the point of just rubbing them in our faces. Of the
numerous scenes that brought this reality to bear, the one that sticks
out in my mind is when the “girls” sing “I am woman hear me
roar”
at a karaoke bar in the United Arab Emirates. (If you haven’t
read a plot summary or seen the movie, they take an all expensive paid
trip to the UAE, which is where all these blasphemous violations of
transnational feminist solidarity occur. What’s coming in Part 3?
Rwanda? Yikes.)

“I Am Woman” was a telling karaoke choice, as
it was a major theme song of 1970’s feminism. Yeah, you know, that
really outdated form of feminism that had to be called out by
generations of women of color and continues to reproduce itself, at
least in the mainstream media, even as we try to avoid it. This
decades-old, white-dominated conception of feminism is where SATC got
stuck in its attempt to create a new narrative about women, dating and
sex. The movie advances a type of feminism that relies on silencing
women of color and rendering them invisible, only conjuring them up when
they need to compare how much better they have it, or for the
occasional faux attempt at cross-cultural dialogue. When Carrie,
Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha sing “I’m every woman,” they might as
well mean “Every woman is white, wealthy, and American.”

Throughout the movie people of color are decorations used to prove
points. While they might make important incisions to the narrative, they
never actually disrupt the fundamental lesson: that social, racial and
economic privilege is what ultimately garners you romantic love. At one
point Carrie in interacting with her personal butler in the UAE and
discovers that he only gets to see his wife once every three months
because she lives in India. This becomes the perfect footnote to her
ongoing narrative throughout the movie of finding love on her own terms
(which I actually loved). What the movie fails to address is that it is
not just “work” that keeps the butler and his wife apart, it is the
unjust circuit of travel and work between South Asia and the UAE and,
more broadly, the global capital flow that has displaced families and
made it impossible for them to stay together. This story, of
transnational migration due to labor conditions, is at the epicenter of
the modern world. Hell, my parents had to live apart for two years
because one had to move to the United States, and it was far from
romantic. Carrie, of course, does not learn a lesson about transnational
labor. Her takeaway? That she and Big can stand to spend two days apart
per week, blocks away in separate multi-million-dollar Manhattan
apartments. I mean, can we get a little humility here? Way to alienate
any migrant or immigrant watching the film.

Because it was mostly set in the UAE, of course the movie was full of
weird and embarrassing attempts at trying to understand veiling
practices. Perhaps on one level the main characters’ snarky comments
(“she’s lifting her veil to eat french fries, one at a time,” “check out
the bling on that veil”) served as a moment of demystification for the
greater movie-going audience, teaching them that veiling is not a
prehistoric phenomena but a contemporary act. At one point Miranda even
tries to build some transnational feminist solidarity by saying, “you
know, I think the men at my law firm would be happy with me having a
veil over my face and eating french fries through it.” Her misguided
attempt at cross-cultural understanding reveals that she sees the veil
as the ultimate sign of female subjugation, thereby rendering the woman
with the veil silent (even after saying, “it is almost as though they
don’t want them to speak). It is a tired trope, and given the way that
veiling has been in international news, frankly it is irresponsible. In
this case again, “I am every woman,” means “you should be a first world
woman like me.”

After Samantha’s bag rips open in front of a handful of clerics,
scattering a million condoms on the street (actually one of my favorite
scenes in the movie), she and her friends are forced to duck off the
street to hide. They discover a book club of women who are all obsessed
with fashion and are wearing the latest clothes from New York fashion
week. This scene, one of the most hated parts of the movie by many
reviewers, epitomized the notion that women can connect over “women”
things like expensive clothing. I did not hate this scene, perhaps
because I can relate to it. I have so much family that lives outside the
US and loves US fashion. There is some truth to this story about women
who wear both a veil and designer clothes, but the overall message that
“under the veil, Muslim women are just like us,” fails to recognize
difference in the service of finding “global sisterhood.” At least they
didn’t all sing “I Am Woman” together.

Another moment of WOC feminist agony is near the end of the movie
when the ladies are trying to get a taxi cab to the airport, but they
can’t because they are in burkas (that they had to throw on to escape
the angry mob of clerics running after them due to Samantha’s
transgressions). Carrie remembers an old movie she was watching
with Big, in which a woman shows leg to get a cab — and she has the
bright idea to do it herself, flashing her bare leg out from under the
burka. The scene represents not only her ability to connect with Big
despite space and time, but the fact that they are in the past, where
women who wear the veil are just waiting to catch up to their Western,
sexually liberated sisters.

It almost seemed that the movie was trying to carve out a
difference between white women and women of color, erasing them
completely, using them to make points. In the HBO series and previous
movie, the gals were rather innocuous characters located in a very
specific time and place telling honest, snarky stories about dating and
sex in an attempt to move us to a new (almost feminist) narrative of
love. In Sex and the City 2, they became caricatures of racist
women I have interacted with in my life, people I couldn’t relate to
anymore, people that would ask me if the kama sutra impacted my sex life
or if I could say my last name again, slowly (Miranda would try extra
hard to pronounce it). They became characters I could no longer relate
to — the feminists I fought against to make space for myself in
feminism but would spend the rest of my life fighting against.

So
I gotta know, SATC, why would you do us like that? We loved you for so
long.

*Please excuse my excessive generalizing, I can only speak of the
WOC I know that have loved SATC for its entire duration.

Join the Conversation

  • Comrade Kevin

    The way you describe the placement of POC within the movie reminds me of the plot structure of the silent films from the 20’s and sometimes even a bit earlier that I adore. One often finds redeeming qualities alongside the offensiveness. I suppose the lesson here is that filmmakers and we as a culture haven’t really learned our lesson yet.

  • davenj

    Love it. Love everything about it. Makes me want to write my “The Problem with Percy Jackson” piece that’s been brewing for months now. There’s got to be critical analysis of tropes like this to at least shine a light on what could otherwise be overlooked.

  • middlechild

    We even managed to ignore the fact that they have never had a prominent person of color on the show.”
    One of Miranda’s love interests, played by Blair Underwood (on the show).
    I might half-heartedly defend or shrug at criticisms of the show, but I have nothing nice to say about this movie.

  • middlechild

    Her misguided attempt at cross-cultural understanding reveals that she sees the veil as the ultimate sign of female subjugation, thereby rendering the woman with the veil silent (even after saying, “it is almost as though they don’t want them to speak). It is a tired trope, and given the way that veiling has been in international news, frankly it is irresponsible. In this case again, “I am every woman,” means “you should be a first world woman like me.”‘
    Well, maybe one defense. What is the deal with defending veiling? I understand objections to laws that ban veiling (although, I have to admit, the NYTimes article discussed this once, in the case of a preschool teacher….I have to say, unless the children are used to adults being veiled, I can understand why parents would find it problematic. The child in the article was afraid and confused and thought his teacher “looked like a ghost” under that sheet.)
    Am I that misinformed? There’s NOTHING wrong with veiling? There’s NEVER an instance where veiling isn’t so much women’s free exercise of religious/cultural beliefs, but something imposed (perhaps through brutal force) on them by (male) authorities?

  • pedestrian

    I was a devoted fan of the series, but even then there were serious problems, I just didn’t notice them right away. At first it was just that everyone was white, but that is TV in general.
    Then I saw the “interracial dating” episode where Samantha has a brief fling with a gorgeous black man. She wears him like an accessory and buys a whole new wardrobe to be “ghetto fabulous.” The man’s sister is not impressed and says something along the lines of, “just because you’re wearing J-Lo dresses, that doesn’t mean you belong here,” perhaps the only time a black woman is ever given a voice on the show. There is almost a palpable sense of relief as Samantha breaks up with him, but NOT because she’s a racist (after all, she’s dated a BLACK guy); because he didn’t chose Samantha over his matriarchal sister, which means he isn’t “man” enough for her.
    After that episode I noticed similar treatment of service workers, gay people, rural people, and anyone else who fell out of the white, wealthy world that makes up their existence.

    • http://feministing.com/members/sweetbearies/ Sweetbearies

      Actually, disagree here about the treatment of gays. This show has given gays prominent roles, and most of the male writers for the show were gay. Yes they do not always treat workers the best, but those people are of all ethnic backgrounds. For instance, when Charlotte’s character made the comment about how they do not live in a classless society and Miranda should dump Steve, she was referring to Miranda’s white boyfriend who was struggling financially. The women giving the girl’s a pedicure when Charlotte said this were all white, thus amply demonstrating their disregard for services people of all races. However, I would say anyone in a position of wealth who has many servants and others to do things for them probably comes across this way from time to time. Carrie’s character actually looked more offended by Charlotte’s comment. Charlotte’s character has actually come a long way in the show, but these characters are very WASPy upper class for sure.

  • middlechild

    This was that case. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aishah_Azmi
    I’m sorry this woman lost her job but I do wonder how she could effectively teach/interact if her face and mouth are covered.

  • MaggieF

    …”or if I could say my last name again, slowly…”
    Maybe a little off-topic, but why is this necessarily racist? I am a white person whose name is constantly mispronounced, and it can be annoying, but I don’t assume the people who do it are anti-German. It takes people a little time to have unfamiliar words rolling off their tongues, especially since many languages include syllables and syllable combinations that either don’t exist in English or are very rare.
    Anyway, if I were going to have a lot of interactions with someone whose last name were unfamiliar to me, I might actually ask them to pronounce it for me a little slowly, so I can be sure I get it right.

  • Icy Bear

    This is a lovely piece. Despite never having really watched SATC (well, I watched a few episodes of the series and the first movie – but I am far from a fan!), I’m a cultural studies dork and have been obsessively reading all the reviews I can find of this movie over the past few days. I was wondering when Feministing would take on the topic, and now here it is, with a review that is particularly thoughtful and engaging! :)

  • liz

    This is a brilliant review, and you make great points about the limits of the show, as well. That indicates that this is not just a movie or a show but a cultural product, and while it seems like it may have some feminist attitudes, it is really about women and class and not at all about feminism.
    These characters are not just wealthy women; they are social climbers, who struggle to attain or maintain wealth, often through marriage / relationships with men. Insofar as it is a commodity and message, it is a far more dangerous tool of American imperialism than even this smart op-ed indicates. Rather than alienate working-class, poor, immigrant, and non-white women, it sends them a message that aspiration is their only allowed focus. They must find levels on which they can “relate,” because, afterall, the women in the show / movie are the only way to be.
    What scares me about it is that it wants viewers to table their experiences in gives them a ready alternative through which to read their lives.
    The lie of female emancipation through wealth is the metaphorical veil for American women.

    • http://feministing.com/members/sweetbearies/ Sweetbearies

      Sex and the City is mostly fantasy, and I would say watching this series and the movies might teach everyone about why material wealth might not be the best way to seek happiness in life. I am a poor freelance writer that works on my art work on the side, and I have learned to be happy over the years. Carrie, despite all her wealth, never seems truly happy. Miranda, despite all her health and career success, is constantly frustrated. Charlotte is paranoid about Harry cheating with the nanny, and Samantha is obsessed with maintaining her youth. If you think that wealth and social mobility bring happiness in life, I think watch Sex in the City might conversely illustrate why yearning for less might actually bring your more happiness in life.

  • Jessica Lee

    I thought that the first movie was incredibly racist (one scene comes to mind when Miranda is trying to find a house and she says something along the lines of “Follow the white man with a baby!”). Then I saw the previews for this movie and it made me feel sick to my stomach. As if POC and the Middle East weren’t ostracized enough by American media, SATC2 has to alienate them further. Congrats, SATC2!

    • http://feministing.com/members/sweetbearies/ Sweetbearies

      Yeah I was sort of turned off by the comment to, but I think Miranda said that because she was looking for a place to rent. I do not like how people think they have to always be among “their own people” and in the same community, but on the other hand I have heard people of all ethnic backgrounds say stuff like that. It was awkward and inappropriate line in the movie, but Miranda’s character is not the only one who says things like that.

  • Lydia

    I agree. I strongly oppose laws that ban veiling and this film may handle the subject in a totally crass, insensitive, and condescending way but I’m not such a relativist that I’m not willing to say that the burka is just sexist as far as I’m concerned. And, yeah, I know some women choose it. Some women choose breast implants too. They’re equally sexually objectifying in my view, just in different ways.

  • Lydia

    yeah, and what’s with “Miranda would try extra hard to pronounce it?” Um, sorry but why is that a bad thing? I mean, there’s a respectful way and a trying-to-be-respectful-but-ending-up-patronizing way to do everything (and I sort of get that. Maybe it’s kind of like one of my favorite comedy moments which occurs in “Meet the Parents.” Owen Wilson’s WASPy whitebread character turns to Ben Stiller’s fiancee’s WASPy whitebread family and says of his latest project “It’s an altar.” And then, turning to Ben Stiller’s Jewish character, says exaggeratedly, “Greg, you might call it a ccchhhhhupah.”) But, in and of itself, what’s wrong with somebody trying to pronounce a name that is unfamiliar to them properly? Would it be not racist if Miranda were just to pronounce it wrong?

  • seicar

    I absolutely agree with Liz that this screams “American imperialism”. It constantly struck me as an “Idiot’s Guide to the Middle East” – American ethnocentrism. Coming from a fairly diverse Canadian city, I was alarmed by the xenophobic undertone.
    Like others have pointed out, SATC2 amounts to portraying difference as negative and “behind the times,” with these women only wishing to escape their repressive, “backwards” lives and to “catch up” to their American counterparts.
    While the film seems to allude to a feminist foundation, I found it to equate the practice of veiling to “woman as property”; in that same line of thought, why does it not question the power dynamic of Western men and women, particularly Big’s blatant branding of Carrie with a massive diamond ring? I thought that that was a fairly obvious symmetry?

  • http://feministing.com/members/sweetbearies/ Sweetbearies

    I disagree with a lot of what you have said here. First off, Jennifer Hudson auditioned for the role to be Carrie’s personal assistant, and anyone who knows that watched the movie that she was the most intelligent and savvy applicant for the job. She even helps Carrie when she is ditsy about many things, like sitting up a website, which is not that hard, so I am not sure why you find Hudson’s role embarrassing. Hudson does not feel that way, so why do you?

    Another point I wanted to make is that I am ethnically mixed and part Middle Eastern, and people of all ethnic backgrounds make rude comments about people from the Middle East. I have even heard African Americans do this, and there is an episode of the Tyra show you might want to watch where an African American woman makes offensive comments about a Middle Eastern American woman wearing a veil. Tyra actually creates an assignment for her by having the African American woman wear a veil and travel with the Middle Eastern woman to the airport, which teaches both more about tolerance and understanding.

    I am all about calling out prejudice and bigotry when I see it, but one mistake I think we make is to act like it is all on one side. I think we should spend more time address real racism, like the imagery the Tea Party carries in protest of President Obama than looking for racism where it is not. Yes Carrie and the gang are not culturally savvy, but guess what? I can wager to bet many Americans, no matter what ethnic group or social status they are from, would make a lot of the same gaffes in the Middle East. Carrie sympathizing with Giron not being able to see his wife is just that, and if you want a film that gets into the troubling circumstances of how Indian workers are treated in the Middle East, I suggest something more politically informed than Sex and the City. Okay, I was troubled by some of the decadence and such, but looking for racism where it is not really is not helpful to anyone. Mostly the four just seem misinformed about the Middle East, and that is about it.