Sex and the City’s Women of Color Problem.


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
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.

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

*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