This summer's blockbusters overwhelmingly feature white actors, a stark effect even by Hollywood standards. Relatedly, another big tent movie, Sex And The City 2, is defending itself against charges of cultural insensitivity. But seriously, people. We know hijabs are hilarious.
A.O. Scott writes in The Times,
"The ugly smell of unexamined privilege hangs over this film like the smoke from cheap incense. Over cosmos in their private bar, Charlotte and Miranda commiserate about the hardships of motherhood and then raise their glasses to moms who "don't have help," by which they mean paid servants. Later the climactic crisis raises the specter either of Samantha going to jail or the friends having to fly home in coach, and it's not altogether clear which prospect they regard as more dreadful.
But what about their unexamined privilege as wealthy, white, American women giggling about camel toe jokes all over Abu Dhabi? This is, after all, a franchise that grudgingly added a black character in its first movie, and it was as an assistant. According to Dodai, who just took one for the team, Samantha is the most nakedly offensive (get it?), Charlotte is clueless and condescending but gets called on it, and Carrie gets wisdom from a zen-like brown person who is serving as her butler. True to form, Miranda has read a lot of books and muses about how men everywhere want women covered up and oppressed. Dodai has a friend who saw it and posited that the movie could be used "as a terrorist propaganda film to pump up the Taliban," as so potent a symbol of Western decadence and blithe indifference to the outside world.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film won't be released in any country in the Middle East. It falls to Cynthia Nixon to defend it:
"Samantha is disrespectful, but Samantha is disrespectful in New York and she is disrespectful in the Middle East and she just really doesn't care," she said...Scenes where the four women seek to understand women wearing burqas show their curiosity, said Nixon. "The characters are trying to make sense of that, is it their choice? Or is it men's choice and what does it make them feel?" said Nixon.
It is plausible that a woman like Samantha would not show up in Abu Dhabi with any semblance of cultural sensitivity. (After years of small talk at parties helmed by real-life Samantha PR types, I can personally testify to that.) But it appears that it is easy for the characters' freewheeling ignorance to be conflated with the audience's own perspective, and indeed be taken as a sort of pseudo-feminist liberation, graciously bestowed by the New Yorkers. The Hollywood Reporter's reviewer seems confused on this front:
[The characters] run up against the puritanical and misogynistic culture of the Middle East. The rather scathing portrayal of Muslim society no doubt will stir controversy, especially in a frothy summer entertainment, but there's something bracing about the film's saucy political incorrectness. Or is it politically correct? "SATC 2" is at once proudly feminist and blatantly anti-Muslim, which means that it might confound liberal viewers.
It may also confound them that there is smug, incurious, borderline cultural imperialism that is sometimes called feminism, but that also happens in real life. There is also a scene where the characters perform Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" in an Abu Dhabi nightclub, and one where they are rescued by "a bunch of Muslim women who strip off their black robes to reveal the stylish Western outfits they are concealing beneath their discreet garb....It also is a pleasure to see Cattrall flaunt her sexual imperatives in front of her Arab hosts.
Whose pleasure, exactly? Dodai says they bond with the Muslim saviors when they realize they all love Suzanne Somers, fancy clothes, and anti-wrinkle cream. Sisters under their abayas!
It's not like we expect Hollywood to have Carrie and crew work at an NGO or read Edward Said before their departure. But once again, the general audience is treated to an experience of Abu Dhabi, Muslim women, and the world outside Manhattan (whatever that is!) through the eyes of the same white, wealthy privileged people who consistently take the foreground.
They also take the foreground in nearly every other major movie opening this summer. The Wrap points out that there are no major summer studio flicks starring actors of color. And in movies where Hollywood might have mixed it up a bit, white actors have been cast. M. Night Shyamalan'sThe Last Airbender, based on a Nickelodeon martial arts series featuring Asian and Inuit characters, has been cast with white actors in the leads. And Jake Gyllenhaal is playing the Prince of Persia — with a British accent (that makes you seem more foreign, as we learned from Drew Barrymore in Ever After, and legion others.) No word on camel and desert punnery in that movie.
It's a variation on the Avatar theme. White people: Relatable, universal, regular.
Props to The Wrap's graphics team, by the way. Nobody puts Jaden in the corner!