I went into this film forewarned that it would reduce the cause of feminism to a shallow, materialist parody, while also being terrifyingly offensive about Middle Eastern culture to boot. Some of the reviews I had read included:
- Lindy West in The Seattle Stranger, who expresses horror at the film's warped vision of modern feminism
- Laurie Penny in The New Statesman, who sets it against the wider context of what feminist priorities really need to be in the 21st century
- Hadley Freeman in The Guardian, who compares it unfavourably with the television series
But the experience of watching it ended up being for me above all an object lesson in the dangers of over-stating a rhetorical case. Because while I agree with the basic points which all of the above reviews are making, now that I have seen the film I can also see that in several places all three of them have slipped into caricaturing what the film actually does in order to get those points across. The result is that I find myself in the rather odd position of feeling that I need to defend certain aspects of the film against particular points made in those reviews, even though I entirely agree with their overall assessments.
See the thing is - yes, Samantha is shown taking 44 vitamin pills every morning to 'trick [her] body into believing that it is younger'. But we are not being asked to admire or aspire to this ourselves. In fact, I think Hadley Freeman in The Guardian is simply incorrect to state that Carrie and Miranda look impressed by what Samantha is doing. They appeared to me to be faintly horrified, while Miranda's retort that she has tricked her body into thinking that it is thinner seemed more to me like her way of signalling to a now-rather-ashamed Samantha that she is her friend and doesn't intend to judge her than it did an agreement that such behaviour is to be embraced. Furthermore, just as Samantha has filled her mouth with pills, Charlotte's buxom new au pair comes bounding across the lawn in slow-motion, over-flowing with the flush and beauty of real youth. Samantha gapes enviously, and we are treated to a close-up shot of her open mouth full of pills as she does so. To me, this was a direct invitation to us in the audience to compare Samantha's vain attempts to fake youth with the epitome of the real thing - and to draw our own conclusions.
And yes, we are shown that Miranda's job is interfering with her home life, and yes, she leaves it and is (temporarily) much happier. But Lindy West in the Seattle Stranger distorts the case by suggested that the underlying message here is: "This is because women should not work. It is terrible for the children." Because we are also explicitly shown that the problem is not the fact that Miranda works per se, but the fact that her boss in this particular job is a sexist asshole who regularly tells her to stop talking so that he can listen to her male colleagues instead. On holiday in Abu Dhabi, Miranda tells Charlotte that motherhood alone is not enough for her, and also rises instantly, willingly and competently to the challenge when Samantha suddenly turns out to need legal aid (see below). And at the end of the film she gets a new job which she finds fulfilling and satisfying. OK, yes, so this particular plot development gets all of about thirty seconds of screen-time, which is a problem in itself. But that is the satisfactory resolution to Miranda's story, not leaving the miserable job for full-time motherhood in the first place.
And yes, we do indeed witness the sorry spectacle of Samantha hurling condoms at Middle Eastern men in the street, and yelling at them that real women fuck. But again, we are not asked to applaud this. It is in fact part of a wider story arc in which she clashes disastrously with the local culture, and which has also included her getting arrested for fondling and kissing a man in public, and then finding that as a result she has been unceremoniously dropped from the PR assignment which brought her to Abu Dhabi in the first place and ejected from the hotel. The condom-hurling scene happens because she is sleep-deprived and humiliated after her arrest, and someone has just accused her of stealing her own handbag - which is the reason why her its contents, including the condoms, have ended up scattered across the road. So while none of this shows Samantha off to good effect, it is also disingenuous of reviewers to suggest either that she does it purely for kicks, or that we aren't given every invitation to cringe along with her friends at her behaviour. Indeed, I thought that Samantha's whole trajectory in this story was presented in a way which showed up her limitations and asked us as the audience to aspire to something better - actually quite an admirable and challenging thing for the film to be trying to do.
So all in all, this may be a pretty crappy film, peddling some seriously unsound ideologies and not even terribly well put-together as a story. But you know, when the reviews make that very point by peddling distorted half-truths, they also undermine their own case. I guess I should know by my age that that's how journalism works (she says, still scowling angrily at The Telegraph). But sometimes I don't half wish it wasn't.
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