RUSSO: Challenge the stereotypes
Hollywood consistently misrepresents minority groups by utilizing Western frameworks
ABC Family recently canceled the pilot for its new series “Alice in Arabia”, whose title alludes to Lewis Carroll’s British classic, “Alice in Wonderland.” The premise of the show is reminiscent of Orientalist depictions of the Middle East that are typical of an imperialist and overtly outdated western framework. The fact that a public outcry led by Muslim activist groups, rather than discretion within the ABC Family network, led to the show’s cancellation highlights troubling problems with how the Middle East is portrayed by Hollywood.
In the past century, television and movies have yielded a strong influence on public consciousness. Unfortunately, the glitz and glamour of Hollywood has been tarnished — since its conception — by the continuous marginalization of minority groups and the perpetuation of racist stereotypes. Rather than accurately representing the diverse identities that exist within minority groups in the United States, Hollywood has, more often than not, reflected the American public’s generalizations which are rooted in prejudice and fear of “the other.”
“Orientalism” is a term defined by Edward Said, who was a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, in 1978. Through his examination of western literature on the Middle East, Said found the West had created a framework for the “Orient” that homogenized an extremely diverse region and portrayed it as barbaric, exotic and fundamentally inferior to the West, in order to legitimize political and social imperialism. The base claim of orientalism — that the West is normal and the Middle East is backwards — is glaringly obvious in the pretense of “Alice in Arabia.”
The creator and writer of the show is Brooke Eikmeier, who worked as a linguistic cryptologist specializing in Arabic for the US Army. Eikmeier responded to the public backlash that ensued when the show was announced on Facebook, saying “This show is meant to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV. It has noble intentions.” Although I would like to assume the show was written with that promising goal in mind, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the premise of the show involves a kidnapping. The heroine, an American girl, is kidnapped by her extended family and forced to “survive behind the veil” using her “independence and wit.” This depiction of the hijab as a tool for oppressing women reeks of western bias and misunderstanding of a cultural practice widely supported by its so called “victims”. There is no evidence in the show’s short description of a genuine mechanism through which Middle Easterners would be given a voice, especially with the heroine being an American girl.
“Alice in Wonderland” is the story of a young girl who falls down a rabbit hole into the colorful and terrifying world of “Wonderland,” in which she encounters bizarre characters and situations. The comparison that Eikmeier suggests in the show’s title is horrifically misguided at best. For starters, “Arabia” is not a place. Just as Disney’s 1992 film “Aladdin” used the imagined city of “Agrabah” as a way to have free reign in its use of incorrect and archaic depictions of the Middle East, it is likely the vague term “Arabia,” which may or may not specifically refer to Saudi Arabia (or perhaps the Arabian peninsula), will serve the same purpose. Secondly, illustrating the Middle East as an exotic and bizarre place is a classic method of undermining its cultural, political, and social complexity.
Shortly after it was announced, the proposed pilot ignited outrage among Middle Eastern activist groups in the United States. According to the International Business Times, ABC Family met with spokespeople from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a group that advocates for increased understanding of Islam and protection of Muslim civil rights, to discuss their concerns about the effect the show would have on Muslim Americans. This meeting, along with general public outcry, led to the eventual cancelation of the pilot. An ABC Family spokesperson responded to the cancelation by saying, “the current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned and is certainly not conducive to the creative process.” It appears that ABC Family canceled the showed not because it realized that the outcry was rooted in valid concerns, but rather due to fear of bad publicity for the network.
Stories that involve the Middle East and its inhabitants, as well as those of Middle Eastern peoples living in the US, are more than worthy of telling. If told correctly, they will challenge and weaken western misconceptions of the region. Since Hollywood is a western medium, by virtue of its location as well as its ideological bias, television networks and film production companies should engage in consistent conversation with Middle Eastern groups in order to authenticate and substantiate their narratives. Television shows and movies that deal with the Middle East should hire writers from the region, not just western “experts.” Middle Easterners deserve to be fairly and accurately represented in television and movies. However, the prospects for fair representation are extremely slim if those being represented are not involved in the creative process.
Mary Russo is a Viewpoint Writer.