In television news, this past week was marked by the announcement of ABC Family’s new shows for the fall, including a controversial one entitled Alice in Arabia, which was 86’ed after several days of uproar from CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and the general public, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. The premise of the show, created by ex-Army linguist/cryptographer Brooke Eikmeier, revolved around an American girl named Alice, who, after her parents’ death, gets kidnapped by her Saudi grandfather and taken to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she is put into the women’s section of the palace and shut out from exterior life, including leaving the nation because her grandfather now controls her passport.
A follow-up BuzzFeed has claimed to have obtained a copy of the script, which they say is “exactly what critics feared (McKay)”, rife with stereotypes, cultural errors, anti-American sentiment, and vain attempts to portray Muslim women in a positive light by showing them watching Sex and the City, wearing lingerie, and reading the news.
Here, I can see a case for both sides, and support it based on my own experiences.
First, the easy part: the cons. A show like Alice in Arabia could (and probably would) revert to the increase of Islamophobia in the United States as well as misidentification by those uninformed/unfamiliar with Islam and the differences between Arab, Muslim, Saudi, Moroccan, and Iraqi, to name a few. Any show which plays off of too many cultural stereotypes is seen as off-color, and if the acting is poor or errors are discovered, the show, its network, and its cast will pay for it dearly. Portrayal of Islam is a touchy subject; just look at the comic strip controversy in Denmark. Many within the Muslim community who would vocally and unequivocally disapprove and many outside the community would either stand by them or boycott the show for other reasons, such as not believing that this is appropriate “for the children” or some other reason. It could also potentially result in violence. There are obviously a ton more reasons, but message boards and BuzzFeed have already covered it.
Then, there’s the hard part: the potential of the pro. First of all, it could spark conversation about Islam and Saudi Arabia and lead some viewers to investigate more into Islam and maybe even change their views, much like Sister Wives and polygamy, or Long Island Medium and the supernatural. It’s not entirely untruthful to say that women are oppressed in Saudi Arabia; we know what we know, and the fact that there are secrets of Saudi society that they actively discourage outsiders to uncover is reason enough to believe that there is something shameful that is being hidden. It might be an unrealistic situation, but there are plenty of other shows with even more unrealistic situations and stereotypes that end up on our TV screens – Raven-Symoné was not actually psychic, Hannah Montana was not a real person, and hospitals are not anywhere in the realm of House, Scrubs, ER, General Hospital, or Nip/Tuck to name a few. Also, we have laughed at (and continue to laugh at) shows at the expense of stereotypes of Italians (The Sopranos, Everybody Loves Raymond), Jews (The Nanny), African-Americans (Martin, Everybody Hates Chris), the poor (Roseanne), the overweight (Mike & Molly), and others, something that has not yet been achieved with Muslims. Furthermore, a show like this, if accurately cast, could launch the career for promising young Muslim or Saudi actors who are more talented and worthy of our time than any of the (largely white) reality show contestants who are forced down our throats every time we turn on the TV.
Obviously, shows like this would mostly likely get things wrong and offend people, as Alice in Arabia was deemed to have done. The cons would be amplified higher than the pros.
What irks me the most in this situation, though, are the reactions it generates, and how unbalanced they seem to be. It’s all black and white, and there is no ability for some parties to look past the ends of their own noses. Some critics have stated that Alice gets it all wrong, one hundred percent of it, and that every detail, sight unseen, is disgusting/stereotypical/abhorrent/pick-a-word. There is an element of tunnel vision that’s at play here to a certain extent.
And I speak from experience.
A few years ago, a Muslim friend of mine who is now an ex-friend, posted some pretty hateful stuff on Facebook about Israel, calling it an “apartheid state that needs to be eliminated.” First off, I’m pretty sure that that statement is a threat, if not hate speech, which is against Facebook’s policy. Second of all, having a statement like that connected to one’s name might cause consequences, anywhere from getting fired from your job to being investigated by the government as someone who actually has a plan to hurt someone, which is not good. I couldn’t say silent; I brought both these facts up to her, and added the fact that what does it say that Muslim women in Israel are allowed to drive (unlike Saudi Arabia, at that time), and allowed to wear their choice of head/face covering (unlike France, which might punish this girl, who wears a hijab). This started a comment/message war between us, where she basically pointed the finger of “you don’t know Islam, and you never will” and “you don’t understand where I come from,” which eventually became “you’re a racist and a Muslim-hater” and “since you are white and not Muslim, you have no place in this argument” and “your opinions are invalid and don’t matter anyway.” Instead of asking her to put her money where her mouth was (do you know everything about the Arab experience? The Muslim experience? If a Muslim can write a book on Christianity, why can’t it be the other way around?) I ended it there and defriended her. (By the way, at this point in my life, I had spent a year living in Israel, whereas she was born and raised in the Muslim homeland of Delaware, and had never actually set foot in the Middle East or an Arab country.) I hadn’t given up hope yet. I have another friend, who is also Muslim, and was born in Morocco and raised in the United Arab Emirates, so I sought out her opinion. She did not agree with either of us, but she said that I was absolutely correct in pointing out the dangers Muslim women face in Saudi Arabia and France that they do not face in Israel or the USA. She then added that Morocco and Dubai, while considered to be among the more secular of Muslim societies, still frown upon public practice of non-Muslim religions, and that Dubai is nowhere near as liberal as it was portrayed in the Sex and the City movie.
In conclusion, I think that there’s no better time than the present for an American television show about Muslims. Not in the same vein of Alice in Arabia, but not showing something that is completely unrealistic. After all, part of sitcom is comedy, and if Muslims are not ready or willing to laugh at themselves or consider being laughed at, that’s cool, we can wait. But television has proven, in the past, to also have the ability to break stereotypes and norms, so it works that way too. I feel like if some Muslims would let their guard down, America would reciprocate in kind, and even begin to question, and ::gasp:: maybe even find ways to identify with our Muslim friends and neighbors.
For now, that option has been completely taken off of the table, but if and when it comes up again, we should go ask Alice to write and produce her own sitcom.
McDonough, Katie. “ABC Family cancels Alice in Arabia after being called out for the pilot’s glaring racism.” Salon.com. 23 March 2014. http://www.salon.com/2014/03/23/abc_family_cancels_alice_in_arabia_after_being_called_out_for_the_pilots_glaring_racism/
McKay, Tom. “Alice in Arabia” was Really as Shocking as All the Critics Said – Just Take a Look at the Script.” PolicyMic.com. 22 March 2014. http://www.policymic.com/articles/85989/alice-in-arabia-was-really-as-shocking-as-all-the-critics-said-just-take-a-look-at-the-script.