In the space of about seven days, ABC Family’s new pilot Alice In Arabia went from one-paragraph blurb to leaked script to being cancelled over overwhelming outrage. That’s a great sign that we’re not willing to accept tired stereotypical stories about Arabs and Muslims wrapped in a veneer of sensitivity — and that we should soon have shows by Arab and Muslim writers that ditch these tired formulas.
TV and movies often try to get away with negative stereotypes by including “good” stereotypes as a false balance. It’s made far worse when writers try and portray people of a community they aren’t a part of, inevitably projecting their own concerns about that community instead of creating realistic, whole characters. Alice seemed to be on track to commit all of these faux pas.
The show got off to a bad start — the short summary released by ABC Family featured kidnapping, a royal patriarch, repression of Muslim women, and the phrase “behind the veil.” That was enough to provoke a backlash and trending topic on Twitter, and concerned statements from the Council of American-Islamic Relations and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. ABC Family and the pilot’s writer, Brooke Elkmeier, responded predictably, with assurances that the show would be a “nuanced and character-driven” take, without disputing that the central conflict would be “backwards East” versus “liberated West” as implied in the blurb.
But then someone involved with the show leaked an early script to BuzzFeed, and reporter Rega Jha found it “likely to confirm early fears.” After Alice, an American 16-year-old, loses her parents in a car crash, she is trapped in Saudi Arabia by her long-lost grandfather, and forced to give up her formerly free and equal life. In Jha’s description of the episode, Alice is heavy on assurances that Muslim women are just like us — “even under the drabbest of veils” — and are humanized and sexualized by their interest in Western lingerie and Desperate Housewives. Some of the women embrace norms like engagement at age 14, while others rebelliously insist on education over marriage, which is presumably supposed to be the nuance on gender equality.
The fact that these questions are the focus is the problem. Shows don’t go to such lengths to remind us that white characters are human, and it’s unclear where it would leave Alice’s women if they didn’t happen to like American pop culture. Similarly, TV shows manage to depict white men and women in all sorts of scenarios where they aren’t defined by political struggles over gender equality or their race or religion, even though those are pressing issues. But Arab women can’t be anything but props in an argument about oppression.
American media has virtually no characters of Arab or Muslim background who aren’t defined by stereotypical political issues. As expressed in a tweet from Khaled Bey:
In that way, the debacle over Alice has served to highlight how absent realistic depictions of Arabs and Muslims are from TV. It makes sense to ditch a rare show-length treatment of Arabs and Muslims if it’s just going to repeat the same old cliches without any nuance.
Alice’s writer, Eikmeier, responded to critics on Facebook by saying the show “is meant to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV.” It’s worth wondering why that voice would be best-expressed by a member of the armed forces whose experience with the Middle East comes from occupying a nation rather than say, a member of one of these communities.
Dean Obeidallah makes the convincing case that this is the heart of the problem. A project about Arabs and Muslims that isn’t made by Arabs and Muslims is likely to gravitate towards reductive tropes, to the issues that the rest of the world associates with them, rather than the ones they deem important. Maybe the outcry over Alice will help fuel that effort.
Obeidallah also called for a “fair” portrayal of Arabs and Muslims, a “show that features the good and bad in our community,” but I’d say that’s exactly what Alice was ineptly trying to do. We’ve got enough shows that assume Muslim and Arab characters can only be approached by pitting good versus bad, fundamentalism versus liberalism, violence versus peace, or in the case of shows like 24 or Lost violence against the good guys versus violence to help them. One of the best things about the current boom in TV is the willingness to recognize that realistic characters can’t be reduced to good or bad. Now we need the same freedom for Arab and Muslim characters, and it starts when Arabs and Muslims are the ones writing them.