When the creators of a popular show set in the Middle East called actress Azita Ghanizada in 2016 to come in for a third audition, she braced herself for the feeling of disappointment that, by then in her nearly two decades-long acting career, had become distressingly familiar.
“The creators were asking me questions about my childhood and origin story,” Ghanizada, who is Afghan-American, told ThinkProgress by phone. “I told them about our asylum story, how I spent my childhood by my mother’s side while she fought to get her family out of refugee camps.”
“They looked at me and said, ‘You know, Azita, women from your region of the world don’t look like you.'”
Ghanizada felt dumbfounded. She ultimately was not cast in the role, but she said that the incident, and other similar past experiences, opened her eyes to the hurdles Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) actors face in getting cast on television and film.
“That moment, to have someone with power in telling stories … stare at me and simply not accept that we are not just the unflattering stereotypes they continue to push into the mainstream was a breaking point,” she said.
Ghanizada’s experience is all too common among MENA actors in Hollywood. In the first study of its kind, presented by the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC) — a group founded by Ghanizada, along with actors Amir Talai, Assaf Cohen, and Amin El-Gamal — researchers found that 92 percent of scripted TV shows in the 2015-2016 primetime season did not have a single MENA series regular, compared to the 96 percent of TV shows that had at least one white series regular.
In fact, MENA actors comprised of only one percent of regular actors on TV, despite making up more than three percent of the U.S. population. This stands in sharp contrast to white actors, who made up nearly 70 percent of TV series regulars.
The study also found that 90 percent of shows that feature MENA series regulars only feature one, running the risk of tokenizing the character within the show’s context. Only 20 shows featured MENA actors as regular cast members.
“There’s a massive underrepresentation of MENA actors, regulars on TV,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, associate professor at Biola University in California and one of the study’s co-authors. “We looked at regulars because these are the characters that audiences tend to identify with. They’re prominently featured week after week.”
When MENA actors are cast to portray MENA characters, 67 percent appear on crime and geopolitical dramas and 78 percent are cast to play trained terrorists, agents, soldiers, or tyrants, roles that have deep societal and political implications for a community that continues to experience racism and Islamophobia in the United States.
“A lot of those roles are feeding into really dangerous stereotypes that we’re not only seeing in the news, and now seeing on primetime TV,” Ghanizada said. “So the only information you’re really getting about people with MENA names are these highly dangerous roles, both saturated in the news, saturated in the most popular television shows.”
That’s a problem, Yuen said, because television plays a key role in shaping people’s impressions of a community.
“Changing the hearts and minds of people through storytelling [is important] because by normalizing, by just representing the complexities of MENA, not just as one-dimensional terrorists or stereotypes — by doing that, then, audiences will start to see people differently,” Yuen said. “When people don’t have direct contact with a population, they get all their ideas from television or from images they see.”
Not only are these roles harmful in exacerbating racism against the MENA community, they are also inaccurate, said Talai, who is Iranian-American.
“If you look at it, it just doesn’t make sense — for most of the Middle Eastern people on TV to be terrorists and tyrants,” Talai told ThinkProgress. “I’m not pushing for affirmative action and quotas … I’m just saying, let’s just have it be more reflective of reality.”
As the study shows, and as Ghanizada explained, the options are limited for MENA performers, who, if they are not cast as terrorists, are often cast to play one-dimensional characters that are written from the “white gaze,” fueling an incorrect and often Orientalist understanding of MENA society and culture.
“I can’t tell you how many times [casting directors] are like, ‘Oh, she’s a lawyer, but will you wear a hijab?’ And I didn’t understand why,” Ghanizada said. “The MENA community completely disappeared from those hiring practices unless we were willing to be otherized.”
Both the lack of representation and the prevalence of problematic roles has pushed many performers to take it upon themselves to “MENA-ify” the roles in which they are cast.
“When I get cast as these sort of everyday characters with non-Middle Eastern names, what I do push for is for the character to be identifiably Middle Eastern,” Talai said. “So, change their name, change their bio. If they cast my parents, make sure they cast Iranians.”
Talai said showrunners are typically receptive to such changes, and that the problem is one of blindness, not necessarily prejudice.
“I’ve had producers say, ‘Oh, I thought you would appreciate the chance to play a character named Kevin or John,'” Talai said. “What’s sad about that is that they’re thinking small. I could play a character named Mohammed that is just as interesting … And while I’m grateful to be able to play Kevin types of roles, I’d love to be able to play a Mohammed who just has a regular job.”
Through MAAC, Ghanizada aims continue advocating for such performer visibility. She founded the group in 2015 after she learned that MENA actors were not considered “diverse hires” by studios. Working with fellow MAAC members Talai, Cohen, and El-Gamal, Ghanizada successfully lobbied the Screen Actors Guild union (SAG-AFTRA) in 2017 to create a new diversity category in its contracts, allowing MENA hires to be categorized as MENA, not Caucasian. It was the first time in 37 years that a new category had been added, paving the way for increased representation and fewer stereotypical roles.
“That’s how we’ve begun the change,” Ghanizada said. “The next step for MAAC is to make sure that MENA and MENASA [Middle Eastern/North African/South Asian] is a regular language at each of the Guilds. And that, when our stories are being written, the community actually has resources to turn to.”
With the creation of the diversity category and the release of the recent study, Talai said he hopes studios will make more of an effort to cast MENA actors and normalize the stories of the MENA community.
“I hope they’ll create more characters who are identifiably Middle Eastern and who are just typical Middle Eastern-Americans, of which there are millions of us,” he said. “They don’t have to be presented as the other side of the coin of terrorists. They literally have nothing to do with terrorists.”
Studios have been reluctant to embrace MENA representation and multi-dimensional depictions, Ghanizada said, largely because they are still operating from the incorrect premise that doing so would not be profitable. But she hopes that will soon change, citing films like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, both of which had largely non-white casts and were box office hits.
“I’m hopeful that you’ll now see just more of an uptick for people with the name Ali or Mohammed that’s not just as a terrorist,” Ghanizada said. “I’d love to see them play the hero. That’s the goal. That people don’t become afraid of those names.”