We don’t know much about ABC Family’s new drama, “Alice in Arabia”, but I already have a feeling that it’s going to be pretty terrible.
The network, which targets a younger crowd, has ordered three drama pilots, and one of them follows the story of a “rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian.”
The show will apparently follow the title character in her fight to return back to the land of the free, while being trapped in “life behind the veil.”
Scheherazade, tell me a different effing story.
Because we haven’t peeked behind, over, and underneath the veil enough. This sounds like it’s going to be a drawn out version of everyone’s favorite saving-white-ladies-from-brown-lands classic: Sally Fields’ Not Without My Daughter.
The drama’s pilot has been written by Brooke Eikmeier, who served as a cryptic linguist for the U.S. Army, and was also trained to support NSA missions carried out in the Middle East, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
The plot line, combined with Eikmeier’s experience with intelligence, only seems to spell out a perfect storm of stereotypes for this new show. ABC Family isn’t exactly the place to search for high quality – let alone nuanced dramas. So I can’t help but feel really skeptical about what this program’s going to look like. And I wasn’t alone: there was a collective groan on social media after news of the TV show broke.
That’s because a seductive, misinformed narrative around the Middle East is an age-old mess that just won’t go away. As Jack Shaheen puts it in Reel Bad Arabs: Arabs “consistently appeared in American popular culture as billionaires, bombers, and belly dancers.”
Of the 1,000 films Shaheen studied (made between 1896-2000), only 52 depicted Arabs in an “even-handed” way – and the rest were negative. Chances are that you’ve seen films or shows filled with the “bad Arab” cliche. Where do we start? There’s the more recent Homeland, films like Sex and the City 2, the Rules of Engagement, Fox’s series 24, and reaching back to your favorite childhood classic: Aladdin.
And the persistent telling of this reductive story matters: In 2010, the FBI saw a 50% jump in hate crimes against people perceived to be Muslims, after a rise in “Islam-bashing propaganda”, particularly from the rightwing blogosphere.
According to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, there has been “a surge” in attacks or discrimination reported by “those who identify as Arab, Afghani, or Middle Eastern, and Muslim” after 9/11.
That means that these stories – that continue to fall within the scope of battles with evil brown terrorists, or use a flat vision of the region as a backdrop for the adventures of federal anti-heroes – have their way of leaving a mark on the American psyche.
And it’s not just that these stories inevitably recycle harmful stereotypes, their plots are also tired and overdone. There’s an entire generation of creative Arab-American itching to tell stories that fall outside of the usual narrative. There’s Rola Nashef, who wrote Detroit Unleaded, a romantic comedy about two first generation Lebanese-Americans who fall in love. There’s also Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, whose documentary about Egypt’s 2011 revolution, The Square, earned her an Academy Award nomination this year. There are performers like Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian-American comedian with cerebral palsy. Or Dean Obeidallah, another Palestinian-American comedian and filmmaker, who has dedicated his career to flipping the narrative around Muslims and Arabs in the United States. And the list goes on and on.
“Alice in Arabia” may never see the light of day, so I might never get to hate watch this. But either way – when what is being heralded by critics as television’s “golden age”, is also one that is “really white and really male”, isn’t it time to to think a little more about how to tell new, and more representative stories?
The so-called Arab Spring, in many ways, shook up our news agenda: the revolutions brought a slew of female voices and heroines that were usually overlooked by the media before. It showed just how out of touch we were when it came to women in the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think we’ve made small steps towards bringing nuance to the yard. Maybe it’s time for us to hit the reset button on our television programming too.