Entertainment

03.22.14

Hollywood’s Major Muslim Problem Doesn't End With 'Alice in Arabia'

A planned ABC Family show about a kidnapped American teenage girl, has been canceled. But can Hollywood confront its offensive stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims?

What transpired this week regarding ABC Family’s TV pilot, Alice in Arabia, was in a word: astounding. I say that for two reasons.

First, because ABC Family announced on Monday the outlandish and arguably racist premise for its pilot of the show. And secondly because ABC Family canceled the pilot on Friday after a backlash erupted. While I objected to the premise of the show, I don’t rejoice over its cancelation.

So why did Alice in Arabia spark such a response? The premise seemed to be ripped out of a movie from the 1980s: a young American teenager is kidnapped by her extended Saudi Arabian family and imprisoned on their compound. Our heroine “must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.”

The backlash to the pilot’s announcement on Twitter was immediate. Soon Arab-American and Muslim-American groups joined in expressing their apprehension.

Even I raised my concerns in a telephone conversation with an ABC Family executive on Thursday. The ABC official explained that they had tackled other touchy subjects in a respectful way as in the case of its show The Fosters which features a same-sex couple raising a multicultural group of children. But when I asked: “Were any of the children on The Fosters kidnapped and forced to stay in the family like in Alice in Arabia?,” I was met with a moment of silence, followed by assurances thatAlice would be nuanced.

The outcry escalated Friday whenBuzzFeed released a version of the pilot script and reported that it’s, “dotted with cultural inaccuracies and stereotypes.” For example, one of the show’s characters refers to the mixed ethnicity of “Alice” as, “half Jew-loving monkey.”

By Friday night, ABC Family apparently had enough: “The current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned and is certainly not conducive to the creative process, so we’ve decided not to move forward with this project.”

Some are ecstatic by this swift cancelation. I’m not. I would’ve preferred that ABC Family first met with people in the Middle Eastern and Muslim-American communities to try and make the show work. If the premise had been tweaked to eliminate the kidnapping angle, it very well could've become a fair showcase of Arabs and Muslims. And “fair” is all I want. I’m not looking for a PSA, but rather a TV show that features the good and the bad in our community.

However, for years Hollywood has presented almost exclusively the negative images of us. As Dr. Jack Shaheen noted in his book, “Reel Bad Arabs,” there have been approximately 350 films between 1970 and 2001 that depicted Arabs and Muslims as terrorists, evil sheiks, and other dastardly villains. Although since 9/11 Hollywood has tried to be more responsible by including the one “good” Middle Eastern person to counterbalance the sea of “bad” ones as we’ve seen inHomeland. (And usually the “good” Arab is killed by the “bad” ones.)

What’s even more disturbing is that, in general, people of Middle Eastern heritage aren’t part of the creative team even though the project focuses on our culture. For example, the creator/writer of Alice in Arabia is Brooke Eikmeier, a former US Army linguist in Arabic. I wrote about this same issue in 2012 when Sacha Baron Cohen’s comedy The Dictator was released which was about an Arab general yet there were no Arabs involved on the creative team.

Let’s be honest, if a person pitched a TV show that focused on Latino culture, I would assume that most TV executives would inquire about the background of those in the creative process to ensure they truly grasp the nuances of that culture. But when it comes to our community, they seem not to care.

Plain and simple, this is: “Brownploitation.” It’s akin to the “Blaxploitation” films of the 1970’s, but worse for one big reason. While the “Blaxploitation” films often depicted African-Americans in a negative light as pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes, at least blacks starred in films and some were even written and/or directed by African-Americans.

Consequently, the success of those films launched careers both behind and in front of the camera enabling some to later be involved in Hollywood projects that depicted the black community in a positive light. 

In our case, however, not only are we locked out of the creative process, in many instances we don’t even get cast in the Middle Eastern roles. For example, just this week the stage version of the movie Aladdin opened on Broadway. Guess how many people of Middle Eastern heritage are in the cast? Zero. I get it's a fictional story but it clearly co-opts Middle eastern culture.

While I may object to negative depictions of my community, I still defend Hollywood executives right to make any film or TV show they want, even ones demonizing us. But I have a simple plea for them: Include us in the creative process when a project focuses on our culture. Why? Authentic voices equal a more nuanced, less clichéd, final product that in turn generally means a better chance for commercial success. Bottom line: It’s good for your bottom line.

In the future, if entertainment executives are pitched projects which focus on Middle Easterners as with Alice in Arabia, or any other minority culture, I hope they will ask: Are any people from those communities involved in your creative team? And if the answer to that question is “no,” then I hope they will say “no” to the project. The premature death of Alice in Arabia should be a beginning, not an ending.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the cancellation of Alice in Arabia.