Posted by on December 09, 2014 in Blog

By Kristyn Acho
Fall Intern, 2014

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, there was an influx in television programs in the United States that focused on the Middle East and included Arab characters. These series, including 24, Homeland, and Tyrant, remain extremely popular with American audiences. Scholars often assert that the production and marketability of these programs is the result of an anxiety-ridden political environment in which Americans desired to learn more about the Middle East and its people. However, the majority of these shows are problematic. American-produced television dramas and films often portray the Middle East in disturbingly negative ways. Their representations of Arabs and Muslims tend to lack nuance and are usually reductive.

When Arab and Muslims are portrayed in such a manner, it can cause western populations to regard entire nations and their respective peoples as inherent enemies. For these reasons, scholars who address troubling representations of the Middle East are crucially important to American politics and culture.

Evelyn Alsultany, an Associate Professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, is a leading scholar in this field. I recently spoke with Alsultany about the ways in which Arab and Muslim stereotypes gain their power.

In her book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (New York University Press, 2012), Alsultany addresses a new trend in American film and television: if a storyline includes terrorist activities executed by Arabs or Muslims, the director will also add a “positive” Middle Eastern character to the narrative, usually “a patriotic U.S. citizen” or “innocent victim of hate crimes.” This “positive” character is intended to subvert the stereotype of the Arab or Muslim as “terrorist.” Alsultany refers to this trend as “simplified complex representations”; and although they do complicate former stereotypes, she believes that they ultimately contribute to a multicultural or post-race illusion.

A myriad of television dramas and films have subscribed to this trend. Argo (the film about the Iran Hostage Crisis and the winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture) is perhaps the most widely publicized example. In this film, Iranians are portrayed as anti-American fear mongers who crowd the streets of Tehran in protest. An Iranian housekeeper serves as the film’s lone exception: She chooses to help the Americans by lying about the presence of the U.S. hostages in the home of a Canadian ambassador when revolutionary guards approach her. In this capacity, whether the Iranians portrayed in this film are “bad” or “good” is contingent on their affiliation with the United States.

The popular Showtime drama, Homeland also conforms to this trend. In season 3, the show introduced a veiled Iranian woman as the newest addition to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Prior to this season, Homeland received criticism for its one-dimensional representations of Arab and Muslim men as terrorists.

Although these seemingly sympathetic portrayals are an improvement over past representations, Alsultany believes that they often seem gratuitous and are haphazardly included in plotlines to appease such groups as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).

In her book, Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11, Alsultany explores the following questions: How do we understand these seemingly positive developments, especially when considering that at the same time that sympathetic portrayals of Arab and Muslim Americans proliferated on U.S. commercial television in the weeks, months, and years after 9/11, hate crimes, workplace discrimination, bias incidents, and airline discrimination targeting Arab and Muslim Americans increased exponentially?

Read my complete interview with Alsultany here and watch the following video on Alsultany's book:

 

https://www.youtube.com/embed/HmOdIfYVgts

Bio

Evelyn Alsultany is an Associate Professor in the Department of American Culture at the University of Michigan, where she coordinates Arab and Muslim American Studies. She is the author of Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11 (2012). For more information, see http://evelynalsultany.com.

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