The “Alice in Arabia” Controversy

The “Alice in Arabia” Controversy

by Sheila Musaji

Just a week ago, ABC announced that it planned a television series about an American teenage girl kidnapped by her Saudi relatives to Saudi Arabia.  The premise of the program was a concern, but then when more about the planned pilot was released, there was a great deal of objection from the American Muslim and Arab communities.  CAIR, the Arab American ADC, MPAC and other organizations immediately entered into discussions with ABC when the announcement was made.  Community activists took to twitter and other social media.  See the twitter hashtag #AliceInArabia with thousands of posts

Rabia Chaudry wrote ABC’s ‘Alice in Arabia’ Is Racist in which she noted:

...  The show certainly pits Americans against “Arabians” (tweeters pointed out “Arabia” is not actually a place), and we can assume the “independent spirit and wit” of Alice the American will prevail as triumphant over the lesser evolved Arabians. Thus the plot both bolsters the highly troublesome binary of us vs. them (Muslims being them), a factor linked to the growth of anti-Muslim bigotry and hate crimes in the US since 9/11, and confirms American superiority. ,,,

Dean Obeidallah wrote Hollywood’s Major Muslim Problem Doesn’t End With ‘Alice in Arabia’.  As he noted, a lot happened in only one week from the announcement of the planned program to its cancellation:

...  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 cancellation.

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.”  ...

Many other Arabs and Muslims weighed in:  -Aisha Saeed, My thoughts on “Alice In Arabia” and the American Muslim narrative*, -Ayesha Siddiqui, Alice Is In Arabia, And The Rest Of Us Hold Our Breath, -Raya Jalabi, ABC’s Alice in Arabia could break the mold – but don’t hold your breath,  and many more.

It was not only Muslims and Arabs who were concerned about the premise of this pilot.  Tom McKay wrote ‘Alice in Arabia’ Was Really as Shocking as All the Critics Said — Just Take a Look at the Script.  Mallory Schlossberg wrote ABC Family pulls “ALICE IN ARABIA” after serious (and appropriate) backlash.  Rega Jha on Buzzfeed wrote We Got A Copy Of The Script For “Alice In Arabia” And It’s Exactly What Critics Feared.  Maitri Mehta wrote ABC’s new show is flooded with horrifying, inappropriate stereotypes.  Lily Rothman wrote 5 Reasons a TV Show About an American Girl in Saudi Arabia Pissed People Off.  Katie McDonough wrote ABC Family cancels “Alice in Arabia” after being called out for the pilot’s glaring racism.

Buzzfeed’s story after obtaining a copy of the script increased the level of concern.

The cancellation of this pilot has been greeted with satisfaction by most reasonable people.

The MPAC press release said:

The Muslim Public Affairs Council welcomes ABC Family’s decision to abandon its controversial new pilot “Alice in Arabia.” Since the Hollywood Reporter first reported on Monday that “Alice in Arabia” was one of three new pilots purchased by the network, the social media outcry quickly escalated.

MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau has been in dialogue with Disney/ABC’s Talent Development and Diversity Department, as well as CAIR and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) since the story broke to address the show’s disturbing premise. We appreciate ABC’s commitment to engagement, openness to feedback, and recognition of the need for immediate action.

The plot reportedly revolved around an all-American girl who is kidnapped by her distant Saudi Arabian grandfather and held in his Saudi compound, and was loaded with negative and stereotypical depictions of Arabs and Muslims.

“We commend ABC Family for doing the right thing,” said Deana Nassar, MPAC’s Hollywood Liaison. “The network and the diversity development department responded quickly and decisively to our feedback and the public outcry over ‘Alice in Arabia.’ This episode underscores the need for more constructive engagement with Hollywood executives as well as authentic and talented Muslim writers to tell their own stories.”

We recently announced a partnership with ABC/Disney to offer a special workshop to emerging Muslim television writers in order to groom young writers to be competitive for ABC’s writers program. We were pleased to have received dozens of scripts and look forward to investing in talent that can help turn the tide in portrayals.

MPAC’s Hollywood Bureau serves as a professional resource to the entertainment industry by providing reliable and accurate information on Islam, Muslims and interfaith relations to the Hollywood community. The bureau also helps Hollywood professionals connect with creative talent, including emerging Muslim filmmakers, writers and actors.

The ADC press release said:

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) welcomes the decision by the Disney Company, parent company of ABC and ABC Family, to cancel the show “Alice in Arabia.” ABC Family had purchased a pilot of the controversial show, and after coming under pressure from ADC, and our partners the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), the show was cancelled. To read ADC’s original statement to Disney, click here.

ADC welcomes the decision, and hopes that the Disney Company will work towards resolving other issues raised, such as the depiction of Arabs in the series “Once upon a time,” as well as issues surrounding the “Aladdin” musical.

In a statement sent to ADC, Disney stated, “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.”

ADC President Samer Khalaf said, “We welcome the decision by the Disney Company to cancel this show. By doing so the Disney Company, and ABC Family have rid themselves of a show that did nothing but perpetuate demanding stereotypes. Moving forward we encourage other media outlets to stay away from such programing and not engage in the stereotyping of any community. We look forward to continued dialogue and conversation with the Disney company.”

According to the official synopsis, “Alice in Arabia” is a television show about an American teenager who is kidnapped by her relatives and taken to Saudi Arabia, where she is kept as a prisoner in her Muslim grandfather’s home. According to ABC’s plot summary, “Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.” ADC strongly believes that imagery of the Arab and Muslim community as portrayed in the “Alice in Arabia” plot summary perpetuates demeaning stereotypes. The imagery and depiction of the respective communities as kidnapers and oppressors of women, reinforces harmful stereotypical depictions of the communities as thieves, criminals, persons who engage in violent acts, captives and/or persecutors.

In a letter to the CEO of ABC Family, Robert Iger, ADC President Samer Khalaf stated, “By purchasing the pilot, ABC Family has reinforced these damning views, and has shown the world that there is a market for hate and bigotry. ABC Family and the Walt Disney Company, as a major programming source for American children, adolescents, and families, possess immense influence on the American zeitgeist and next generation, and have a duty to exert that influence in a meaningful, positive way, not one that demonizes a people, a religion and a region.”

The only people who are sad about the cancellation of this program are Islamophobes like Pamela Geller who calls objections to the program examples of “cultural jihad”. 

UPDATE:  Buzzfeed has posted ABC Family Kills “Alice In Arabia”:

ABC Family has killed the controversial Alice in Arabia after complaints that it relied on stereotypes of Muslims, a spokesperson told BuzzFeed on Friday night.

“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.”

The show’s original synopsis was met with widespread skepticism, and an early draft of the script – obtained by BuzzFeed – confirmed that the concerns were founded. The network’s decision to rescind support for the pilot comes after pressure from the public, and complaints from several civil rights groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In a letter to ABC executives, dated March 19, ADC President Samer Khalaf wrote:

“By purchasing a pilot of the show, The Walt Disney Company, along with ABC Family, continue to unabashedly perpetuate harmful stereotypes, orientalism and Islamophobia… The imagery and depiction of the respective communities as kidnappers and oppressors of women, reinforces harmful stereotypical depictions of the communities as thieves, criminals, persons who engage in violent acts, captives and/or persecutors…

By purchasing the pilot, ABC Family has reinforced these damning views, and has shown the world that there is a market for hate and bigotry. ABC Family and the Walt Disney Company, as a major programming source for American children, adolescents, and families, possess immense influence on the American zeitgeist and next generation, and have a duty to exert that influence in a meaningful, positive way, not one that demonizes a people, a religion and a region.”

 

Following reception of said letter, high-level executives at ABC Family had agreed to meet with executives from the ADC, America’s largest Arab-American civil rights organization, and CAIR representatives were also to be present, ADC’s Legal Director Abed Ayoub told BuzzFeed in a phone call. The meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, March 25, in Los Angeles. On the evening of March 21, ABC Family reached out to Ayoub, postponing the meeting indefinitely, citing the network’s need to have some “internal conversations” first. Minutes later, BuzzFeed received news, from an ABC spokesperson, of the show’s cancellation.

Ayoub told BuzzFeed in a phone call prior to news of the cancellation that ABC Family’s willingness to communicate with the ADC was encouraging in itself. “It means that they recognize the need to cancel, and they recognize the importance of not engaging and not being part of a program that stereotypes a whole community… Our ultimate goal is to have them announce that the show will not be on air.”

Ayoub also emphasized that in the future networks should feel free to reach out to existing Arab-American communities while such works are in the pipeline, to eliminate the possibility of letting problematic scripts and ideas reaching such an advanced stage in the process.

“Arabs are always portrayed as one of 3 B’s: billionaires, bellydancers, or bombers,” Ayoub said. “But with most problematic shows, there is always room for debate. With this particular show there is none. We haven’t run into anything this egregious in a while.”

In a phone call with BuzzFeed, also prior to the news of cancellation, ADC President Samer Khalaf had voiced similar fears. Moreover, he questioned the sense in having such a show air on ABC Family at all. “Their other programs are lighthearted, wholesome types of entertainment. I don’t know where this fits into that whole paradigm… This is not ABC, this is not HBO, this is not Showtime. This is geared towards families. This is a heavy storyline and we’re dealing with some heavy issues here. We don’t think it is near appropriate for children to be exposed to. I don’t know what they were thinking.”

Khalaf agrees with the widespread sentiment that Alice In Arabia would simply have been the latest in a long line of Arab misrepresentations in American culture.

“For God’s sakes, one of the only Arab characters on TV happens to be in the show Community. The funny thing is, the character is supposed to be Palestinian, but the actor is an Indian-American. It reminds me of Hollywood of the ’40s. They used to have Arab terrorists and they’d pick a South East Asian-American with a British Accent to play him. What is that all about? What is your image of an Arab? What do they perceive of Arabs as being? That’s what really gets our ire. That’s what frustrates us. What is ABC Family teaching the young children of this country about what an Arab is?”

 


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