Take up the White Man’s burden, Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples Shall weigh your gods and you.
– Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden”
On March 17th ABC Family announced they had picked up 3 drama pilots, one of which was Alice in Arabia, written by Brooke Eikmeier, an Arabic-speaking US Army veteran. According to the press release, this show is supposed to be a “high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian.” A quick response to this Alice relying on her “independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil” came from Maitri Mehta who pointed out what should have been all-too-obvious inappropriate stereotypes starting from the description, let alone the show itself. Rabia Chaudry thought television would do better with “Ahmed in Austin“, which would introduce America to the nuanced and diverse American Muslim community, as opposed to reinforcing ridiculous stereotypes through caricatures of people across the planet.
After the backlash observed over social media against ABC Family for picking up the show, BuzzFeed put the icing on the cake and reported they had obtained an early copy of the script. Sure enough, in spite of what ABC spokespeople want to say about early scripts and rewrites, the show is filled with all the stereotypes Muslims feared it would contain. A show of this nature on network television would surely promote social stigmas against Muslims and contribute to Islamophobia in the US. Finally, ABC Family pulled the plug on Alice in Arabia after four days of giving it the green light. Word is yet to be heard about Ahmed in Austin getting the go ahead.
The cancellation of the show unsurprisingly brought forth cries of the right and “freedom to offend” such as the one by Tom Rogan where he says “Cry insult and let loose the enemies of freedom.” In her subsequent analysis, Lily Rothman also cites offence as one of the reasons she thought people got mad over the show. This focus on freedom to offend and not doing something because people get offended is getting quite tiring to hear. A number of offensive things take place everyday and they get ignored. But when a group of people rise up in response to an action, we need to get over the rhetoric about freedom of expression and wonder why this particular action as opposed to other ones deemed offensive matters. This is especially so when many of those leading the uprising are well-educated individuals who are as American as apple pie.
Focusing on the offensive quality of the act, as opposed to the possible corollaries of it is shortsighted to say the least. There is a reason why we do not tolerate anti-semitism and do not care to talk about its offensive nature, because there is something more to it than that. Moreover, the media has the power to change perceptions and even drive people to act in ways no other medium can. Radio propaganda was pivotal in turning an already turbulent situation in Rwanda on its head and was utilized in the killing of 800,000 people in the space of 3 months in 1994. The Hutus calling the Tutsis “cockroaches” was offensive, but that was not the problem. On the opposite end, research on attitudes towards homosexuals demonstrates that shows like “Will and Grace” make a significant positive change in how they are perceived in society. The lesson from this: media is not a game!
Eikmeier finally responded publicly to the cancellation of her show, Interestingly, she describes her show as pro-Arab, and pro-tolerance. Given the description of it as put forth by ABC Family, and what BuzzFeed reported based on the leaked draft of the script, Eikmeier’s description of her show is hard to take seriously. But we can take her intentions at face value and trust that she really meant to positively contribute to how Muslims are perceived in America and help Saudi women in their struggles. However, in spite of her best intentions, Eikmeier’s naïvety does more harm than good.
While we can appreciate Eikmeier’s fascination by different cultures and desire to learn about them and understand their languages, someone should let her know that just because you learned how to communicate in French or in Arabic, you do not all of a sudden understand French or Arab cultures with all their nuances. Her learning “Arabic and the diverse forms of Arab culture from native speakers hailing from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Jordan” does not make her a cultural anthropologist. Moreover, having ONE Saudi Arabian teacher who selectively brings you “news clips and YouTube videos about difficulties and struggles of the people in the region” does not grant you special expertise about people in the Middle East. In addition, being “particularly struck by the struggle of women, especially in Saudi Arabia” does not mean you have the slightest clue about what it is THEY are actually struggling with and what THEY want.
Eikmeier would do well to learn a lesson from Pippa Biddle. In fact, Eikmeier and everyone who wants to walk in her footsteps and carry the White Man’s Burden must first read Biddle’s The Problem With Little White Girls (and Boys). It might be hard for Eikmeier to accept that the best thing she can do is get out of the way. If she genuinely wants to contribute to “a step in the right direction for all cultures and all women“, she would do better connecting actual Arabs and Muslims with her claimed 10 years of Hollywood friends and contacts to speak for themselves. Instead of giving “jobs” to Arab writers and Arab actors, she should step aside and let them do The Job.