Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Masculinity Monday: Harold and Kumar Aren't "Hardworking"


This might come as something of a surprise to some of you, but when I was in high school and college I really really loved stoner comedies.

Like, I saw Pineapple Express so many times my roommate wanted to murder me. We would watch Dude Where's My Car and mouth the lines along with the characters. And of course I saw Harold and Kumar 2: Escape from Guantanamo Bay* in theaters, even staying for the cut scene after the credits where Neil Patrick Harris comes back from the dead to lech another day. What I'm saying is that, despite all expectations, there was a period in my life where, for whatever reason, movies about mid-20s men getting stoned and going on weird adventures really spoke to me. I try not to read too much into it.

But I think it's a good way to go into our topic today because, in a lot of ways, the reasons that I enjoyed stoner comedies in my late teens and early twenties are the same reasons why those characters enjoyed getting stoned in their late teens and early twenties. Particularly in the case of Harold and Kumar, I felt like out of all the characters, I most understood those two guys. I liked them. I felt for them. I got them.

Now, in retrospect, most of the movies that one could call "stoner comedies" are pretty awful when you watch them as an adult. Even the Harold and Kumar films, much as I remember loving them, have regressive and insulting depictions of women, deeply offensive moments, and a general tone that I no longer enjoy. But for all of this, for all that I really don't like these movies as much any more, I have to give them credit for one specific thing: their complete and utter decimation of Asian-American stereotypes.

So that's what we're going to focus on today.

As you may well know, May is Asian-American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month**, so, as we did for Black History Month and Arab-American Heritage Month, we're going to take this month to more deeply examine the stereotypes and tropes and issues involved in the way that Asian-American characters and stories are represented in our pop culture. And I want to start that off by talking about two guys who looked at all the stereotypes about what it means to be Asian in a Hollywood movie and then just pissed all over them. In the best possible way. So let's talk about Harold and Kumar.

If you're not familiar, here's the basic gist of the franchise's first movie, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle - the sequels are fun but their plots are generally labyrinthine in their complexity, so we're not getting into it. The first film, which came out in 2004, stars John Cho as Harold Lee and Kal Penn as Kumar Patel, two young, potentially high-achieving Asian-American men who have responded to the stress in their lives and the pressure to perform by just getting super stoned all the time.

And if you want to be really technical, that's pretty much the story of the movie. I mean, the actual plot follows Harold and Kumar as they go on an epic road trip throughout New Jersey, desperately seeking a White Castle where they can get burgers and satisfy their munchies. Along they way they fall in and out of ridiculous situations, like crashing the car and getting picked up by terrifying hillbillies or picking up a hitchhiking Neil Patrick Harris (as a straight, psychotic version of himself) or riding a leopard. The movie is largely a string tying these wacky hijinks together and the real core of the film isn't so much their getting to White Castle, it's their relationships to each other and to themselves.

Those relationships are actually super interesting even if your taste doesn't run towards jokes about double penetration. See, Harold and Kumar both fulfill and then subvert our stereotypes about high-achieving Asian-American men. And in so doing, they reflect back at us the inherent unfairness of these stereotypes. 

Harold works in an office, and to be totally honest it's not super clear what he does. What is clear is that Harold is the low man on the totem pole. We're introduced to him just as he's getting ready to leave for the weekend, but already one of his coworkers is stopping by to drop off more work. 

Work that means that Harold will have to work pretty continuously through the weekend to finish in time for Monday. Why has this guy dumped it all on Harold? Explicitly because he's Asian and therefore must not have much of a life or any interests outside of work. No wonder all he wants is to leave and go get stoned with his best friend.

Kumar, on the other hand, is the kind of brilliant slacker we're super used to seeing white guys play. We meet him as he's in an interview for medical school, bedraggled and looking like he just got pulled through a hedge, openly telling the interviewer that he doesn't care about this and he doesn't want to be a doctor. 

The interviewer is shocked - why wouldn't he want to go to medical school when he has near-perfect MCAT scores and is all set to go off into a prestigious career? Even more, his whole family is full of doctors and they're pressuring him to take this step and "start his future". But Kumar doesn't want that - he isn't interested in the stress and intensity of med school.*** So he blows it off and goes to get high with Harold.

On the surface, it feels like Harold is a more inherently sympathetic character than Kumar. I mean, he's put-upon at work but he's trying so hard. Kumar, though, isn't trying at all. He's in fact aggressively pushing away the great advantages he has and trying to avoid following the path that's been set out for him. But what works so well here is that both Harold and Kumar subvert our ideas of who Asian-Americans are supposed to be and what they're supposed to want. And Kumar's rejection of med school is just as sympathetic in a lot of ways as Harold's frustrations at work. Let's break it down.

I feel like I shouldn't have to tell you that there's a certain way Asian-Americans, particularly men, are portrayed in the media. Especially in comedies. They're invariably the butt of the joke, right? Like in that awful awful sitcom Dads, where Asian men and their "tiny dicks" were the punchline of the pilot episode. Aside from the tragically rare complex portrayals we get in shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Asian-American men are generally represented as being hardworking, socially incompetent, asexual/sexually unappealing, and weak. In other words, most of media portrays Asian-American men as "not real men". Asian-American masculinity is said like it's a joke.

Harold and Kumar faces that down by giving us two characters who have to live in this toxic landscape and somehow get through. Clearly they've taken very different life paths, but it's sort of ended up the same. They're both pissed off, which, again, isn't something we're used to from Asian-American characters.

The film goes after a number of these stereotypes, but the ones it hits the hardest are the ideas that Asian-American men are inherently hardworking and that they're uninterested in sex or sexually uninteresting. The movie then focuses its plot on demolishing these stereotypes and helping us to see Harold and Kumar as complex, fully-developed people (if occasionally not very nice people) rather than racist stereotypes.

As far as "hardworking" goes, obviously the film subverts that by giving us Kumar, a gifted slacker who has no interest in hard work and even scoffs at the idea of buckling down and using his big brain for anything useful. Like I said above, we've seen this character as a white guy, but it's hard to think of many other examples where he's Asian. 

Additionally, the movie examines ideas about familial pressure and the immigrant experience. Kumar expresses his frustration with his parents for pushing him so hard towards medicine. There's this idea that as the child of immigrants, Kumar "owes it" to them and to himself to achieve as much as he can as fast as he can. Kumar, though, rejects this for the most part. He wants the chance to be just like any other guy in America, stoned if he wants to be and a failure if he so chooses. 

When, at the end of the film, he decides to give med school a chance, it's not because he's giving in to the stereotypes and pressure, it's because he has been pushing it away for the wrong reasons. He's been pushing back because he doesn't want to be defined as yet another Indian guy going to med school, but the truth is that he really likes medicine and would enjoy it as a career. 

The complexity of Kumar's issues with school and fears about his future bely the usual narrative about a high-achieving Asian-American student who just mindlessly goes off into the sciences or medicine like a "job-stealing" robot. Kumar is a person with hopes and fears, and by showing us the turmoil and hilarity of his decision process, the film humanizes him and people like him.

Harold, on the other hand, already seems like a perfect example of the usual pop culture depiction of an Asian-American man. Pushed around, "hardworking" whether he wants to be or not, and passive at work, Harold has a lot to get through. But his story is about pushing those stereotypes away from his own understanding of himself. 

It's about Harold letting himself be more assertive, even if no one is ready for him to be. And because the movie makes it clear that Harold isn't so much naturally hardworking as he is shoved around by a culture that ignores his unique personhood, we the audience are forced to reckon with his humanity. He's not a stereotype of some Asian-American worker drone, he's a real guy who's annoyed that he has to work through the weekend. 

And because he's pushed into the East Asian "submissive" box, seeing him verbally take down his coworker at the end of the film is really satisfying. It's not that Harold was always a pushover, it's that he was uncomfortably asserting himself in a work situation - again, showing the complexity of the issues at play forces us to think about his humanity and reconsider the people we see around us.

As far as the issues about Asian-American male sexuality go, there's this lingering racist belief that Asian men aren't good at sex or interested in it or, well, horny. And Harold and Kumar definitely puts that one to rest. While I don't love the aggressive sexuality of the film and the constant sexualization of female characters (who are generally little more than boobs and butts for the guys to lust after), I can understand the importance of reminding an audience that these two characters, these two Asian men, are sexual beings. They like sex. They think about it. They are actively pushing back against the idea of the sexless Asian man, and I can appreciate that.

There's more to look at in Harold and Kumar, but I'll leave it for another time. For now, let's take this as an entry into Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month - a reminder that Asian-American men and Asian-American masculinity is much more complex than the media has led us to believe. There is value in ascertaining our understanding of the stereotypes in play, because once we know what they are we can destroy them. And even though Harold and Kumar really is just a not-very-deep stoner comedy, by centering this story on two Asian-American men, it reminds us that they're human too. 

Human, frustrated, and frequently stoned. 


*There is definitely material worth considering in this movie - like, so much. So much. I think we're going to have to do a whole other article on the issues raised in Escape from Guantanamo Bay, from Kumar being mistaken for a terrorist to the whole idea of their position as men of color meaning they are vulnerable to government overreach... More on this later.

**So, there's a lack of consensus on whether or not the indigenous peoples of Oceania, a group that overlaps with Pacific Islanders, are counted as Asian-Americans or Native Americans. And since I am not at all the most qualified person to figure this out, I'm going to defer to smarter people than me on this one - we'll be talking about Native Hawaiians and the indigenous people of Oceania (like in Lilo and Stitch) in November for Native American Heritage Month. Heads up!

***This is of course kind of funny as Kal Penn later found some mainstream recognition playing a doctor on House MD. Also John Cho went on to play another office drone, albeit one with a much better career trajectory, on Selfie. These secondary roles are more stereotypical representations of Asian-American men than their work in Harold and Kumar, which is a bit of a bummer. But good characters in and of themselves.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Nimah and Raina Amin (Quantico)

Chickadees, to help us close out Arab-American Heritage Month, we're actually going to throw it to our guest contributor, Trey Stewart. You can read his previous articles on Jemma Simmons from Agents of SHIELD and the nontoxic masculinities of Star Trek elsewhere on the site. But for now, let's all settle in so he can walk us through some of the most interesting and challenging representations of Arab-American women currently on television: the ladies of Quantico.


I must confess I haven’t seen Prince of Egypt, Kingsman, or Mr. Robot. Also, I haven’t read Bodies. I can say that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is my favorite of the Star Trek series, so I’m pretty familiar with Dr. Bashir. And I have read a few things with Simon Baz as Green Lantern. What I'm getting at is that I’m pretty into sci-fi/comic book/nerd media and I suspect it says something that I have only seen a third of the series discussed this month. And it's not saying that I was busy watching other shows or reading other comics with their own awesome representations of Arab-Americans. It's really not saying that at all.

Instead, what this points to is the sheer under-representation that Arab-Americans face in the media. The few positive representations they do get are frequently in obscure or more independent forms of media and it's easy for your average pop culture consumer to walk right past. In other words, it's easy to not even notice this lack of representation, so it's well worth talking about the representations we do get.

Today for Strong Female Character Friday, we’re going to talk about two characters from Quantico who represent somewhat opposing versions of Arab-American womanhood: Nimah and Raina Amin (Yasmine Al Massri). I’m not quite prepared to say that their characters are awesome but I can definitely say that they are interesting.

Quantico is a mystery/thriller about a terrorist that infiltrates the FBI Academy at Quantico (hence the show title) and months later blows up Grand Central Station. The mystery comes from the fact that we, as the audience, aren’t quite sure who the terrorist(s) is/are. 

The show is set pretty much square in the middle of the issues of terrorism, religion, and racism that have become part of post-9/11 America. What I mean is that the show can’t avoid addressing these issues in some form or fashion due to its subject matter. The events in the series alternate between the trainees at Quantico and their time as agents during and following the above mentioned terrorist attack - Nimah and Raina are two of these trainees. 

And just so you know, SPOILERS.

So we as the audience are introduced to Raina and Nimah while they are still at Quantico. What's interesting from the very beginning, though, is that Nimah and Raina are actually posing as a single trainee: Raina. Obviously, part of understanding their characters initially is figuring out why they are pretending to be one person. And given that anyone on the show is a potential terrorist, this initial deception makes you wonder if they might be the ones responsible for the attack. 

Then again, having the Muslim women be terrorists seems a bit obvious and heavy-handed. So it shouldn't come as a huge surprise that there is another big reason for Nimah and Raina to be deceiving their fellow students: the women are part of a plan to use twins to infiltrate terror cells. The idea is to have them take “shifts” posing as an individual member of a terror cell, relieving the intense stress and danger of undercover work. Which is super cool.

But you still don't know for sure whether or not one or both of these women is guilty. Over course of the season, I have become convinced that Raina and Nimah probably aren’t terrorists. All of this, however, is ancillary to the real reason these two characters are interesting. Yes, twins pretending to be one person is a fascinating idea (thanks, movie about magicians that I kind of don't want to spoil by saying the name of), but there's more to Nimah and Raina's representation of Arab-American womanhood than just this. The really interesting stuff is how they differ.

The biggest and most obvious difference is simple: Raina is a devout Muslim, wears a hijab, and is idealistic. Nimah is secular, does not wear a hijab, and is more pragmatic. Just by setting up this dichotomy, two women with the exact same family background and exact same career choice who diverge so much in their expressions of personhood and identity, Quantico has already made a big leap forward for the representation of Arab-American women. They're showing that there are at least two very different ways to be an Arab-American woman and that those two ways aren't necessarily better or worse, they're just different. 

More than that, though, there's something really worth noting in how both Raina and Nimah are training to become FBI agents. It's a pushback against the idea of Arab-Americans as "others". I mean, what's more American than trying to become an FBI agent? The characters wouldn’t be trying to join the FBI if they didn’t “love” America. And that's an important aspect of them as characters. They love their country and they want to protect it.

One of the questions that comes up as you watch Quantico early in the season is why Nimah is as secular as she is. For us white Americans, it's easy to conflate Arab-American heritage and cultural Islam with devout Islamic faith. Nimah's characterization, then, is a reminder that it is entirely possible to be Arab-American and culturally Muslim without being particularly observant or even interested. 

It's an expression of her personhood and agency that she alone gets to choose her level of interest in her own faith. Again, by showing that these two characters can both exist in the same community and even in the same family, Quantico is expanding our understanding of what it means to be an Arab woman in America in 2016. And it's telling a pretty good story while it does it.

Conversely, it's important to see a character like Raina too, a woman who is devout in her faith and even arguably sympathetic to the socio-economic and political reasons that might lead someone to engage in terrorism. This doesn't mean that Raina is a terrorist or condones terrorism, but it's a complex and frankly realistic view to point out that someone like her, who has studied a great deal about terrorism and what leads a person into that path, might understand and sympathize with the people on it. 

This kind of characterization pushes at our desire to dehumanize terrorists or "freedom fighters" or enemy combatants. And the revelation that Raina is sympathetic but not condoning forces us as the audience to expand our understanding to meet hers. 

Raina is phenomenal precisely because she is as devout as she is and expresses her faith with compassion and understanding of others. I personally always prefer characters who take their beliefs seriously and live them out. Raina's ability to express and live out her genuine faith makes her a compelling character. It also makes her a complicated one. I mean, can you think of another time you've seen a young Arab-American Muslim woman on television working in law enforcement and yet also feeling compassion for the plight of terrorists? Yeah. No.

And it's hard to stress enough how radical it is to see a major television show where one of the main characters wears a hijab. It is hard to overstate the significance of that, even if sometimes the show handles Raina's hijab rather clumsily - it's still a really big deal.

But getting back to the main point, it's important to remember that while Raina and Nimah express different versions of Arab-American womanhood, they're not opposing versions. More recent episodes have moved on from the portrayal of Raina and Nimah as opposites, and that allows us to see both of them in a more holistic light. For most of the show, Nimah is basically pretending to be Raina - the atheist pretending to be devout in order to work on her cover. But it sometimes goes the other way as well. 

There are a couple of instances where Raina gets to pretend to be Nimah, and we are allowed to see the emotional weight and responsibility that this carries. It's not just seeing a devout Muslim woman take off her hijab - though that is part of it - but it's also seeing Raina choose to be where Nimah's at. In other words, it's a version of the story we very rarely see in Arab-American women, a willingness to experience both sides and decide which one is preferable. 

And it certainly doesn't hurt their training goals. Currently, during their time at Quantico, Raina and Nimah are trying to build a cover identity that is somewhere between perfect Muslim and perfect atheist, in Nimah’s words someone that is a “sinner” and that might believably be attracted to a terrorist cell. Even in their undercover work, the women are expanding on preconceived notions of what an Arab-American woman is "supposed" to look like.

Look. Raina and Nimah Amin are not perfect characters and Quantico is not a perfect show. It's a good show, though, and it's trying. It tries very hard to take a subject we all assume we understand - terrorism and FBI training and law enforcement - and subvert our expectations. 

By giving us two Arab-American women as major characters and allowing them to be very different from each other, Quantico validates an understanding of the diversity of Arab-American life. But because so much of the show is wrapped up in mystery and tension and drama, it's hard to really feel like these women are being shown to their fullest potential.

Ultimately, one show isn't going to fix the major problems we have with Arab-American representation in the media. It can't. What can fix it is a lot of shows over time. And books and movies and comics and games and songs and silly youtube videos. Quantico isn't perfect, but it's a pretty good place to start.


Trey Stewart has his PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alabama. He recently started his own education research consulting/tutoring business. He's been enjoying Quantico so far. So far.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Disney's 'Aladdin' and the Dehumanizing Effects of Exoticism


Like any good 90s kid, I watched Aladdin as a small child and felt helplessly in love. The songs. The bright colors. The wacky animal sidekicks. Everything in this movie felt perfectly engineered to go right to my child hind-brain and stay there forever. And I'm sure that's how my parents felt too, especially when I remember their pure mortification as my sister and I insisted on singing songs from Aladdin at the top of our lungs while our parents had taken us to visit family in Switzerland. In retrospect, that was probably pretty Obnoxious American of us.

The point is, as a kid I adored Aladdin. Aladdin himself is fun and quippy but definitely kid-friendly, living in the sort of sanitized poverty that children's movies always make look like a little too much fun. Jasmine has more personality than another three Disney princesses combined, which meant she was a much better heroine to imagine going on adventures with, and Rajah was hands down the coolest pet I could possibly imagine. The Genie was funny, the carpet was cute, and Abu was annoying even when I was a little kid, but, hey, what can you do?

More importantly, the story really got me going. Aladdin's struggle to be who he really is and stop lying just so people will like him struck kid-me hard. I mean, he's basically a dude version of Cinderella, if Cinderella's story had much more swordplay and even more magic. I liked that. Jafar is a fantastic villain who genuinely frightened me, and all of this combined meant that I watched Aladdin over and over and over again until the VHS wore out.

So Aladdin is a good movie. Or at least it's a movie that kids like, whether or not their parents can still stand it.* But what I think it more worth talking about today is the simple fact that for a lot of us growing up in the 90s, Aladdin was really the sum total of everything we knew about Arab culture up until the boom in anti-Arab/anti-Muslim fever post-9/11. Which makes it weird to go back and watch Aladdin today - it's so strange to think that up until fifteen years ago, this was largely what we thought of the Middle East, of the Arab world. It was a place with brutal laws about stealing, scantily clad sassy women, and untold treasure and magic. It was, for lack of a better word, exotic.

But imagine someone describing the Arab world like this today. Just try. For all that the stereotypes of the Arab world are different now than they were pre-9/11, it's not like they're any more accurate. The strangest thing is how different they really are. The world of Aladdin isn't just a far cry from the world of evil Arab terrorists in videogames, it's basically diametrically opposed. Which is weird, right?

We've spent the better part of this month talking about post-9/11 representations of Arab culture. For the most part our conclusions have been pretty grim. Even the good representations still fall prey to tired tropes about Arab men being aggressive and violent (or else needing to repress any evidence of their Arab heritage) and Arab women being oppressed and subdued (or acting out violently against said oppression and subdued-ness). It's hard to find a story that doesn't fall into these pits, though we did find a couple, but it's weirdly harder to even remember a time before these pits didn't exist.

I mean, not that there were no pits back then, just that they were different.

And that's what watching Aladdin now as an adult living in a post-9/11 society tells me. The pits might have been different twenty-five years ago, but they were still definitely codified expectations for Arab society. And not particularly kind expectations or stereotypes. In fact, looking back on Aladdin, there's a whole hell of a lot of stuff in there that is confusing at best and downright offensive at worst. So here's a quick list, because I want to ruin your childhood.

For starters, the cultural references in this movie are all freaking over the place. We've already discussed the problems with "genies" in popular culture, but it gets even more complex in Aladdin because Robin Williams' performance as the Genie of the Lamp is legendary and also completely insane. His pop culture references and impressions are very funny but also confuse the timeline to an extent that people have come up with radical theories on how the Genie knows about cars and Jack Nicholson and rockets despite supposedly living in medieval Arabia.

But the Genie isn't the only thing mucking up the cultural stuff in Aladdin. Now, as we've already established, I am not an expert on Arab culture, so if I can notice that your film is mushing together all sorts of references, that ain't great. The movie makes vague notes of geography - lines like "This side of the Jordan" and so on - and occasional references to "Allah" in the dialogue, but lacks any cohesive sense of place or time or religious background. And the animal life is just baffling. There's a tiger, a parrot, and a small monkey all living in the same basic ecosystem of a desert despite none of them being desert animals. Just saying.

All of this might feel like nitpicking (because it is) but it's also a really important point to consider. See, the vague Middle Easternishness of the film allows it to divorce itself from any actual kind of representation. Because Aladdin takes place in Agrabah, a fictional land of fictional background, it implicitly tells us that this cultural mushing is okay.

That it's fine if it makes no freaking sense for the characters to offhandedly reference Allah and yet have no discernible religion or religious center in the entire country. That it's totally okay to portray all the bad guys as horrible barbarians who would cut off a woman's hands for stealing a piece of fruit. That we can have a princess who is both sexually objectifiable and sexually controlled without that being contradictory. It's fine because it's not real. It's exotic.

Obviously it is not actually fine.

Now, I want to stop here and remind you that I really don't hate Aladdin. I enjoy it quite a lot and as far as cultural criminals go, I think Aladdin isn't nearly as bad about Arab culture as some of the other films are about other non-European cultures (like, say, Pocahontas). The real point I want to get at is that there is genuine harm in a film handwaving away all of its research and worldbuilding and the real cultural context of the story by saying it's just an "exotic location". Exoticism, in other words, is the real problem here because it allows us to dehumanize another culture and still think ourselves worldly and good.

This is what ultimately all the cultural mushing and references in Aladdin come down to - a way to remind the audience that for the next hour and a half they're in a far off land where everything is slightly different and cool and tantalizing and, well, exotic. The whole film is set up to make Agrabah enticing, even the parts of it we're told are seedy or unpleasant. Nothing is allowed into the fantasy except that which makes it more of an appealing dream.

So, no, there's no mosque even if they reference Allah. The women are frequently veiled, but with gauzy sheer cloth that's just supposed to make them look sexy. The palace is lush and green and beautiful but there aren't any servants around tending the gardens and making us think of the human cost of such luxury. Everything is cut out except the fantasy, and in so doing, we lose a huge amount of what actually makes this story compelling.

Exoticism is a problem because it posits that a culture exists entirely for our enjoyment. As in, the culture of this story, the world of Agrabah, exists not for the enjoyment and realism of the people who live there but for the benefit of us, the American/Western audience. So all the elements included are ones that will titillate us rather than accurately and relatably represent actual Arab culture. 

In so doing, we reduce this culture and these characters into sideshow attractions for ourselves. They're not people, they're set dressing and a pleasant background. They exist for us, and that's a big problem.

Stories grab us because they're about people who remind us of ourselves. Good stories, the best stories, are the ones that help us to see the world more clearly by showing us reflections of our own lives and struggles or the lives and struggles of those around us. That doesn't mean that good fiction can't be fantastical or set in the future or involve improbably proportioned aliens. What I mean is that good fiction creates characters and worlds that remind us of the innate humanity that binds us. Good stories make their characters more human, more real. Bad fiction makes its characters less.

This is the heart of the problem with Aladdin. For all of the pomp and circumstance, the bright colors, and the incredibly catchy songs, the characters of Aladdin don't feel real. They aren't human. The world in which they live isn't recognizably human either. It's been airbrushed and cleaned up and exoticized into being the sort of place that eighteenth century travelers longed for, willfully ignorant of the actual sociopolitical issues surrounding their longing.

For all of this I don't necessarily want to say that Disney's Aladdin is a bad movie. It's not, not exactly. It's just not a movie that affirms the grandness of humanity, and I tend to find films that don't do that rather problematic. I believe in the grandness (and the grossness) of humanity, and I appreciate films and television and books and comics that help us see each other as fellow people, not cartoons wearing low-cut harem pants.

Ultimately, this can probably be the summing problem with Arab-American representation in our pop culture: we seem intent on refusing to see Arab-American characters as human unless they deny their heritage and assimilate fully into our European melange. Characters who resist this assimilation are Others, characters who can be dangerous and scary or exotic and enticing, but never real. We have, with too few exceptions, dehumanized the Arab-American community in our popular culture, and that is hard to redress.

But we have to try. And maybe picking apart a silly Disney film from 1992 seems like a strange place to start, but it's better than nowhere. Happy Arab-American Heritage Month, everyone.


*Mine have residual feelings of fatigue at the mention of the title. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Masculinity Monday: Problematic Genies and 'OUAT In Wonderland'


Well, chickadees, we've reached the final installment of our look at Arab-American masculinity. It's been a heck of a ride, hasn't it? So far we've looked at a whole host of issues involved in properly representing Arab-American men in pop culture. From the issue of cultural assimilation in Community to Arab-excellence in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to the intersection of race and mental health in Mr. Robot to the realities of growing up Arab in post-9/11 America in Green Lantern - there's a lot to talk about and oh have we talked about it.

After all that heaviness, it might seem kind of frivolous to go out on this note, looking at a silly little show with a silly little premise that barely anyone ever watched. But I think it's worth examining this topic, looking at the history of "genies" in American pop culture and how they intersect with Arab-American masculinity, particularly because of one simple fact: we rarely think of genies as being inherently Arab characters.

Okay, so this is going to go a little deep today, but before we go super far, let's start with an introduction to this whole concept. Let's talk about Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, an attempt at spinning off the inexplicably popular Once Upon a Time franchise. OUATIW had the same basic "feel" as its predecessor, but followed a more linear narrative. Alice (Sophie Lowe) is a nice young lady living in Victorian England. She's also a teensy bit mad, or so everyone thinks. 

Having returned from Wonderland, Alice is very sad and almost willing to let the doctors treat her and make her "sane". Fortunately for all of us, though, Wonderland still needs her help! The Knave of Hearts (Michael Socha) and White Rabbit (John Lithgow) rescue Alice from the asylum and give her some wonderful news: the love of her life, Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), might not be as dead as she thought! Galvanized by the desire to reunite with her one true love, Alice springs off into a super fun adventure to save Wonderland from Jafar (Naveen Andrews) and the Red Queen (Emma Rigby).

It's all good fun and games and honestly I probably wouldn't have much negative to say about this show if it weren't for a sort of weird plot point. See, Cyrus isn't just the love of Alice's life. He's also a genie. For some reason.

I say "for some reason" because there isn't a whole lot of good reason for Cyrus to be a genie. On the one hand, it does drive the conflict and give Jafar and the Red Queen a good motivation for trying to get their hands on him (and possibly have him killed), but on the other hand it reduces this male character to a basic MacGuffin. He's the bottle being tossed around all the time and Cyrus himself has very little say in his own fate. 

Even weirder, the actor playing Cyrus is not actually Arab-American or even vaguely Middle-Eastern. He's Hispanic, which is better than a fully white actor playing the role I guess, but it's still a strange choice. In fact, Cyrus as a character is only vaguely Arab, despite being, you know, a genie

And that's what I want to focus on most here. For all that Cyrus is actually a pretty interesting and cool character, there's something very odd and unsettling in his appearance in this show being divorced from any actual Arab culture or folklore. Instead, his existence as a "genie" is presented as being the sort of bland and universal magical background kind of thing that just exists in the Once Upon a Time universe. 

While it's nice to see that white fairy tale tropes aren't the only ones to have made it through, there's something of cultural appropriation here when we consider the complete whitewashing of even the idea of a genie.

Okay. So for most of us, the word genie brings up memories of Robin Williams speed-shouting in Aladdin - a magical blue guy who grants wishes. Only three wishes, of course, and there are always caveats and quirks. Sort of like the fae in most European folklore, the general presentation of genies is as slightly more "exotic" or "ethnic" versions of this, magical beings who can grant wishes and don't really exist outside of our own perception.

Or maybe we think of Barbara Eden wearing harem pants and winking a lot in I Dream of Jeannie, a show that we might dismiss as sexist drivel these days, except for it being literally the only mainstream American show to feature an Arab-American woman as the main character. Jeannie might be a California blonde, but she's also stated in the text as being originally from Baghdad, so it counts.

Either way, we rarely think of Jinn, the original versions of our stories of genies and about as close to them in concept as a little child's drawings of fairies are to old European myths about the Fae. Jinn are described all throughout ancient Arabic texts, even the Qu'ran. They're described as beings of fireless smoke, just as real as humans. While Jinn might appear invisible or unseeable to humans, humans are always visible to Jinn. They have free will, societies, and rulers. The Qu'ran even makes clear that they, alongside humans, will face judgement before God one day. In other words, Jinn are a whole hell of a lot more complex than some blue guy in a bottle. How did we get from Jinn to genies?*

Well, that's a subject for a book, quite frankly, but the basic gist is this: we simplified it way the hell down and then appropriated the entire concept. There is a story in 1001 Arabian Nights where the young Aladdin is aided by a powerful Jinni. The Jinni doesn't grant him wishes exactly, but somewhere along the line that's what it turned into. And also somewhere in there the Jinni became bound to a bottle, forced by arbitrary rules to be enslaved by his own power. 

It's hard to think of a more literal defanging of a cultural concept. From magical beings of immense power and complete free will to wish-granting slaves who live in shackles - the transition from Jinn to genie seems to be directly reflective of who is telling the story. In other words, Western culture didn't like Jinn but they were comfortable with genies. And so genies are what we have now.

Again, this is mostly conjecture. 

But it's worth looking at because this transition, this shift from a fully Arab mythical being to a denuded, Westernized wish-granting slave, makes it easier to think of "genies" as generic magical beings without any particular cultural background. In other words, Jinn are Arab. Genies are whatever you want them to be.

And so you get a character like Cyrus, who is very old and very "mystical", "exotic", and "magical", but only vaguely Arab. He's a genie, not a Jinn. He's an example of how Western, particularly American, culture has taken a piece of folklore and appropriated it. Which is either brilliant or awful depending on your perspective.

Now it's worth pointing out that I don't think Cyrus is a bad character in and of himself. I actually think he's rather lovely. He's this powerful magical being who happens to love a rather wonderful woman and he is devoted to her. Their relationship is the core of the show, a pairing that remained untarnished by even suspicions of emotional infidelity. While most of Once Upon a Time uses romance for angst angst and more angst, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland actually let us get comfortable with Cyrus and Alice's true love. Sure, there were always obstacles in their way, but we never doubted their feelings.

Cyrus is presented as being very clever, talented with a sword, kind-hearted, and generally a good person all around. He's very old and very wise and at the same time still a young man with passions and desires. He's a pretty cool character, is what I'm getting at. Not perfect, but certainly better than usual. 

If he were allowed to actually be an Arab character, if his role as a genie were in any way tied to actual Arab cultural history, if he were even played by an Arab-American actor, I might feel comfortable hailing this as a fantastic example of Arab-American masculinity in pop culture. But none of those things are true, so I'm not.

Instead, I want to point to Cyrus and his role as the hardest kind of representation to define: absence. Cyrus represents, more than anything else, the lack of representation available for Arab-American men. If Arab-American men can't even see themselves in mythical beings based on their own folklore, where is our hope here?

So much of what we've talked about in Arab-American Heritage Month on here has been how Arab-American masculinity is forced to either declare itself loudly and risk being demonized or else hide and assimilate and pray no one notices it. This is just one more example of the latter, a case where the inherent Arab-ness of a character was seemingly too much for the show or the network to handle in anything more than broad strokes. We have to face up to this lack, this dearth of good characters where the roles we would normally see as Arab-American have been Westernized past all recognition, and go from here.

Cyrus is a great guy, but he could have been more. He could have been an example of how to tell Arab stories well. Instead, he's a somewhat forgettable love interest from a show no one watched about a story that doesn't really have any roots in anything at all. 

We need to do better.

They are super cute though.
*I am by no means an expert in the Qu'ran, Arab oral traditions, or the other information you see here. I just did some research, so if this is wrong, I blame the internet.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Masculinity Monday: Simon Baz, the Arab-American Green Lantern

[Notice something different? Like Masculinity Monday actually posting on a Monday this week? You're welcome.]


Fair or not, I think it's safe to say that Arab-American Hertitage Month has been and probably will be the hardest of these theme months to write for. Not because of a lack of commentary on the subject, but because, unfortunately, there are so few non-stereotypical representations of Arab-American masculinity and femininity in our culture that praising them kind of has to default to the basic, "Yay! They're not terrorists in this one!" critique that I would so love to get past. And yet, we kind of can't. 

The Arab-American = terrorist imagery is so strongly prevalent in our culture right now, cemented in the past fifteen years like the 1980s taught us that any Russian must be a blond bully, that it's genuinely pleasing to find a representation that dares to break ranks. There aren't many other stereotypes to subvert, frankly, meaning that in a weird way there isn't much to say.

Then again, there's enough complexity in the world to fill the Library of Congress with single copies of printed works and still not have enough room, so I figure there's more to be said anyway.

So far this month we've looked at three different ideas of what it means to be an Arab-American man in modern society (or the future). We looked at Abed's quest for assimilation and embrace of American pop culture in Community, then we shifted to examine Arab-excellence with Dr. Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, before pivoting back around to look at the complex issues of race and mental illness with Elliot in Mr. Robot. It's been a good month so far, but there are still a few things left to discuss.

It's time to tackle the big one in the room - let's look at how growing up Arab in a post-9/11 American can radically alter your future, even if said future involves becoming a semi-magical superhero. Let's talk Green Lantern, DC Comics' occasionally suspect storytelling choices, and Simon Baz.

It's sort of a running joke at this point that whenever DC Comcis wants to add "diversity" to their lineup, they add another Green Lantern. Need a prominent black superhero to occasionally work with the Justice League? Make him a Green Lantern! Need a gay character? Green Lantern! 

Need to add in a narrative about a young Arab-American man so that you can compassionately and deeply deal with the troubling rise of anti-Arab sentiment in modern America? New Green Lantern!

I'm mostly kidding about the decision process here, but for whatever reason, when DC Comics decided to add an Arab-American superhero to their roster in 2012 they chose to make him a member of the Green Lantern Corps. As we'll discuss in a minute, this was a little bit genius and a little bit dismissive at the same time.

The story goes like this: Simon Baz is your average young American man growing up outside of Detroit in the worst possible conditions. He's Lebanese-American and when he's ten years old he and his family go through hell. They're targeted at school and on the streets for being Arab-American. They didn't have much before that and now they have even less. As he grows up, Simon Baz gets angry. The economic downturn of 2008, which hits Michigan harder than most, doesn't help. He turns to street racing and eventually car theft to survive.

And then things get worse: Baz steals the wrong car, a large van that just so happens to have a bomb in the backseat. Terrified and desperately trying to make sure that no one gets hurt, Baz drives the car over to the factory where he used to work, a factory he knows must be abandoned now, so that it can go off without hurting anyone. Unfortunately, he gets caught and charged with terrorism. He's an Arab-American man with a grudge who just put a car bomb in the factory that laid him off. This doesn't look good.

It's while Baz is being interrogated by the police that things get really weird. Sensing his presence out there, the Green Lantern fusion-ring belonging to both Hal Jordan and Sinestro* finds Baz and chooses him. It whisks him away and he starts his new life as a superhero, albeit a superhero with a warrant out for his arrest and one hell of a criminal record. He's the new guardian of Earth, even if the Justice League is less than thrilled with his existence.

From there his story is pretty comic book standard. Your usual showdowns with the good guys, showdowns with the bad guys, accidentally falling into the wrong portal and ending up stranded in another dimension, healing loved ones with magic powers but not being able to stick around, etc. The normal stuff.

What's really interesting about Simon Baz is, sadly, not his tenure as a Green Lantern. The critics all pretty much agree that as a Green Lantern Baz is hampered by dull storylines and inconsistent characterization. It's not his fault, per se, but the initial excitement over his character has died down to a vague awareness that he still exists in the DC Universe. So, it's not great. Again, not Simon Baz's fault, but when we get down to it, a lot of his value and interest as a character is all about those first few pages of the first issue of his run on Green Lantern when we first got a taste of what it means to grow up Arab in America.

And props to DC, they did not sugar coat it one bit.

So there's a book that I tend to think everyone should read. How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi is the kind of book that grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you, even if you as a person tend to think of yourself as "woke". I'd put it up there with Between the World and Me in terms of real talk about race and beautiful writing, even if it's much less well known. 

How Does It Feel To Be a Problem? is a book of interviews and personal accounts from seven different young Arab-Americans, conducted in about 2006-2007. These are young people who have to live with the realities of a post-9/11 America and who have to grapple with big issues of race and identity and xenophobia every single day. The book is fantastic and I highly recommend it, but it's also worth reading if only for the introduction. Here's why:
It seems barely an exaggeration to say that Arab and Muslim Americans are constantly talked about but almost never heard from. The problem is not that they lack representation but that they have too many. And these are all abstractions...They appear as shadowy characters on terror television shows, have become objects of sociological inquiry, and get paraded around as puppets for public diplomacy...They are floating everywhere in the virtual landscape of the national imagination, as either villains of Islam or victims of Arab culture. Yet as in the postmodern world in which we live, sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere.
That is Simon Baz's life in a nutshell. "Sometimes when you are everywhere, you are really nowhere." What I genuinely do appreciate about him is how honest and realistic his background really feels. I mean, you read that story and you think of how true it must be. It feels almost impossible that there isn't a young man out there with that exact same story, right? 

A lot of that comes from the character's creator: Geoff Johns, a DC mainstay, is half-Lebanese and hails from Michigan. As we could with Sam Esmail and Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot, we can infer from this some level of connection between Johns and Baz. But it also goes deeper. Simon Baz's experience growing up and coming of age in such a difficult time is a story that really demands to be told. His is the hidden story of our country right now, the hidden cost.

In a weird way, Simon Baz, with his constant awareness of his race and his staunchly Muslim and Middle-Eastern background and his eventual fate as a presumed terrorist, is a completion of the other narratives we've looked at. It's like there are only a handful of ways the media is comfortable portraying an Arab-American man. Either he can deny his race and assimilate completely, like Abed in Community and to a lesser extent Elliot in Mr. Robot, or he can magically be transported to a post-racial society like Bashir on Deep Space Nine, or he can tough it out and face down the racists and the xenophobes and the crippling poverty and the complete lack of options like Simon Baz does.

Clunky and obvious and inconsistently written as it is, this comic gets all the credit for that. In those few pages at least, we get an unflinching view of what it means to grow up in a society that hates you. To be told day after day that you don't belong, that the world would be better if you weren't in it, and that everything you love is wrong. For all its meh-ness later on, this comic gets all the props in the world for openly admitting that Simon Baz is in so many ways formed by his experiences and his experiences have not been good. 

He steals cars because he was laid off. He was laid off because the factory was closing. The factory was closing because of the financial crisis. He couldn't get a better job because his family couldn't afford for him to go to college. They couldn't afford for him to go to college because of medical bills and because his parents couldn't get high-paying jobs. He has anger problems because he's been targeted by racists and bullies since he was a child. He's a suspected terrorist because of the color of his skin and the level of his income. Simon Baz is systemic inequality writ large.

And none of that magically goes away when he becomes a superhero. That's probably the most interesting part. He doesn't magically become a super awesome guy. Those fifteen years of being called the bad guy have left scars. He's hotheaded and makes mistakes and really doesn't trust the Justice League who don't trust him right back (at first, at least). It's not immediately magically okay.

But there's still a silver lining, which is what the comic seems to say. In the end, Simon Baz is a superhero precisely because he has faced all of this. See, the Green Lantern Corps is all about facing down fear. It's about being fearless. You could argue that Simon Baz shouldn't qualify because he's, well, not fearless. What the comic points out is that by living in our society, by getting up every day and choosing to face the anti-Arab sentiment head on, by refusing to claim he's Latino or Central Asian or anything else to get out of the situation, Simon Baz is being fearless. He is refusing to let fear run his life, and that makes him a damn hero.


*Green Lantern is not my jam. I prefer comics with lady superheroes or Clint Barton on the cover, for the most part. Ensemble comics about ladies who solve mysteries, investigate the paranormal, fly through space, fight orcs, or go to princess school also count. Basically I read comics about ladies. And Clint Barton.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Strong Female Character Friday: Aisha al-Fadhil (The Losers)


So far in Arab-American Heritage Month we've looked at a wide variety of character types - from Tzipporah's fierce competence and independence in Prince of Egypt to Gazelle's status in Kingsman as a femme fatale who happens to be Arab-American and also happens to be disabled to Detective Sergeant Hassan's refusal to compromise either her heritage or her Britishness while combating racism in Bodies. Today, for our fourth installment (out of five), we're going to look at Aisha al-Fadhil from the solidly mediocre The Losers and how she simultaneously is and is not a well-written female character.

Complex, no?

Okay, so for those of you who understandably haven't seen The Losers, here's the deal: Based on a semi-popular Vertigo title of the same name, The Losers was supposed to be a tentpole action feature for Warner Brothers, the kind of movie that spawns sequels and franchises and makes them all a lot of money. They stacked the deck with every vaguely affordable up and coming star they could find and tried to make a big fun action movie that people would love and while they did succeed with some of that, unfortunately no one really watched this movie. It was super close to being good, but never quite held together well enough to actually become a hit.

The film stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan* as Captain Clay, leader of a rough and tumble group of special ops soldiers fondly called "The Losers". When they are betrayed while on an op in Bolivia, the Losers find themselves nearly killed, declared dead, and completely abandoned by the US military and every spy agency. The movie is about them trying to figure out why and then trying to get their reputations and lives back. They're fighting against this big bad guy, Max, and that's pretty much all you need to know about the actual plot. 

It's fun. Not complex or particularly deep, but fun.

Our heroine today, Aisha al-Fadhil (Zoe Saldana) comes into the story in Bolivia as a mysterious action lady who offers to help the Losers take out Max. She has a vendetta against him to and would like nothing better than to murder him super dead. The Losers take the deal, though there's a lot more suspicion and double-crossing yet to come, and everyone has fun shooting people and blowing things up.

If this doesn't sound like a particularly detail-filled summary, that's because it isn't. The details in this film are largely ancillary to the actual story, which is negligible to say the least. This is actually one of the reasons why the movie doesn't quite work, despite being super enjoyable. At any rate, it's worth knowing that Aisha, we eventually find, hates Max because she blames him for the death of her father. And she's not wrong. What she doesn't know is that the Losers were also involved, a fact that sets Aisha at odds with the team for a time.

Okay. So why are we talking about this under-developed female character from an okay but not spectacular movie? Are we really so hard-up for representations of Arab-American femininity?

In a word, yes.

But scarcity isn't the only reason. The real reason why I want to talk about Aisha is because, as I said above, she both is and is not a well written character. I find that duality fascinating. On the one hand, she's a mixed race woman of Bolivian and Arab heritage**, reminding us that "mixed race" doesn't just mean "white and something else". She's also a fantastically complex woman with her own motivations in the story and arguably the most agency in the whole film. Aisha makes things happen. She's confident and capable and morally ambiguous and very scary.

On the other hand, she's a pretty straightforward "strong female character", and I don't mean that in the good way. I mean that she's exactly the character we think of when someone derogatorily says "strong female character". She's one of the only women in the entire movie. She dresses sexy but boyish. 

There are gratuitous scenes of her in her underwear. She's "just as good as a man". She's stereotypically interested in masculine pursuits and skills and not at all interested in femininity - "she's not like other girls". She's part of a nonsensical romantic subplot. And her personality can be summed up as "lady who kills people." So, not great.

I find this fascinating. For me, it's even more interesting once you bring race into it too. I mean, from the perspective that this is a part-Arab-American woman, played by a part-Arab-American woman, Aisha is actually a super fascinating character. She subverts many of our expectations about Arab-American women - she's not quiet or meek or submissive, she's not afraid of sex or at all shy, and she's the kind of independent that can get five trained killers to follow her around like puppies. 

When you look at Aisha from the perspective of her status as an Arab-American woman, I think she's a fantastic character. A reminder that moral ambiguity and action-hero skills aren't just the purview of white people. But when you look at her from a feminist point of view, she's disappointing. She's pretty much there as a plot device who Clay can have sex with. She's cool but she's a wash of stereotypes about action ladies and what it means to be a "strong woman". I wouldn't be surprised if she calls one of the guys a "pussy" or a "bitch" at some point in the movie. And I don't love that.

I think this duality is super interesting, because it speaks to the real problems that we have in intersectionally examining characters of color and characters from other marginalized groups. A representation that helps one group can harm another. 

A character who we can call poorly written from one perspective is subversive and awesome from another. Instersectionality - the understanding that the different layers of identity such as race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, age, and so on intersect and interact so as to create complex experiences and existences in the world - means that representations of marginalized identities are a lot more complicated than we often want them to be.

I mean, just looking at this in terms of Aisha, you have to understand that her character is either a tired stereotype or super surprising based on how you think of her. I doubt that's intentional, but I do think it's interesting. The only way to avoid this trap is the only way to ensure that your writing really endures: write people, not stereotypes.

Aisha as a character has a lot of potential. I really want to love her. I don't, but I want to. I want to be able to point to her as an example of a really complex and fascinating woman. I want to be able to look at the intersections of her identities: as Latina, as Arab-American, as female. I want all of these things and gosh darn I think I deserve them. I think we all do.

Instead what we've got is a pale imitation of what we could have. 

I also think, though, that Aisha's intersectional identities are a strong reminder to us white feminist people to hold back before judging characters of color. Just because Aisha is a stereotype of a white female character, the kind of "strong female character" we've seen hundreds of times and written dozens of thinkpieces on, doesn't mean that we get to denigrate her for not fitting into our standards of what makes a good female character. 

This isn't to say that she's magically better written from another perspective, but rather that it is important to stop and ask how this character comes off to the Latinx and Arab-American communities before wholeheartedly condemning her.

Okay. So this isn't a super long article today, but I think that's all right. Sadly, there isn't a whole lot more to say about Aisha. She has a lot of potential, little of it realized, but she is still a very different depiction of what it means to be an Arab-American woman even as she is a stereotype of women in action movies. While her character is not complex, her representation is. 

I guess the point is this: identities are complicated and for all her faults I'm grateful for having a character who can remind us of that.

And hey, who doesn't need to remember a scene where Zoe Saldana wields a rocket launcher like it's nothing so she can save Captain America and his friends? It's a good scene.


*This movie is rife with actors who've gotten big since it was made, like Chris Evans as an adorable computer expert, Idris Elba as a stoic and terrifying badass, and Columbus Short as a hilarious man whose role on the team escapes me.

**In the comics, Aisha is actually Afghani. In the film, however, she is established as being part-Bolivian and part-something else. Her father is not given an explicit national identity, I do not think, so I choose to interpret this along the basic lines of "actor determines character unless stated otherwise" that I use for everything.