Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Masculinity Monday: Assimilation and 'Community's Abed Nadir

[One of these weeks I’m going to manage to actually keep to a schedule. Someday.]

Like I said on Friday, April is Arab-American Heritage Month, which means it's an opportunity for us to have a dedicated discussion of representations of Arab-American characters in our culture. We've gotten things started with the ladies side of things, but today is our chance to take a deeper look at how stereotypes about Arab-American men, particularly in post-9/11 America, have affected our pop culture. It's not always in the way you'd assume.

So, when it comes to talking about Arab-American men in our culture, we tend to default to stereotypes just as much as when we talk about Arab-American women. Only instead of stereotypes about submissive, quiet, oppressed huddled masses of women, we imagine aggressive, angry, irrational men who want to put the whole world under their dictatorial thumbs. As a result, researching this month’s characters was hard. You try finding a mess of compelling, complex, and inventive male Arab-American characters in a culture saturated with terrorist tropes.

It was difficult. Until, that is, I realized that there were a couple of these characters under my nose.

Today’s topic is one of those characters, a blink and you’d miss it representation of what it means to be an Arab-American man in today’s country. And, in a weird way, the complete non-issue of this character’s ethnicity and background is probably a more accurate depiction than most blatant representations. But also a problem. I didn't say this wasn't a complex issue.

For a lot of Arab-American men, they’ve felt they had to choose one: Arab or American. For this character, I think we can pretty safely say he chose American, whether because the story needed him to or because he actually went towards preference. This character is an example of the feared minority who assimilates so completely you kind of forget about it.

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t everyone’s experience watching Community, but I for one had completely forgotten that Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi), one of the show’s main characters, is actually half-Palestinian. Maybe I forgot because I’m bad with details like this (I’m not) or maybe I forgot because the show wanted me to forget (more likely) – but either way, Abed becomes a character who represents a lot of Arab-Americans, a man who had to choose to assimilate or be left behind.

But first a little background on the show: Community is a surprisingly long-lived sitcom about the students and faculty of a cut-rate community college with dubious academic credentials. Following the members of a study group, the show plays with narrative conventions, character tropes, and diverse representation to create one of the most interesting sitcoms on TV. At least the first three seasons are. After that, watch at your own risk. 

Abed is, like I said above, one of the main characters, a founding member of the study group and generally considered the heart and soul of the show. He’s a nerd, sure, but he’s a nerd with heart. Abed is ostensibly at Greendale to learn business skills so he can take over his father’s falafel stand someday (one of the only references to his ethnic background), but over time he embraces his love of American pop culture and switches to a film major.

Throughout the six seasons of the show, Abed’s journey is never explicitly about his background or even about his family. It’s more a story where he’s learning how to interact with the world around him, something he’s struggled with since childhood. In fact, as we learn in season one, his neurodivergent behavior was enough of a stressor in his family that his mother (who was Polish) left them when he was six years old. Abed blames himself for this, which has complicated his relationship with his father. Like, a lot.

But all of this is background. In the show itself, Abed is mostly identified by his charming inability to process emotions and information like the other characters and his overwhelming love for television and film. He prefers to understand situations in the context of what movies or shows they remind him of, and if you’re wondering if I relate to this, the answer is oh hell yes.

So Abed is a nerd who really loves TV and likes playing silly pranks and is bad at reading social cues. The show is much more concerned with Abed's status as a neurodivergent character than it is with his status as a man of color or as a man of Arab descent. And for the most part that's fine. It makes for good television. But, whether this is an intentional choice or not, it robs his character of a richness and complexity that would be there if they were more willing to discuss his ethnic background.

As I've said before, I don't think that race or ethnic background should define any character. I hate it when you get a person on a show who's there to be the token: like the black character who's there because they need a black character and whose entire personality is what a white writer thinks black people are like. Not a fan. 

But I do think that good writing acknowledges the existence of race as a determining factor in one's experience of the world. A well written show will manage to acknowledge this reality without making the character's whole personality revolve around it. 

The thing is, Community is a well written show. They manage this with just about every other character of color. Granted, that's only two, but still. Both Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Troy (Donald Glover) are given storylines and realities that acknowledge their race and how it affects them on a day to day basis. Abed, on the other hand, really doesn't get that. As far as the narrative is concerned, Abed is a nerd and Abed is neurodivergent, but Abed isn't really Arab-American. Or he is, but the show feels no need to mention it. Like ever.

As you may have gathered, I don't love this. And not because I think that every episode should have been Abed walking around complaining about racial profiling. More because I think that to so completely white-wash his character is to deny the real existence of hundreds of thousands of Arab-Americans who live life much like Abed. Who live wholly American lives, who love American television, who go to American colleges, who relate much more strongly to American culture than to the culture of their parents. Refusing to admit that Abed is Arab-American means denying that his life actually is pretty typical of an Arab-American man in the present day.

This has even more far-reaching connotations too. I mean, fi the show had spent more time wrestling with Abed's background, he would have actually been a pretty subversive character. Imagine storylines that show Abed trying to figure out if his interest in pop culture is a result of actual interest or if it's a coping mechanism he subconsciously developed. Is he so into American culture because he's felt so Other all his life? Is this a rebellion not against his father but against an American society that views people like Abed as threats unless they divorce themselves completely from their heritage?

The way it is, though, Abed is functionally whitewashed. I mean, he's obviously not white (the actor is of Indian descent, among other things), but he exists in the narrative as functionally white. His storylines are rarely about being nonwhite and he almost never cites non-American or non-white cultural influences. Which would be fine, if the show actually acknowledged that it was happening.

Because Abed's experience could be really typical. In fact I think it is. I think that there are a lot of young Arab-American men who could see themselves in Abed if the show were more willing to confront the stress and frustration of being Arab-American in suburban Colorado. And I can only think that if the show had actually addressed Abed's Palestinian background more, he might have helped the white viewers better understand what it means to be young and Arab-American in post-9/11 America.

That, however, is not what happens.

Abed is so fully culturally American, so divorced from his background as an Arab-American man, that he allows us to forget all about his ethnicity. While that might sound like a good thing, what it really means is that we the audience are never forced to do the hard work of letting our empathy for a lovable fan-favorite like Abed influence our feelings about the ethnic group most feared and hated in America right now. 

So let's come back to the issue I mentioned at the beginning of the article: choice. Now, I'm not of Arab descent so I can't speak to that experience except insofar as people have taught me about it. But I do know about what it means to choose between owning your heritage and being American enough not to make anyone uncomfortable. I know because my very last name is a testament to my family's desire to assimilate.

My grandfather was born in Boston, but he was born to a pair of Ukrainian immigrants just off the boat from the old country. He grew up in a heavily Ukrainian enclave in the city and his name told everyone who saw it exactly how Ukrainian he was. That was fine in the twenties and the thirties and even the forties. But when the fifties rolled around and suddenly communism was the greatest threat to American society, when Eastern Europe became the enemy, suddenly my grandfather's name wasn't just a name anymore. It was a sign of his intimate association with the enemy.

Who cared that his family had left Ukraine during the Russian revolution? Who cared that they were likely fleeing the very same forces that people were now accusing my grandfather of allegiance to? Who cared that he was an American veteran who just wanted a quiet life in a quiet town? He was obviously a dirty commie. My grandfather changed his name, and as a result mine, because of that pressure. I hope you can see why I have trouble buying a story where Abed Nadir, a Palestinian-American man living in twenty-first century America, has never experienced anything like it.

Okay, and this is just an aside here, but did the writers really not think there were any worthwhile stories to be told in the friendship of their Palestinian-Polish character and their canonically Jewish character? Abed and Annie (Alison Brie) end up being best friends and really wonderful people together, and there was such room for a really interesting exploration of how history doesn't have to destiny. 

I mean, imagine Abed and Annie bonding over their Polish backgrounds* and then imagine them having to awkwardly navigate around the Israel-Palestinian conflict-sized elephant in the room.

I guess what I'm saying is that Community is a really good show, but letting Abed actually talk about his background would have made it a great one. Assimilation is a real issue, particularly for the children of first generation immigrants, like Abed. He has to decide who he is in a culture that is primed to hate and fear him. There's so much room for complexity and for beautiful, funny storytelling here. The show, however, seems like it just chickened out. I mean, why bother making your character Palestinian if you're not going to ever bring it up? Especially when the actor is Indian.

This month we're going to look at representations of Arab-American men in the media. Sometimes, that means looking at a lot of ways that they're really not represented. Because that's the thing about Abed. For all that he definitely canonically is an Arab-American man, he's also kind of not. He's so assimilated into American culture, and this assimilation is so unchallenged and unmentioned on the show that it's easy to completely forget his background. That's not good. One could even say that it's bad.

So while I think it would be fantastic to be point to Abed and say, here is a character who shows the diversity of the Arab-American experience and who showcases the subversion of so many stereotypes, instead I have so say this: All we can learn from Abed on Community is that if you want to be a beloved Arab-American character on a primetime sitcom, you'd better forget the Arab part of your background and only care about the American. Assimilate or get left behind.

Let's hope that it gets better from here.

*Not actually sure if Annie has any Polish background, but you could totally make some up.


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