Whiteness and the Ethnographical Power of Popular Culture: a Review of Heroes, Villains and the Muslim Exception

It would be fair to say* that Australia’s screen industry and mainstream cultural output struggles under the burden of its inherent whiteness when it comes to depictions of, and stories relating to, Arab and Muslim Australians. The range of content produced is starkly disproportionate to the intense scrutiny, fascination and visibility the Arab and Muslim holds in public discourse and media generally. Further, with few exceptions, the predominant impression of characters who flash across our screens is that they are written as crude, one-dimensional stereotypical caricatures; overwhelmingly written and directed by, and for, a White gaze (Abood 2008; Krayem 2016; Shaheen 2009; Shaheen 2008; Lagerberg and McGregor 2012).

For Arab and Muslim audiences, and for people of colour who understand what it means to be written about, the characters also almost always ring false. Further, the gendered privileging of male narratives in the world of Australian film and television cannot be overlooked. Australian film and television have, to date, centred the stories of Arab and Muslim men. It is their stories and emotional worlds that have been privileged and taken centre stage. The absence, silencing and erasure of mainstream stories centred around and told by Muslim and Arab women is a gaping hole that has yet to be remedied.

Left, then, with Muslim and Arab men’s stories on the screen, in her book, Heroes, Villains and the Muslim Exception, Mehal Krayem makes a critical contribution in turning her focus onto how these Muslim and Arab men are mediated and constructed in Australian popular fictional representations. Her analysis focuses on three case studies within the crime drama genre: East West 101, a three series television programme that aired on the Special Broadcasting Service from 2007-2011, and The Combination (written and produced by Lebanese-Australian actor George Bashttps://www.imdb.com/title/tt1229345/ha) and Cedar Boys (written and directed by Turkish-Australian actor Serhat Caradee), films that screened in Australian cinemas in 2009. Krayem’s work distinguishes itself in the expansive collection of work on representations of Muslims in popular culture and media in some crucial ways:

First, and in my view most importantly, Krayem’s work is grounded in critical race theory in that her analysis proceeds from the premise that this nation is ordered around a dominant White culture. She is therefore less interested in analysing the limitations and problems of representation in order to find better models of representation which appeal to the White gaze and soothe White anxieties, and more interested in what the films she examines tells us about the reproduction of national identity and how these films ‘reaffirm the limits of existing within a multicultural society that is ordered with them at the margins.’ For Krayem, the ‘failure’ of the film and television programs she examines ‘lies not always in an inability to present refreshing new characters on screen, but rather in an inability to reimagine the nation beyond hierarchies of cultural belonging’ (3).

Krayem’s work is grounded in a critical understanding of the workings of race and whiteness in the film and television industry and in unpacking how whiteness, as hegemonic and invisible, infiltrates artistic, creative and production spaces. Her book starts from a position that Muslim and Arab men on our screens do not exist beyond language, beyond the political, ideological and economic mediations that have historically framed gender representations of the Muslim and Arab world. The Muslim male enters audiences’ imagination and interpretive filters not as individuals in their own right, but as an ahistorical, and undifferentiated category, recognisable and familiar through their essentialisation.

Second, Krayem opens her book with a poignant anecdote about a woman she meets on a plane. The woman’s assumptions about Krayem’s husband and the dynamics of their marriage reveals the painful, racializing effects of ‘constructions of the Arab and Muslim man in popular discourse’ (x), and the enduring legacy and command of Orientalist discourses. The incident is confronting in its banality, its benevolence, but poetically illustrates why this kind of analysis is important. In a white dominated creative industry, there are very few Muslim and Arab characters. And so, while there are myriad ways of living Muslim and Arab, the limitations of representation freeze Muslim and Arab lives into a few narrow possibilities. And these possibilities take on a kind of anthropological legitimacy where the Muslim character becomes a character in a wider religious and ethnic community, and not simply a character in a particular plot. Krayem interrogates how the representations of Muslim boys and men in these films are extrapolated into wider judgments and essentialisations about what it means to be a Muslim and/or Arab man. Citing media scholar Jing Yin’s argument that popular culture ‘has ethnographical power in constructing non-Western cultures,’(7) Krayem argues that ‘audiences perceive an element of truth in the representations that they see on screen and become emotionally invested in them (7).’

Last, and what I have always admired about Krayem’s body of work and intellectual stance, is that she resists what so many people who purport to work on race and Islamophobia do, which is speak and write about Islamophobia, race and whiteness as it impacts on middle class Muslims and Arabs only, erasing and marginalising the voices and experiences of the ‘working class’. Krayem’s work has a deep empathy and sensitivity to the voices of marginalised communities within marginalised communities. The young working class ‘Leb’, and so on: people so easily dismissed as ‘embarrassing’ the image of the triumphant, successful, ‘moderate’, ‘integrated’ Muslim and Arab we see valorised time and time again. 

I still remember one of the very first times I felt a sense of validation and excitement at a Muslim character in a feature film. A character who I initially expected would either reinforce the usual stereotypes or be constructed as the exception: the 1998 film, A Perfect Murder, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas. The police officer in that film is named Mohamed and becomes Paltrow’s ally. It was one of the few characters I’d ever encountered on the screen whose Arab and Muslim identity was not a banal backdrop. Moreover, the police officer diverged from the stereotypical ‘savage/terrorist/evil/misogynist’ Muslim man. I still remember how comforting that felt, but also how utterly alien it was, given the films that dominated at the time. Krayem’s book reminded me of that moment and the role, as she argues, ‘that film and television play in reimagining a more just and equal society.’ (10) One can never underestimate the importance of popular culture for our sense of identity and the potential film and television offers for imagining and disrupting new ways of understanding ourselves and each other.  

References

Abood, P. 2008, ‘The Arab as Spectacle: Race, Gender and Representation in Australian Popular Culture’, Phd Thesis, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Krayem, M. 2018, ‘Heroes, Villians and the Muslim Exception: Muslim and Arab Men in Australian Crime Drama’, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria.

Krayem, M. 2016, ‘Striking it Lucky: Arab Representation, Whiteness, and “Here Come the Habibs”’, Metro Magazine: Media and Education, no. 189, 58–62.

Lagerberg, R. & McGregor, A. 2012, ‘Inside the Outside: Aspirations of Authenticity in the Representation of Lebanese-Australian Youth in Serhat Caradee’s Cedar Boys’, Studies in Australasian Cinema, vol. 6, no. 3, 251–61.

Shaheen, J.G.  2008, Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11, Olive Branch Press, Northampton, MA.

Shaheen, J.G. 2009, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, revised and updated edn of the 2001 first edn, Olive Branch Press, Northampton, MA.

Yin, J. 2013, ‘Constructing the Other: A Critical Reading of The Joy Luck Club’, in M. Asante, Y. Miike & J. Ying (eds.), The Global Intercultural Communication Reader, Routledge, New York, 149–75.

*This is a revised version of the speech Randa Abdel-Fattah gave at the launch of the book ‘Heroes, villains and the muslim exception: Muslim and Arab Men in Australian Crime Drama’ at the University of Technology, on May 3, 2018.

Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University where she is researching the generational impact of the war on terror on Muslim and non-Muslim youth born into a post 9/11 world. The award-winning author of 11 novels published and translated in over 20 countries, Randa writes across a wide range of genres and actively seeks to translate her academic work into creative and public interventions which reshape dominant narratives around race, Islamophobia, social justice, Palestine/Middle East and feminism.

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