Thursday, July 17, 2014

Tyrant and the dangerous narrative of The Other

Growing up, the people who look like the men in my life on the Western television screen never played the romantic lead or the dashing hero- instead, they played the bad guys or the comedic relief- the bumbling gas station employee or the hilarious [fill in the blank] who would soon be outwitted. Fast forward to present day and not a great deal has changed, after all, we're still in an era of Homeland, a show I watched initially hopeful for complexity but which ultimately devolved into a woman shrieking as she held the Quran belonging to her secret Muslim husband, who in truth did quickly transition from good American man into a beer drinking, adulterous, Muslim terrorist upon conversion.

When I heard about Tyrant, the beloved baby of the creator of Homeland and 24, I wasn't exactly optimistic. When I read the premise, an assimilated Arab American living the happy middle class American life with his wife and kids with nary an evil thought in his head until... he returns to his fictional Arab country and devolves into a monster, I was understandably sickened.

But when MPAC was said to be a consultant on the show and had, from what I read, given their thumbs up of approval for the show, I thought okay. I'll try it. I'll watch.

And then I watched. And well, it was so terrible that it veered slightly into the absurdly comical. And as NPR, Alan Sepinwall, Daniel Fienberg, AV Club, all pointed out, it wasn't bad just beacuse it relied on caricatures of Arabs and because it had a white British man pretending to be Arab because "no Arab was good enough" to play the part, it was bad because it was bad. With shows oozing nuance and complexity like Breaking Bad, The Wire, True Detectives, and Mad Men, maybe we as a cultural viewing audience have grown more discerning.


But it's troubling that such shows are made. That a show like Homeland draws the "logical" conclusion that a conversion to Islam equals terrorist activities and wins Emmys while giving all it's viewers implicit messages of who I am, leaves me ill.

This Ramadan is a hard one. This Ramadan I see so much pain around the world. I see little kids dying because someone has deemed them other. I see one sect of Islam declaring another an abomination and taking it upon themselves to settle the score because they see them as the other. I see the KKK handing out candy in South Carolina to help children join their cause against the other.

I see a world that is suffocating in the narrative of the other.

And it makes me think about the show Tyrant. It came out a few weeks ago but today for some reason it's been on my mind again. I think it's because while shows like Tyrant make for bad TV on many creative and artistic levels, the show isn't just bad TV-- it's dangerous TV.  Shows like Tyrant help us write off an entire group of people because it promotes full force the narrative of the other. And that has real life consequences. It has the consequence of creating an us and a them. It can be the difference between crying at the image on the screen or shrugging and scrolling. It can be the difference between calling a congressperson or saying that's just how they are. It has the consequence of closing hearts. And that is the most dangerous kind of show there can be.

3 comments:

Susan Jett said...

So many thoughts on this, on how 'entertainment' mirrors the obsessions of a society, and then in turn, shapes them. I think it's true on a culture-wide scale, but I also think it's true on an individual level.

Because of books I'd read as a child, I grew up thinking of Germans as the ultimate enemy (NAZIS! -- despite being genetically half-German!) My husband can still do a kick-ass fake Russian accent because of his years of 'fighting commies' as a little boy in the early 60s -- influenced by movies.

And my olive-skinned, black-eyed little boy, who is genetically half-Turkish, is likely to grow up thinking of 'swarthy' people as the scary others. Which breaks my heart on so many many levels. And the only way I know to combat that fear is to make sure he has plenty of stories and influences and friends to show him that 'other' does not equal bad, and that 'others' aren't even REALLY other. We all want the same things, the world 'round. We all love our children and want the best for them--that's a huge uniting truth right there.

That said I don't watch shows or read books that perpetuate 'norms' I would not want my kid to pick up. (I have a thing about casual murder or violence being used as an entertainment plot device anyway. There's enough grief and sorrow and horror in the world without using it for a cheap adrenalin rush.)

I don't know what the answer is, but I do think it's a discussion worth having--an important discussion. In this world of news-as-entertainment, I think too often people confuse their 'bad guys on tv' with real life. It's dangerous and stupid, and something that needs to stop--though I'm not sure how to do that, except for refusing to partake, or to allow my family to partake? Any ideas on how to change this entertainment culture of stereotyped villains?

iremi nisces said...

Asalamu alaikum,

did you hear about the breakfast prayer..

Take Care

Anonymous said...

I agree with you with all my heart. Glad you spoke up.

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