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October 28, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY

BlogsCulture and Context

Back Up the Rabbit Hole for ‘Alice in Arabia’

Should ABC Family have known better than to offer us a peek at the premise of its Alice in Arabia pilot before the show even went into production? From a business perspective, it was hardly wise, but I – and, more importantly, the US Muslim community, are very glad they did.

Hollywood Reporter broke the story of ABC’s planned series with the following description:

Alice In Arabia is a high-stakes drama about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.

The deeply-problematic nature of that single paragraph did not go unnoticed by Muslim and Arab-American groups fed up by consistently harmful misrepresentations of their communities in television (24, Family Guy, and The West Wing have all been guilty of perpetuating the ‘Muslim = Terrorist’ trope, and Lady Gaga is one of many public figures to make misguided statements about the burqa and hijab in the name of an ethnocentric brand of feminism), who were quick to denounce the series before even seeing a script.

Leave it to Buzzfeed, then, to obtain a draft of the script, which, they announced, was “exactly what critics feared.” In addition to presenting the traditional Muslim veil as a symbol of oppression – it’s not, say the millions (and millions and millions) of women who wear it by choice – it creates a “a simple dichotomy between the identities ‘American’ and ‘Muslim,'” presenting to the show’s potential viewers a world in which the two cannot co-exist.

ABC Family picked up what the Internet was putting down (it would have been hard not to, as #AliceinArabia became a Twitter trending topic), and pulled the plug on the proposed pilot pre-production.

Viewer mobilization over a network decision is nothing new (click link for bad example), but for a network to respond to criticism about a show that was never even made by backing off entirely is something that probably couldn’t have happened as recently as two years ago…

Which is a shame, because if we had today’s social media 25 years ago, then this could have been avoided entirely.