Last month, ABC Family withdrew the pilot episode of TV drama Alice in Arabia. The show was green-lit a week before its cancellation, and was going to centre around a badly behaved teenage girl who is kidnapped by her Saudi Arabian family. The rest of the series would see the protagonist, Alice, try to escape her rich, evil grandfather, and return to America.
Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of controversy surrounding the pilot. The Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed concerns that “the pilot and any resulting series may engage in stereotyping”. The media picked up on this, with one BuzzFeed article saying “We Got A Copy Of The Script For Alice In Arabia And It’s Exactly What Critics Feared”. The Guardian called the premise of the show “deeply problematic”, and even The Daily Mail condemned it as racist.
With all this outrage, it isn’t difficult to see why ABC pulled the pilot. Based on the information released about Alice in Arabia, it seems like it could have been detrimental to the already damaged image of Arabs in the media. There was a danger that it would have perpetuated the stereotype that the Middle East is a barbaric, backwards land where women are oppressed and any heroic westerner who tries to bring civilisation to these countries is punished.
It still could have been an interesting story to tell. Before pulling the plug on the show, ABC released a statement saying that the protagonist of the show would be “intrigued by [Saudi Arabia’s] offerings and people whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world”. If dealt with sensitively enough, Alice in Arabia could have been an open-minded show which may have educated viewers about the Middle East.
However, given the Arab stereotypes so prevalent in western media, a show which posits a Saudi Arabian as a stock villain would probably have done more harm than good. There hasn’t been a decent, prominent Arab in film or television since Aladdin, and there are so many fascinating stories which could be told about the Middle East but remain absent from the small screen. Alice in Arabia is not the problem, but the media climate in which ABC tried to release the show is.
Maybe one day, when the depiction of Arabic people on television is less one-dimensional, a show like Alice in Arabia could be made. When we have Middle Eastern characters who are not terrorists, oil sheikhs or sexist Islamic extremists, viewers may be ready to watch a show which tries to deal with such a sensitive, taboo subject matter. But until we start seeing Arabic characters who do not conform to any stereotypes, any show which depicts generically evil Middle Easterns will only damage the image presented of those people.