So this is old. 2005 old. But I just saw it so I’m writing.
I’m not the biggest fan of animated cartoon series like South Park, The Simpsons, Family Guy, and American Dad. Mainly because I believe that there are so many underlying messages that you don’t notice you’re exposed to because they’re packaged in this cutesy way that makes you let down your guard and get sucked in. They perpetuate ideologies and modes of thinking according to the whims of the scriptwriters—whether they be supremacist, Orientalist, anti-fat, etc. Intentional or not, it happens.
(And this is true even if you go way back to Disney when messages weren’t as overt. The Little Mermaid? Disobey your parents [while of course having impossible body proportions]: you’ll still get the person you love and your parents will eventually come around to your way of thinking. Aladdin? A thief. Etc., etc.).
So let me demonstrate this reality using the episode of American Dad I happened to watch while waiting for iftar with baited breath: “Stan of Arabia.”
The title itself should have given me fair warning that this wasn’t going to be a mindless piece of entertainment (It’s a spin off of Lawrence of Arabia).
American Dad revolves around Stan Smith, a CIA agent who is constantly on the alert for terrorist activity to protect his beloved America. He’s a titular giant-jawed all American super-patriot with a blonde wife (Francine) and two kids: a surly feminist teenage daughter and a dorky pre-teen son. And for some reason there’s an alien (Roger) living with them in the house.
You can watch the part 1 of the episode here and part two here. Or you can just read the synopsis here.
But basically, the story is that Stan gets his boss mad and is sent to Saudi Arabia as punishment.
Since our job here is to critique portrayals of Muslim women, I won’t really get into the way Saudi Arabia itself is portrayed. I’ll just list some of the many horrendous generalizations and messages that made me gnash my teeth:
• The first clip we see is sand and desert, of course.
• In the airport Stan says “Quick cover your mouths, that’s how they [Saudi Arabians] enter your body and lay their eggs.”
• Stan locks the doors “so [Francine] won’t get beheaded when I’m out.”
• Everyone rides camels (you can even pack them onto the plane, haha).
• Everyone has a gun: the Smith family hears them in the car, a little boy has guns in his room, and the men have guns slung over their shoulders.
• Houses are castles straight out of Aladdin.
• The Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice carry swords and run after ‘whores’ and ‘harlots.’ They shoot you for singing in public.
• Jews are horrible and Saudis hate them.
• Infidels are stoned in a big coliseum-type stadium, with people watching while wearing foam fingers. The stoning is shown on TV.
• Hypocrisy abounds: a Saudi man seduces Stan’s daughter by telling her he was a terrorist; alcohol is available in certain homes, R-rated movies are sold in the bazaar, etc.
• The bazaar sells: guns, chickens, watermelons, carpets etc. The typical bazaar image. There’s even a moustache shop. And background music is always Oriental music (you know what I’m talking about).
• A woman was in jail for 23 years for stealing a candy bar. And her left hand was cut off.
Oops, that was a long list. But now on to the meaty stuff: women.
Saudi Arabia, I’m sure we all know, is a restrictive country when it comes to women. As pops up in almost any news story about Saudi women: Saudi Arabia is a patriarchal country where women have to abide by a dress code, need a male escort for many things, and can’t drive. Though they can, of course, leave the house without a male escort.
But the way women are portrayed in this episode is just… there are no words. This clip of Francine complaining of what she doesn’t like about Saudi Arabia will give you a small idea of what the episode is like:
(Particularly horrendous for me are the men portrayed with their feet on women’s head, and the man asking ‘what’s a clitoris?’ i.e. an allusion to circumcision/ clitoridectomy, which doesn’t even exist in Saudi Arabia).
First off, the episode turns all women into a homogenous bunch, with no character or individual personalities. They all exist to serve men, and what’s more, they’re happy doing so. Stan’s wife visits her neighbours, and all three women get up immediately as soon as “husband is home,” the first asking him how was his day, the second if he wants a snack, and the third saying she will draw him a bath, with the latter two actually carrying him into the house on their shoulders.
And the men of course tell Stan “what do you mean you asked your wife and she said no? You mean you told her and she obeyed.” Stan is ecstatic, because of course that’s the dream of every man: that his wife obeys his every word (Stan actually sings “I don’t want a partner, I want a wife” early on in the episode). Women in Saudi Arabia are also portrayed as property—the police who bring back Francine at knife point when she goes out alone ask Stan, “This belongs to you?”
Because even though she’s this oppressed woman having to cover her face and hair, well, she still must be exotic and sexual. Who cares if that’s a dichotomy? And since she’s Saudi of course she’s just a mindless drone—”I will serve husband in this life and the next” she intones. She cooks, she actually bows (!) when handing Stan a sandwich, and is seen by him as a maid to help Francine around the house. He can’t pronounce her name so he calls her Thundercat (a reference to the animated TV series perhaps? Cat-like humanoid aliens?) She’s just a Saudi woman after all; she doesn’t really need an identity right?
Dress-wise, all the women are portrayed as wearing abayas, headscarves, and face veils (never mind that face veils are not mandatory in Saudi Arabia, nor are headscarves). The alien Roger is ‘sold’ to a fat old Saudi ruler who lives in palace where alcohol flows freely and the women there (of course) live in a harem-type setting, all in bikinis (but with their faces and hair covered), swimming in the pool, being fed grapes, getting massaged and fanned.
The first problem I see with an episode like this is that it selectively chooses the worse aspect of the culture to portray. Not to mention introducing things that are blatantly untrue. And not only that, but it takes truths and twists them or portrays them in a way to make them seem so much worse than they really are (for example, if you do go out alone, you’ll immediately be trailed by men with swords who will chase you). It makes a mockery of aspects of Arab culture and reinforces all the stereotypes the ‘West’ has of Arab women: oppressed sexual beings.
The message here is clear: by going to Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist Islamic state, the Smith family gets to see how much they appreciate America (in fact, while almost getting stoned for being infidels Stan fantasies about President Bush showing up to save them, bringing democracy, Bibles, and jeans to Saudi Arabia. Now that’s a whole different post).
Popular culture is so much stronger than many people give it credit for. “It’s just a cartoon” some people will say, “it’s meant to be humorous and of course we know that it’s not really like that—you’re not really going to be killed for singing or held at sword point for flashing your ankles.”
But visual ‘input’ is rarely forgotten. Think of any movie you’ve seen. Can you visualize at least one scene? Chances are, you will. (And this is real by the way, research it online).
Not to mention that for those who don’t really know anything about Saudi Arabia, chances are they’re not going to watch this episode and then immediately go and research the country and its culture and norms. And even if they do, what’s going to be more memorable? A broadly stereotyped nightmare of the Middle East which made them laugh, or the Girls of Riyadh?
And just like this article mentions,
“Stereotypes brought to the public through media as overtly innocent as animated cartoons might be more effective than actual news broadcasts. The stereotypes of Saudis promulgated in “Stan of Arabia” are probably therefore extremely effective and penetrating.”
Portraying Saudis as woman-hating murders and thugs (and would-be terrorists at one point) may make for entertainment, but it’s wrong on so many levels. It’s demeaning and downright insulting to Saudi Arabians to have them portrayed like this. It’s bad enough that we as Muslims or Arabs have to deal with all the negative media now (we’re terrorists, we hate America, yada, yada). Why dredge up misconceptions that we’ve more or less dealt with (I really do hope no one still thinks I live in a pyramid and take a camel to university).
According to the Fox Network, the original broadcast of Stan of Arabia brought in approximately 7.3 million viewers. That’s not counting the millions who have watched it since.
I think the only part of the episode I laughed at was Stan staying: America doesn’t want to enslave all Arabs. Just the ones with oil.
So I have a twisted sense of humor.