ABC’s Show About Biases Reveals its Own

ABC’s Show About Biases Reveals its Own November 15, 2010

ABC’s “What Would You Do?” creates controversial scenarios using actors, filming and then analyzing the resulting responses of bystanders to the situations unfolding before their eyes. Host John Quiñones stands by as people react to morally questionable situations by stepping in or backing out, catching them at the last moment to ask them to explain their reactions, whether heroic, shameful or passive. The show is usually entertaining and thought provoking, but the latest episode was simply offensive.

The latest scenario, entitled “Too American: Teen Berated by Fundamentalist Father” featured—surprise, surprise—a Muslim family. ABC details the synopsis here:

“To find out, “What Would You Do?” set-up hidden cameras at the American Dream Diner in Orangetown, N.Y., and hired four actors to play a Muslim-American family. We dressed the father, mother and older daughter in conservative Muslim clothing, contrasting them with the typical American teenage garb of Mira, the younger and more rebellious daughter who was running late to meet her family.”

As Mira rushes in to the restaurant, listening to music and texting on her cell phone, her Muslim father begins to scold her for her “typical American teenage garb” consisting of jean shorts and a pink tank top, asking her to wear something more “acceptable.”

The situation escalates when Mira says loudly, “Why did we come to America if we can’t wear what we want? … I want to be a normal teenager. I want to wear what I want to wear.” To which her “fundamentalist father” responds, “You look like a whore!”

When Mira continues to ignore her father, sticking her headphones back in her ears, the father reaches over the table and rips the headphones off her, shouting, “This comes off now!”

A screenshot from the "What Would You Do?" episode?

Then, in a stern voice, the father warns Mira, that she will receive a punishment similar to that “which her sister received” if she continues this behavior.

Though giving shocked looks, most bystanders did not intervene. Some later told Quiñones that it was simply none of their business; a father has a right to tell his daughter how to dress. Others said that they were too “scared” to intervene, fearing that cultural differences might make the situation hard to handle. One patron even expressed fear that Mira might have suffered more serious consequences later, such as an “honor killing,” at which point ABC took it upon themselves to remind viewers of the 2009 murder of Noor Almaleki by her father.

For starters, the use of the terms “conservative Muslim clothing” and “typical American teenage garb” is so Juan Williams that it has me vomiting in my mouth. As if the question hasn’t been asked enough, what exactly is “conservative Muslim clothing”? Is it the same thing as “Muslim garb”?

The use of the term “typical American teenage garb” suggests that these “others” in “conservative Muslim clothing” are not “typical Americans”…whatever that means. Yet ABC describes them (the actors) as a “Muslim-American family.”

Another problematic term is the use of the word “fundamentalist.” Last time I checked, a father telling his daughter what to wear is not “fundamentalist” (see: “typical American” father for a more accurate description). Most people would agree that what a father or mother sees as appropriate for their child (minor) to wear is usually deemed a personal family issue, not to be decided by anyone else—in fact, many of the commenters on ABC’s site agreed. If we were more honest with ourselves, some of us would admit that if we talked to our parents in such a rude manner, a verbal attack and a yank of the headphones would hardly suffice as an appropriate punishment.

I also find it convenient that ABC saw this as a perfect time to plug in their thoughts on “honor killings.” As if to say, if you witness this, especially from a Muslim father, then beware! An “honor killing” may follow shortly!

Comments on the show’s site indicate that other viewers felt similarly about the fierce stereotyping that was taking place. Here are just a few:

“I’d be more annoyed that ABC felt the need to do a show that shows the Muslim’s in a bad light just for ratings. This is ridiculous. They could have made this any father.” Posted by: SecondLook Nov-7

“That was not “experiment” at all but a horrific act of hate propaganda against muslims, which would be absolutely unthinkable against more powerful minorities (Jews, Blacks, even Latinos).” Posted by: alexLRS Nov-6

“With many Americans harboring prejudices against Muslims, why would you create a scenario that, despite its contrived nature, is undoubtedly going to reinforce people’s negative attitudes towards the religion and its followers? This is disrespectful to the different cultural and familial values held by many people living in the United States. If you wanted to see people’s reaction to a volatile parent, virtually any situation would suffice–there was no call to base the situation around Muslim values and traditions?”

Posted by:BioMajor3 Nov-5  [sic]

So why didn’t ABC’s “What would you do?” pick any parent, without specifying their religion? Perhaps they were hoping for more sensational reactions, assuming that by standards responses would reflect the current overwhelming anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobic climate in America.

At a time when we are seeing such polarized actions and attitudes towards the American Muslim community, ABC played into people’s misconceptions and fanned the flames of Islamophobia by enacting a scenario that further reinforced prevailing stereotypes of Muslims. Not to mention the use of ambiguous terms that further marginalize American Muslims, suggesting that they are not “real” Americans.

Hats off to you, ABC’s “What Would You Do?” Instead of asking the audience to question their biases, you’ve revealed your own.

Editor’s Note: The ABC site has removed video of the episode from its archives.


Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Muslim
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ian Sedrix

    I find it particularly unsettling that so many of you are here seem unable to address people’s concerns about Islam without immediately feeling the urge to either censor them, dismiss them, or respond with violence.

    Wouldn’t addressing those concerns others may have about Islam be a more mature way of responding to them? (Is addressing concerns using kindness and reason not Islamic?)