Tyrant: The Arab/Muslim Experience and Whitewashing

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Tyrant. Poster. Hollywood Reporter.Tyrant, a new FX series, premiered on Tuesday, June 24. It centers on Bassam (Barry) Al Fayeed, son of a dictator of a make believe Arab nation, who finally returns home with his American family after decades away. If it was any other show, you could say that the first episode was solid and definitely infuses interest in the audience to continue onto the second episode. However, this show is not like other shows and already has marks against it before the first episode even aired.

The Hollywood Reporter reported that FX tested the script and concept via an outside research firm and they found that

…those sampled broke into three distinct groups of equal size: Islamophobes, who would reject the show out of hand because they didn’t want that part of the world in their home; Islamophiles, who would reject it because they assumed it would be another negative Western portrayal; and those who were open to what appeared to be a compelling drama. Convincing the former two groups to give the series a shot will come down to word of mouth and an ambitious marketing push.

I find the Islamophiles interesting because I’m one of them. Ever since 9/11, Muslims have been treated terribly in the western world. Policies such as the Patriot Act and other anti-terrorist laws give government officials free range to harass those who have the physical markings of Islam (a hijab, a khamis) or those who are non-white or “foreign looking.” Now terrorism is synonymous with Islam, a religion that most Americans have little to no information on. But despite Islam being a term that has been around for centuries, in American it is used indiscriminately on individuals from all backgrounds: culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse. We’re the terrorist featured in a given episode, every other night on television. This lead me to dropping shows like NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles among others.

Of course, I’m going to roll my eyes and sweat a bit when I hear that a show based on the ruling family, a dictatorship, of a non existent Arab nation would be coming to television. If this was based on Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin, I’d have no issue. Why would I when repercussions for those people (Italian, Germans, Russians) wouldn’t be felt in the same way? The words communist and Nazi would get thrown around. But they wouldn’t be feared. They wouldn’t be pulled out of the security line to have their bags searched for potential explosives. They wouldn’t be attacked on the street or have their holy book burned for all to see.

Tyrant. Teaser Trailer. FX. 2014. TV.I had and have every right to be worried about this series because I don’t want another piece of media telling ME what I’m like, or those who identify as Arab — and not necessarily Muslim — what they’re like. Sadly, FX shot themselves in the foot before the pilot even aired, when they hired a white actor to play the lead instead of a man of Middle Eastern descent. I think Adam Rayner is a fabulous actor — but he shouldn’t have gotten this job. A show tailor made for a diverse cast, its lead is given to a white man and thus we have another incidence of whitewashing.

The importance of diversity can be seen by the resistance by those who crave it once they get it. Seems ridiculous, right? I read the first issue of Ms. Marvel, a comic about a new Muslim teen superhero, and was resistant to it. I realized it was because that version of the foreign Muslim experience was slightly different from my Muslim experience. A small variation bugged me because this character was not only representing her culture (Pakistani) but also all Muslims, who come in all shades and from all cultures. I finally talked myself out of this representational burden that I placed on the young Kamala, but it was there because of the lack of Muslims and Arabs in comics. The same can be said of all media, and Tyrant will have to carry the representational burden.

After watching the first episode, I see potential for this show but I’m still on the fence. The poor treatment of women thus far (less character development more physical brutality) has me worried about the tone of the show — “look how civilized and progressive the western world is!” I’m not saying that awful stuff doesn’t happen in Arab nations, but they happen all over in varying degrees. There are also great people in those Arab nations, as we’ve seen with Malala Yousafzai and her father, who supports her. Life is complex everywhere and I do hope that this is showcased in Tyrant. People are fighting for their right to live freely in those nations and to belittle their experience and culture through stereotypes and simplified approaches will anger the audience that this is supposed to represent.

Treat the audience with respect by giving them their representation, complexity and a good story and I promise you that they will take that leap with you.

So far, FX, you’ve got one hand tied behind your back with that whitewashing casting.

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Senior Editor. BA in criminals (a minor in daydreams). Batman seeks her advice constantly. Bylines at Book Riot, Teen Vogue, Slate, The Toast and Hyperallergic.

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