So, yesterday, All American Muslim premiered and the world exploded.
The TLC show explores the lives of five American Muslim families in Michigan. I’m not going to get into the premise and plot because Google is now a verb.*
Now, I’m not going to discuss exactly what the show is about, how characters are portrayed and what I thought of the show – no, I’m not here to discuss any of that. That’s not my concern or really my interest. I’m more, however, intrigued by the responses the show has received from the diverse Muslim audience (both in Canada and the US). And I must say ..I’m kinda annoyed.
Before I start – people have been excited for this show for awhile. I mean, it’s not everyday that Muslims will get publicity that does not revolve around people of our kin killing someone for some reason that is then made out to be a theo-civilizational act of war or people of our kin being killed extra-judicially. So, you know, being on a channel that literally stands for The Learning Channel (Tender Love and Care also works as does Sana’s Unemployment Escapism) is a nice departure from the usual network hot sauce poured over our collective hotwing of an existence.
So, that’s some context of the general initial interest Muslims in North America, in particular, had regarding the show. Yet with the premiere of the show itself, last night, came also the premiere of criticisms based on the most questionable of expectations.
Two major critiques I’ve come across have consisted of the following:
- The show follows five Shi’i Muslim Arab-American families based in Michigan. Not diverse nor a representation, in the least, of the vastness of difference in the lives, backgrounds and experiences of American [Sunni] Muslims.
- Many of the people involved in the show completely fail to exhibit characteristics of their ‘Muslimness’ – there’s disregard/denigration of the hijab for some while others adorn tattoos. Godlessness all around!
And both of these critiques are absolutely irksome and necessitate only one response: it’s TLC.
This is the same channel that has brought us Little People, Big World (about, well, a little people family), My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (racist and erroneously titled as hell), Jon and Kate Plus 8 (people who mess up the conception process) and Sister Wives (polygamy with an incestuous feel thanks to the title). Despite being The Learning Channel, the network is not exactly intent on representing every individual from marginalized, misunderstood minority groups — instead, they often focus on sensationalism and scripted situations. After all, reality shows do not mean reality – it is a production, with much money and investment involved. Rather reality TV creators just take real people and put them in certain situations, focus and create, through the power of film editing, certain characters and quirks and encourage the cast members to sensationalize or over-emphasize a certain part of themselves. Anyone who thought this show would actually be a broadcasted savior for American Muslims thought wrong – the show is not meant to represent Muslims, but focus on a particular group of people who are Muslim in an area that has an interesting Muslim character. To chalk this show up to be ‘good publicity’ or as some sort of equalizing force I think is to over-state the importance and power of TLC. I mean – do people really understand and sympathize with Octo-moms or polygamy for that matter? No – these shows merely shed some light on particular people’s experiences. And if people are thinking this is some sort of daw’ah opportunity, then I think us Muslims have to seriously rethink our priorities.
I’m not even going to get into the absurdity of the essentialism of ‘visible Muslimness’ being brought up. I think what makes many self-acclaimed bearers of piety [okay, that was mean] uncomfortable is that they don’t see themselves represented on the show, per se, while not realizing that what they may envision does not represent another majority within the Muslim community. Religiosity, spirituality and faith aren’t leather-bound books we can easily store and skim through, they are experiences as well as fluctuating identities. It’s uncomfortable and may be something many of us Muslims may not agree with, but it is true and it is a ‘reality.’
While, however, there are many people trashing the show, there are also people who are hailing it as a much-needed pop culture venture into the households of the ever-vilified American-Muslim. I agree and disagree. Mostly disagree.
If we depend on this show to set the trail for future inclusion of Muslim Americans in mainstream pop culture then we run the risk, however minimal[or not], of being defined on caricatures based on particular ethno-sectarian identities and particular American experiences not shared by other Muslim Americans. If we’re using shows like this as a forum through which we can dispell myths – we’re treading on dangerous territory. As it’s been mentioned endlessly within the past year and a half, in particular, what we need is a Muslim Cosby Show, if we want to engage with American Muslim identity and spatial position as well as reframe it in the collective American consciousness then it requires something of that caliber. The Cosby Show was revolutionary in its representation of Black Americans and the Black American experience – but did not claim to be representative of all Black Americans. Instead, it offered another glimpses into the most oppressed, vilified and tortured demographic in the United States.
Black identity was not at the forefront of the Cosby Show, but it wasn’t on the backburner either.
I’m not against All American Muslim – God no. Nor am I so ridiculously for it. And I’m certainly not holding any unrealistic and baseless expectations from a show on a network that thrives on sensationalizing the lives and problems of others (see: Hoarders).
I suppose I become slightly cynical when it comes to the ‘power’ and ability of the show to change the aggressive atmosphere in North America towards Muslims. And have we become so desperate for ‘good representation’ that any inkling of sight of it fills us with hope, joy and kittens? See, the thing is – All American Muslim ultimately doesn’t matter. I’m sure the world’s Debbie Schussels and Pamela Gellars are already writing about how the Mozlumz are taking over the media and everything that is holy about TLC.
As my personal mantra goes – haters gonna hate.
What does matter, however, is that we, as Muslim North Americans, get off our couches, get away from the television’s negative or slightly positive portrayal of us (because clearly it’ll never be good enough for us anyway), and do the work with our own hands – neighbor by neighbor, community by community. Create the ‘reality’ you want to see on your screens as opposed to just critiquing it in 140 characters.
Plus, everyone knows the real question regarding All American Muslim is: Will it last longer than Kim Kardashian’s marriage?
*Google is a verb that apparently I can’t use. Link fixed.