All American Muslim and WTF Expectations

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.

17 thoughts on “All American Muslim and WTF Expectations

  1. Well said dear Sana. Reality TV should not be ‘our’ chance at showcasing who ‘real’ Muslims are. The many complexities surrounding identities and experiences can never be transmitted onto a screen or adequately explored on TLC.

    p.s I will be watching All American Muslim every sunday.

  2. Well said and thoughtful. Do you think “little mosque on the prairie” fills the need of a Muslim Cosby show?

  3. Interesting take on the issue – if only it was screened down under! And after being force-fed reality TV show after reality TV, I would’ve thought we’d learn by now that reality TV shows are anything but!

  4. Khalil – no, definitely no. I think the show is actually horrible in many respects, but good in some. It’s fluff – not substantial in addressing issues and also paints caricatures of Muslims and is very ‘on the nose’ — the Cosby Show was both comedy and drama, it was well written and the issues the family faced weren’t related to their Blackness (which is why it was revolutionary) but to them being a family, individuals with different lives and experiences, etc. For the first time, Black Americans weren’t painted in caricatures. LMOTP creates caricatures and some times even takes from stereotypes. That’s not what we need. But what I do like is that LMOTP is now a Canadian classic – and that’s something I can appreciate.

  5. This post is as bad as the program.

    Like the show you generalize things.

    - This is not even a representation of the American [shi'a] muslims… I wrote ‘American [shi'a] muslims’ only because you wrote ‘American [sunni] muslims’.

    - Lets face there is denigration and disregard for the hijab among muslims..but again there are people on the show who wear hijab like it should be worn…so again you are short sighted.

    You just cannot generalize the muslims..there are muslims with tattoos and then there are muslims who practice their faith.

    P.S.: Your american [sunni] muslims sentence was very derogatory!!

  6. Biomedical engineer – did we read the same piece? You’re quoting what I say people are using as a critique of the show, which I disagree with, to say that ..I’m saying those things and arguing for them?

    Yeah okay.

  7. Love this:

    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

    I had the opportunity to screen two of the episodes last week. Mostly I was preoccupied with how the people you’ve referred to as “bearers of pious expectations” were going to react to Nina (?blond night club lady) and Shadia (tattoo woman). Honestly, I thought they were pretty cool, and I was worried about them. Aside: How condescending is that?

    I will say that I’m critical of the show based on representation/diversity issue, but not because I feel like it contributes negatively/positively to our PR or something. I do my best to “work with my hands” (despite being a Muslim blogger, for example, the majority of my readers are non-Muslim… very intentional).

    A lot of people just don’t have physical access to Muslims nor do we have access to them to do this hands on work. Several people I know claim that I am the only Muslim they know personally. I’m worried that people like that will assume that the people on All American Muslim are how all Muslims are. This would not be bothersome to me except that over half the second episode is hijab *obsessed*. Or, you know, there’s the whole “they won’t seat as at restaurants because we look Muslim” misunderstanding. Sorry for the spoiler. You’ll see what I mean.

    Finally, I have mad respect for you (longtime lurker/reader), but I think it’s easy to say “haters going to hate” about the being Muslim in the U.S. issue when you’re not contending with a presidential candidate leading the numbers in his party that just proclaimed that most Muslims in the U.S. are “extremists” and that he would never appoint a Muslim to his cabinet.

    Apparently, I’m making up for never commenting here by writing a guest post in your comments. My apologies. Always enjoy/learn from your perspective and I think you’re awesome. Really. :-)

  8. Thank you, Faiqa, for the comment! Really appreciate it! Clarification re: “haters gonna hate” was towards right wing bigots like Schussel and Gellar! and please do comment more often – love when readers engage (I get tons of readers/subscribers, but people stay silent!)

  9. Pingback: muslim roundup « wood turtle

  10. Just found you on a weird youtube journey. You know how you start somewhere and end up somewhere else entirely, either serendipitous or egregious? Anyway, you were definitely serendipitous. I loved the standup stuff I saw from McGill, watched your TEDx essay about the woman on the platform and now found your blog.
    And no, to clarify: I am not a creepy stalker. Or any other kind, for that matter
    As a covered Muslim, lo these 22 years, ( I converted about that time) I have 3 daughters and love to see strong, funny Muslim women. I look forward to future blog posts. Take care, Allah Hafiz, Pam

  11. I haven’t seen All American Muslim yet but have had any number of “American” (i.e., non Muslim) friends ask me about it. I don’t expect it to be representative of me or my reality. The show (indeed, any “reality” show) is either going to have provocative people or edit for drama. I mean really, who wants to sit down and watch my family, covered, praying on time, nagging the kids to read more Qur’an and shopping for halal meat? I get sleepy just thinking about it; and it’s MY life.
    My favorite show about Muslims has got to be “Little Mosque on the Prairie”. In fact, I have used an excerpt of the opening show when I give presentations at colleges and universities about Muslims in North America. The writing is spot on, funny and I actually know people like all the characters. I love the in-jokes and my non-Muslim friends get the humor too. The difference is that it’s scripted (and well written) rather than being “reality”.

  12. Pingback: All-American Muslim Roundup » Muslimah Media Watch

  13. This an excellent post Sana. Although I am not a big fan of “reality TV,” I have followed the news about this show because I am interested in researching Islamophobia and bigotry against my fellow Muslim-Americans. My fellow Palestinian-American, Maysoon Zayid, appears often on Keith Olbermann’s Current TV show to comment on this TLC show and other issues pertinent to Arab/Muslim- Americans: http://current.com/shows/countdown/contributors/maysoon-zayid.
    I will write on these issues on my blog, and I hope that Sana and all of you will read my comments: http://www.arabamericanblog.wordpress.com

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