When ABC Family announced Monday that it had ordered a pilot for teen drama Alice in Arabia, the network’s description prompted a wave of complaints from critics who feared it would be the latest in a line of simplistic stereotypes of Muslims on American television.
The cable channel protested that the project shouldn’t be judged on a brief synopsis, but a script for the show’s pilot — obtained by BuzzFeed from an industry source — is likely to confirm early fears. At one point, the heroine generically describes Muslim social views — the opposition to drinking, for instance — as “extreme.” The script also describes veiled Muslim women as “completely formless, anonymous.” One sympathetic female character, in describing her lavish Riyadh home, lauds it as “worth having to wear a silly veil while outside.”
The show has some departures from the standard template. The heroine is half Saudi, and sees herself as a “good Muslim girl” — not the blonde Christian victim more typical of the genre. But it broadly plays on a familiar narrative of a beautiful girl kidnapped from the United States by sinister Arabs, held against her will in the desert, and threatened with early marriage.
The script obtained by BuzzFeed is a third draft dated July 18, 2013. An ABC Family spokesperson, who would only comment on the condition of anonymity, called it “irresponsible” to “pre-judge” a show that hadn’t yet been produced.
“As everyone in the industry knows, all pilots go through multiple rewrites, where storylines change and characters develop, and very few get picked up to series,” said the spokesperson. “This situation is no different.”
The hashtag #AliceInArabia became a trending Twitter topic across the United States when ABC Family released a synopsis Monday, with criticism focusing both on the description of the plot — a half-Saudi girl kidnapped by her relatives — and the ability of the author, Brooke Eikmeier, a former member of the U.S. military, to represent Muslims in a way that would prove productive to Muslim perceptions in American popular culture. The Council of American-Islamic Relations said in a letter to ABC Family that it was “concerned about the negative impact this program could have on the lives of ordinary Arab-American and American Muslims” and that the series “may engage in stereotyping that can lead to things like bullying of Muslim students.” The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee expressed concern about the show “promoting bigotry and stereotyping of millions of Arabs and Arab-Americans, and billions of Muslims around the world” and “perpetuat[ing] demeaning stereotypes.”
Eikmeier responded to some of the complaints in a Facebook comment, saying the show is being written with “noble intentions” and “is meant to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV.” ABC Family maintained in a statement to BuzzFeed that “the writer is an incredible storyteller and [they] expect Alice to be a nuanced and character driven show.”
But the script itself is light on nuance. The story centers around an American 16-year-old, Alice MacFarland, a pointedly accessible character. She lives in American suburbia, goes to private school, sneaks out to go to parties, and is coveted by boys her age. Alice likes “making pretty things,” watches Project Runway, and aspires to be a fashion designer. The “pretty, mixed-race” teenager is comfortable enough in her blended identity to joke about it with ownership. When a boy at a party asks her if, being half Saudi, she knows how to ride a camel, she flirtatiously responds: “Yeah, I just spread my legs and hop on.”
When a car accident kills her mother and leaves her father in a coma, Alice is visited by her Saudi grandfather and aunt, both of whom she grew up believing to be dead, but who now appear to be her closest living family.
Her grandfather introduces himself as Prince Bakr Shookri Al-Saud from the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. He goes by Abu Hamza. He convinces Alice to stay with him until her father wakes from his coma and, with her consent, flies her to Saudi Arabia in his private jet. While in transit, Radha takes Alice’s passport under the guise of arranging paperwork for her entry to Saudi Arabia and then surreptitiously hands it over to Abu Hamza, who immediately locks it away in a briefcase. Once in Riyadh, Alice finds out that he has no intention of returning it.
For the rest of the pilot script, she finds herself at the center of two opposing forces: Abu Hamza, who intends to keep Alice in Saudi Arabia forever, and a small team of allies who help her plot an escape.
The Saudi record on women’s rights is in fact atrocious, but the script focuses less on that society’s internal struggle than on a simple dichotomy between the identities “American” and “Muslim.” Nearly every devoutly Muslim character opposes American ideals, and vice versa. One character refers to Alice’s mixed identity as “half Jew-loving monkey.” Abu Hamza describes America as a “perverted world” where women are forced to “starve and cut themselves thin and big titted.” Later, a young girl posits that Muslim women have two options: to be modern and free, or to be loved by God.
The plot lends itself to particularly easy comparison with Not Without My Daughter, a 1991 film based on a nonfiction book by the same name. In it, American citizen Betty Mahmoody recounts her marriage to an Iranian man who asks her, along with her daughter, to briefly visit his family in Iran. Once there, he strips them of their passports and attempts to keep them there indefinitely. Mahmoody is left to plot an escape for herself and her daughter, attempting to make it back to America in time to visit her dying father.
The controversy around Alice in Arabia comes three months before FX launches its own fraught drama set in a fictional Middle Eastern country, Tyrant, in which the title character’s American family are held against their will. The show was created by Gideon Raff and developed by Howard Gordon, both of whom worked on Homeland; Gordon was the co-creator 24. Both shows have been criticized for their depiction of Muslim characters.
In Alice, when the heroine first lands in Riyadh, she is ushered to the women’s quarters of Abu Hamza’s royal compound, where she is warmly welcomed by a host of female characters – wives, daughters, friends, and servants. Some smoke hookah while they watch Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City; others read the Quran on their iPads. One of Radha’s daughters wears Lululemon, has dyed blonde hair, and aspires to go to college before marrying her true love; the other is voluntarily engaged at 14 to a man whose only appeal is political clout, and doesn’t wear makeup because she doesn’t want to be seen as “a whore.”
The show relies on a particular cliche in descriptions of Muslim women: that they are normal despite being Muslim because they too wear underwear and read magazines. When Radha is convincing Alice to don a full burqa, she reassures her charge that “even under the drabbest of veils,” many women wear La Perla lingerie, the latest Paris fashions, and Louboutin shoes. She winks and adds, “We read Vogue too.”
When Alice reluctantly slips into a burqa, Eikmeier envisions the camera briefly seeing the world through black gauze. The script describes Alice as “transforming herself from a typical American teenager into a completely formless, anonymous woman.”
In his royal compound, Abu Hamza has set up a makeshift school for girls so that they won’t have to leave palace grounds to gain an education. He streams live videos of the best professors from around the world while his granddaughters and a few wealthy acquaintances’ daughters watch. In a compelling subversion of the “seen and not heard” trope, the girls are audible to their professors but not visible, therefore affording themselves the privilege of being unveiled.
The script does reflect the author’s familiarity with Saudi Arabia: the contrasts of glitzy malls and slums; and an Applebee’s restaurant with signs in Arabic and in English.
But it also includes notable cultural errors. Repeatedly throughout the screenplay, the garment Alice dons in Saudi Arabia is incorrectly labelled an “abaya” — an abaya is a robe that doesn’t include a face covering, while what Alice puts on does veil her face and head, including her eyes, making it either a niqab or a burqa. Her aunt is somewhat implausibly named “Radha” after a Hindu goddess, despite being Muslim. And one of the girls in attendance at the royal school is the daughter of the American ambassador; her presence makes little sense here, considering the existence of an American International School in Riyadh.
In one pivotal scene pitting Islam against “American” values, Alice confronts her grandfather about her hostage passport. When confronted, he interrogates Alice about her faith, asking her if she was raised Muslim, if she prays, if she consumes alcohol, and if she has had sexual encounters with men. Her response, half explicit and half implied, is yes, all of the above. “I’m a good Muslim,” she tells him meekly, unable to define or defend that identity.
As Abu Hamza’s onslaught continues, the script notes in a passing instruction: “Alice turns even whiter, if that were possible.”