ABC Family Pulls "Alice In Arabia" After Serious (And Appropriate) Backlash
If you didn't believe it before, believe it now: The Internet has proven to have immense power. Apparently, after widespread backlash, ABC Family has canceled the series Alice in Arabia , which would have focused on an American girl in Saudi Arabia. The negative conversation surrounding the pilot script spread rapidly on Twitter, leaving the network with no choice but to abandon the scorned concept.
We had already sensed this coming when ABC Family originally announced it. They described the controversial pilot as such:
Alice In Arabia is a high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian. Alice finds herself a stranger in a new world but is intrigued by its offerings and people, whom she finds surprisingly diverse in their views on the world and her situation. Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil.
Mention "Saudi Arabia" in a network pitch and you'll be met with weary support and immediate criticism. We don't frequently see Muslim characters on television, so we often fear that racism and harsh stereotypes will circulate in hopes of creating something tangible and identifiable to the majority of viewers. No so fast, networks. The public is smarter than that; the Internet has permitted us to be more globally connected than ever, and any pilot that shows a smidgen of potential racism or inaccuracy will be met with immediate contention.
When Buzzfeed obtained the copy of the pilot script written by Brooke Eikmeier, the popular site ascertained that the pilot did indeed confirm critics' worst fears. Staff writer Rega Jha cited that it was "light on nuance" and perpetuated stereotypes about Arab people — specifically women. While, as Jha pointed out, "the Saudi record on women’s rights is in fact atrocious," the script choice not to focus on women's struggles (or even allude to the notion that maybe an internal struggle amongst peripheral female characters would appear later in the series), but rather the difference between possessing an "American" or "Muslim" identity, which is Alice's struggle as mixed-race girl. Essentially, it takes America ideals ("modern and free," as one girl in the pilot says) against Muslim ideals ("to be loved by God".)
While the conversation circling the pilot had already been negative, once the viral behemoth that is Buzzfeed aired this informative criticism, the Internet raised its spears, with #AliceinArabia trending on Twitter.
It wasn't too long before ABC Family ultimately pulled it.
In response to the decision, an ABC spokesperson said that “the current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned and is certainly not conducive to the creative process, so we’ve decided not to move forward with this project.” Wise move, ABC. Way to choose not to perpetuate simplistic ideas and racism.
Shortly after, The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee responded by saying they were grateful that ABC Family chose to nix the idea, but hopes that in the future, the company works towards...
[…] resolving other issues raised, such as the depiction of Arabs in the series Once Upon a Time as well as issues surrounding the Aladdin musical [...] By doing so the Disney Company, and ABC Family have rid themselves of a show that did nothing but perpetuate demanding stereotypes,” said ADC President Samer Khalaf in a statement. “Moving forward we encourage other media outlets to stay away from such programing and not engage in the stereotyping of any community. We look forward to continued dialogue and conversation with the Disney company.
ABC Family came to the show's defense, and said to HuffPost Live, "Pre-judging a pilot that is not even in production is irresponsible. As everyone in the industry knows, all pilots go through multiple rewrites, where story lines and characters develop, and very few get picked up to series. This situation is no different."
Yet, no matter how many rewrites a series can go through, the values that remain at its core will not likely change, assuming the team behind it has a particular idea in mind. Moreover, speaking strictly from a network and ratings perspective, a series with such immediate backlash would not likely fare too well in the long run, making it a poor investment for any cable network.
What we can hope for, in the wake of this cancelation, is that hopefully it taught networks that simply setting a series in a Middle Eastern country does not solve a problem. Having true-to-life stories that reveal the accurate state of what's going on in those countries, complete with fully-formed characters who do not succumb to simplistic stereotypes, is what does.
Image: ABC Family/Disney