“YOU want me to wear sandals. What do you think I am, an Ay-rab?” So said the “Chief” or “Muggsy” in a film over 50 years old that my kids and I watched on TV last weekend. The film was one of the “Bowery Boys” or “East Side Kids” comedy series that played throughout the 1940s and 1950s. All the kids that I knew went to see every one of these films starring Leo Gorcey as the Chief and Huntz Hall as Satch. We got some of our first impressions of the world around us from those films and, sprinkled in these films, were numerous references to the Arabs or Ay-rabs as the Chief called them. Almost all of those references were negative or demeaning to people of Arab descent. Entertainment outlets are apparently becoming more specific these days. Now there are distinct references to Saudi Arabia and Saudis in world of fictional movies and sitcom television.
Two weeks ago Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Turki Al-Faisal gave a speech to the US Army College in Pennsylvania entitled “Community and Cooperation.” In the speech, Prince Turki addressed the issue of American popular culture. He stated, “...the American people know very little about Saudi Arabia — except that it is a far away place, where the people wear robes, and there is plenty of oil, sand and camels. In some ways this perception is improving, but I feel in many ways, Americans’ view of my country is devolving. There is a cartoon show in the US on the Fox network called ‘American Dad.’ It is about a CIA agent. In two recent episodes, this American Dad was sent to Saudi Arabia as punishment for ruining his boss’ birthday party.”
“American Dad” is a very popular animated sitcom which appears weekly on Fox TV. Since the inception of “The Simpsons”, the seminal popular culture hit which has been on TV screens for more than 15 years, these animated sitcoms have become great crowd-pleasers. “American Dad” is no exception. Stan Smith plays the dad and is depicted as a CIA agent with a highly dysfunctional family. In an unprecedented two part series called “Stan of Arabia”, Stan is sent to Saudi Arabia as punishment for disrupting the birthday party of his boss.
Although most of these animated sitcoms have few sacred cows, “Stan of Arabia” gives its audience a particularly brutal portrayal of Saudis and Saudi Arabia. Stan relocates his family to Saudi Arabia and all of them experience nothing but grief from the Saudis. Stan sells his son, disguised as a woman, to a Saudi. Stan’s wife and daughter confront the cartoon-created harsh Saudi culture and the whole family are put before a Saudi crowd who are charged with stoning the Smith family to death. At the end of the series, Stan and his family return to the US and he kisses the ground.
Scattered throughout the two programs are various references to Saudis as woman-haters, murderers, terrorists and thugs. Other cultural icons pop up periodically during the programs. Angelina Jolie, Michael Moore and Jay Leno make guest cartoon appearances. The 1980s punk rock group, The Clash, enters the picture at one point doing their song, “Rock the Casbah” which depicts a Saudi-looking buffoon-like fellow on its original cover and features lyrics like “bombs between the minaret.” “Rock the Casbah” was reportedly the unofficial anthem for the US Army during the first Gulf war.
So what’s the harm in cartoonists and Fox TV having a little fun with Saudis and Saudi Arabia? Popular culture is usually defined as the objects, images, artifacts, literature, music and so on of “ordinary” people. The content of pop culture is determined in large part by industries that disseminate cultural material, for example, the film, television and publishing industries, as well as the news media.
Many public opinion polls have suggested that popular culture has a huge effect on public perception. And, stereotypes brought to the public through media as overtly innocent as animated cartoons, might be more effective than actual news broadcasts. The stereotypes of Saudis promulgated in “Stan of Arabia” are probably, therefore, extremely effective and penetrating.
According to the Fox Network, the original broadcast of “Stan of Arabia” scored a relatively high rating and viewer numbers for the broadcast numbered about 7.3 million. Almost all the comments on the Fox blog were positive towards the show. These remarks included: “Last night’s episode was one of the best...almost everything in Saudi Arabia was spot-on”; “This episode was hilarious. My wife doesn’t think this show is that funny, but she was rolling on the ground last night”; “ A nice look into the reality of life and repression in Saudi Arabia”; “Series classic”; “A very special episode”, and “This two-parter is, at the moment, the climax of ‘American Dad’s’ greatness.”
William Grieder, a national correspondent for the liberal magazine The Nation has written “Hollywood is our great national entertainer and also the most effective teacher of our young...We can argue at length about how much this process is accidental and unintentional, how much is purposeful and politically motivated...Do we always need some one or other as villain to dread or despise?”
Media misrepresentation of Saudi Arabia is legend. A Frontpage.com article by Chris Weikopf, who also writes for the Los Angeles Daily News, began: “Saudi bashing has become the new sport in Washington and with good reason.” What Wiekopf was really saying was that it’s not only OK to “bash” an entire nation/ethnic group but it is also “good.” Put any other country or group in the “Saudi” word space and the writer would be rightfully accused of racism.
We can’t do much about what the “Bowery Boys” said 50 years ago, but we can and must point out and protest the racism and ethnic slander that exists in the media today including programs like “American Dad.”