Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Death to Old Stereotypes, Please

This may not be timely, but it makes up for it in offensiveness. Watch this skit, MadTV’s idea of what English-language Al Jazeera is like. The skit is packed with racist stereotypes about the Middle East.

The only female reporter in the skit is a woman in niqab (presumably forced on her). She says, “My husband only allows me to say this: Death to America.” She is told to shut up by the other male) reporters. The “death to America” refrain is repeated ad nauseum by every person on screen. The reporters fail to report real news stories, and their comments, accents, and behavior are all a product of the image of the Middle East as homogeneous, backward, and hopeless. It’s interesting then to compare the actual Al Jazeera English, which is the third largest English-language 24-hour news network, after BBC World and CNN International.

Notice that the launch of the network shows both a male and female reporter. The woman is not wearing niqab. She speaks freely. It’s ridiculous that I have to point these out. Do Americans really think there are no female reporters in the Middle East? Do they think that Middle Eastern countries lack the ability to produce anything comparable to that of the United States?

Not all of MadTV’s work is so atrocious. One of its best-known skits presents the so-called Apple iRack and successfully makes fun of both Apple and the U.S. government’s involvement in Iraq (despite butchering the name of the country). Other skits poke fun at American medical shows. In these, it’s clear the writers have actually watched the shows and picked up on hints of truth to exaggerate for humorous effect. Can the offensiveness of the Al Jazeera skit be thus justified? It’s a parody, and parodies exaggerate. Not applicable. The reality of Al Jazeera is so far off from the portrayal that MadTV ends up looking idiotic. A parody cannot be effective if it is based on nothing real — unless the viewers don’t know any better, which is, sadly, probably the case. All the skit does is reinforce stereotypes about the Middle East and Al Jazeera, without satirizing the actual reality. Al Jazeera, like other networks, has its biases. But examining these would require the writers’ and viewers’ familiarity with the network — which is clearly lacking. So MadTV turns to old stereotypes.