Wednesday, April 30, 2008

“World” Keeps Turning Over Stereotypes

Last month we wrote about the introduction of a Muslim character on the popular American soap opera As the World Turns. Ameera Ali Aziz, arrived freshly from Iraq, faced deportation unless she married Noah, who was already in a relationship with boyfriend Luke. In the episodes since the wedding, the plot has thickened as the difficulty of maintaining a marriage of convenience has set in. Additionally, Ameera’s gone through a few changes.

The most immediately noticeable is her dress. Ameera arrived on the screen dressed in the standard under-chin hijab, no hair showing. Post-marriage she appeared to have started experimenting, trying out the style of hijab that tied in the back, leaving her earlobes bare. From there she went to leaving off the hijab altogether in front of her marriage-of-convenience husband, eliciting a “Your hair is so beautiful” comment. Now she’s settled into covering her in the Southwest Asian style — a scarf tossed loosely over her head, letting the front of her head (and hair!) show.

I’m not sure what the show’s writers or costume directors intended in this change. Perhaps they noticed what Noah did — that actor Tala Ashe does have pretty hair and perhaps they should capitalize on her looks. Quite possibly it’s part of an “Americanization” process the character is undergoing. Since, of course, American women don’t wear hijab. Immigrants might, but after awhile, they’ll see the American light and take it off.* Ameera provides no stated explanation, but the change reflects the idea that a fully covering hijab isn’t really compatible with being an American, as she is becoming.

At the same time, she seems more confident. That doesn’t mean the other characters abandon the patronizing comments and tones of voice, but Ameera has become less likely to put up with it. Trying to engage a discussion, Luke cajoles Ameera, “Come on. Let’s sit. Let’s talk.” She’s having none of it. “Just let me go,” she replies, irritated and uninterested in pleasing him.

Nevertheless, some of her old deference remains. “If you think that’s best, I’ll trust you,” she tells her husband obediently in another moment, her tone of voice clear that she doesn’t agree.

The writers continue to throw in stereotypes about Iraqi culture where they can. They simultaneously paint a picture of the U.S. that is completely blind to the sexism (and subsequent xenophobia) present in modern society and displayed by the show’s characters. One morning Noah wakes up to find Ameera in the kitchen, making a “real American breakfast” of eggs and orange juice — minus the bacon, one of the few (indirect) references to Ameera being Muslim. Noah tells her that being waited on makes him nervous. “But I’m your wife,” she protests. With the air of the all-knowing American, he explains, “That’s not the way it works around here.” I know plenty of American men who expect their wives to cook for them. I don’t know what world of gender equity Noah’s living in, but it’s one that nevertheless lets him get away with making comments like this:

“You’ve got to learn our customs here. Come, sit.” It’s like speaking to a toddler.

Despite Noah’s denial of gender roles, he maintains sexist stereotypes disguising them as “humor.” “After we’re done, you can practice yelling at me to do the dishes and take out the trash,” Noah says. “That was a joke,” he adds, and she laughs on cue. Hilarious.

Some more gems about this fantasy American society:

AMEERA: I cannot get used to seeing a man do the dishes.
NOAH: Well, in America the husband and wife usually share the chores.

Clearly, the implication is that in the sad, backward country of Iraq, the gender equality Americans enjoy is simply unfathomable. The one-dimensional picture paints Iraq as the distant source of Ameera’s terrible past — and nothing more. When asked, “What was your life in Iraq like?” — a question that couldn’t be more vague — Ameera can’t help but praise the U.S. in comparison. Iraq, she explains, was very different (read: bad).

“Where I lived there was no electricity, no running water, very little food,” she says. “People wouldn’t go out after dark — it was like a ghost town.”

Like statements discussed in the last post, this description isn’t put into context of the American invasion. It’s not that Iraq has never had electricity or running water — the recent lack is a result of being bombed. Instead of placing the responsibility where it belongs, these comments leave the impression that Iraq is somehow inferior to the United States. Compounding this message, Ameera’s memory includes nothing but Iraq as a war zone. She has no happy memories of her homeland, and you’d think the country didn’t exist before the war began.

Ameera’s background is constantly seen through a lens of Western superiority. When trying to explain to the immigrant officer why Noah and Ameera don’t sleep together, Luke’s grandmother falls back on Ameera’s background as an excuse. The implication is that in Iraqi culture, married couples don’t sleep together. What?! True, Luke’s grandmother was lying on the spot to keep the officer from deporting Ameera. But the officer’s silence is telling. The man who argued against all the other defenses didn’t point out the fallacy in this excuse. How does he think Iraqi couples have children?

But Ameera is doing her best to show that Iraqi women aren’t always asexual. Indeed, she falls in love with her MOC husband and tries to seduce him. Never mind that he’s gay and already in a relationship with Luke. Iraqis, remember, are supposedly new to the existence of this whole “gay thing.” Another aspect of the naive foreigner.

Ameera goes to a boutique and buys makeup and sexy clothes, ready to surprise Noah. She steps out in the low-cut halter dress, her hair down, and kisses him on the lips. Trying to turn a gay person straight through sheer sexiness has never worked, something ignorant, child-like Ameera doesn’t know (she’s a foreigner, you see*). And as far as plot twists go, it’s painfully unoriginal. But somehow I suspect there’s audience interest in seeing the conservative Muslim woman turn sexy and flirtatious. To no avail, of course: Noah’s not interested. In despair, Ameera decides to move back to Iraq. But no one wants that, so, to solve everything, Luke moves in with them. (Yeah, that’ll really throw the immigrant officer off.) And here’s where the story leaves off.

With her return to Iraq canceled, it looks like Ameera’s here to stay. I don’t predict her character becoming any more complex. Especially since the writers’ idea of complexity is to throw a Muslim woman out of her element by giving her some lipstick. Oh, please.

You can watch the parts of the show featuring Ameera on YouTube (starting
here and continuing through part 160) or the full-length episodes at the official website.

s Note: This is sarcasm.