Friday, March 21, 2008

Strangers In Our Living Rooms

-- by Sara

Dave's post below points up just how complicit the media has become in perpetuating the kind of sticky, pernicious racial conflicts so much of the country is trying hard to get past. The deeper problem here, of course, is that conflict sells -- you really can't have any kind of dramatic narrative, fiction or non-fiction, without it. And it's very hard to get the American media to give up on a conflict narrative that's served so many social and political interests so reliably for so long -- even when it's become patently clear to everyone that that narrative is now savaging the soul of the country.

And the infuriating part of it is: It doesn't have to be this way. To prove the point, I'd like to offer two examples of how other countries are using media constructively -- and incredibly powerfully -- to actively help people get past this stuff, instead of staying stuck in it.

The first example comes from Greece. Two summers ago, my son and I went to Athens for a couple of weeks, where we stayed with my grandmother's very best friend -- an elderly Greek woman we'd absorbed into our family clan decades ago as a shirttail aunt. The second night after we arrived, Menie cut dinner short and shooed us all over to the TV. It was time for her favorite show, The Borders of Love. Apparently, it was the biggest TV phenomenon in both Greece and Turkey that year; in both countries, everybody hung on every episode and discussed it in the shops and streets for days afterward. So we gathered in the front room, and settled down to watch.

The Borders of Love was a Romeo-and-Juliet tale of Nazli, a beautiful young Turkish woman, who falls in love with Niko, a dashing Greek man. The series followed the various social dilemmas this unlikely pairing caused -- the cultural clashes between the two of them, issues with co-workers, bosses, neighbors, and friends, and (especially) the huge upsets this caused within their respective families. Dramatically, this isn't anything particularly new -- but there was an interesting twist that made it remarkable in a world-changing way.

Nazli's part of the story was scripted in Turkish, with Greek subtitles supplied. Niko's friends and family all spoke Greek, with Turkish subtitles supplied. And the show was shown -- and became a massive hit -- in both countries. Young Greek men snapped up posters of the elegant Nazli; Turkish girls swooned over handsome Niko.

But the show caused a shift that went much deeper than that. As Greeks and Turks found themselves rooting for the young couple to make it through (which they did: their wedding show was a landmark TV event on both sides of the Bosporus), many of them began to question the thousands of years of mutual animosity that, in most cases, had become nothing more than a reflexive habit. People from both countries began seeking each other out and having civil conversations (often with their fondness for the show as the opening piece of common ground). New trade initiatives were launched; the amount of business between the two countries soared. Greeks and Turks on the street realized they had more in common than baklava and belly dancing; that, as neighbors, they were stuck with each other -- and that might not, in the end, be an awful thing. If Nazli and Niko could make it work in the face of their crazy families, they decided, maybe the rest of them could give it a try, too.

The second example is much closer to home -- in my case, literally. These days, Wednesday nights will usually find me curled up on the couch at my house in Vancouver, eagerly devouring the latest half-hour installment of Little Mosque on the Prairie. I've become unreasonably engrossed in the charming tale of a small town on the Canadian prairies that finds itself welcoming an influx of Muslim immigrants (which, in fact, is happening on the prairies) -- and the sitcom that gives us weekly lessons on how this culture clash can be worked out with mutual respect, humor, and sometimes even love.

The show -- which was created by Zarqa Narwaz, a Muslim writer in Toronto --features Amaar, an attorney from Toronto who abandons his practice to become the imam for the Muslims of the tiny prairie town of Mercy. The show's romantic tension comes from his relationship with Rayyan, the observant yet very feminist Muslim woman who serves as the town's doctor. (Rayyan wears hijab with such stylish flair that Muslim women all over Canada flock to websites showing how they can replicate her fabulous look.) It's love-hate between Amaar and Rayyan, but you know these two handsome, brilliantly-educated professionals are destined for each other.

Amaar's congregation gathers in unused space in the Anglican church (the "little mosque" is really a converted fellowship hall furnished with prayer rugs) which is graying and needs the rent money to keep their church operating. His co-existence with the good reverend -- and the encounters between their respective flocks -- makes for some cute plot twists, as do the various situations in which Canadian culture has to scoot over to make room for the newcomers. Parks & Rec can only find a male instructor for the women-only swim class -- and suddenly, the Muslim women have to cover up in the pool. (Further hilarity ensues when it comes out that the instructor is gay.) Orthodox Muslims struggle to come to terms with sending their kids out on Halloween, but find a way to make the holiday their own. Fatima, the vast and traditional Nigerian woman who officiates at the town's diner, creates medical havoc with her old-country cures -- and Rayyan scrambles to undo the damage. There's even a local hate-radio host who keeps trying to foment resentment toward the newcomers ("What have they got against dogs?") -- but can barely admit his overwhelming crush on Fatima.

This is all frothy sitcom stuff -- but it's smartly and compassionately written, and Nawaz and her writers deftly skewer the most absurd and extremist elements of both cultures. The result is a valuable civics lesson for a country that's reeling under the largest immigrant flow of any nation in the world -- a historically English and French culture that's now absorbing vast numbers of people from Asia and the Middle East. These days, everybody in Canada is working through these same kinds of cultural glitches together, every day. But when CBC offers us this weekly lesson showing how it all can be worked out if we keep relying on the same good will and good humor that have always been at the core of Canadian culture, it really does help the rest of us find our way.

The need to perpetuate a certain racial conflict narrative -- and the unquestioning enthusiasm with which American media as a whole is now buying into the right wing's "culture war with Islamofascism" frame -- pretty much guarantees that you're not going to see Little Mosque on the Prairie on any American network any time soon. After all, a show that like this has the potential to blast through two decades of carefully-cultivated anti-Islam stereotyping in the space of two months. (Interested Americans can acquire the first season on DVD here. Season Two is due out shortly.)

And it's a huge loss, because TV has always been a potent tool for changing the way people all over the world viewed the Other. The rising black upper-middle class was legitimized and made visible through the 70s and 80s when Americans embraced the Jeffersons and the Huxtables. Attitudes towards gays began to soften when we all got to know Jody Dallas (played by a very young Billy Crystal) on the 70s' sitcom Soap. TV has always had a magical ability to bring people we'd have never meet otherwise into our own homes, and making them part of our families. And once you know Jody or Cliff and Claire or Amaar and Rayyan or Nazli and Niko, it's far harder to objectify them, to keep seeing their tribe as something irredeemably different from your own.

That's the opportunity America's corporate media is forfeiting now with its continued insistence on reinforcing conflict-based racial narratives. As any Greek, Turk, or Canadian can tell you, TV can do more than just sell us Ziplock and Coke and Ford. It can also sell us new and better ways of co-existing in a diverse world. Our own media's obstinate refusal -- or, perhaps, lack of imagination -- in using their power to provide visions and models of other, more constructive ways of dealing with these issues is just one more way in which they are failing us, both culturally and politically.

If we're going to change the way Americans approach the Other in our midst, we need to start by demanding that those who produce our media give up on their divisive old stories, and instead start showing us all new and better ways to get along. Our TV producers used to do this so well -- but now, it's just another front on which the rest of the world now has us beat.

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