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Bad politics

Hamid Dabashi’s most recent article ‘Hollywood Orientalism is not about the Arab world’ (Nov 10, Aljazeera.com) talks about how Hollywood is in the business of misrepresenting everyone. His arguments were spot on.

The American entertainment industry is a strong influence in the world. Most countries have adopted American pop culture as their own. Over the years – although the industry itself wasn’t apolitical – the shows and movies produced in the US started becoming more political.

It started off as a few political jokes sprinkled here and there. Later, shows started to make casual political statements – mostly for ratings. Millennial and Gen Zs love to think that they’re the most politically informed generation(s) and appreciated shows that had some political commentary. Slowly, shows with political remarks became the norm.

But most of the shows – regardless of how good their plot was – ended up making a mockery of world politics and became a mouthpiece for the ruling elite. For instance, right after Oprah Winfrey casually mentioned that she might run for the presidency, a five-time Emmy winner American sitcom, Modern Family, had an episode where the two characters Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Gloria Delgado-Pritchett (Sofia Vergara) got the opportunity to party at Oprah’s house where they ‘fangirled’ and ‘fanboyed’ their idol.

Such instances should have been ignored had the creators stuck to America’s domestic politics. But they are guilty of using their wide canvas to paint ugly and problematic images of other countries – especially South American and Arab/Muslim countries.

In the show ‘The Bold Type’, which masquerades as a feminist show, a gay character, Adena El-Amin (Nikohl Boosheri) resides in the US on a work permit. She is originally from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Throughout the show, there are references that the character’s return to her home country is dangerous. This narrative showed how Arab countries are guilty of human rights violations and how members of a marginalised group don’t feel safe over there. While this may not be entirely wrong, to conveniently ignore human rights violations that the US is guilty of committing is neither an apt statement nor entertainment.

Show creators continue to draft pointless stories that end up becoming embarrassing to watch. In Parks and Recreation, a mockumentary sitcom that shows the antics of a mid-level bureaucrat, an episode ‘Sister City’ showed a delegation from Venezuela – a country that fascinates and terrorises Americans. The assumptions of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) were that Venezuelan officers would be ‘poor’ and surprised by the development they saw in the US. It turns out that military officers from the South American country were well-off.

The episode isn’t a recent one and at the time Venezuela wasn’t in the grips of a severe financial crisis. The show implied that the country’s ruling elite is rich – since the country had pro-nationalisation policies – and its people are impoverished. Venezuela’s liberation movement was started by Hugo Chavez who was a military officer. For the US, it was enough to call him the much-dreaded D-word – dictator. His policies and his prudent use of the country’s resources to generate revenue – which, later, brought many challenges as well – remain unappreciated in the mainstream American media. Such representation also made a point that neo-liberal economic policies that favour private ownership of almost all businesses and services and promote a user-pay system are perfect for the economic wellbeing of a country.

Another show ‘One Day at a Time’ which was celebrated by many – especially feminists – for its wokeness had laughable hatred for Cuba. The protagonist’s – Penelope’s (Justina Machado) – mother, played by Rita Moreno, was a Batista supporter. In various episodes, she mentioned how her lovely Cuba lost its charm under the leadership of Fidel Castro. For the late Castro, such criticism might mean nothing, and this is why the informed audience chose to ignore such ignorant commentary.

But the show went so far in its ignorance when it indirectly compared Che Guevara to Hitler. In one of the episodes, Schneider (Todd Grinnell) walks into Penelope’s apartment wearing the famous Che Guevara T-shirt. The protagonist, who by the way had served in the US-led Afghan war, used a cuss word and inquired if her neighbour-friend knew what the man did. She explained that wearing this T-shirt was the same as wearing a Hitler shirt and entering a Jewish family’s house.

Expecting America’s entertainment industry to be politically informed is perhaps too much to ask. Also, in a country where a Leftist hero, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), dismissed that her idea of socialism was similar to Cuba’s, ‘entertainers’ can hardly be expected to get their facts right.

The 21st century is called the ‘golden age of television’, and while it is true that many shows are bereft of any intelligent commentary, there are a few shows that have got some of the politics right. A sitcom ‘Superstore’ – starring America Ferrera and Ben Feldman – did a good job in highlighting the plight of the working class in today’s America.

Another show ‘Bojack Horseman’, which gained popularity because it was ‘relatable’ on an individual level, has also made well-informed comments about the shortcomings of the neoliberal economic system. It does have its flaws, but the show was able to make points on how America’s working class faced unemployment when manufacturing plants were moved to the Global South or how journalism has been reduced to publishing feel-good stories.

Most American shows – especially those that have gone global – try to remain as apolitical as they can. The popularity of FRIENDS was mainly because the story was centred on the six main characters and the issues they faced. And while the show has indeed been criticised for its shortcomings, at least it wasn’t guilty of distorting history and building narratives.

However, the show is the perfect example of how a sitcom’s universe can remain secluded from reality. In its much-touted reunion episode, an audience member asked if there was anything that the members of the show didn’t like. The host quickly interfered and added that they should talk about all things ‘positive’.

Also, the reunion episode that was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t mention anything about the virus (although the audience members were all masked). The more than an hour-long episode showed that the entertainment industry works in its own secluded bubble, ignoring the outer world.

Email: aimen_erum@hotmail.com

Aimen Siddiqui, "Bad politics," The News. 2021-11-21.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political statements , Political remarks , Unemployment , Economy , Leadership , Hamid Dabashi , Todd Grinnell , Venezuela , Cuba