Representation for minorities in television has always been spotty, but particularly so for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) actors.
According to Deadline, a recent study by the MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition (MAAC) titled “Terrorists and Tyrants: Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Actors in Prime Time and Streaming Television,” revealed only 1 percent of MENA actors were regular cast members within the 242 “primetime, first-run scripted TV and streaming shows between September 1, 2015, and August 31, 2016.”
Even worse, 78 percent of MENA characters appearing during primetime “appeared as trained terrorists, agents, soldiers or tyrants.” Stereotypes also include accents; the study found that 67 percent of MENA characters talk with an accent, “reinforcing the stereotype that MENAs are foreigners.” According to the study, 92 percent of scripted TV don’t include MENA actors as regulars, while 96 percent have at least one white regular.
Study co-author Nancy Wang Yuen spoke to Deadline about the study. “Hollywood needs to move beyond tyrants and terrorists when portraying MENAs. Such stereotypes can have harmful effects on audience perceptions. More complex and relatable MENA characters can counter anti-Muslim and anti-MENA sentiment and policies.”
MENA actors in Hollywood have long complained about the treatment they have received in the industry. In 2015, GQ posted an article, “You May Know Me from Such Roles as Terrorist #4,” in which several actors including Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed, Sayed Badreya, Anthony Azizi and others recount how many times they’ve died onscreen while playing terrorists.
“Hollywood has the power to snap its fingers and make whoever it wants a star,” Azizi told GQ. “It specifically and purposefully doesn’t want to see an Arab or a Middle Eastern star. There’s too much prejudice and racism–and the people running it, I don’t need to go into the specifics of their backgrounds…”
However, despite the bad news, there is room to celebrate the progress that have been made for MENA actors in television. Two of the most prominent MENA actors right now are Rami Malek, who stars in Mr. Robot, and Yara Shahidi, who stars on both Black-ish and Grown-ish. Also, as Deadline points out, along with Malek and Shahidi, there’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce‘s Necar Zadegan and Red Oaks‘ Ennis Esmer.
The study also includes Tony Shalhoub, best known for the titular role in Monk and currently starring in BrainDead; Nasim Pedrad, who got her start on Saturday Night Live before transitioning to Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens; The Vampire Diaries‘ Michael Malarkey, and Jane the Virgin‘s Jamie Camil. The article also mentions the recently-greenlit ABC comedy by Larry Wilmore and Bassem Youssef about a family of Middle Eastern American superheroes, as well as Jinn by Elan and Rajeev Dassani, described in the article as “Netflix’s first Arabic original series.” Not mentioned in the article but also worth reporting, there’s also slight growth in queer MENA representation as well, with Nikohl Boosheri as Adena El Amin on The Bold Type.
Overall, the problem is apparent: there must be more MENA representation across the board. Thankfully, the solution is also clear: hire more MENA actors for more meaningful roles.