'Alice in Arabia' Writer: Media Mob Killed My Pro-Arab, Pro-Tolerance TV Series (Guest Column)
On March 17, Brooke Eikmeier had her drama, Alice in Arabia, ordered to pilot at ABC Family. It was scrapped four days later after advocacy groups and a Buzzfeed article raised concerns that the series about an American teen who's kidnapped by her relatives and taken to Saudi Arabia would perpetuate negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. In abandoning the project, an ABC Family spokesperson said, "the current conversation surrounding our pilot was not what we had envisioned and is certainly not conducive to the creative process." Eikmeier, who worked on shows including Family Guy and Boston Legal before enlisting in the Army in 2009 to learn Arabic and perform Signals Intelligence, now will shop the drama elsewhere. She has written this response to the controversy for The Hollywood Reporter.
A week ago, I was prepping to cast a mixed-race Arab girl to be the star of a cable series that would focus on a loving, but conflicted, Muslim family. I anticipated controversy surrounding the topics and characters, but hoped the way the series progressed, the predominantly Arab cast, and the conversation it would spark would be a step forward in exposing and discussing female issues in a complex and diverse world.
Today, if you Google my name, I am accused of being a tone-deaf racist hack intent on furthering an anti-Muslim agenda, callously exposing children to being bullied and beaten on playgrounds.
How, exactly, did this happen?
The genesis of Alice in Arabia lay in the deep frustration I felt while studying the Arabic language in the Army. In 2009, I decided I wanted to serve my country and began to explore my options. I discovered the military had a world-class, full-immersion language center, which as a writer, fit my interests perfectly. I had lived in France as a teenager as a fluent speaker and knew from experience that nothing gives someone perspective like being able to talk with and understand people in their native tongue. While in Europe, I had been fascinated by the different cultures on the streets and spent hours in L’Institut du Monde Arab, so I was elated when I fought for and was assigned Arabic as a condition of my enlistment.
After basic training, my day job became -- day-in and day-out -- to learn Arabic and the diverse forms of Arab culture from native speakers hailing from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Jordan. I supplemented my education by forging a friendship with my Saudi Arabian teacher, who brought me news clips and YouTube videos about the difficulties and struggles of the people of the region. She challenged me to put myself in the shoes of those who were from the Middle East and to discuss what these issues and questions meant to me as an American, and what I thought about possible solutions. I was particularly struck by the struggle of women, especially in Saudi Arabia. I knew many were fulfilled and proud of their way of life, but there were others who wanted things that I had taken for granted as an American. For example, a legal system that gives you the right to have a woman defend you in court when you bring a rape case, or for the culture to allow you to bring the case without prejudice in the first place. I began to see that the things we focus on in America: the niqab and abaya, driving … they were small in comparison to much deeper issues, and yet they were being virtually ignored. I began to think over and over, "Is there anything I can do?"
I had already put 10 years into television writers rooms in Hollywood and had the friends and contacts to go with it, as well as the years of developing material as a writer on my own. I decided to create a girl facing these same issues and frustrations as I was. I knew she needed to be American for the intended audience to best relate to her, so I decided on a mixed-race girl caught between the cultures but more familiar with the American side, as our audience would be. I wanted to start her level of cultural understanding at a low ebb, so viewers could be part of her enlightenment. This character, as a stand-in for the American audience, would grow to see the culture and people for herself, and hopefully would fall in love with all its fascinating complexity the way I personally had. That would be her character arc.
Once I completed the pilot for Alice in Arabia, I sent it to an industry friend who sent it to the ABC Family cable network. It ordered five more scripts in which I dealt with issues such as the plight of foreign workers and clashes with the religious police. I had an episode take place at the Janadriyah Culture Festival, addressed the royal family's tensions with groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, highlighted the recent domestic violence campaign in the kingdom, the recent decision to allow women to work in lingerie stores, and more. At the same time, I developed Alice's interpersonal relationships with her family and friends, as well as growing her conflict and awareness as she began to like and even love people and aspects of Saudi Arabia, challenging her initial desire to just get back to America.
After delivering these five scripts, the network ordered four more, so I began to write the outlines, further establishing Alice's desire to stay in the country and having her become part of a movement to strengthen female roles and rights. Then I got the call on March 17 that the pilot pickup was official. However, when I read the description of the episode, I had a sinking feeling. The show is a "high-stakes drama series about a rebellious American teenage girl who, after tragedy befalls her parents, is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended family, who are Saudi Arabian," the synopsis read. "Now a virtual prisoner in her grandfather’s royal compound, Alice must count on her independent spirit and wit to find a way to return home while surviving life behind the veil."
I cringed at kidnapped, as it implied some violent action that was never taken (her grandfather simply refuses to let her return to America for a very specific family reason revealed in the last scene of the pilot). Virtual prisoner was an overhyped phrase I would never have personally used, and surviving life behind the veil was the exact opposite of the cultural tone I was trying to achieve. I wanted to show issues that went far beyond what I now considered a petty argument about a women's choice of clothing. This clumsy description employed key inflammatory words highlighting Alice’s emotional starting point without any hint at where I was intending to go with her or the show and was written by someone who did not have cultural training or an appreciation of the greater ambition I was aiming for. Personally, I would have simply written: A drama centering on an American teenager who, after her mother’s death must make the adjustment to living with her maternal family in Saudi Arabia. Instead, what was released obfuscated the delicate balancing act I had been working on for 10 episodes, and I was horrified.
What followed was a group of people making assumptions based on this description -- and not on my script or anything I had written personally -- who launched an unfortunately successful reactionary campaign. Comments typically made my series a stand-in for all their frustrations with previous Hollywood portrayals of Muslims and Islam and leapt to wild and incorrect conclusions about its intentions and content. The only gossip site that pretended to "report" on the actual script [Buzzfeed] did a hit job with the title for its article written before reading Page 1, and it ironically destroyed its own credibility by not recognizing a common Arab name and claiming Saudis wear burkas. A mob formed, made up its mind, then rushed to destroy a valuable opportunity for furthering the cause of women worldwide. ABC Family pulled the plug on the show on March 21, just four days after the pilot was picked up.
The fact is the intended series could have been a step in the right direction for all cultures and all women, sparking greater tolerance, understanding and empathy. As of a week ago a show already existed that had made it past all the many hurdles others have stumbled at before. Not only had it been picked up to pilot but the order for 10 scripts was a vote of confidence that it would have had staying power and support at the network. Success was easily within reach to achieve a goal many in the Muslim community want: a series that showed them fairly and with admiration and complexity, that would give opportunities to Arab writers and Arab actors. Blinded by the stereotype the mob had of the typical Hollywood writer, however, those imminent jobs have now disappeared. That is no victory, in any form, for anyone.
Brooke Eikmeier is a writer-producer who spent 10 years as an assistant and script coordinator in writers rooms, earning her first credit on Boston Legal before joining the U.S. Army as a cryptologic linguist in the Arabic language. She received an honorable discharge in September 2013 and is now developing a range of other projects.