how this Disney show tackled Islamophobia, years before it became a term
I don’t remember everything I was doing when I was ten years old. As you get older, memories from that time become a series of snapshots that consist of the playground, the classroom and the dinner table, and everything else sort of begins to fade.
Fourteen years ago, I was a happy ten year old attending elementary school in Toronto. There are many things I don’t remember from those days — but if there is one thing I vividly remember, it was the political climate at the time. The Bush administration had just invaded Iraq and we all saw it play out live on television. I remember watching bombs light up the skies over Baghdad, bright flashes of light illuminating the green night vision screens for a moment, before giving way to another flash. And I remember the protests in the lead up to the war, the people marching in cities like New York City and London — demanding no war for oil.
I may have not understood the full implications of what it meant for one country to invade another at the time. But I definitely understood that the times we were living in were unpredictable and that what was happening, was big. I also knew this would make being a Muslim in public harder; a harsh reality we had all been dealing with since 9/11.
But I was also a kid and just like any other kid, I watched a lot of Disney. Talk to any person who was coming of age in the late 1990s/early 2000s and they will nostalgically go on about the shows they watched as a child and how they were the absolute best. That’s So Raven, Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire were staples of TV diet that we heartily consumed. But fourteen years later one show stands out — The Proud Family.
The Proud Family followed the life of Penny Proud, a Black girl in the 8th grade living in California with her friends and family. Despite being a cartoon, nearly all of its characters were people of colour and the show centred its plot and themes around the experiences of Black people — few cartoons at the time included the representation of people of colour, and when they did, it was often tokenistic. It is perhaps then no surprise that the Proud Family would be light-years ahead when it came to portraying Muslims on screen.
On October 24th 2003, Disney Channel aired the episode “Culture Shock” (you can watch it here) — in which Penny partakes in a cultural exchange at school where she has to spend a day with the Zameen family, a Muslim family from Pakistan. Likewise, Radika, the Muslim girl with whom Penny switches places with, spends the day with the Proud family. Things get off to a rough start, Penny finds her host family bizarre and foreign, and balks at the idea of fasting for Ramadan. She is also given a hijab by Mrs. Zameen, but is told she does not have to wear it — she initially opts not to, but ends up wearing it later. By the end of the day though, Penny has bonded with her host family and they meet up with the Prouds for a dinner at the local Pakistani restaurant (where Penny ends up dancing with a local Muslim hottie). Upon walking back to the Zameen’s home, they all discover that their house has been tipied and spray-painted with the message “GO BACK TO YOUR COUNTRY”.
The portrayal of the Zameens is of course not perfect, but it is nonetheless quite good, especially considering the time at which the episode was written. The episode’s writers, when writing about the Muslim family did not aim to make them a “Westernized” family who happened to also be “Muslim”. The family did not eat pork products, nor was there a white woman there to prove how progressive they were. The writers aimed to do the opposite — they wrote the family as being traditional and religious, and then illustrated to kids watching at home, the parallels between the Zameen family and the Proud family. The Zameens did not have to conform to a standard of whiteness to be ordinary and in a show that centred Black and POC narratives already — this was par for the course.
Penny hammers this point home in a speech she ends up delivering to her classmates at school.
“Before I moved in with the Zameens, I thought like a lot of you guys — they’re weird, they’re different, they’re not like us. And I was right and the more I got to know them, the stranger they became. And before I knew it, they were exactly like my family — truly bizarre. But they’re exactly like all of our families; little brothers and sisters that get on your nerves, a father that’s too protective, a grandparent that sleeps in front of the TV and a mom that keeps everything together. And if you know that, you could never write on their door “go back to your country, America for Americans”, you just couldn’t do it.”
There is no uniform Muslim experience of course — this was one portrayal of many that exist. But it is important that they choose to make these characters visible and practicing, due to the political climate at the time. The Iraq war had started months ago and Americans had just commemorated the second anniversary of the September 11th attacks; in a time when some Muslim women felt compelled to remove the hijab out of fear of reprisals and when foreign “Muslim” cultures were being portrayed by the media in a way that justified violence against them, this choice to show a Muslim family wearing Pakistani dress, watching Urdu sitcoms, fasting and wearing hijab was an important one.
This epsiode told kids watching that people who may seem different are actually more similar to you in ways that you wouldn’t think of — without making the Zameens hide who they were. Perhaps more importantly, it told them that difference does not justify violence or hate; whether people seem to be like us or not — they deserve dignity and respect too.
But it wasn’t just broadcasting a message to non-Muslim kids, it sent a powerful message to Muslim kids watching; we see you. American television and popular culture, up until fairly recently has been allergic to the idea of portraying Muslims in a positive light. The only representation Muslims saw themselves in was as the bad terrorist who spoke gibberish Arabic. This episode offered a necessary, but brief respite from the constant barrage of negative imagery Muslim kids saw on a daily basis.
It might have been one twenty minute episode, but its impact was long lasting. Many directors and writers in 2017 could learn a thing or two about representation from this show that aired fourteen years ago.