Evelyn Alsultany’s “Simplified Complex Representations”

“Part of Everyday, Popular Culture”

“I became aware of the politics of culture at a young age… and I slowly came to realize that such assumptions about [Arab and Latinx] identity were not just the result of particular news stories being repeated but part of everyday, popular culture.” – Evelyn Alsultany, “Untapped Stereotypes”

TEDxUofM

Arab and Muslim Representation

Whereas Jack Shaheen’s landmark text Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People focuses on film, Alsultany’s Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation After 9/11 focuses on television. In the text, Alsultany introduces the concept of “simplified complex representations.”

NYU-Book-Cover“This [representational mode] has meant that if an Arab/Muslim terrorist is represented in the story line of a TV drama or film, then a ‘positive’ representation of an Arab, Muslim, Arab American, or Muslim American is typically included [after 9/11], seemingly to offset the stereotype of the Arab/Muslim terrorist” (Alsultany 14).

Positive or “good” representations of Muslims, Alsultany continues, are developed around their perceived allegiance to the state (here, the United States) rather than their religion. They are presumed “bad” until proven citizen. This mode of representation operates on the assumption that the United States is post-race while simultaneously racializing Arabs and Muslims (moving them out of the category of “white” and into a category of Other). Simplified complex representations appear to complicate “bad” representations by introducing “good” ones, such that they appear to challenge stereotypes but instead introduce a binary opposition between “bad” and “good.”

BAD

  • Terrorist
  • Oil sheikh
  • Oppressed woman

GOOD

  • Citizen that forfeits their rights for the good of their country
  • Government or military employee
  • Woman that gives up her headscarf/hijab

The “good” representations look more complex, but they are still grounded in or against stereotypes and offer little room for Arabs and Muslims to operate in between. They also lend themselves to the conflation of Arab and Muslim: it can become difficult to differentiate between the two when they often appear to be the same thing in media and simplified complex representations do not perform the work of distinguishing them.

Jack Shaheen spent the better part of a lifetime advocating for more complex representations of Arabs in American media and Evelyn Alsultany’s work is, in many ways, a continuation of his. It would be almost impossible to write about the latter without writing about the former; however, Alsultany’s critical work, especially that presenting the evidence for simplified complex representations, situates critique of Arab and Muslim representations in American media in Cultural Studies and in a greater body of Media Studies.

Arabs and Muslims in the Media is limited in the kind of media (television and advertising) it critically analyzes; however, it has far reaching consequences, especially as media production moves farther in time from 9/11. Alsultany identifies simplified complex representations so that they might be made different, but different how? To complicate representations of Arabs and Muslims in media, would one have to completely remove that media from the context of 9/11? Is that even possible when creating contemporary media concerning Arabs and Muslims? What would more complex representation look like? And does it matter whether or not Arabs and Muslims play Arabs and Muslims on television and in film? What would it mean to simplify representations? What role might new media forms play in differentiating representations produced by their predecessors? One might, as I have, ask these questions after engaging with Alsultany’s work; it does not provide a conclusive answer to any of them.

If Alsultany’s work is a continuation of Shaheen’s, then it is part of a fledgling body of scholarship concerning representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media. There is more work yet to be done as representations of Arabs, Muslims, and Arab and Muslim Americans move beyond the binary of “bad” and “good” and move into more complex categories, including that of race. As Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent consider checking off a new box on the census, we might consider just how much of an impact media has on the ways we perceive ourselves and the ways we are perceived by others and we may do so, in part, through Alsultany’s work.


Professor Evelyn Alsultany currently serves as the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of American Culture and Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where she has taught since 2005. She is also the co-founder and director of the Arab and Muslim American Studies Program in Michigan’s Department of American Culture. An alumna of the University of Michigan, Alsultany received her Bachelor of Arts in Women’s Studies and Political Science from the college before completing her Master of Arts at the New School for Social Research in New York and Doctor of Philosophy in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. Alsultany’s research addresses representations of Arabs and Muslims in American media.

More about her approach to media studies may be read here on her website.

Her CV may be found here.

Works that she has written or edited may be found here.

– Adrienne Resha

Works Cited

Alsultany, Evelyn. Arabs and Muslims in the Media: Race and Representation after 9/11. New York University Press, 2012.

“Untapped Stereotypes: Evelyn Alsultany at TEDxUofM.” Performance by Evelyn Alsultany, TEDx Talks, 3 May 2013, www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4J1Gaz3ByU.

One thought on “Evelyn Alsultany’s “Simplified Complex Representations”

  1. I like how you encapsulate Alsultany’s important work in television studies on positive stereotypes intended to provide balance and show that such “‘good’ representations look more complex, but they are still grounded in or against stereotypes and offer little room for Arabs and Muslims to operate.” Your posting also shows how disciplinary affiliations can be important in evaluating the audiences, methodologies, and theoretical frameworks of a scholarly intervention (cinema studies vs. television studies, CSA vs. ASA, etc.)

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