What Reality Television Tells Us About the Arab World: An Interview with Marwan Kraidy (Part Two))

Star Academy 4, 2007. Two contestants perform a Valentine’s Day Tableau (celebrations of this holiday are controversial in parts of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia)

You are careful to frame critical responses to these programs as a debate within the Islamic world. Can you map some of the tensions or disagreements within that debate?

Specifying terms of engagement with Western modernity is a paramount issue that shapes a variety of debates. This has many facets. Politically, there is a debate about whether the best course of action towards the West, mainly the US, is to be an ally, like “moderate” Arab regimes, or to resist US policies and actions in the Arab world. Another debate revolved (remember that the reality television polemics occurred mostly during the G.W. Bush years) around the democratization agenda, the motives behind it, mechanisms of implementation, and its actual effects. Socially and culturally, Western influence on culture and identity remains a hot issue. There are those who argue from religious or nationalist points of view, that Western cultural encroachment must be resisted, for corrupting moral values or fomenting consumerism. Others argue that such an influence is desirable. And then there is a group that says, “well, this is inevitable, so let us figure out how to cope with it instead of attacking it.” This gets tangled up in socio-economic concerns about globalization, economic dependency, and poverty.

Gender seems to be at the heart of many of the controversies you describe in the book — whether the issue of men and women sharing the same space in Big Brother or what kinds of public voice women should have in the case of some of the talent competitions. How is reality television helping the Arab world think about the changing status of women in their society? And what does it suggest about the limits of tolerance for these changes?

One of the most rewarding aspect of researching and writing the book was my growing realization of the central role of gender in social and political life, in the Arab world and elsewhere. Reality television animated the discussion of gender by featuring unmarried young men and women dancing, singing, eating, and (in some shows) living together under one roof. Conservative attacks against these things compelled a riposte from liberals and feminists. These debates are long-standing in Arab literary and cultural fora, but this time the audience for these “culture wars” was as large as the audience for reality television–massive. So the new scale of these controversies is a signal contribution of the Arab reality television wars. In specific instances, like Kuwait, arguments about gender roles triggered by reality television were embroiled in the struggle for women’s political rights, each amplifying the other. More recently, Western audiences saw that a Saudi woman can be a talented poet with an acute political sensibility. What the controversies suggest about the limits of change is that for positive social change to be sustainable, it has to be contested and negotiated internally, which is a good thing. Change can simply not be imposed from the outside.

So gender was a pivot that articulated a variety of political, religious, economic, social and cultural issues. It was not merely an issue of the representation of women. It was rather, as Joan Scott put it so eloquently in her article on gender as a category for historical analysis, a field of power. In the pan-Arab reality television polemics, rival political actors invested that field with contentious energy, even when the debate was not focused on gender issues per se.

While some of these shows seek to construct a Pan-Arab identity, they also become sites for struggles over national reputation, struggles which can become quite intense and can involve interference by governments. In what sense are these reality programs becoming a staging ground for the status of the nation state?

Arab politics has historically involved tensions between the pan-Arab realm and individual nation-states. As I was doing my fieldwork, I was amazed to hear, over and over again, rumors about heads of state getting involved in mobilizing their armed forces, politicans, or population to vote for this or that candidate.

A big part of this is the pan-Arab character of these shows. Think of the Eurovision Song Contest: Are participants perceived primarily as artists and performers, or as cultural and political ambassadors for their nation-states? Most participants in Star Academy and Superstar were defined, or defined themselves, as representatives of larger, mostly national groups. In Star Academy, many contestants had huge national flags hanging on the wall above their heads. When weekly nominees were announced, an icon of their national flag appeared next to their names and the number to call or send a text to. Program hosts also always emphasized the contestants’ nationality. This was one of the ways in which producers created dramatic tension.

There were other fault-lines that came to the surface in varying degrees. One was between Gulf citizens and other Arabs. The latter perceive the former to be spoiled and arrogant because of their oil wealth, and the former often act in ways that encourage this stereotype. There is another dimension to this, in that many male participants came from socially conservative Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, etc, while most women came from the more socially liberal countries of the Levant (Lebanon and Syria), North Africa (mostly Morocco and Tunisia) and Egypt. Finally, there was a small vs big country dynamic that emerged early on, with alliances emerging between, for example Lebanese and Kuwaiti fans of a Kuwaiti contestant facing an Egyptian participant (Egypt’s population is 30 times larger than Kuwait’s). Again, what interested me was the discourses that emerged among fans of the show, echoing larger questions about big countries imposing themselves on smaller ones.

So reality shows provided a stage for national identities to be performed, and for nations to be re-created and re-affirmed. In the book I argue that the polemics under stuffy illustrate the performative, episodic and contingent nature of nationalism.

Despite strong protests from some government and religious leaders, these shows have enjoyed great popularity with Arab publics. What can you tell us about the fandom around reality television in the Arab world? How do these programs take on ritual dimensions for some of their viewers and why has fandom itself become the target of concern for some religious and political leaders?

In chapter 4, I analyze a radical Saudi preacher’s sermon, titled “Satan Academy,” which illustrates concerns about fan activities and rituals competing with rituals of religious and political power. This applies most clearly to Saudi Arabia, but it is relevant to other Arab countries as well. The sermon, the transcript of which reads like a passionate and sophisticated essay in media criticism, focuses on interactivity, participation and liveness as sources of danger for the prevailing social system. When viewers become involved in intricate details of a program, and when they eagerly await things to go off-script at any moment, a new affective bond is created, and ritually maintained, one based on a notion of authenticity as spontaneous, non-scripted personal behavior, as opposed to authenticity as adherence to prevailing social and religious values. This, as I explain at length in chapter 4, poses a threat to the cleric-religious system in Saudi Arabia, in which subjects constantly reenact their submission via prayer rituals, re-aired ad infinitum on television. Reality television basically creates a competing set of rituals, therefore a rival potential set of allegiances.

American reality contestants are often accused of exhibitionism, seeing their participation in terms of a personal desire for fame. Your account suggests that contestants in the Arab world are more likely to be understood in terms of struggles over representation — as standing in for larger groups, including some which have historically been denied public visibility and recognition. Can you describe what claims get made there about their motives for participation and how they may take on larger symbolic weight?

Though a few critics made similar charges against Arab reality television participants, and though contestants expressed a personal desire for fame and producers and promoters of reality shows relentlessly stoked that desire, social and political aspects took over very quickly. In essence, candidates were hijacked by discourses swirling around these shows, as representatives of nations. Many of them played that game aggressively and courted these identifications. Shadha Hassoun, the Iraqi woman who won Star Academy 4, did everything she could to be perceived as a representative of Iraq, its tragedy and its hopes, and she succeeded spectacularly, managing to win the show. But playing with national identity is a dangerous game, especially for women, who have historically been symbolic boundary markers between groups, tribes and nations–in the Arab world and elsewhere.

Superstar 2, 2006

Syrian Contestant Shahd Barmada wrapped by Syrian flag while performing on stage

So when Shahd Barmada, a young Syrian contestant in Superstar, attempted to distance herself from Syria by asking viewers-voters to consider her “as an artist-performer, not as a Syrian,” in order to stand a chance to win in an environment of political tension between Lebanon, where the show was based, and Syria, she emerged as a truly tragic figure, and lost.

Reality programs world-wide have been used to encourage the embrace of new media platforms. What does the rise of reality television in the Arab world teach us

There is no doubt that reality television in the Arab world was the crucible for a new business model premised on interactivity and various value-added gizmos, ringtones, etc, for Arab television. The Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation was a leader in that regard. The popularity of reality television made masses of people aware of what they could do with a mobile phone, and at the same time whetted their desire to acquire more sophisticated mobile devices. However, socio-economic standing is a big factor here, which is why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been primary markets for both reality shows and vendors of mobile devices. In other, less well-off countries like Egypt, you do meet people who have a nice looking cell phone but whose calling card has expired. This is why some Arab governments and businesses offered free calls or texting to compatriots for them to vote for their national “representative” on reality shows. In this regard, I am skeptical of a lot of the hype about the impact of the Internet on Arab societies, and I think the mobile telephone is as important, even if the scale of its use is restricted by class divides.

Marwan M. Kraidy is Associate Professor of Global Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Recent books include Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Arab Television Industries (British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Previously he published Global Media Studies: Ethnographic Perspectives (Routledge, 2003, co-edited with Patrik Murphy) and Hybridity, or, The Cultural Logic of Globalization (Temple University Press, 2005, single-authored). The Politics of Reality Television: Global Perspectives (Routledge, 2010, co-edited with Katherine Sender) is in press. His current book projects are Global Media Studies (co-authored with Toby Miller, under contract with Polity), and Music Videos and Arab Public Life.

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