How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

9
24

Challenging Stereotypes

EVELYN ALSULTANY

Abstract: Critical discussions about television’s patterns of representation some-
times devolve into reductive assessments of “positive” or “negative,” “good” or
“bad” images. In this essay, Evelyn Alsultany describes how the action-drama 24
employed innovative strategies to avoid stereotypes of Arab/Muslim terrorists, but
argues that sympathetic portrayals of individuals won’t alleviate television’s consis-
tent representation of Arabs and Muslims primarily within the context of terrorism.

Since September 11, 2001, a number of TV dramas have been created with the War on Terror as their central theme, depicting U.S. government agencies and officials heroically working to make the nation safe by battling terrorism.1 Although initially created prior to the 9/11 attacks, 24 (FOX, 2001–2010) became the most popular of the fast-emerging cycle of terrorism dramas. The program centered on Jack Bauer, a brooding and embattled agent of the government’s Counter-Terrorism Unit, who raced a ticking clock to subvert impending terrorist attacks on the United States.

In 2004, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) accused 24 of perpetuating stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.2 CAIR objected to the persistent portrayal of Arabs and Muslims within the context of terrorism, stating that “repeated association of acts of terrorism with Islam will only serve to increase antiMuslim prejudice.”3 Critics of CAIR retorted that programs like 24 reflected one of the most pressing social and political issues of the moment, the War on Terror, with some further contending that CAIR was trying to deflect the reality of Muslim terrorism by confining television writers to politically correct themes.4

The writers and producers of 24 responded to CAIR’s concerns in a number of ways. For one, the show included sympathetic portrayals of Arabs and Muslims, in which they were the “good guys,” or in some way on the side of the United States. Representatives of 24 said that the program “made a concerted effort to

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