The Persian Under the Rug
by Kimiya Shokri
On September 20, 2015, Viola Davis became the first African-American woman to win Best Actress in a drama at the Emmy Awards. It seems incredible that it took 66 years for a black woman to win this award, and yet it is not difficult to understand how this was possible. As Davis herself so powerfully stated, “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity” (Gold). In the majority of film and television, women of color are restricted by racist stereotypes or minor roles, and the lack of opportunities creates an industry dominated by one demographic. For decades, Hollywood has been influenced most by white men who have created a status quo for how other races are portrayed in the media. For instance, Communications scholars Ellen E. Moore and Catherine Coleman have noted that “throughout the twentieth century, African Americans were represented in limited roles that often reflected racial history more than they served as signs of social and political progress,” serving as images of ideas and realizations of stereotypes upheld by those in positions of power (953). Supposedly, profits drive Hollywood directors and producers to cast people of color in supporting roles in order to appease audiences, while continuing to cast white actors as the leads (Moore and Coleman 959). It is unsurprising then that there would be backlash against white men controlling the entertainment industry, and over the years there has been intense conflict between whites, blacks, men, and women over equal representation in the media.
Sometimes, however, we forget that the world is not just split into black and white, but a diverse blend of people of different races and genders. In this struggle for equality, there are many groups trying to be heard, but one group that has been swept under the rug is Middle Eastern women. Whether they are playing terrorist spies in Showtime’s Homeland, or making fools of themselves on tasteless reality shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, there are certain expectations for how Middle Eastern women should be represented in film and television. The few opportunities that are present leave little room for growth and prevent these women from rising up to their full potential. It is difficult for women of color to realize their worth in a society in which our media “has consistently constructed whiteness…as the norm by which all others fail by comparison”(Bernardi qtd. in Moore 955). Thus, our media’s focus on the trials and tribulations of white characters makes the struggles and triumphs of people of color seem of lesser value. As a young Persian woman who is also an actress, it saddens me to live during a time when people claim to be progressive enough to fight for equality, but where no one like me is ever really able to achieve her goals, because there is no chance to do so.
Popular culture in the U.S. places great emphasis on movie stars and T.V. icons, heavily commercializing award shows like the Emmys and Oscars, which celebrate talented men and women of the industry. Specifically in regards to the Oscars, the Academy itself is estimated to be 94% white and 77% male (Knickerbocker). The people who decide the winners really represent only one group of people, allowing their biases to unfairly decide who wins the awards and thereby, who finds fame. Such is the case with the two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite, beginning in 2015 and continuing in 2016 in which every single Oscar nominee was white. This was even more surprising considering that in 2014, 12 Years A Slave won three Oscars, giving Americans hope that “the need for diversity discussions would diminish” (Maltais). While the proportion of men and women of color who have won awards to white men and women is disappointing in the sense that the gap is so wide, the ratio of Middle Eastern winners is even more disturbing because that category is virtually non-existent.
According to the Academy Awards’ database, there has been only one Indian woman and one Iranian woman nominated for acting awards, and only one Israeli winner in 2011: Natalie Portman. Israeli born but American raised, Natalie Portman is internationally famous, nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2005 for her role in Closer, and winning Best Actress for her acclaimed role in 2011’s Black Swan. The Indian woman who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress was Anglo-Indian Merle Oberon, and she received the nomination in 1935. However, this seemingly progressive nomination from the Academy was based on the manufactured truth Oberon had devised. She claimed that she was from Tasmania up until her death because her career would have been threatened if she had revealed that she was mixed race (Khan). Shohreh Aghdashloo, born and raised in Iran, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2003 for her role as an Iranian woman in House of Sand and Fog. Despite the culturally restrictive roles she has been confined to, Aghdashloo has been the primary face of successful Iranian women in film and television, and has been influential in representing Middle Eastern women on screen. Amongst the countless women who have been nominated for best actress and supporting actress, these three women stand alone in representing the Middle East. Natalie Portman is the one who has gained the most success and fame, and is rarely considered Middle Eastern. Women of color have just begun to get the recognition they deserve, some ethnicities more than others.
One of the larger problems is that people of color are typically cast in roles that confine them to certain stereotypes that can be derogatory and offensive. This limitation is even more apparent in terms of typecasting for Middle Eastern women. More roles for people of color are being created, but “much of that progress is superficial, hiding the quality of those representations” (Moore and Coleman 953). Moore and Coleman focus on the stereotypes confining African American actors and actresses, but the limitation is even more apparent in terms of typecasting for Middle Eastern women. There are so few roles for them that paint them in a positive light or any light at all, because their roles are so minor. There are shows like Tyrant and Homeland, set in present-day Middle Eastern countries plagued by terrorism, and there are movies set in the Middle East of old, in which a Middle Eastern princess is rescued by a white man, like in Hidalgo. These roles play to stereotypes and American curiosities and fears of a region of the world that is foreign and sometimes scary. The question is, why is it necessary for these women to only be cast in roles that specify that they be of a certain background? Imagine if Emmy Nominee Amy Poehler’s character in Parks and Recreation was a Lebanese woman, or if a Palestinian woman had replaced Academy Award Winner Patricia Arquette in Boyhood. It seems odd, because as a society we are so used to envisioning certain types of people in specific ways that we forget that all over the United States, people of all races and genders really do live in the same ways.
Born and raised in California in an Iranian household, I have gotten to live the best of both worlds. Iranian culture is rich and lively, centered on family and love. However, it is one that often condemns the arts, especially acting. This is typical of many Middle Eastern cultures, in which acting is taboo and not seen as a suitable profession, especially for women. Women are meant to be especially conservative, which conflicts with the hyper-sexualized portrayals of femininity in media (Dehchenari, Abdullah, and Eng). Rather than a method for representative storytelling, acting is seen as an abuse of self-respect and honor, an old-fashioned but lingering philosophy on the art.
I am fortunate in that living in America I was given opportunities to act in school and I became successful at it. Throughout high school, I was given opportunities to perform roles that allowed me to grow as an actress and I had the honor of winning awards at acting festivals alongside my classmates. As I entered my first year of college, I was thrust onto the stage as one of the leads in a show that forced me to rapidly learn and grow as an actress, working with three actors all my senior. Acting is my deepest passion, and I have dreamed for many years of becoming a professional actress because if others can do it, why can’t I? The answer to that question lies in the color of my skin, the curve of my nose, the name that is not easy enough for others to remember.
Growing up and continuing through the present, I idolized white actresses like Keira Knightley and Cate Blanchett, who were as beautiful as they were talented. As I have gotten older, I have seen more beautiful actresses of color like Lupita N’yongo and Viola Davis rise to fame for their incredible work. However, there has never been a Middle Eastern actress that I could equate to Jennifer Lawrence or Kerry Washington, who could give me hope that I could one day achieve my dreams. Role models stimulate personal growth and inspire us to believe that our goals are achievable. By seeing faces like our own, we feel more accepted and sure that we can just be as successful and admired. However, the lack of representation for Middle Eastern women has me convinced that we are seen as different, and that we simply do not belong in entertainment. It is a depressing notion that your race, not your talent, can determine how far you get in such a cutthroat industry. It is scary to feel alone in a situation in which voices like yours are not being heard, and you wonder every day whether you will be successful or not, and whether future generations of artists will have to shyly bow their heads because no one will listen to them. It is only if our voices are heard that we will be able to make change and create a more diverse entertainment industry in this country.
We live in a world that revolves around media, and are obsessed with celebrities and shows. The way people see the world is often shaped by what they see in film and television, and the way in which people are presented on these platforms has great effect on the viewers. By fighting against stereotypes in the media, we begin to weaken stereotypes in everyday life. Skin colors begin to fade, and talented people are allowed to shine no matter where their parents came from or the name they were born with. Creating roles for women of all races that portray them in an equal light will open the doors for new levels of diversity and multicultural representation. This can only happen though if women of color make their voices heard, especially Middle Eastern women who have had to remain silent. As a Persian actress, I want to live in a world where the faces I see on the big screen are of all colors, and where I can feel confident knowing that future generations will have the opportunities to make their dreams come true. It’s time to step out from under the rug and make it known that although there might not be huge numbers of Middle Eastern actresses, we exist. The more we make our voices heard, the more our media will be forced to hear us, and by working together, we make strides in reflecting the reality and beauty of diversity. As a result, we will be able to live in a more accepting society that is actively stripping away the stereotypes set so firmly in place. Then maybe one day, it will be a Persian actress standing on stage at the Academy Awards with a trophy in her hand, making history and giving a young girl watching hope for the future.
“Academy Awards Database.” Academy Awards Database – AMPAS. awardsdatabase.oscars.org. Accessed on 21 Oct. 2015.
Dehchenari, Maryam Abdali, Mardziah Hayati Abdullah, and Wong Bee Eng. “A Critical and Semiotic Analysis of the Shift in Women’s Erotic and Romantic Roles in Action Movies and Movie Posters across Three Eras of Hollywood.” International Journal for Innovation Education and Research, vol 2, no. 6, 30 June 2014, http://www.ijier.net/index.php/ijier/article/view/192/168. Accessed 17 Aug 2016.
Gold, Michael. “Viola Davis’s Emmy Speech.” New York Times, 20 Sept. 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/live/emmys-2015/viola-daviss-emotional-emmys-acceptance-speech/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2015.
“History of the Television Academy.” Television Academy. http://www.emmys.com/academy/about/history. Accessed on 21 Oct. 2015.
Khan, Salma. “Merle Oberon: Hollywood’s First Indian Actress.” Sapna Magazine South Asian American Women, 1 Jan. 2009, sapnamagazine.com/2009/hollywoods-first-indian-actress-merle-oberon/. Accessed on 25 Feb. 2016.
Knickerbocker, Brad. “Academy Awards: How Bad is Hollywood’s Diversity Problem?” The Christian Science Monitor, Feb 22, 2015, ABI/INFORM Collection; National Newspapers Premier, Accessed on 21 Oct. 2015.
Maltais, Michelle. “Will You Boycott #OscarsSoWhite?” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 19 Jan. 2016, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-ol-oscars-diversity-20160119-htmlstory.html. Accessed on 15 Aug. 2016.
Moore, Ellen E., and Catherine Coleman. “Starving for Diversity: Ideological Implications of Race Representations in The Hunger Games.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol 48, no. 5, 19 Oct. 2015, pp. 948-969.