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‘Grace and Souad’ would be an antidote to Islamophobia in American pop culture

Middle East
on 3 Comments

I thoroughly enjoyed Grace and Frankie, especially the earlier seasons. Towards the end, I felt the producers just wanted to squeeze as much of their winning formula as they possibly could, and it was too much, some episodes were more filler than creative contents.

But the early ones were really good. Here was a series about transformation and actualization, new beginnings later in life, and being true to oneself whatever the cost. Yes, the main characters are extremely privileged, wealthy, mostly healthy and carefree, and all the women are beautiful in the white mainstream way, but that’s OK, I’m not petty, I wasn’t going to resent them for that.

On the other hand, I was secretly envious of the depiction of Frankie and Sol. Here were two beautiful people, Jewish, depicted with nothing but the greatest love for all their humanity, their flaws, their frailty, their irresistible charm.

For anyone who hasn’t watched the Netflix series, here is a very cursory overview: Frankie and Sol were married, as were Grace and Robert, but the two lifelong couples divorced when Robert and Sol, partners in a law firm, came out and confessed to their spouses that they have been lovers for years. Robert and Sol then get married, while Grace and Frankie move in together, and become business partners, and unlikely best friends.

With Frankie and Grace, and Sol and Robert, we then have two couples, both mixed, Jewish-Christian, who are compatible as friends, lovers, spouses, colleagues, housemates, and soulmates, each deeply grounded in their cultural heritage, and fully in harmony with their partner’s different heritage. The two main Jewish characters, I felt, were the more lovable ones: creative, sensitive, generous, loving to a fault. They have produced a beautiful family, founded on unconditional and unquestioning love and acceptance of others: their two children are adopted, one is African American, the other the child of a conservative Christian unwed white southerner. At no time in the entire series did I detect any anti-Semitism, in the form of any recognizable stereotypes. The more business-savvy partner in the Grace and Frankie team, for example, was not Frankie, the Jewish hippie, but Grace, the (alcoholic) Christian. The least likeable character of all was Robert. And even though Sol is a lawyer, the notion that this is a stereotype is immediately voided by the fact that his law firm partner is not Jewish. Even with the less developed “filler” that padded the later episodes, there was no convenient dipping into harmful clichés.

I was envious, because I want a series with a similar depiction of Muslims. I want the mainstream American household to follow the life twists, the joys and heartbreaks of Muslim characters who are fully compatible with Christians, and Jews too for that matter, as best friends, spouses, lovers, colleagues, soul mates. I want a series where there isn’t even the shadow of a hint of the negative stereotypes around the Muslim characters. They cannot be homophobic, conservative, controlling, anti-Semitic. And yet they will be political, and pro-justice, which means pro-Palestinian rights.

I want “Grace and Leila.” No, not Leila, Leila has been exoticized too much, she has been culturally appropriated, de-Arabized. Eric Clapton has bleached her. I want “Grace and Souad.” Souad is not an assimilated name, the two syllables hinge on a guttural sound that would make the audience stop and ponder the woman’s identity, not otherwise marked. The male characters? Mohammed is one of the most popular names in the entire world, and certainly common enough in the US, and yet, I have never seen a mug or keychain in any souvenir store in the US with Mohammed on it, so maybe we can name him Mohammed, and the name will no longer be associated first and foremost with “foreign terrorists,” and young American Mohammeds will finally be able to see themselves on the shelves next to the Martins and Michaels and Mervyns. Surely there are more Mohammeds in this country than Mervyns? No, Mohammed is too marked. Osama too easily nicknamed Sam. I’ll go for Nabeel. His partner, the equivalent of Robert, can only be Dick, of course, because that totally should have been that unpleasant dude’s name, in “Grace and Frankie.” And really, why are there mugs and keychains with “Dick” on them, but not Nabeel?

When we can have the “Grace and Souad” six-season series, with Nabeel and Dick in the male roles, we will have overcome Islamophobia in mainstream American entertainment.

About Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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3 Responses

  1. Brooklyn
    Brooklyn
    March 27, 2019, 3:59 pm

    I personally have not seen Grace & Frankie but adore Lilly Tomlin and Jane Fonda. And I too would love to see Muslims on screen in a good light – not just stereotyped. And although I’m sure it won’t be on network or even PBS broadcast – there are thousands of these stories. I have only 2 dear friends – the ones I share everything with. One was raised in a Jehoviah’s Witness household (we were friends before I converted to Islam 21 years ago) and the other is Jewish (Ukrainian) and we’ve been friends for 16 years. Although my Jewish friend and I may not see eye to eye on Israel we love each other in spite of it. She knows where I stand. We are mothers, wives, work hard, want the best for our kids. We don’t focus on our differences – we focus on what unites us. I couldn’t imagine my life without Melissa or Sheila. They are my rocks.

  2. genesto
    genesto
    March 28, 2019, 1:27 pm

    I, and Arab American, and my Jewish American wife are big fans of the series, though I had never before looked at it from the perspective offered here by Nadia. I agree totally. and I, too, would like to see an Arab Muslim version of the series. Only I would name one of the main characters Ahmed instead.

  3. YoniFalic
    YoniFalic
    March 28, 2019, 1:52 pm

    Laila like Sara is not so much a de-Arabized name as it is a common name never specifically Arabic or Islamic in origin or in pronunciation.

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