My sister and I were on the phone the other day talking about the Trump travel ban on certain countries and the current state of the U.S. with regards to attitudes towards Muslims. It’s not a new phenomenon for a group of people to be so intensely stereotyped within the U.S., but she and I agreed that Muslims might be bearing the brunt of it lately due to the U.S. populace’s lack of exposure to people who practice Islam and the media. People growing up in rural or less diverse areas of the U.S. probably never come into contact with a Muslim apart from the terror attacks they see on T.V. And although it’s unacceptable, it’s not actually that difficult to see why they are so guarded.
However, having been fortunate enough to grow up in a diverse area and go to school and become friends or classmates with many kids who are Muslim, my sister and I believe in the popular theory that the problem is rooted in learned stereotypes people gain from the media and their communities.
Perhaps it is too late for bigoted adults to be saved in this regard, but it’s not too late for children. So, I threw this idea past my sister*: Could Disney Channel help?
You guys remember Hannah Montana? That’s So Raven? Kim Possible? The Suite Life of Zack and Cody? Well, I know that Disney has a whole new crop of overstyled preteen shows to fill their network roster now, but these were some I grew up on. And one thing the new and the old shows have in common is that there is a protagonist (duh), but there is always, ALWAYS, a silly best-friend character.
This best friend character is usually silly, quirky, and helps the protagonist through their various G-rated schemes, and sometimes gets to be the focus of the episode with almost as much purpose and screen time as the protagonist.
Now bear with me, WHAT IF that best friend character was Muslim? WHAT IF, it was a character who participated in traditional dress of Islam? Think about it. Kids eat up Disney shows like Halloween candy and Disney churns out new shows and new child stars almost as fast as Trump tweets his idiotic musings. Furthermore, Disney has been taking slow steps towards becoming more inclusive of different minority groups. So I’m not reaching for the stars here for them to make one best friend character Muslim.
By making the silliest, most likable character on the show a Muslim, kids in the U.S. would grow up with it and could begin to see the diversity among Muslims. Nobody shuns white people because one white man shot up a school. And children would learn that radical Muslims are the minority. They would learn that yes, there is conflict in the Middle East and there are Muslims that are unsavory, but that it’s no different from any other race or religion where there are bad and good lumped together.
You may have a big question here: why not the main character? Why only the side character? Wouldn’t it be better to have a main character for even larger leaps against discrimination? Yes, you are absolutely right. But hear me out. First off, that’s a big step, especially in our current climate. Say what you will, but Disney is a company that cares about their bottom line and they will not just take steps like that without seriously considering the consequences on their fanbase.
Furthermore, I honestly think it’s better to have a Muslim in the side character first. When you think about these shows, they mostly revolve around the protagonist attempting to help someone or doing something ridiculous and then having to fix a mess they’ve caused. The best-friend character is almost always assisting them and shows unparalleled loyalty and kindness, whereas the protagonist can make more morally ambiguous (albeit still G-rated) choices that could be up for debate. The character would act as a direct foil to the terrorist characters depicted in the news. Following the potential success of the best-friend character, then bigger, more complex roles would be up for a more diverse casting.
I’m aware that this is an extremely small step, but isn’t that how we get there? If you subscribe, as I do, to the notion that exposure is the best cure for discrimination and stereotyping, then it is a combination of tiny exposures and large exposures that will help eradicate this. The more people get to know other Muslims, see Muslims on TV, see them doing the exact same things we all do — grocery shopping, hanging out with their friends, working– those stereotypes gradually wear away. And as with fundamental societal changes, the best place to start is with the new generation.
*My sister takes a different route with this theory in her video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g93ptIo45rA&t=0s
Picture credits: Disney Channel and Disney’s The Proud Family, Season 3 Episode 3