Heroes, villains and more villains : representations of Arab men on Australian screens

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This thesis examines the representation of Arab male protagonists in three Australian crime drama productions: East West 101, The Combination and Cedar Boys. Since 2007 Australia has seen a notable increase in the inclusion of Arab and Muslim male characters in various serials and films, particularly as their visibility increased in news media after September 11, 2001. As popular culture reflects and shapes opportunities for belonging within the nation state, this thesis aims to understand whether or not the inclusion of Arab and Muslim minorities is a sign of greater acceptance of these community groups. East West 101 garnered significant media coverage for its realistic portrayal of multicultural Australia. Most notable was its positive depiction of (fictional) Arab Muslim police detective, Zane Malik. Through Malik, East West 101 effectively demonstrates how religion, class and culture can intersect, not to the detriment of a society, but to create skilled and savvy individuals uniquely positioned to contribute to their communities and professions. It further displays the kind of difference that is considered acceptable within a multicultural society; that is, the kind of difference that does not compromise the dominance of the white majority. Likewise both The Combination and Cedar Boys, although lesser known, were reported in Sydney Metropolitan newspapers as ‘edgy’ and importantly were made with the intention of rectifying the image of young Arab and Muslim men, often tarnished in the Australian media. Unlike East West 101, which delves into the struggle of a Middle Eastern man with access to resources and social mobility, these films discuss the realities of life of young Arab males with little social mobility and a strong desire to acquire it, leaving them feeling they have no option but to resort to crime. In choosing to tell these stories in this way, writers George Basha and Serhat Caradee bring their own, often polarising experiences, to the screen in a way that seems to reinforce the existing discourse of Middle Eastern men as thugs and criminals. By drawing heavily on the concepts of Orientalism and Whiteness this thesis attempts to explain the feeling of (un)belonging as experienced by men of ‘Middle Eastern appearance’. It asks how they experience a lack of belonging as depicted in these films/series and enquires into the pursuit of whiteness as an assimilative approach to belonging in a multicultural nation. Furthermore, it asks what these depictions tell us about national identity. These questions point to the central question of this thesis, ‘to what extent do cultural productions such as EW101, The Combination and Cedar Boys open up space for new understandings of the place of Arab and Muslim Australians in contemporary Australia?’ It is argued that, while representations in these three case studies are a much-needed addition to current voices in Australian cinema and television, in one form or another these products still conform to Orientalist discourses.
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