Battling or Creating Stereotypes in ‘Aliens in America’?

By Guest Columnist Oct 19, 2007

by Thanu Yakupitiyage Kharen Hill The first time I saw an advertisement for the new CW sitcom, Aliens in America, my jaw dropped. The ad shows an awkward teenage white boy, Justin Tolchuk, from Wisconsin, waiting at the airport for the family’s new exchange student. To their dismay, what turns up is not the blonde, Scandinavian boy that they are hoping for, but Raja Musharaff, a brown, fresh-off-the-boat, Muslim Pakistani boy clad in a white shalwar-kamise and prayer hat, praising Allah for bringing him to his new family in America in a slightly overdone accent. I instantly thought, “Oh God, No.” My defenses went up, annoyed that this was to be the new token ‘funny foreigner’ representation of the South Asian community on American television to add to the likes of Fez from That 70s Show and Apu from The Simpsons. As I read reviews exclaiming the show’s light-hearted but edgy qualities and that it was even being screened at political think tanks and Islamic Centers, my curiosity arose. Could this form of popular culture really be the best way for America to deal with its fears of terrorism, immigrants, and Islam? As I watched the first pilot episode, I admit I did find it somewhat comical. At the same time as I chuckled at scenes meant to show American ignorance, I could not help but feel a little unease. One scene in particular hits the 9/11 topic dead on: Raja’s new high school teacher says, “We have the opportunity to spend the year in the presence of a real live Pakistani who practices ‘Muslimism’!” “Raja, you are so different from us- how does that feel?” Raja is confused and speechless. The teacher goes on, “How does everybody else feel about Raja and his differences?” A girl raises her hand and says “ I guess I feel angry, because his people blew up the buildings in New York.” Raja tries to protest. The teacher stops him, saying, “In America, we raise our hands before we speak.” She asks, “Now, who else is angry with Raja?” The whole class raises their hands. Now I fully understand the concepts of irony and satire. At best, this show attempts to explore America’s political and nationalist climate, allowing us to feel the impact of the ridiculous things that people can say. However, the buzz created by its boldness does not take away my underlying feelings of anxiety. Can I not relax and take a joke? Maybe I need to shut up and be satisfied that these topics are even being slightly touched by mainstream media, allowing some space for dialogue. I have realized though that my discomfort comes from the fact that this show aims at tackling the fears of White America. While white America is healing it’s post-9/11 wounds by laughing at a comical Muslim character, are the rest of us brown folk supposed to be relieved that they are laughing? I mean, phew, at least we’re not scary anymore, now we’re just not to be taken seriously! Aliens in America runs on a dangerously thin line of battling stereotypes by creating new stereotypes. It will be interesting to see whether this sitcom can do anything more.