STUDY: MENA Actors Still Overwhelmingly Cast as ‘Terrorists & Tyrants’

By Sameer Rao Sep 11, 2018

Years of discussion about representation and narrative shift in Hollywood have yet to change the overwhelming representation of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) people as oppressors and extremists who pervert Islam to justify violent subjugation. The MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition, an industry advocacy group pushing for stronger and more nuanced MENA representation, highlights this premise in a new collaborative study released yesterday (September 10). 

rnt"Terrorists & Tyrants: Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Actors in Primetime & Streaming Television" evaluates 242 television shows from the 2015-2016 television season for MENA characters’ presence, screen time and characterization. The findings indicate that broadcast and streaming networks still traffic in the same sterotypes of MENA groups, including Islamophobic ones, that fueled much of the political rhetoric around MENA people since the 9/11 attacks 17 years ago.

Consider the following figures:


  • MENA Americans constitute an estimated 3.2 percent of the U.S. population, but barely 1 perecent of all on-screen roles.
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  • Ninety percent of series with MENA characters boast only one such person.
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  • Seventy-eight percent of MENA characters are portrayed as terrorists or tyrants.
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The study goes on to highlight three actors of MENA descent whose most prominent roles challenge these archetypes: Egyptian-American Rami Malek ("Mr. Robot"), Iranian-American Necar Zadegan ("Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce") and Turkish-Canadian Ennis Esmer ("Red Oaks"). Scholar and report co-author Nancy Weng Yuen notes that these roles could help change the perceptions of MENA people that fuel racist domestic and international policy. 

"Such stereotypes can have harmful effects on audience perceptions," Yuen says in an accompanying statement. "More complex and relatable MENA characters can counter anti-Muslim and anti-MENA sentiment and policies."

Actress and MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition founder Azita Ghanizada ("Complete Unknown") adds in the same release that her own experiences with Hollywood casting quotas and preferences inspired the organization’s work around this issue. 

"I discovered that MENA performers were counted as Caucasian and unable to fill diverse hiring quotas," she says. "This hole in Hollywood’s inclusion practices led to devolving portrayals for many MENA performers. If we weren’t willing to be marginalized and reinforce dangerous stereotypes, our ability to work dramatically decreased."

Read the full report at