Tag Archive: Stereotypes

Lebanon Considering Legal Action Against Homeland Television Show

The Lebanese government is considering taking legal action against the television series Homeland for the show’s unflattering portrayal of Beirut. Homeland is an award-winning American television fictional series on Showtime that focuses on international affairs and terrorism. The threat of legal action stems from the second episode of the second season entitled “Beirut is Back” which aired on October 7, 2012. Specifically, the episode portrays Hamra Street as a war-torn narrow alleyway infested with terrorist activity. The episode features militants armed with assault weapons shouting commands in Arabic and harassing terrified women. In truth, Hamra Street is a vibrant business district packed with Western-style shops. The episode also features women wearing hair-covering hijabs; however, this is uncommon in this particular area. Furthermore, the episode was filmed in neighboring Israel, not in Beirut. For these reasons, Lebanon’s minister of tourism, Fady Abboud, called the episode a “serious misrepresentation” of the country’s capital and has threatened legal action.

The Lebanese legal threat raises some interesting issues over whether there is even a viable legal claim. At this time, Abboud has not specified what type of legal action Lebanon will pursue. Abboud said, “We are following the case legally. I raised this at the cabinet meeting and the president asked the minister for justice and the minister of communications to see what can be done.” Showtime and Twentieth Century Fox, which produces Homeland, have declined to comment. Similar legal threats were made by Kazakhstan against actor Sacha Baron Cohen over his fictional character Borat featured in the film Borat and the television series Da Ali G Show. In the film and television show, Cohen, a British comedian, pretended to be a foreign journalist from Kazakhstan named Borat. The Borat character depicts the country of Kazakhstan as anti-Semitic and claims that Kazakh citizens enjoy drinking horse urine, shooting dogs, and regard rape and incest as enjoyable pastimes. In 2005, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry threatened to sue Borat for portraying Kazakhstan in a derogatory way. Kazakh officials never specified what legal theory they would base any legal action on.

The Lebanese legal threat also allows us to examine the prevalence of stereotypes in television shows and movies. Middle Eastern countries have long complained that the Arab terrorist stereotype has been allowed to flourish in Western popular culture. Professor Jad Melki, director of the Media Studies Program at the American University of Beirut, explains, “the portrayal of Arabs in the US is that we are all Islamists living in the desert, evil and angry all the time…If you look at US media, racist stereotypes of African Americans have all but disappeared but it is still acceptable to stereotype Arabs.” Indeed, the Homeland episode reinforces negative stereotypes about progressive and Westernized Arab areas like the commercial business district where Hamra Street is located. Lebanon certainly has a reasonable fear that this stereotype will deter tourism.

Because it remains unclear where the Lebanese government would sue Homeland and what legal theory they would base the lawsuit on, a full legal analysis is difficult.  Joseph Peter Drennan, an international lawyer, explains that the Lebanese government would have a lot of problems suing the show’s producers for defamation in an American court because there would be a lot of difficulty finding a plaintiff that would have standing. Drennan believes that the Lebanese government is likely considering a group libel claim which he believes would not be successful in American courts because it would be difficult to show that an individual suffered actual damages. In addition, the fact that Homeland is a fictional show makes any legal claim by the Lebanese government or an individual extraordinarily difficult. Furthermore, it will be very difficult for Lebanese officials to argue that the filming of the show constitutes a misrepresentation because it is a common practice in the film industry to film fictional shows in a location that portrays a different location. Interestingly, it also is possible that the Lebanese government may sue outside of the United States. Ultimately, where the suit is filed and the legal theory used by the Lebanese government matters. Regardless, a better solution for Lebanon is to turn to free market forces to effectuate change. Abboud has said, “I am calling on all young Lebanese adults to do what they need to do; to write blogs, to call the BBC and CNN to try to raise awareness that Beirut is not a city of Kalashnikov and war.” Indeed, the best course of action is for Lebanon to use the negative publicity in a positive way. Again, Borat can serve as an interesting example. In response to Borat, the Kazakhstani government ran advertisements promoting Kazakstan in major U.S. newspapers and commercials on major U.S. television stations. Kazakhistan’s foreign minister, Yerzhan Kazykhanov, now claims that Borat increased tourist visa applications ten-fold. “It was a great triumph for us,” the foreign minister said, “and I am grateful to Borat for helping to attract tourists to Kazakhstan.”

Harry’s Law

Harry’s Law is a new series on NBC starring the Academy Award winning actress Kathy Bates as Harriet “Harry” Korn, a recently fired, high-powered, patent attorney who starts her own criminal defense firm in a vacant, Cincinnati, shoe store.  The show is produced by David E. Kelley, known for such legal comedies and dramas as Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public, and Boston Legal. Kelley is also known, and has been heavily criticized, for his portrayal of women. Most notably, the silly, neurotic, anorexic-looking attorney, Ally McBeal, sparked debates among feminists and television critics during the 1990s about issues such as stereotyping women in the workplace, the representation of women in media, and the appropriate gender role models for children. The character of Ally McBeal was so controversial Time Magazine placed her image on the cover under the heading, “Is Feminism Dead?”  Because much of what we learn about gender comes not from our families or school, but from the media, I will examine a few instances in the pilot episode in which the main character in Harry’s Law conforms to and challenges stereotypical representations of women in the workplace and on television.

Law is undoubtedly still a male dominated profession.  As is the case in many “male” fields, women must continually toe the line between being overly feminine or too masculine.  Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, social norms concerning women and their proper roles in the workplace die hard.   Harry strikes a balance by vacillating between gendered extremes.   First, Harry displays many characteristics commonly associated with masculinity and the legal profession.

She is invincible. In the first ten minutes of the pilot episode, a man attempting to commit suicide by jumping off a building lands on her and she is hit by a car. She survives both accidents without a scratch. While Harry may chalk this feat up to being a little “stuffy”, thereby calling our attention to her none stereotypical feminine physique, the audience gains a sense of her invulnerability. She is tough, she is a fighter.  Harry is fired from her job, but she picks herself up and dusts herself off and starts all over again.

Harry is also aggressive.  While aggressiveness is often a prized characteristic in the law and other professions, too much aggression or display of other “masculine” characteristics by a woman, like independence or competitiveness, may backfire in the workplace.  Women who assert themselves or take dominant positions in the workplace are frequently labeled as “manly women” or the “office bitch.”   In this first episode, Harry calls one lawyer “an arrogant, little snot” and another “an asshole.”  She interrupts opposing counsel during the trial.  She refuses to submit to the neighborhood bully offering “protection” for money and even pulls a gun on him.  She is assertive and decisive in her plea negotiation.  When performed by a man, these actions would likely be lauded or expected.   Maybe Harry receives the same accolades, but unfortunately for other women, they are seen as just “overcompensating for being women.”

Harry’s lack of femininity is further emphasized by her appearance. For example, Harry is not young, or beautiful, or skinny.  She is not the typical female lawyer as sex object—think Ally McBeal or every female attorney featured in the  Law and Order franchise.  She wears pant suits, has gray hair, knows nothing about shoes, and instead of swaying her hips from side to side, she waddles when she walks.   During a recent interview with NPR, Kathy Bates discusses her styling choices for Harry and states, “We finally got the permission to just let me look the way I wanted to look, which was my initial response when I read the screenplay.  It was originally written for a man, Harry…and he was a very rumpled sort of character, and he didn’t strike me as the type of guy who would dye his hair.”

One additional characteristic frequently associated with masculinity is risk taking.  While many women are viewed as  tentative, restrained, insecure or risk averse in the workplace, Harry is a gambler. She strikes out on her own by opening a practice in a broken-down neighborhood, in an area of law she is unfamiliar with. Harry takes the impossible case, one which cannot be won, going for broke with both judge and jury, and manages to come out on top.

Yet, despite all of these seemingly empowering, liberating characteristics, Harry still conforms to traditional feminine representations of women. For instance, despite the attempts to reign in her emotions, Harry is nearly brought to tears in her closing argument in which she defends a young, impoverished, college-bound, drug addict. She is deeply pained by the plight of this young man and almost loses her composure.   Harry also may also be viewed as a  mother figure to her staff and clients. In one scene, her new associate is sprayed by a gunshot victim’s blood. Harry responds, “Are you okay? …Are you sure you’re not hurt?…You need to get tested.” In another scene, Harry reminds the jury that “it takes a village.” Despite the hard exterior, Harry is a compassionate nurturer.   Finally, there is one scene in which Harry plays an innocent child-like woman. After bumbling over her cross-examination of a witness, Harry is called to the stand and asks the judge, “Did I do something wrong?” While Harry is clearly using this stereotype to gain an advantage in her case, and perhaps turning the stereotype on its head, this scene clearly speaks to the underlying assumption that women are less competent, less capable, and in need of male guidance in the workplace.

In the coming weeks, Harry’s character will undoubtedly develop and become more complex.  Will Harry conform to stereotypes of women in the workplace or defy traditional gendered representations?  I expect, as with the first episode, Harry will continue to do both.

Harry’s Law airs on NBC,  Monday 10p.m./9c.  You may also access past episodes at http://www.nbc.com/harrys-law/.

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