It was a cold, dismal day in January – a day so cold that schools gave their students a day off, in other words, the perfect day to cuddle up with a book under the covers with some hot chocolate or tea. A young girl decided she wanted to read a book with a main character that she could relate to; she wanted to see a girl who looked like her go on amazing, fantastical adventures. A girl with dark hair and dark skin, maybe even a girl that wore a hijab just like her older sister. After hours of looking through the books at her local library, she realized something: there aren’t a lot of people that look like her in Young Adult books. She also realized that even if there were some girls that looked like her in these books, they either were forced into a marriage or were a part of a controlling family. She couldn’t find a girl who went on magical adventures with an awesome band of sidekicks. She picked up a random book about a brown haired girl living in a dystopian society and headed home. As she sat down to read it her mind wandered, and rather than read, she thought about why she couldn’t seem to find a book with a girl that looks like her.
Orientalism. Orientalism is a term penned by Edward Said, a literature professor at Columbia University, that referred to the idea that the West portrays the East as everything the West is not. If the West is developed and wealthy, then the East is developing and poor. Orientalism is most notably used to explain the stereotypes surrounding the Middle East in film. However, the same argument could be made for the Young Adult book industry. Often times, the Middle East will be portrayed as the ‘other’ or in other words, the enemy lands or lands filled with danger lurking in every corner. This sense of ‘otherness’ is what inspires filmmakers and authors to use the Middle East as a war setting, despite the fact that many Middle Eastern countries have not been in war for decades. Orientalism is also the tool that allows the West to maintain the world hierarchy within media therefore protecting Western privilege. Orientalism places the West in the superior position over the Middle East which gives the West the power to socially rule the entertainment and media worlds.
The fact that the West rules the entertainment and media worlds ensures that the faces we see and read about are that of fit, beautiful white characters with very little inclusion of other images that are not the Hollywood ideal. In the book industry, these characters are written out in detail which creates an even stronger otherworldliness to the characters. The same concept of Orientalism that applies to film, also applies to books. Both forms of entertainment serve as tools to ensure and protect Western privilege. Unfortunately, as a result, authors are often taking a risk if they write about someone who does not fit the Western ideal. They run the risk of losing out on a huge market. Whitney Atkinson, a sophomore at Midwestern State University and Youtuber under the name of ‘whittynovels,’ started shifting her Youtube channel into one that takes a more progressive stance regarding social identity issues in 2014 and as a result, has been receiving comments from people saying they are going to stop watching her channel. These people are part of a market that is essentially wary of ‘other’ types of people being normalized in mainstream entertainment. When asked what normalizing means to them and what normalized characters and people stand to gain Atkinson stated, “[w]hen whiteness is normalized in America, it is utterly unquestioned because our people in power (both in the publishing industry, the world of bestselling authors, and otherwise) are typically white cishet men and women.”
The stereotypes that are associated with Middle Eastern girls in Young Adult books also serve as a tool to enforce the otherness of the East. In other words, the East condones oppressive practices like forced marriages whereas the West would never. Of course, these stereotypes and the lack of other storylines depicting Middle Eastern girls illustrate that forced marriages are the norm. The most prevalent kind of forced marriage is child marriage. According to UNICEF, 3% of girls under the age of 15 and 18% of girls under the age of 18 are married in the Middle Eastern and North African region. However, these percentages are not indicative of the entire region. For example, Egypt and Lebanon both have developed national strategies and programs to combat the practice of child marriage. However, other countries in the region like Afghanistan and Syria have higher percentages of child marriage. It is important to note that these countries are currently war-torn, which suggests that this practice may be related to tragedy more than it is related to Middle Eastern culture.
The existence of these stereotypes not only enforces the current social hierarchy but it affects how Middle Eastern girls view themselves. According to a study conducted by the academic journal Communication Research entitled, “Racial and Gender Differences in the Relationship between Children’s Television use and Self Esteem: a Longitudinal Panel Study,” white girls and black boys and girls have experienced a decrease in self esteem while white boys have experienced an increase in self esteem. Michael Brody, the chair of the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, stated that this is due to the fact that white men are often the protagonists in film and TV and are portrayed as strong, rational and powerful whereas girls are often utilized as submissive and sexualized characters. Black boys are also often times portrayed as antagonists or as the sidekick – implying that they are not as good as the white protagonist. Combining the effects of racial and gender stereotyping Middle Eastern girls receive the message that there is nothing in their future but simple roles and average futures, often causing them to disassociate from the milestones these girls could be making in reality.
The girl rose with a new found determinism. She placed the book she had been skimming in an already forgotten area of the room and picked up her laptop. She stared at the blank document with a mission to show the world who she really is.