As Netflix puts gay characters in Arabic show, can pop culture queer representation make LGBT rights more mainstream?
Since the streaming giant Netflix released its Arabic version of the Italian movie "Perfect Strangers" on January 20, the Arab world has been overwhelmingly consumed by a socio-cultural debate. The movie, co-produced by UAE, Lebanese, and Egyptian entertainment companies, portrays storylines on marriage, women's sexuality, drinking and driving, mental health stigma, anti-patriarchal fatherhood, teenage and safer sex, and to top it all, homosexuality and the challenges facing queer Arabs.
Starring Egyptian Mona Zaki (Maryam), Lebanese Nadie Labaki (May), Georges Khabbaz (Walid), Adel Karam (Ziad), Diamand Bou Abboud (Jana), Fouad Yammine (Rabih), and Jordanian Eyad Nassar (Sherif), the movie tells the story of seven upper-class Egyptian and Lebanese friends in their mid-forties who play a game by placing their phones on the dinner table and all calls, texts, and voice messages must be shared with everyone as they come, uncovering ample secrets and scandals on a lunar eclipse-watching night in Lebanon.
Amongst the several taboo sociocultural issues that deemed the movie as "morally corrupt for Arab culture", the most central storyline in the heated debate has been that of Rabih, a gay university professor. Rabih shows up alone to the dinner, hosted in May and Walid's home, after having told his friends – three married couples – that he will introduce his new girlfriend (Rasha) to them that night. Having no plan to disclose his sexuality, Rabih and Sherif switch their similar phones to help the latter avoid a scandal. Later Sherif reads notifications sent by a guy named Roy from Rabih's phone as though they are his, making Maryam – Sherif's wife – think that her husband is gay.
"As the diverged debate regarding the agenda of Netflix and the movie continues, it is worth noticing that when Netflix launched in the MENA in January 2016, it faced multiple challenges"
At the end of the movie, Rabih reveals that Roy is his new boyfriend and there was never a Rasha while revealing that he was fired from his university for his sexuality. Before Rabih comes out, the friends respond to Sherif (assuming he is the gay one) as if being gay is not an issue. Some reactions are even posed as blame towards him for not coming out earlier in what looks like a complete normalisation of homosexuality in Arab culture.
The public took to social media, especially Twitter and Instagram, showing a deeply polarised Arab world on multiple issues, but especially on homosexuality. The evident divide saw the movie receiving both tremendous praise and fierce denunciation over the questions it poses.
Lawyer Ayman Mahfouz, known for playing morality police chasing artists and pop-culture producers in Egypt, filed a lawsuit against Netflix asking to ban the movie. Mahfouz told Egyptian ETC TV, "Are artists above the law, above all moral standards? In the name of art? The [movie's] dialogue is loaded with cancerous messages".
In the lawsuit, Mahfouz accused the producer Mohamed Hefzy of producing art aimed at "harming the Egyptian national security, by cooperating with foreign parties for the purpose of leaking political and social concepts aimed at destabilising internal stability".
Mustafa Bakri, a member of the Egyptian House of Representatives, similarly, accused Netflix of "moral degradation" and "producing a movie meant to hit the values and societal foundations" of Arabs and Egyptians.
Simultaneously, the movie also received loud applause. Disregarding the movie's themes as culturally controversial, the Egyptian Actors' Syndicate released an official statement in support of renowned star Mona Zaki.
Eminent Egyptian actors and artists like Amr Waked, Hend Sabry, Ahmed Fahmy, and Ghada Abd El Razek publicly supported the movie's cast. Prominent actress Elham Shahin, previously known for causing media and political uproar in Egypt, said in support of the movie on her Instagram page, "beautiful and real movie with normal life problems, so what if someone is gay… Arab society has way more serious disasters".
Shahin went on to describe the hypocrisy in "an obsessed society" in which certain ideas are perceived as appropriate in foreign films, but not in locally produced Arabic speaking ones.
As the diverged debate regarding the agenda of Netflix and the movie continues, it is worth noticing that when Netflix launched in the MENA in January 2016, it faced multiple challenges.
At the end of 2016, Netflix had only 137,000 subscribers across the MENA, equal to only 0.1% of its overall subscriber base. It faced the pirated content problem; a trend persisting in the Arab world causing the industry hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Due to licensing issues, the content library compared to Netflix US was also limited. Credit card usage in the region is not as smooth and can be slow, so Netflix faced payment method problems as well. The weak internet infrastructure has been an obstacle for growth, and the competition with the local and regional streaming providers such as Shahid Plus continued.
While some of these problems have been improving since 2016, and as of late 2021 Netflix had 74 million subscribers in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the company realised soon enough that to grow stronger, it must create original local content.
Though "Perfect Strangers" is its first original Netflix Arabic feature film, Netflix produced two Arabic TV shows that sparked similar clashes. "Al-Rawabi School for Girls" (August 2021), and "Jinn" (June 2019) are both series filmed in Jordan and perceived as negatively and inaccurately picturing Arab culture.
A new Netflix Arabic adaptation of the popular rom-com 'Perfect Strangers' has sparked controversy in Egypt among conservatives for allegedly "promoting homosexuality". Some are even calling for a ban on the streaming platform following the film's release. https://t.co/Kr6N8bzWYb— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) January 24, 2022
Yet, Netflix has a special type of power particularly because of its online-only nature. Political leaders in the Middle East and North African region now realise that banning the platform entirely is impossible. Until tactics to confront it emerge, movies like "Perfect Strangers" will not go through regional censorship and will be viewed uncut. This is contrary to the traditional long-existing movie theatres and local TV that face state-imposed control.
Most recently, for instance, films such as "Eternals" and "West Side Story" were banned in several MENA countries due to their LGBTQ inclusion. Considering these reasons, Arab filmmakers and producers are keen to work with Netflix not necessarily for its immense financial capability, but for the infinite freedom, it provides. Arab artists are now aware that through Netflix, their work can cross the boundaries of culture, border, and language.
For over a decade now, since the so-called Arab Spring erupted, LGBTQ issues in the MENA have been increasingly surfacing. While Netflix is only one of many factors contributing to that visibility, the streaming giant is especially noteworthy, seeing that it can surpass immediate state-sponsored bans and crackdowns.
Various Egyptian governments, for instance, relied in the last few decades on, but especially since Al-Sisi's leadership came to power, LGBTQ repression to maintain their standing. The public controversy around "Perfect Strangers" and the Egyptian Actors' Syndicate's public support of Zaki, however, might indicate a new regional uncontrollable phase of the LGBTQ struggle enabled thanks to the continuously globalised entertainment industry.
"LGBTQ change in the MENA is a long path to walk. Each path to change entails sacrifices, however, and those who will pay the price in the meantime are LGBTQ Arabs living in the region"
Netflix courageously poses itself as a cultural reproduction site for matters that rarely catch the region's mainstream stages. While queer representation in "Perfect Strangers" has been welcomed by LGBTQ Arabs and their allies, it will take some time to see how this inclusion battle unfolds, and which long-term results it will yield in the larger Arab society.
LGBTQ change in the MENA is a long path to walk. Each path to change entails sacrifices, however, and those who will pay the price in the meantime are LGBTQ Arabs living in the region as they face amplified homophobia prompted by the viral conversations on LGBTQ issues that Netflix and the movie have been causing.
Whether Netflix and/or the movie end up being banned from the region, a local conversation on LGBTQ identities is already underway, and its implications are here to stay even if governments take measures to stop it. It is hard to foresee if Netflix will remain in the region, and if it will keep challenging the local sociocultural Arab mindset on LGBTQ identities and beyond, but it is certainly not an easy target to defeat.
Izat Elamoor is a Palestinian studying for a PhD in Sociology of Education at New York University. He studies LGBTQ issues in Palestine with a focus on education, family life, the Palestinian Queer Movement, and LGBTQ life in the Middle East and North Africa with a focus on sociopolitical factors of LGBTQ change since the Arab uprisings of 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @ElamoorIzat
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.