Arts & Entertainment, Film and TV, Pop Rhetoric

Mo representation, Mo problems

Mo, a Netflix comedy-drama show released in late August, centres around the life of Palestinian-American Mo Amer in a story based on his lived experiences—navigating legal illegitimacy by selling bootleg merch, working at a strip club and a Texan olive farm—as an asylum seeker in the U.S. The show has received critical acclaim, with a rating of 100 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.

I was first introduced to Mo Amer’s work at a stand-up show in Amman in 2019, where my good friend Zayd Lahham opened for him. I, like many of my peers, were proud when we heard he was working on a show, and were excited to see what he could do with a Netflix budget. I was disappointed to get a show that is politically insensitive, orients itself towards a white, outsider audience, and depicts half-baked and one-dimensional Palestinian identities.

The show is so politically misinformed that even a Zionist publication wants you to watch it. In the first episode, Mo tries to dismissively wrap up an argument by saying that, if he had it his way, Palestine and Israel would go back to the 1967 borders. No Palestinian wants to go back to ‘67 borders, especially not if their family is from Haifa, like Amer’s. The context of this comment frames it as some kind of age-old religious conflict—a common Western misrepresentation of the occupation. But more importantly, the quip neglects that the ‘67 borders are in violation of international law under the UN Resolution 242

Mo contributes to a longstanding practice of watching TV shows as a means of learning about another culture and its sensitivities, particularly on Netflix. Reviews of the show by white critics, despite their acclaim, carry an air of condescension, if not pity. Such critics describe Mo as a “big teddy bear” who “buoyantly bounces” between cultures, and claim that Mo’s story brings us closer to understanding each other. The show acts like it was made to humanize Arabs for the white viewer. And if Arabs like it, it’s partially because they like that they’ll be more “understood.” One Arab IMDB user was excited that Mo portrays Arabs as “normal humans”, part of families that have normal “dysfunctions and contradictions.” This racist sentiment celebrates a pathetically low bar.

The erasure of Palestinian identity is a significant tenet of the Zionist project. For us, there is power in just hearing the word Palestine. Yet, I was really disappointed that the kind of representation Palestinians are getting has to appease the ignorant politics of inclusion and stay within the comfort zone of white America. Granted, the writers’ room (initially Mo Amer and Ramy Youssef) was hyper-aware that they needed to represent their ethnic identities. But, unfortunately, the conversation seems to have gone as follows: I’m Palestinian, therefore, I need to write about hummus and carry around a bottle of olive oil everywhere I go. I’m Palestinian, therefore, I need to make an exaggerated caricature of Palestinians as a reference for Americans. Television shows don’t need calls to action or trauma porn to make the Palestinian plight feel like more than an afterthought, but any worthwhile piece of art should have nuance beyond the tired stereotypes employed in the show.

Among my least favourite arguments in support of Mo is that which says it’s headed in the right direction. There are over 20 Palestinian short films and movies made by Palestinians on Netflix and thousands more elsewhere that display real resistance and confront the apartheid regime and Zionism head-on, such as the works of Elia Suleiman. Even if realistic depictions of Palestinian Americans didn’t exist (they do), we shouldn’t just settle unquestioningly for whatever Netflix decides to fund. Accurate minority representation isn’t the be-all and end-all of curing racism—and it’s not enough to overlook the problematic elements of the media we consume. We’re allowed to expect more than hummus Habibi content from our Arab comedians, and we deserve films and TV that are produced on our own terms.

Mo is currently streaming on Netflix.

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One Comment

  1. kindyl henley

    great article!

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