I love Young Justice. It’s one of my favorite shows of all time. The overall quality of its storytelling is among the best of any DC property. It’s also one of the most diverse, with characters like Blue Beetle, Aqualad/Aquaman, Cyborg, Artemis, Bumblebee, and other characters prominent throughout the series. I overall enjoyed this past season, Young Justice: Outsiders. However, I was hopeful that the season would showcase authentic Middle Eastern representation in the newly-Arab hero Halo. But, I was very, very wrong.
I’d like to make a preface to this critique. While Halo is supposed to be Muslim and an Arab woman (from Qurac, a fictional Arab country in DC Comics) I am neither. I am a male Kurdish-American who has grown up in a Muslim family, and I know a lot about Islam, but I do not practice. My upbringing and Middle Eastern background gives me some, but certainly not all the authority on this topic. My views should not be the only ones you seek out and I strongly suggest you look for Arab Muslim women voices on the subject as well. I can honestly say, however, that watching this season, I think the writers deeply failed Arab and Muslim women on this front.
Additionally, I don’t want to downplay the representation Halo may give to non-binary and queer viewers. They state that they don’t think they may be male or female, and they are shown to kiss a girl. It is noted here, however, that there may be issues as well with how the show treats her non-binary identity. But still, that representation is important and certainly deserves praise. I am only speaking from the religious and cultural sides, which the show failed.
As I found out the first time I watched the show, Halo is the spirit of a New Genesis Mother Box inhabiting the body of the dead Quraci war refugee to Markovia, Gabrielle Daou. Yes, you read that right. The writers thought it was ok to take a refugee from a country that is clearly a stand-in for Syria, kill her off, and use her corpse to make a new character who refuses connections to Gabrielle’s culture, except for continuing to wear a hijab. I know that this version has largely the same origin of the white Halo character in the comics but that still doesn’t make it okay to kill off a dark-skinned Arab Muslim refugee and use her body in this way.
The Syrian Civil War has seen more than 5.6 million Syrians flee their country since 2011, with another 6.6 million internally displaced. These people fleeing political violence have encountered intense racism and Islamophobia almost everywhere they’ve sought refuge. They are much more likely to be the target of hate crimes. They are among the most marginalized and abused peoples on the planet. Showcasing Gabrielle Daou as a hero of that community, or rather, the equivalent, with those experiences intact in her memory, would have been such an incredibly uplifting and positive form of representation. Instead, she was killed off and had her body used as a vessel. The optics are gross, disturbing, and deeply, deeply insulting.
On the surface, the decision to racebend Halo, who is a white and non-Muslim character in the comics, should be a great one. But the actual Arab and Muslim character, Gabrielle Daou is not present in the show, except briefly at the start. Instead, the Mother Box’s spirit, who names herself “Violet Harper,” is the character. The show went out of its way to state that they were not the deceased Gabrielle. Ironically, and frankly, cruelly, the writers had this visibly Muslim character say pointedly she was not Muslim and refuse to engage with any aspects of Gabrielle’s culture, except for the hijab. It’s as though the writers thought that if they simply continued to look Muslim, that that would suffice for Muslim viewers.
There’s a brazen audacity here to use a brown person as a “representation prop” without giving them the substance of what it actually means to be Muslim. That is obviously and deeply wrong. It felt like the creators just wanted “representation points” without actually doing the work. They refused to actually give us a proudly Arab and Muslim character or hire writers who understood Arab and Muslim culture.
Additionally, the voice directors did not recruit an Arab voice actress for Halo. I’m glad they had a woman of color voice a character, but there are Arab voice actresses out there and I’m sure any of them would have done great in the role. Zehra Fazal is a wonderful Muslim actress of South Asian descent, and overall did a great job of voicing Violet, but she is not Arab. She is, however, ironically enough, Muslim. It feels like there’s this antiquated and pervasive notion in entertainment media that being Muslim means you’re interchangeable with other Muslims. Islamic culture is as diverse as the peoples who practice Islam.
Muslims are not a race. Being Muslim means you’re part of a religious culture, not an ethnic one, and Muslims are not interchangeable with each other. Are Catholics from Ireland the exact same as Catholics from Mexico? Of course not. One group is comprised historically of Western European and Irish traditions, while the other is informed by native traditions blended with the imperialism of Catholic Spain. Simply put, Mexicans are not Irish, and South Asians are not Arabs. We are all distinct peoples with our own histories, ethnicities, and cultures.
The fact Fazal is not a native Arabic speaker was painfully evident. Urdu is not the same thing as Arabic, and Hollywood needs to take more notice of that. In the scene where Violet visits Gabrielle’s family, the voice actors spoke Arabic, but with a very bizarre accent. I’ve lived in Jordan, traveled the Middle East, and I’ve heard many different Arabic accents, and what they spoke sounded nothing like anything I’ve heard. It was as though the director told the voice actors to just “sound ethnic” while reading the script. Essentially, it’s yet another case of Orientalism in modern media.
Having said all that, and despite its deeply problematic aspects, I still enjoyed Halo’s overall journey and found it intriguing. I think Violet is an interesting character, and I am interested to see where they go next season. But it didn’t feel like Middle Eastern peoples were actually represented. I, along with, I assume, many other Middle Eastern people watching left very disappointed.
Middle Eastern people should not have half-baked Orientalist instances like these anymore. It’s so tiring. We are diverse and distinct peoples who need to be in the creative space to give life to fully authentic Arab, Iranian, Kurdish, Turkish, Egyptian, and other Middle Eastern heroes. They sorely failed with Halo this past season to take that opportunity. Hopefully, in the future, Gabrielle can somehow return in some form, or Violet will come to really embrace those roots and give us an actual Middle Eastern hero.