Looking back at the hours of my childhood spent eating up whatever Disney Channel fed me, there are few shows that gave me a little something more than entertainment. A few episodes of That’s So Raven made me consider racial and body discrimination more critically, and Kim Possible helped me believe that teenage girls could actually save the world. But it was a Disney cartoon, or rather one episode of a Disney cartoon, that did for me what no other Disney show ever did.
I had never seen another Muslim kid on a children’s TV show until I watched an episode of The Proud Family that ran during its third and final season. In the episode titled “Culture Shock,” the main character Penny and her classmates are given an assignment that requires them to spend one week living with another family from their school who has a different cultural background than their own. Penny gets assigned to Radika Zamin’s family, who are Pakistani Muslim Americans.
The sight of the Zamin family warmed my eight-year-old heart. As Mrs. Zamin explained Ramadan to Penny, I called out for my parents, “Mom, dad, come down here! They’re celebrating Ramadan on TV! On Disney!”
Her family looked like mine, and used terminology like mine, and when you’re a Muslim girl growing up in the conservative suburbs of Middle America, you tend to believe you’re the only American Muslim in the world. The Proud Family made me feel seen, and that’s how I would continue to think of it, long after its end: the show that I saw myself and my family in for the first time.
Now, 15 years after the show first aired, I decided to rewatch that episode of The Proud Family to commemorate Eid al-Fitr. I wanted to revisit that heartwarming cultural moment on the beauty of representation. But when I watched the show again, I couldn’t fathom how this same episode—one riddled with racist, Islamophobic stereotypes—ever made me feel good about my identity.
When Penny first spots the Zamin family after she’s been assigned to live with them she quite literally gasps, frowns, and even screams at the sight of them. The morning she’s supposed to start her assignment she fakes sick in an attempt to get out of living with them. Her father, Oscar, reinforces her xenophobia, saying, “We don’t know anything about THOSE people.” During Radika’s first night at the Proud’s, Penny’s mom Trudy asks her what she’s doing as she rummages through the fridge. “I’m preparing dinner for Mr. Proud,” she says. “In my home, dinner is my responsibility.” When Trudy tells Radika that she doesn’t have to cook, Radika seems confused and unsure of what to do with herself. “I don’t understand, if Mr. Proud is cooking dinner, then what do we [women] do?”
Over at the Zamin’s, Mr. Zamin is portrayed as an angry, sexist man who tells Penny to “never offer advice unless you’re asked” after she tries to help him during a game of chess. Mrs. Zamin, on the other hand, has two duties in the home: smiling and sewing.
As I watched these upsetting caricatures of a Muslim family, I felt genuinely sad for my younger self who welcomed them. In a desert of Muslim representation in media, let alone on the Disney Channel two years after 9/11, I think I saw and remembered this episode positively because I was craving representation so desperately. I was even willing to warp what was actually happening on screen to my benefit.
In one scene, Penny is complaining to her friends about her new family. “The Zamins are plain weird,” she says. “The daddy never smiles, the momma does nothing but smile and sew all day, and everybody else just sits around the TV and watches soap operas and cricket matches broadcast in Urdu.” Ironically, I remember excitedly asking my friends if they’d seen the episode, hoping they’d think I was a little less weird, or at the very least that my explanations of Ramadan would be met with less concerned reactions than, “your family starves for a month?”
While the episode is far more Islamophobic than I remember, it does have some saving graces. When Mrs. Zamin makes Penny a scarf to wear as hijab, she tells Penny that it’s her choice if she wants to wear it or not, and explains that she wears hers “because I would rather be judged for who I am, not necessarily how I look.” Later, Mr. Proud makes his notorious Proud Snacks with turkey rinds instead of pork rinds so that Radika can eat them. And when Penny decides she’s over fasting one day at school and gets up to get lunch, a teacher reminds her, “You know Ramadan is the most important holiday in the Zamin household, and for them to invite you into their home at this time is very special. You should feel honored Penny.” He urges Penny to take advantage of her time with the Zamin family, and she decides to forego her lunch and continue fasting.
Despite its deep flaws, I’m still happy this episode exists. Though far from displaying fair representations of Muslim Americans, it still offered me comfort as I dealt with the flood of post-9/11 Islamophobia as a child. The Proud Family was a standout Disney show in many ways. The majority of its characters were people of color, and it explored non-white cultures far more extensively than most cartoons in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, its misrepresentations extended to other communities as well: The same episode is riddled with Asian and Black tropes, and the entire series has been criticized for reinforcing negative, racist stereotypes.
In the last few minutes of “Culture Shock,” it becomes more clear why the majority of the episode relied so heavily on miserable stereotypes. Penny has a full circle moment after she witnesses the Zamin family experience a hate crime and attends a Eid al-Fitr celebration with them. To culminate her assignment, she gives a beautiful speech about her experience living with the family.
Before I moved in with the Zamins, I thought like a lot of you guys : they’re weird, they’re different, they’re not like us. And I was right, and the more I got to know them, the stranger they became. And before I knew it, they were exactly like my family , truly bizarre. But they’re exactly like all of our families: little brothers and sisters that get on your nerves, a father that’s too protective, a grandparent that sleeps in front of the TV, and a mom that keeps everything together. And if you know that, you could never write on their door “go back to your country, America for Americans,” you just couldn’t do it.
It’s my guess that the writers behind the episode thought they had to exaggerate the instances of Islamophobia that led up to this moment in order to make it more powerful, but to me, the stereotyping still feels wholly unnecessary. I’m glad I had a positive experience watching this episode as a child, but it hurts to know that that joy came from a childhood of internalized aversion to my own background and culture. Sadly, in the 15 years since this episode aired, Muslim representation in American TV remains rare and, when it does exist, Muslims are often typecast into stereotypical roles. The lack of positive representation for Muslims on TV is so dire that in 2016, President Obama publicly advocated for the creation of more Muslim television characters that weren’t portraying terrorists.
When it comes to Muslim representation in media, the bar is low, and it’s been low. Writer Dave Schilling said it best when he asked, “Where is the Muslim Modern Family or Family Matters or Fresh Off the Boat? When will there be one show in the vast array of broadcast, cable and streaming programming that’s willing and able to portray Muslim characters as normal people and not spies or extremists?” When that show finally comes to the mainstream, my guess is that the industry will be pleasantly surprised to find that there is a massive audience waiting for a fair, accurate representation of Muslims on television; it's been a long time coming and we’re ready for an extremely overdue binge-watch.