The Trace of Cultural Ignorance: Russians and Middle Easterners of “24”

— Emma Ohanyan-Tri

November 6, 2001 is not the day when terrorist attacks, major assassination attempts, or mass murders happened in the United States. However, many American viewers who watched the pilot of 24 –one of the most popular TV series that promotes torture and cultural ignorance— saw November 6, 2001 as the day when a group of terrorists attempted to assassinate the U.S. presidential candidate.

Broadcast on FOX almost two month after the 9/11, 24 gained critical acclaim and was deservedly added to the canon of the Third Golden Age of Television. It fits into the Third Golden Age defined by both, Alan Sepinwall and Brett Martin. As Sepinwall explains, the TV series of the Third Golden Age must narrate a long story where characters evolve over time, and 24 is a perfect match for this description. According to Brett Martin, to belong to the Third Golden Age of Television, a show must have a unique format and should portray a difficult protagonist man. We see that in 24. Martin also adds that a high-quality TV series should not only be commercially successful, but also achieve something far richer; it should make us think. So, does 24 make us think about anything? Those familiar with the show will definitely say that it stirs controversy about the use of torture as a method of interrogation. However, it is not only the torture that provides food for thought. Inaccurate representation of different ethnic groups, primarily Middle Easterners and Russians, is another problem of the popular TV series. Such misrepresentations deserve attention because they create erroneous images of these ethnicities begetting cultural ignorance among many viewers.

In the United States there are many other TV series that misrepresent Middle Easterners and Russians. However, 24 is the champion in villainizing these peoples as well as confusing their national identities, names, accents, and language. Middle Easterners appear as villains in five out of the nine seasons of the series. Russians are villains in four of them. In contrast to the Russian community in the U.S. though, the Muslim community expressed concerns about the show’s representation of Muslims as Islamists and terrorists. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly, Arsalan Iftikhar – the legal director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)— said that the show promotes Islamophobia and discrimination against the American Muslims. Iftikhar stated that many Americans do not know much about Islam and gain their knowledge from such shows as 24. The show will “give them [non-Muslim Americans] a lot of pause when they deal with their Muslim friends, neighbors and co-workers,” the director concluded

Of course, FOX did not accept these accusations silently and released a statement saying, “Over the past several seasons, [24] villains have included shadowy Anglo businessmen, Baltic Europeans, Germans, Russians, Islamic fundamentalists, and even the (Anglo-American) six president of the United States” (BBC News). It should be noted that the villains of the show indeed come from various cultural groups.

Besides being portrayed as terrorists, the Middle Eastern characters are also misrepresented in terms of their names and accents. According to Downing, Iranians are never really distinguished from Arabs “except for those who know Persian names” (73). This means that a character can be referred to as an Arab but have a Persian name. The show creators often do not distinguish between their Middle Eastern characters’ accents as well. In Season 8, the president of the fictional Islamic Republic of Kamistan speaks English with an Indian or Pakistani accent, whereas the accent of his brother and other compatriots are more Arabic. Such subtle details are not always visible for the viewers who are not familiar with these cultures and gain their cultural knowledge only from films and TV series. That is why it is important to note that if including some particular ethnical groups to their films and shows, directors and showrunners must take responsibility of representing them as accurately as possible. However, 24 not only fails to provide an accurate representation of cultures, but also further promotes the cultural ignorance.

FayedAhmed

The series misrepresent not only Muslim Middle Easterners, but also Russians. It should be noted, however, that the Russian community of the U.S. does not make a big deal of it. One of the main reasons for that is because the Russian society does not view popular culture as a serious propaganda machine. Discussing the image of Russians on Allsimpson.ru. Russian forum, one of the users—HellNait—said “I try to pay attention to some serious and credible sources. For example, I often read English articles on Wikipedia which are about our history and technology. The best way to learn what people think of us is just to talk to real people”[translated from Russian by the author]. The user adds that there are many English sources that have accurate information on Russians and the USSR. “You just should know where to look for positive things rather than make conclusions by watching some popular culture TV series which represent this or that behavior model,” the user concludes [translated from Russian by the author].

Probably such an attitude of the Russian society to popular culture explains the show’s rating of 8 out of 10 on Kinopoisk.ru –the Russian analogue of IMDB. The best way to express how the Russian characters behave in 24 is to quote Queenan who said, “They will kill your family, they will kill your girlfriend, they will kill their own employees, they will kill high-ranking members of the New York Police Department…” (Bad Guys Are Always Russian). It should be also added here that they will also kill presidents of other countries. Russians of 24 are always former military and KGB agents who still threaten to invade and bomb American cities.

The show portrays Russians as being cruel and merciless. Additionally, it misrepresents their names and language. For example, the boss of the Russian mafia ( the mafia is called Russian in the series) in Season 8 is called Sergei Bazhaev. He is referred to as a Russian by CTU agents. However, when the agents catch him and open his profile, he turns out to be a Ukrainian. Such transformation of the character from a Russian into Ukrainian is very unfortunate, because an individual with such a last name can hardly ever be Ukrainian. According to Ufolog.ru, the last name Bazhaev has Turk origins and refers more to the Chechens and other Muslims living in the autonomies of Russia. The character’s nationality would be more believable if the creators left him to be Russian, as the viewer was primarily led to think. Also, if Bazhaev is Ukrainian, his mafia should not be called Russian.

In Season 6 the last name of the evil Russian character is Gredenko. Gredenko is a typical Ukrainian last name, as Ukrainian last names usually (but not always) end with –ko. However, Gredenko is supposed to be Russian in the season. This blurring of the national identities of Russians and Ukrainians leads the viewers to make zero difference between these ethnicities. However, Russians and Ukrainians do not like to be mixed, especially after the recent political events in Ukraine. Such misrepresentation of names occurs in all the other seasons that have Russian characters.

Besides making no difference between Russians, Ukrainians and Chechens, 24’s showrunners show their Russian characters as speaking gibberish Russian that is not even understandable for a Russian-speaking individual. For example, one of the Russian characters of Season 8 has notes written in grammatically and stylistically wrong Russian. It says “командир пршлом, дургом месте, отклоняли” (Episode 1). This is just a list of words that put together make no sense in Russian. Moreover, the letter is missing in the second word and the letters are put in the wrong order in the third word. There are also prepositions missing in the sentence. If corrected and translated into English, the sentence will still make no sense: “commander past, in other place, they rejected.” The Russian language is misrepresented in another episode of Season 8 as well, when one of the characters says “останавлируемся” –a non-existing word, which is supposed to mean “we are stopping” (Episode 8). Additionally, the accent of the actors who play Russian characters is so bad that it is hard for Russian speakers to understand what they say. This is because these Russian characters are played by German, British, Irish and American actors. As a result, Americans hear the Russian language as sounding very rude and threatening, which is a nice match for the characters who appear to be so evil for viewers. However, what we should remember as viewers is that even quality TV series often promote cultural ignorance. Hopefully, future showrunners will realize their important role in educating viewers about foreign cultures. By portraying foreign cultures more accurately, they will make another step towards the facilitation of intercultural communication that is so crucial for our globalized world.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s