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The Muhannad Effect: Transnational Melodrama and the Arab Female Gaze
In the summer of 2008, the Saudi-owned satellite television network Middle East Broadcasting Center aired a failed Turkish soap opera, Gümü?, as the Arabized Nur, creating an overnight sensation. The 150-episode series, broadcast on the youth-oriented MBC4, attracted mass transnational audiences and generated widespread controversy. Nur sparked a torrent of attention in the Arab—and Western—press, and on internet blogs and website comment pages. Dismissed as mindless fluff by Arab intellectuals and artists, and decried as westernizing moral degradation by religious figures and cultural conservatives, Nur tackled adultery, divorce, rape, pregnancy outside of marriage and abortion, subjects rarely broached—although not unheard of—in Arab television drama. Much of the enthusiasm over the series, and the moral panic it provoked, revolved around the male lead “Muhannad,” played by a twenty-five-year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed former model. The Arab press attributed a wave of domestic violence and divorce to the series’ handsome lead actor, and his character’s romantic comportment. Women everywhere were said to be comparing the fictional Muhannad to their own partners, and finding the latter wanting. This paper combines content analysis of Nur, examination of internet discourses surrounding the series, and interviews with its producers in Damascus and Dubai. It explores women's use of cyberspace to articulate desire and discontent, arguing that the convergence of new media forms—satellite television and the internet—serves as a catalyst for the formation of new female subjectivities. Women’s adoration of Muhannad, whose appearance and behavior belies dominant ideals and realities, poses a powerful critique of their own objectification. Conversely, opposition to the series—and to the idolization of its male lead—invokes older notions of women’s potent sexual desire as a threat to the social order, and justifies their containment and control. The Nur phenomenon has created a discursive space where conflicting notions of sexual agency and gender relations vie for dominance. The series’ ambiguity, like that of Turkey itself, invokes East and West, Islam and secularism, tradition and modernity, feminism and patriarchy, enabling a range of commentary on the state of Arab society in general, and sexual relations in particular.
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Arab States
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