What ‘The Proud Family’ Gave to Millennial Muslims
The violence of the moment, conveyed in shades of melancholy purple, is bleak even for a cartoon. But it’s also honest.
The Proud Family
In Penny, Dijonay, Sticky, Zoey, and LaCienega, the show provided a confident celebration of different cultural heritages. It was not a perfect celebration. Most of it felt accidental; flawed, like real life, unlike other shows’ more obvious attempts to seem diverse. This authentic representation meant that viewers could easily pick up on the show’s language of tolerance, often without even realizing it. After all, it was a single episode that undid the assumption I held at seven years old: that Muslims weren’t allowed to be on TV. I figured that if I didn’t see them on my screen, being on TV was probably haram. And if it was frowned upon by God, then maybe it would happen in heaven.
Things changed on a Saturday. They were showing an episode I hadn’t seen before—one I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen before. “Culture Shock,” which aired for the first time in 2004, followed the breakdown of Penny’s surprising prejudices while participating in a cultural exchange with a Muslim classmate, Radika Zameen. I pointed at the screen, showing my reluctant mother, with the wonderstruck honesty of early moments of representation: “Look! They’re just like us!”
Penny lets out a strangled cry when her eyes settle on Radika and her family for the first time, standing in in the school hall in cultural dress of hijabs and mosque hats. The men are bearded and the women modest, everyone quite obviously “other” even if their entrance hadn’t been soundtracked by a distinctly Middle Eastern background trill—the equivalent of a writer bellowing, “They’re Muslim!”
But such a fact isn’t contained to character designs, or the episode’s interspersion of the religious practices of fasting and prayer. It’s in Penny’s obvious distress at seeing the Zameens. It’s in her declaration of fear against the fact of a cultural difference she’s never had to deal with before: practicing Muslims, people she is capable of imagining as a threat.
Still, she tries to be respectful as the cultural exchange program goes on. She observes a few days of Ramadan with the Zameens. She dons the hijab sewn for her by Radika’s mother, an item presented as a choice rather than a necessity. And yet something about her respect feels hesitant; almost begrudgingly given. Penny’s parents and teachers present this respect as the right thing to do, but she does not feel it with quite as much conviction as she does her cross-cultural anxieties.
“I’m telling you,” she says to her friends in the school cafeteria, clutching her stomach, still fasting and not happy about it, “the Zameens are plain weird. The daddy never smiles, the mom does nothing but smile and sew all day, and everybody else just sits around the TV, watching soap operas and cricket matches broadcast in Urdu!”
I laughed the first time I saw that scene; at Penny’s heavy delivery of a word like “Urdu” and the way it sounded coming out of an unpracticed mouth. Later, I’d grow to understand how humor could be used to preserve the authenticity of my identity. My laughter came from a place of affection for what I knew. Penny might have been a first-time visitor to those religious details, but I definitely wasn’t. And watching her learn about Islam, encouraged to go beyond perceived differences to really respect it, came from an honest portrayal of a Muslim identity: one which was warm and funny, but also strange because of its religious observance.
That was why it felt okay to laugh the second time I saw that scene. And the third time. And the fourth. Not because The Proud Family was mocking my culture, but because someone behind the scenes had paid attention to the clunky truth of immigrant families, to a “weirdness” that was not reliant on the political imaginary of Muslim behavior—as monsters and terrorists and enemies—but on our humanity; the way we really are. The way we love, and how it is the same as everyone else loves. Most often in quiet, like prayer.
By the end of the episode, Penny reaches the same conclusion as an ally and a witness. “I thought the Zameens were different, and weird, and not like us,” she says. “And the more I got to know them, the stranger they became. Before I knew it, they were exactly like my family—truly bizarre.” Penny realizes that the Zameens feels joy and suffering the way all of us do, though the experience of both always feels wider, more gaping, from within a marginalized body. It’s a lesson she gradually learns from being around them, but is also conveyed in a sharper moment.
The Zameens invite the Prouds to a gathering at a bustling restaurant for Eid, where the two families bond over the buffet table. They dance, laugh, and revel in the mutual respect they’ve developed for one another’s way of life. But the spell is broken during the homecoming that follows this scene. Arriving back at their house, the Zameens’ home stands vandalized before them. Toilet paper hangs from the trees. The graffiti on the garage door spells “Go back to your country.”
The violence of the moment, conveyed in shades of melancholy purple, is bleak even for a cartoon. But it’s also honest. It speaks the unfortunate truth of many politicized identities: how imagining us as solely as a threat means ignoring all the ways that we too, stand to be threatened.
There are many photographs of my sisters and I wearing butterfly barrettes and plastic platform sneakers, just like the blonde girls on TV. We look like the girls at the mosque we used to attend, slipping on hijabs before climbing the stairs to our classes, but also like every 2000s magazine feature on our generation’s must-have trends, set alongside poster pullouts of boy bands and teen heartthrobs. All those things felt like the subtlest of calling cards, tiny signals that told everyone we belonged to two worlds that existed side-by-side: the one that had us learning to recite the Quran in Arabic, and the one that had us sitting beside real-life Pennys and Zoeys in school, keeping up with their fashions as best we could.
At the very beginning of “Culture Shock,” Radika smiles when she and her family are introduced. She is blissfully oblivious to the violence that she, the rest of the Zameens, and everyone else like her will endure, perhaps forever. It’s true that the violence will give dignity to her voice as she grows older. It will teach others to respect her, too. But it won’t speak for everything that she is; everything that weare as Muslims, in our moments of joy and suffering. Those details are vivid, and large, and unrestrainable. They are as tender as the language of tolerance. Such language is so easily learnable when it’s necessary to survival. It matters, even when we don’t want it to.