“Yes Man” Says Yes to Stereotypes

by Guest Contributor Jehanzeb Dar, originally published at Islam on My Side

I really wanted to like this movie.

With its heartfelt message of optimism and living one’s life to the fullest, I thought “Yes Man” would be a film I could enjoy and appreciate after a week of exhaustive finals and papers. Yet it turns out that the film is filled with thoughtless and ridiculous stereotypes that make me feel anything but optimistic.

Before I saw the film, I already detected some suspicion about the film. A good friend of mine had read the book of the same title and told me the author was motivated to “say ‘yes’ more” by an Indian man he met on a bus. The Indian man’s religion is not disclosed, but it could be argued that the Indian man was Muslim since the author searches for him at one point in the book and finds himself in a predominately Muslim part of town. Oh, and did I mention the book takes place in England?

Not only does the film adaptation take place in the United States, but it also removes the Indian and potentially Muslim character. Instead, the man who inspires the protagonist to “say ‘yes’ more” is a White English man played by Terrence Stamp. The producers must have felt that the audience wouldn’t have made a connection with a wise and inspirational Indian/non-White character.

After Jim Carrey’s character starts saying “yes” to everything, we see him checking his e-mail at work and one of the spam messages reads: “Persian Wife Finder.” An Iranian woman wearing a pink hijaab (headscarf) appears on the screen, while puffy clouds are on time-lapse in the background, and says “I am Faranoosh” as if she’s some kind of character you can select from a “Tekken” video game. As she rotates her body to make herself look alluring, the wind blows her scarf into her face, mocking the way Iranian women supposedly dress and drawing ridiculous laughter from the audience.

What was up with that, Jim?

The other pathetic thing about the scene is that Arabic music – not Iranian music – plays in the background of the video (I know because I have that song, it’s called “El B’Nia” by Maghrebika). But who cares; Arabic, Persian – same thing, right? Or is this movie excused since it’s supposed to be humorous?

The problem about that argument is that we see very few positive representations of Iran/Persia in Hollywood cinema, let alone about Muslim women who wear hijaab. Many people don’t know, for example, that there is a significantly large portion of Muslims, including scholars, who believe the hijaab is not mandatory. Regardless if Muslims believe it’s mandatory or not, there is hardly any positive treatment by the media whenever a Muslim woman is wearing hijaab. She is seen as being oppressed, restricted, uneducated, and, as depicted in “Yes Man,” a piece of property. We never see a strong and three-dimensional female Muslim character, especially if she’s wearing hijaab. For example, did anyone hear about the recent report of Lisa Valentine, the Muslim-American woman who was thrown in jail just because she refused to remove her scarf in a courtroom? How’s that for courage?

Later in the film, we see Faranoosh sitting with Jim Carrey’s character at a restaurant, indicating that the two of them got married. Another character asks who the Iranian woman is and Jim Carrey responds, “Oh that’s Faranoosh,” and then simply says he found her on “Persian Wife Finder,” as if any random Iranian woman is going to fly overseas and marry a man she knows nothing about. Iranian and Muslim women are degraded into objects here, as if they can be purchased and easily married off to anyone who clicks “yes” on a computer screen. Faranoosh is a thoughtless and dull character who just sits in the background. She might as well be a clown since every close-up of her only triggers laughter and scoffs from the audience. You know, it’s a point-and-laugh-at-the-backwards-Iranian-woman kind of thing.

At a time when Islam is being constantly vilified by the mainstream media and when Iran is on America’s “axis of evil,” you’d think filmmakers would be more responsible in their representations of Muslims and Middle-Easterners. Every time I saw Faranoosh show up, I wanted her to get off the screen because of the way people were laughing and scoffing at her. Many of the attendees were adolescents, whom Jim Carrey is very popular with, and I can’t imagine what kind of impact this stereotypical and silly representation of a Muslim character will have on teenage Muslims, especially in predominately non-Muslims areas like where I live.

Iranians and Muslims weren’t the only groups that were stereotyped. Koreans and Latinos were also misrepresented. The female Korean character, for example, was shown as a depressed victim of not finding her “special someone,” so at the end of the film, she gets hooked up with Jim Carrey’s promiscuous and sex-crazed friend whom, by the way, she knows nothing about. The Latino character, with his stereotypical accent since, of course, all Latinos have accents, is standing on a ledge and threatening to kill himself.

What would have happened if the film kept the wise Indian character that inspired the author to say “yes” and live life to the fullest? Wouldn’t that be a step in the right direction since all we see South Asian people do in mainstream films and television is run “Quick-E mart” stores and gas stations? The stereotypes are so prominent that it makes me think the discussion at the producers table probably went a little something like this: “You know what? Let’s cut the Indian character out. Let’s make fun of foreigners instead.”

Thumbs down, Jim Carrey. I say no to “Yes man.”