Advertisement Close

Arab Gulf States Ban West Side Story--Finding its Transgender Character Unacceptable

posted on: Dec 15, 2021

Arab Gulf States Ban West Side Story--Finding its Transgender Character Unacceptable
Spielberg’s 2021 version of West Side Story has faced resistance in certain Arab countries. Photo- Huffpost

By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

Steven Spielberg’s new version of West Side Story has hit certain Arab countries with a thud, censored by their guardians of morality and ethics. It is namely the fluid character who originally played a tomboy, now represented as a transgender person. LGBTQ movements in a few Arab countries have gained some momentum but are generally frowned on.

Arab countries ban the film outright or ask Disney to cut certain sex symbolism

The film, West Side Story, has been banned by several Arab Gulf states, following censors’ objections. As the Los Angeles Times put it, “Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of ‘West Side Story’ appears to be contending with censorship in the Middle East.” While critically acclaimed in the West, the film is one of several that recently hasn’t made it through the censor’s cut in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

These Gulf states did not cite reasons for rejecting West Side Story. The major objection to the film, however, seems to be the repackaged girl/tomboy character from the original. In the new version, that character, named Anybody’s, has a minor role, but much more obviously transgendered, presenting as a male, who hangs around the white gang, the Jets. Anybody describes “itself” as follows: “I’m very large with shadows, y’know…I can slip in an’ out of ‘em like wind through a fence.”

Arab Gulf States Ban West Side Story--Finding its Transgender Character Unacceptable
Nonbinary Broadway actor Iris Menas plays transgender character ‘Anybody’ — seems to be what upset Arab censors Photo Yahoo! Entertainment

Such a reconfigured from the original, from a girl who’s a tomboy to a transfigured presenting as a male reflects the world many of us presently live in. While not everyone in this transforming world accepts the concept of transgender, parts of the Arab world simply do not accept this as part of their ordered world.

West Side Story is rated in the U.S. as PG-13 due to its “strong violence, thematic content, suggestive material, and brief smoking,” while for Gulf Arabs, the objections revolve as much around issues of sexuality, namely transgender, homosexuality, and LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning) generally. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait simply did not approve the film’s distribution, while Qatar and Oman requested the moviemaker, Disney, to make edits, which it declined to make. Other Arab countries, such as Egypt, have permitted the film to open as planned.

It is worth noting that homosexuality is illegal in most of the Arab Middle East, but in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it is punishable by death.

Resistance in the Arab World to the LGBTQ community, transgender, and homosexuality

Arab Gulf States Ban West Side Story--Finding its Transgender Character Unacceptable
LGBTQ advocacy movements around the Arab world Photo Twitter

Few Arab countries tolerate LGBTQ movements, though these movements have an increasing level of popularity among Arab youth in Western countries. Laws in Arab countries generally discriminate against LGBTQs. An Arab America article suggests that LGBTQs are unwelcome because many Arab governments reject the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity. Thus, while same-sex relationships are considered illegal, some Arab countries are more lenient in their punishments than those requiring the death penalty, ranging between monetary fines, months, and years of prison.

Laws in these countries make no distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. Nor can trans people change their name or sex much less to undergo sex reassignment surgery. Male cross-dressers found in female contexts are subject to arrest and imprisonment. A few countries, such as Lebanon, are relenting on severe punishments for homosexuality.

Arab Gulf States Ban West Side Story--Finding its Transgender Character Unacceptable
Arab Americans supporting LGBTQ rights.

Christianity and Islam in the Arab Middle East both play roles in negative perceptions of homosexuality and sex change in their populations. Some of these perceptions result in a strong sense of homophobia. An Arab America article says an extreme example is a Moroccan ‘witch hunt’ in which “a known influential woman asked her followers to create fake accounts on gay dating sites to unmask homosexuals. Because of this, many gay people have been forced to come out of the closet and face consequences such as death threats, bullying, and shunning by their families.”

An optimistic view is that Arab youth, both in Arab countries and in the U.S., are more open-minded towards transgender issues, offering more hope for LGBTQs. If only more of them were serving as film censors in certain Arab countries, perhaps West Side Story would have a better chance of being seen by Arabs around the world.

West Side Story’ reportedly banned in some Middle East nations after censors’ input, Los Angeles Times, 12/7/21
“LGBTQ+ Community in The Arab World,”, 7/24/2020

John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, Department of State, and the World Bank in 65 countries.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!