Walk into any toy store, and you’ll see action figurines stacked in the boy’s section and dollhouses reserved for the girls. But now, women are decimating the myth that superheroes are just for men.
DC film Wonder Woman made a record-breaking $100.5 million (Dh369 million) in America this month becoming the best domestic box-office debut by a female director. Meanwhile, much closer to home, 22-year-old Emirati director Fatma Al Muhairi has been doing everything in her power to put Arab female superheroes on the map, starting with Emara: Emirates Hero.
The five-episode cartoon, aimed at audiences 12 and above, follows 19-year-old Moza as she delves undercover and transforms into superhero Emara. Clad in a navy blue headscarf, a green, white and gold costume, a cape lined with red, and golden specs inspired by the burqa (a traditional, metal-like cloth worn around the eyes by Emirati women), Emara fights crime on the busy, bustling streets of the UAE.
The miniseries, originally set to release during Ramadan, has been pushed back until an undisclosed date later this year. Only a 78-second intro can be found online, but Emara has already amassed a loyal fan base: they create fan art, manufacture fake trailers and, in the case of 32-year-old Shaima Al Ali, begin petitions to have Emara shown on Netflix.
Al Ali told Gulf News tabloid! she saw a promo on Twitter for Emara, a show “made by Emiratis about an Emirati superhero with a female main character,” and, as a self-professed geek and feminist, she was sold. On May 30, she posted an online plea directed to Netflix via Avaaz.org, a website for community petitions. It received more than 2,000 signatures in less than two weeks.
tabloid! sent a link to a Netflix Mena representative, but the streaming service has not responded to several requests for comment.
Al Muhairi, though not directly involved with the petition, is on-board with the idea of having her show on Netflix, and would generally be more comfortable releasing it through a streaming service. “But I feel like it needs to be on TV if just for a second, so that the people [watching] know that it exists,” she said.
To Al Muhairi, Emara has always existed, dormant at the back of her mind since she was a child. She wanted to create a character that was tough, but down to earth. Not overly powerful, but not breaking down in tears every two seconds, either. Most of all: she wanted her to be Arab.
“It was hard to find a character in the cartoons I grew up with that I could culturally identify with,” said Al Muhairi. “I mean, let’s be honest, Aladdin and Jasmin were very poorly researched.”
In December of 2015, she began working on Emara: Emirates Hero with a team of thirteen full-time staff, aged 20-35, and an arsenal of freelance creatives. Stylistically, the 2D animation pays homage to the cartoons that Al Muhairi and her crew grew up on, only more fluid.
“There’s literally a drawing like, every millisecond. But we wanted it in the style and the pale colours of the old shows we used to watch, like Adnan and Lina and all those old-school animes,” said Al Muhairi.
Eating Star Studios, the studio behind the series, consists of mainly Arab artists and animators. Several, including Al Muhairi, graduated from Abu Dhabi’s now-defunct Cartoon Network Animation Academy, while art director Ahmad Beyrouthi has a Ubisoft background. Al Muhairi is the only Emirati on the team.
“My producer is Yemeni, my art director is Lebanese, we have a Sudanese artist, a Syrian artist — we’re very mixed, very diverse,” she said. Similarly, Emara is Emirati, but the rest of the show’s cast are from various Arab nationalities to better represent the Dubai Al Muhairi has come to know.
“I grew up with Lebanese, Filipino and Indian people. It wouldn’t be a show from here if the whole cast was Emirati,” said Al Muhairi.
FIRST THERE WAS FREEJ
Eleven years ago, another home-grown animation made its debut during Ramadan season: Freej. The groundbreaking 3D cartoon premiered on Sama Dubai in 2006. It followed the lives of four vivacious, burqa-wearing Emirati grandmothers who lived in a secluded neighbourhood in Dubai.
It wasn’t easy getting it on TV.
“It was a very treacherous road. The one big obstacle we had was that there were no cartoon shows before. There was no example in the local market of whether or not such a show will work,” creator Mohammad Saeed Harib told tabloid!.
Harib worked out a deal with the TV station: if he could land a sponsor, the channel would air his show for “peanuts”. Du came on-board. The telecommunication company was just under two years old, eager to support creative and cultural content, said Harib.
Freej’s characters have taken on a life of their own. They appear in FlyDubai’s safety video, a clip with the minister of happiness, and the fifth grade curriculum as an example of entrepreneurship, according to Harib.
But unlike Emara, Freej didn’t have a ready-made audience to begin with.
“There was no Twitter. There was no online sharing capabilities. We were on BBM [Blackberry messenger] back then,” said Harib. He didn’t realise the show was successful until someone wrote a newspaper column and said, “Thank you, Freej.”
To hear Harib say it, barely anyone watches TV nowadays. Young viewers in particular have shifted to getting their content online. Harib’s latest programme, Siraj, keeps that in mind: it teaches first, second and third graders to speak Arabic on YouTube.
“On YouTube, you know very well how many people are watching, and advertisers will advertise on the show if it passes a certain number of viewership,” said Harib. “If it hits the one million mark, [TV] stations will wake up, anyway. The numbers don’t lie.”
He still believes that national television stations should encourage and support local talent, calling it the “minimum chance” they can give anyone.
“It’s our duty to support them. Even if we don’t cover the cost — at least air it, and see where it goes,” he said.
A lot has changed since Freej launched more than a decade ago. Emara is emerging into a different era — a golden age of digital marketing and viral tweets, with thousands of online petitioners to prove it. Al Muhairi is the first to admit surprise over Emara’s proactive admirers, and says that she and her team can be found exchanging fan art and setting it as their wallpaper.
“A lot of the fans are international. We got a lot of requests to have Spanish subtitles on the show. It really is [crazy], but honestly, we’re very lucky. They’re more than what we deserve,” said Al Muhairi.
Some fans expressed disappointment that the show hasn’t aired in Ramadan as planned, but Al Muhairi is confident that they will have Emara: Emirates Hero on people’s screens before the year ends. And in a reference to television show Community, she hopes to eventually create “six seasons and an origin movie”.
“I know I am [hungry for representation], and I know a lot of people I work with, they are as well. We did this hoping that the majority agrees with us, and so far we’ve had a lot of good feedback, so I think we’re on the right track,” she said.