The director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau writes that complex, nuanced portrayals are a step toward “becoming ‘mainstream’ in American viewers’ hearts and minds.”
While I’m sure there will be no shortage of brown terrorists, cab drivers and gas station employees on our television screens, this fall season will showcase more complex and nuanced Muslim characters than ever before. The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow has added a Muslim superhero, and tonight (Oct. 12) the trailblazing Shonda Rhimes will introduce a Muslim medical intern as a recurring character on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. We will also see recurring Muslim characters on NBC’s Blindspot and The Brave.
Along with my excitement over the increased representation, I feel a bit of anxiety about how my fellow American Muslims will react to Hollywood’s more authentic portrayals of Muslim characters. This year, there has been plenty of chatter over the episode of Netflix’s Master of None where Dev (Aziz Ansari) eats pork, enjoys it, and encourages others to do the same. Riz Ahmed’s character in HBO’s The Night Of raised a few eyebrows by having premarital sex and Nikohl Boosheri’s LGBTQ/hair-covering character in Freeform’s The Bold Type did not go unnoticed.
Some American Muslims are more bothered by these representations than they are by decades of stereotypical roles as terrorists, which is as strange as it is irrational. Because they expect all Muslim characters to practice their faith the way they think it should be practiced, they do not see these characters as traditionally representative of Muslims. Actually, this perpetuates an internal stereotype, and stereotypes are what we are trying to shatter.
It is time for American Muslims to accept that Muslims are not monolithic. While some choose not to have premarital sex, others choose to do so. While some women wear the headscarf, others do not. There are LGBTQ Muslims in America, just as there are worldwide. To say that such characters are not authentic would simply not be true. Muslims comprise a globally diverse community of nearly 1.8 billion people — how representative of those 1.8 billion can a few characters possibly be? And how can this community become “mainstream” in American viewers’ hearts and minds?
We can look to television characters from the past and present as examples. In the 1980s, Claire Huxtable was a highly successful female African-American lawyer on The Cosby Show, and Murphy Brown was a take-no-prisoners television personality who intentionally took on single motherhood. Four years ago, Captain Ray Holt emerged as a male LGBTQ African-American police officer on Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
These characters did not represent their entire communities, yet their outside-the-box representation opened people’s minds to the realities of multidimensional communities. The same can happen with Muslim representation because television is the perfect platform to reflect the broad spectrum of American Muslims and those abroad.
These types of representations are what motivate me in my role as the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau, where every day we work within the industry to help create more fair, authentic and nuanced portrayals of Muslims and Islam. Despite decades of vilification of Muslims on screen, the tide is beginning to turn toward better reflections of us, and we should celebrate each small step toward inclusion and better representation. And as the industry begins to portray us in all of our complexities, American Muslims will have to go through our own growth as we become accustomed to being reflected authentically.