Stereotypes, Sidekicks and Superficial Characters: Can Muslim Americans break into “Diverse TV”?

This post was originally posted in February 2016 on the Center for Media, Religion and Culture’s Third Spaces blog.

In President Obama’s recent speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore (the president’s first official visit to a mosque), he mentioned the difficulties that many young Muslim Americans face because of the lack of representation in media and culture. He stated, “Our television shows should have some Muslim characters that are unrelated to national security because it’s not that hard to do. There was a time when there were no black people on television. And you can tell good stories while still representing the reality of our communities.” I would like to push President Obama’s statement further and explore how TV producers can create TV characters and plot-lines that not only resist the facile stereotypes of raging terrorist or obedient government informant but also highlight the complex lives and serious social concerns of Muslims in the US. American popular culture needs more spaces where Muslims can respond to the hyper-visibility and, at the same time, invisibility of their lives and stories.

President Obama is right to point to the transformation of African American characters in American TV. When examining the representation of Muslims in American pop culture, much can be gleaned from the history of African Americans on TV. At first, non-white faces were invisible on TV screens, except for stereotypical roles of maids or Minstrel-like buffoons. In 1968, Julia was one of the first sitcoms to feature a leading African American character—a young nurse struggling to raise her son after her husband died in the Vietnam War. While the title character in Julia was not a stereotype, she was bland and apolitical. At a time when the racial concerns of the nation were broadcast on the nightly news, shows like Julia pretended as if racial tensions and injustices didn’t exist.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that TV shows like Good Times, Sanford and Son, All in the Family and the mini-series phenomenon, Roots, began to address race and class more directly. These shows featured a diversity of characters, which sometimes fell into stereotypes (for example, J.J.’s “Dy-no-mite!” catchphrase from Good Times), but the shows generally dealt with the real political and economic aspects of African American life.

Another shift occurred in the conservative 1980s as The Cosby Show became one of the most popular family comedies on TV, featuring an upper-class and highly educated African American family. While it is difficult to discuss the legacy of The Cosby Show, with the ever-present history of Bill Cosby’s sexual violence, it is important to mention this show because of its distinct portrayal of the African American family. The show didn’t ignore that the characters were African Americans; several episodes celebrate African American culture and history (the Civil Rights Movement, jazz music, art, historically Black colleges, etc.). At the same time, the show rarely mentioned political or economic issues. The children might struggle in school or get in trouble, but the color of their skin had nothing to do with their problems. White Americans’ assumptions of amicable race relations were reinforced as they saw these respectable African Americans on TV who were successful because of their own initiative, didn’t blame racism for their problems, and did not threaten white privilege.

The 1990s and early 2000s continued this apolitical representation of non-white characters on TV, and the majority of primetime shows, such as Seinfeld and Friends, cast very few non-white actors. African American stars could be found on numerous black comedies that were popular on networks like UPN.

When examining network TV today, we can see numerous examples of shows that are doing quite daring and provocative work with race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender and, to a much lesser extent, class. For instance, a recent episode of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat features Jessica Huang, the Chinese-American mother, explaining to her son that the white American tradition of Santa Claus is inaccurate. The real Santa Claus is a thin Chinese woman who has several advanced degrees and has efficiently developed a way to reach all children with gifts on Christmas Eve. Instead of assimilating into the American Christmas traditions, Jessica critiques Santa Claus for his girth, laziness, and inefficiency while at the same time encouraging her son to be proud of their cultural traditions.

The Chinese Santa Claus in Fresh Off the Boat

We can also look at shows like Empire and Jane the Virgin that employ white actors as token characters in the storyline and cast non-white actors in the roles of authority figures, such as business owners, lawyers, doctors and professors. Both shows also celebrate non-white cultures at the risk of offending or disregarding the white audience. Several characters in Jane the Virgin regularly speak in Spanish, and the show highlights Latin American culture and the strong matriarchal bounds in the Villanueva family. Empire regularly references phrases, fads, songs, celebrities and issues that miss a good portion of the white audience. In addition, Shonda Rhimes, one of the most successful creators of network dramas, has been incorporating more political storylines into her already racially diverse shows (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder).

The cast of Empire

Certainly a lot of work still needs to be done to improve representation in other entertainment media (see the recent #OscarsSoWhite campaign), but these TV shows present just a few examples of the shifts that can be seen in the representation of non-white characters. Minority characters are no longer stereotypes or sidekicks, and in some cases white characters are now portrayed as one-dimensional, incompetent and uncool. These shows are often unapologetic in their portrayal of various cultures, ethnicities and religions. As more non-white writers, directors and actors get involved in TV series, there is less of a desire to meet a certain white standard in order for the audience to understand. Creators are not concerned that white viewers might not get the joke or cultural reference or even that viewers might be offended.

The recent explosion of reactions to Beyoncé’s Formation video and halftime performance illustrates this shift in popular culture in which African American artists are using the national medium of TV to project serious political concerns and pride in their identity and culture. This represents a shift from African American artists, like Beyoncé, trying to please a white audience with saccharine songs to calling out the real racial politics that continue to control our country. Saturday Night Live’s video, “The Day Beyonce Turned Black,” satirically illustrates how white listeners were offended and frightened that Beyoncé would be concerned with racial politics in our presumed post-racial country.

I bring up all of these examples and go through a bit of this history in order to illustrate what TV creators should be striving for in formulating Muslim American characters. It is not enough for shows to just feature polite and law-abiding Muslims living normal, happy lives. The characters should also address political topics, such as racist policies and xenophobic rhetoric, and the shows shouldn’t shy away from celebrating Islam and other aspects of the characters’ ethnicities and cultures. The goal is not sugarcoated representations, but shows that highlight the challenges and complexities of the lives of Muslims. In order to illustrate these complexities, Muslim Americans must be given the chance to create, write, direct and act in TV shows.

Unlike the portrayal of African Americans on TV, there are very few examples of Muslim characters on TV. It is worth noting that Islam is a religion and that some might argue that it is problematic to compare the representation of African Americans to Muslims. On the other hand, a lot of academic research has examined the process through which Muslims are racialized as a distinct group of people based on language, skin color, physical features, country of origin, etc. It is helpful to examine how groups that have been defined as other than white have been portrayed in American popular culture.

Throughout American pop culture, we can see how Muslims are categorized as the exotic and dangerous “other.” Just when you think culture has moved past this over-simplified portrayal of Muslims as terrorists, the same storyline reappeared in a recent X-Files reboot episode. As you can guess, the episode involved two brown-skinned men, speaking Arabic, who blow up an art gallery that is displaying images of the Prophet Muhammed. Agents Mulder and Scully are then called in to root out the secret terrorist cell.

Regina King in the first season of American Crime

With the domination of such overtly racist portrayals, it is hard to believe that some positive representations exist. Some shows were created specifically to fight these stereotypes, like Canada’s popular sit-com, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and the short-lived TLC reality show, All-American Muslim. There are some more nuanced examples, like Quantico, that attempt to go beyond stereotypes. Some of the more unique portrayals are series like Mr. Robot and the first season of American Crime, which feature identifiable Muslim characters but don’t dwell on their religious beliefs or practices. All-in-all, there are very few complex Muslim characters on TV that don’t immediately fall into stereotypes.

Recently, rumors circulated online that ABC was considering adapting a TV show from the popular Ms. Marvel comic book series. This comic has been revolutionary not only because it is the first mainstream comic series to feature a Muslim American girl as a superhero, but the series also presents one of the most well-rounded portrayals of Muslims within American popular culture. Two Muslim American women, writer G. Willow Wilson and Marvel editor Sana Amanat, created the series based in part of their own experiences. It would be essential for these two creators and other Muslim Americans to be involved in the production of a Ms. Marvel show.

Sana Amanat (at left) and G. Willow Wilson (at right) with a fan of Ms. Marvel

I would like to highlight several reasons why a Ms. Marvel TV show would be incredibly groundbreaking in its portrayal of Muslim Americans, not to mention why the show would be entertaining for a wider audience.

1. Muslim characters in Ms. Marvel are not one-dimensional stereotypes.

There are no stereotypical “bad Muslim” terrorists or “good Muslim” government informants in the series. All of the Muslim characters are complex human beings who understand Islam in a variety of ways. The main character in the series is Kamala Khan, who develops superhero powers and becomes Ms. Marvel. Kamala is a 16-year-old girl who lives with her over-protective parents, who immigrated to the US from Pakistan. Kamala’s parents are presented as more traditional, but this is not because they are mindless adherents of a conservative form of Islam but rather because they are immigrants from another culture who want to ensure that their young daughter is safe and happy. Kamala’s brother is probably the most traditional in his practices of Islam, but he is portrayed throughout the series as slightly ridiculous and insincere in some of his practices. Kamala’s parents aren’t worried that her brother will become a terrorist but rather that he will never get a job and move out of the house.

When the Ms. Marvel series originally came out, a lot of articles focused on the uniqueness of having a Muslim American superhero. In the comic series, Kamala is presented as a multidimensional character; she is the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, a teenager, a fan of comic books and a superhero. Islam is just one aspect of who she is and not the only driving force in her life.

2. Kamala is a smart and strong teenage girl.

The Ms. Marvel series is created for a target audience of pre-teen and teenage girls, and a Ms. Marvel show would expose the positive feminist values to a wider audience of teenage girls and young women. Kamala is intelligent, sassy, sharp-witted, brave and strong. She takes her newfound superhero powers seriously and seeks to use the powers to help the weak and fight for justice. She does all of this while wearing a modest costume that does not hyper-sexualized her body in the same way as many female superheroes. Even post-adolescent women can relate to the smart and strong character of Kamala because of how she fights for recognition in male-dominated spaces.

3. Kamala struggles with her faith.

While it is revolutionary to simply see a multidimensional Muslim character in pop culture, Kamala doesn’t just embrace Islam into her life. There is a tendency in Western culture to portray Islam as a monolithic religion, either a force for peace or for violence, but Islam is far more nuanced in Ms. Marvel. Kamala doesn’t wear a headscarf and isn’t portrayed as always praying and going to the masjid, but at the same time, she struggles with Islamic teachings that call on her to care for others and to protect the weak. As is the case for most people who follow a religious tradition, the demands of religious faith are often difficult to put into practice.

4. At the same time, Kamala is proud to be Muslim.

Even though Kamala struggles with her identity as a Muslim, Pakistani American, teenager, comic book fan and superhero, she is still proud of how her religion and cultural backgrounds have made her a better person and superhero. The series does not shy away from celebrating Islam and its positive influence on people’s lives. As a superhero, Ms. Marvel fights for American values of justice and protection of the weak while always incorporating elements of her faith and culture into her superhero work.

***

President Obama’s call for non-stereotypical representations of Muslim Americans in TV is significant, but these portrayals must go beyond the tame and apolitical characterization, like we saw in the early days of African American TV characters. Instead, the goal should be to create characters and TV shows that represent the political struggles of living as a Muslim in the current American climate, portray the complex experiences of Muslim Americans, and unabashedly celebrate the multidimensionality of Islam. The adaptation of Ms. Marvel into a TV series would be an excellent first step in disrupting these stereotypes and misrepresentations.

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