How Hollywood is tackling misrepresentation of Muslims on screen
For decades, Hollywood has perpetuated stereotypes about Muslims being dangerous or linked to terrorism.
And that's when they're even shown on screen at all.
But that's slowly changing.
A growing number of shows and movies are incorporating Muslim characters that break away from stereotypes.
So now what
How does the industry need to evolve in order for more authentic Muslim voices to be heard, to talk about where Hollywood needs to go and how to get there, we're joined by Evelyn Avani, an associate professor in the Department of American Studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California.
Evelyn, thank you so much for being with us
Thank you so much for inviting me.
I wanted to start out by asking you what impact does a lack of accurate media representation have on both Muslims and non Muslim viewers alike?
So there is a tremendous impact.
And when I think about the impact, I think about a study that Professor [UNKNOWN].
Conducted she's at the university of Santa Barbara and she found that repeated exposure to images of Muslims as violence and as terrorists actually correlates with an increase in support from viewers for restrictive civil liberties for Muslims in the US so things like the USA Patriot act.
Central registration we can even think about the Muslim ban.
And it also leads to greater support for us intervention in Muslim majority countries.
So war in Afghanistan war in Iraq.
So she has found that there is a direct correlation.
Another study that comes to mind came out of the University of Alabama in two.
2018 and it reported its study reports on Muslims who commit acts of violence and found that the news media reports on it 357% more than violence committed by other groups, particularly people of European descent.
That might be changing right now given the amount of attention on white nationalist groups in the United States, but For the last few decades, this has been a trend that when we see Muslims in the media, it's usually in the context of violence and it has tremendous impact in terms of Muslim sense of self safety, belonging in the United States Her children, sense of self esteem and also for non Muslims this very negative perception of who Muslims are and the support of policies that have devastating impacts on Muslim communities domestically and abroad.
So this clearly is it doesn't just live on screen it has real world impact on people's lives.
Many people like to say it's just TV it's just the movies.
We all know it's fake, but it has really influences how we see the world and understand each other.
What have been the biggest milestones in Hollywood in the past five to 10 years when it comes to promoting more authentic Muslim representation on screen.
So the last five years Have been remarkable.
We have a long history of representing Muslims.
First of all conflated with Arab identities conflated with South Asian identities.
They're all wrapped up and difficult to disentangle in terms of representations.
But early representations in the first half of the 20th century were very exotic and orientalist and in the second half of the 20th century.
We have These depictions of terrorism that we're very familiar with today, but suddenly over the last five years, and we can trace this to Donald Trump announcing the idea Have a travel ban against Muslims when he was on the campaign trail in 2015.
A lot of media makers responded.
They felt a sense of responsibility.
They thought it was unjust to demonize an entire group of people.
So as a result, we have seen An extraordinary expansion in representations of Muslims outside of the context of terrorism.
Yes, there are some terroristic portrayals that continue but we have, for example, the show FBI, the leading character.
Is a Muslim FBI agent Arab Muslim FBI agent of the show transplants on NBC is about a Muslim Syrian refugee doctor.
911 Lone Star on fox is about a firehouse.
Fire Department and there is an Airbus A woman who wears a hijab who's part of the team.
We have Rami on Hulu.
The red line on NBC included a queer Pakistani character DC legends of tomorrow included a Muslim superhero.
I have a very long list here.
We have Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, which was recently cancelled but he had a good run on Netflix.
Queer Eye has Tan France, who is queer Muslim Pakistani.
Grey's Anatomy included Dr. Qadri, also, the woman who wears the hijab as part of the team of doctors at the hospital.
Orange is the New Black included Alison Abdullah.
And the bowl type had Edina elemina character who's also queer Muslim, Iranian, and there are a few others.
So that's just an example of the kind of expansion that we've seen.
Just in the last five years,
There have been a lot of organizations and advocates that have been pushing for these changes.
And you along with a colleague in this space created something called the rbnz.
As Soltani test can you tell us what that is?
So I teamed up with Pseudo Beatty, who's the director of the Hollywood bureau at the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
And part of what she does is offer consulting service to Hollywood producers and executives on representations of Muslims and we actually met on a consulting gig together.
And I've been doing research on representations of Muslims for the last 15 to 20 years.
So we teamed up.
We had had a conversation.
Look at all these changes that are happening.
This is really amazing.
But we noted that there were some Mistakes or disappointments that were happening even while writers and producers were making this extraordinary effort.
And so we created a test that is inspired by other tests that preceded it.
There's the Bechtel test to measure representations of women There's a Russo test to measure representations of LGBTQ people.
There is the DNA tests to measure racial representations.
We were inspired by these tests.
There's also a risk test that is, came out of the UK about representations of Muslims.
And the risk test is very much focused on highlighting The terroristic theme and the press was the woman theme and trying to get media makers to be aware of it.
Our test is about acknowledging the effort that is being made and trying to help media makers who are trying to make this effort do a little bit better.
So it has five criteria.
And I'll just briefly take you through the five criteria to end with a few examples.
So the first criteria is that if a project includes a Muslim character then it doesn't reproduce old tropes.
So what we mean by that is the old trope of Orientalism, which is a lens of the exotic east and there are some media makers who believe Well, I'm not going to do a terroristic storyline.
Instead, we'll revert back Back to this old Orientalism because it's romantic and it's fun and it's exotic.
But it still reduces the people of Middle East to this very exotic lens.
So an example could be Aladdin that came out in 2019.
There's Sinbad there's going to be remake a Sinbad that's coming out.
It's very common to think, I'll do something different and good by reverting back to the old.
There are also examples of new ways to tell a terroristic story.
So jack Ryan, for example, On Amazon the first season has a very complicated story about terrorism, a lot of back story in the terrorist characters.
It has a African American FBI agent who is Muslim.
So it does makes a lot of efforts to tell a different kind of story.
But at the end of the day is still a story about terrorism that involves Arab and Muslim characters.
So we wanna try to encourage writers and producers to explore all the new stories that are out there.
There are just so much potential for new kinds of storytelling.
The second criteria is that we're trying to encourage Hollywood to have a Muslim writer on staff So I've done consulting Sue does a lot of consulting.
But it's really important to have someone there from beginning to end, not just popping in at random moments and having a Muslim writer on staff can help avoid some mistakes that happen.
So for example, Lone Star 9911 Lone Star, there was a scene with the character who works at the fire department where she's praying in the fire department.
It's a very beautiful scene.
But Muslim Twitter went nuts because she wasn't praying.
Properly, it was obvious that she didn't know how to fit the character the actor didn't know how to.
So those kinds of mistakes can easily be mitigated if you have someone on your team who's more aware of Muslim life and culture.
The third criteria is not to define Muslim character solely by their religion.
Which is a long standing issue that we see Muslim characters who are like robots defined by religion.
There was a show on Netflix a series called Messiah that was also trying to be very complicated and do something new and the lead character who is the Messiah Is of Arab backgrounds.
But most of the Arab characters who are Muslim, on the show are very much defined by their religion or politics, while the white characters and the Israeli characters have these very complicated backstories that are not defined solely by religion and politics.
The fourth criteria is to have a strong presence.
Of course not every show needs to have a Muslim lead.
But there is a trend in diversifying representations to just put Muslims in the background.
And it happens to other groups to just put put the diverse person in the background and then you can say you have one.
Qadri and Grey's Anatomy It was wonderful, but she was in the background, she was inconsequential to the story, she's not there anymore, she was fired in the episode, so encouraging to have a stronger presence of little characters with complicated backstories, and then the fifth criteria, Is to portray Muslims with diverse backgrounds, and what we mean by that is that there's a long history of portraying Muslims as Arab and South Asian and Iranian.
And there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world if not more.
There are 200 million in Indonesia.
The largest population of Muslims in the US are African Americans.
So there are many stories to explore by looking at Muslim life and experiences.
What's the next big goal or challenge when it comes to Muslim representation and how do we get there?
I think the ultimate goal for Muslims and for most underrepresented groups and stereotype groups is to have a diversity of representation.
And oftentimes, I'm asked if There's something wrong with portraying Muslims as terrorists.
And so my message is not you can't portray Muslims as terrorists, but rather that story has come to define an entire group of people.
And so the goal would be that we have so many different kinds of stories that are told that the terrorist one is one of many stories and when I think about how People of European descent have been portrayed in the US.
We have heroes we have villains we have psychopaths and there isn't one particular portrayal all white men are x.
All white women are this So I think that is the ultimate goal.
It's not that we have to retrain Muslims positively.
It's that we want an array of representation to understand the full spectrum of humanity.
Any human being in any group of people should be entitled to.
Streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu have really been dominating the entertainment space lately.
What role can these platforms play in amplifying a more diverse range of voices?
I think that what's really remarkable about streaming platforms like Netflix is that we have access to global media makers.
So if a viewer wants to they can, we can watch Korean cinema, we can watch Spanish cinema.
We can go around the world and really have access to a wider range of media makers outside of the US but that does not Leave the US off the hook.
There's still a great deal of work and responsibility to be done in the US regardless of the streaming platform around representations, representational justice, representational responsibility So, while streaming services presents a really unique opportunity to have access to global media, there's still a lot of work that you miss movie makers need to do.
Do you sense that the current political and cultural environment that we're in right now is more conducive to change?
And are you optimistic about where we're headed?
My answer is yes, but.
I'm optimistic to see the expansion and representations over the last five years.
It's a beginning, it's not across the board.
And it's amazing, there's this opening and it's important.
I don't know if it will be sustained.
I don't know where it's going.
The but is that I am concerned that.
Change happens when there's a very explicit crisis.
So the Muslim ban inspired medium makers to make a change and we have this wonderful shift that's happening.
But without that explicit crisis would there be no change because For those of us in the community, the crisis has existed for a century.
It's not a new crisis.
And I think other underrepresented communities would have a similar perspective that the crisis has been there.
So now there's a recognized crisis with Muslim ban and a change.
So there is no Explicit crisis like a Muslim ban.
Does that mean we don't need to keep pushing the envelope.
So that is my caution that we shouldn't be waiting for some extreme emergency to take place before we take action.
That the crisis has been with us for a very long time and we need to act upon it and make the changes.>> Thank you so much for your time, Evelyn.
I really appreciate it.
Thank you for having me.
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