A Muslim woman as a model, a guitarist in a band or with super powers: popular streaming services more often feature Muslims and people of color in leading roles. The new series give space to layered characters that are not portrayed stereotypically.
Dutch viewers can for the first time meet a hijabi, a woman with a headscarf, in a leading role. For a few weeks now, the online series Katwalk has been shown at the NPO, about the colorfully dressed Khadija from Amsterdam-West who wants to become a model. This leads to tensions with family members, who would rather see her become a doctor. The modeling world finds her complicated: she doesn’t want to dress like that in front of others.
The makers wanted to tell a story in which bicultural Dutch young people can identify. “We just wanted to make a tough story about an ordinary girl with a headscarf who is creative, ambitious and has a dream,” says director Salma Chafouk Idrissi. “She receives criticism from her community, but also does not want to give up her own norms and values. There are so many Muslim girls in the Netherlands who are just like that.”
Feminist punk rockers
A cover can be seen with streaming services. Disney+ released Ms. Marvel, featuring the first Muslim superhero in the Marvel universe. Kamala Khan is an American teenager of Pakistani descent who discovers she has superpowers. The series received widespread critical acclaim for its relatability to an average Muslim family. Kamala celebrates holidays with her family and has disagreements with her parents just like all the other teenagers.
That same year, the series We Are Lady Parts appeared on British television, about five young feminist Muslim women from London who play in a rough punk band. The series shows the community in all its diversity. For example, the band’s manager wears face-covering clothing and the lead singer is queer. Ramy also appeared on Amazon Prime, about the life of a Muslim boy of Egyptian descent in New Jersey. Mo can be seen on Netflix, about a Palestinian asylum seeker in Texas.
That is how different the new series are compared to the productions made over the past three decades, in which Arabs and Muslims mainly played the role of terrorist or religious fanatic. “After the end of the Cold War, the roles of bad guys in series and films shifted from Russians to Arab Muslims,” says Judith Naeff, Arabist and assistant professor of cultural studies at Leiden University.
In Hollywood, many of these roles were created after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when the American war on terror in the Middle East became a rewarding source of inspiration for series, films and games. Arabs were portrayed as bandits, dodgy sheikhs or suicide bombers. Women were given the role of submissive Muslim women. As a result, the negative image of Arabs and Muslims became established in the West, according to various studies.
Film industry not yet diverse
Those roles are slowly changing. “It’s new that we see various characters with their own backstory. Previously, people of color or women with headscarves often had a small role, but you didn’t see what their daily lives look like,” says Naeff. “Muslims saw few characters with whom they could identify themselves in Western films and TV.”
The makers of Katwalk wanted to change that. “In series and films you see characters with an Islamic background who are often very clichéd or politically correct,” says Zainab Goelaman, who wrote the screenplay for the series. “Inclusion is also telling normal stories about bicultural people, which are not about pain or trauma. We also wanted to show strength and humor.”
Moreover, the new generation is critical of what they see. “From an early age I had the ambition to do something creative, but as a bicultural girl I saw few role models. That kept me from doing this work for a long time,” says Chafouk Idrissi. She also sees that series and films are changing, partly because people with a migration background, such as herself, are taking the step to produce and direct.
Naeff also sees that the film industry is still not very diverse. “It is now often a conscious move to use diverse characters. But only when the film industry is inclusive behind the scenes at all levels will diversity on screen become a matter of course.” However, according to the cultural scientist, the first steps have been taken. “In the past, all Hollywood heroes were white men. Now there are examples of how things can be done differently.”
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