Why aren’t mainstream channels doing more to counteract the damaging racial stereotypes about minorities?
Since starting university, my younger brother has been seeking out acting roles to earn extra money alongside his studies. As an avid film and TV fan he was ecstatic when he was offered the opportunity to play an extra in a television show for the BBC and since then has been offered multiple roles for different productions. Whilst the productions have diverged in theme and genre, the types of roles he’s been offered is the one element that has remained consistent throughout, as he has only been presented with roles that are solely based on the colour of his skin. The fact he has only been approached to play jihadist terrorists and the stereotypical “Muslim-man-in-a-mosque” demonstrates the lack of accurate and nuanced representations of ethnic minorities in the UK and speaks volumes on the culture of our national broadcaster and the significance of representation for ethnic minorities.
I had not realised how significant representation was for me until fairly recently. For years it has been the norm for ethnic minorities to only appear in the media on a tokenistic level, whilst other characters are given the opportunity to encompass a variety of different worlds, pick from a vast spectrum of personas and be undeniably individualistic in their character. The same opportunities have not been afforded to people of colour through mainstream film and television as of yet. The fact my brother has only been cast as a terrorist or a mosque-goer displays the clearly defined spheres that the television producers believe Muslim men inhabit, with both spheres revolving around religion, as if they are completely defined by it. The perpetuation of these lazy tropes through popular film and television narratives highlights the stark lack of diversity in the writer’s room, which inevitably leads to one dimensional and reductive roles for the ethnic minority characters.
The BBC’s The Bodyguard was a critically acclaimed television show that gained mass appeal and adulation from a worldwide audience due to the compelling protagonists, featuring a radical and empowering female lead. However, when it came to representation of Muslims, the show clearly had no intention in subverting the damaging stereotypes that exist around Muslims in the UK today. Through the ‘shocking’ plot twist, The Bodyguard managed to present us with two incredibly destructive and limiting depictions of Muslims, in an attempt to flip a stereotype on its head, which instead served to solidify the prevailing narrative that exists around Muslims. One that is defined by the dichotomy of oppression and radicalism.
I found The Bodyguard an incredibly uncomfortable watch from the first scene where the first South-Asian woman we are presented to on screen is wearing a hijab and has a bomb strapped to her (I’m beyond bored of seeing this now). We are then properly introduced to Nadia, the poor, feeble and oppressed Muslim woman who explains this situation is her jihadist husbands doing and she has simply followed orders (as of course no Muslim woman could ever have agency over their own bodies and lives?!). The most troubling part of the show appears in the final episode, where in an attempt to turn a stereotype on its head, the show simply replaced one tiresome stereotype with another. It is revealed that Nadia is not the meek and subjugated woman that she has led us to believe, but is in fact the skilled engineer who had built the bomb that killed the Home Secretary.
“You all saw me as a poor oppressed Muslim woman. I am the engineer. I am the jihadi.”
– Nadia, The Bodyguard
The shock ‘twist’ in the plot here was deeply troubling for me as I watched one predominant stereotype against Muslim women, so effortlessly be replaced with another. Ultimately the only message they sent out was that feeble and unassuming Muslim women can also be bomb makers like their male counterparts. This plot twist serves to reinforce a pervasive prejudice that exists around Muslims, that the only time they can afford a Muslim woman her own agency is through a racial stereotype. The producers of The Bodyguard responded to criticisms that the show fuelled stereotypes against Muslims by explaining that Muslim terrorists are an existing threat in the UK, and in an attempt to portray reality accurately they chose to have Muslim terrorists as the villains. I find it interesting how when in the context of villains, accurate representation becomes significant for television producers. As I’m finding it hard to believe (based on a horrendous track record) that they care about accurate representation of ethnic minorities in a context that does not involve terrorism. Whilst I can understand a desire to portray an existing threat for audiences, when depictions such as these are the only representations of Muslims people are seeing on television, the message this sends out is ever more pernicious and destructive for British Muslims.
The first role my brother was offered as an extra was a “mosque go-er” for a BBC show, which appeared harmless and inoffensive at first. It was when he was offered the role of a terrorist that I noticed a pattern emerge. Since then he’s played a “mosque go-er” again for several television shows, which displays the restricted areas to which Muslim are confined to. I take issue with the fact my brother is yet to be cast in a role where the colour of his skin isn’t the focal point of the character. Why is the idea of a South-Asian boy in a coffee shop such a jarring one for TV casting directors? The message this sends out to Muslim communities is an obvious one and it dictates the way outsiders see us.
In the wake of terrorist attacks against Muslims around the world by far right groups and the significant rise in Islamophobic hate crimes, how are we allowing mainstream television channels to broadcast messages that perpetuate negative stereotypes about Muslims?
The depiction of Muslims in the media is often the same, the males are portrayed as radical, oppressive and a threat to a Western way of life, whilst females are presented as oppressed by their male counterparts and completely devoid of any agency. The conversations around Muslims and integration in the UK is a one-dimensional one, one that presumes that Muslims have no desire to involve themselves in British culture. This narrative is enhanced through the portrayal of Muslims in the media, as very rarely do you see a Muslim on television whose character isn’t defined by the fact that he is an outsider to the Western world. This tiresome trope is simply not accurate, but is a huge generalisation based on the atrocities committed by radical terrorist groups that claim to represent Islam.
“The fact my brother has only been cast as a terrorist or a mosque-goer displays the clearly defined spheres that the television producers believe Muslim men to inhabit, with both spheres revolving around religion, as if they are completely defined by it.”
Shows like The Bodyguard prove that television has become outdated, failing to adjust to the nuances in the lives of ethnic minorities in the UK. The same formula is being repeated to audiences as mainstream commissioners do very little to push the boundaries or truly reflect the diversity and richness that exists in the lives of those from minority backgrounds. In the wake of a rise in Islamophobia and racism, why aren’t shows doing their best to accurately portray ethnic minorities as individuals as opposed to an oppressed and disgruntled collective? Even shows that are attempting to do this aren’t getting the airtime they deserve, for example Man Like Mobeen (which is a show only available on BBC’s online streaming service), due to the diverse storytellers behind the scenes, manages to push the boundaries and fight against negative stereotypes regarding minorities.
It appears we’re looking to online streaming services to provide us with more realistic depictions of minorities that don’t just rely on restrictive tropes. Shows on Netflix like The Patriot Act demonstrate the necessity in organic representation and the importance of diversity in cast and crew in order to create productions that are forward thinking and accurate in their depiction of minorities. The importance of accurate representation cannot be understated or taken for granted, as when you’re not represented it sends a message that your story does not matter enough for a truthful depiction. I want to see representation that sees ethnic minorities as individuals and not slaves to their race, religion or culture, lying weak at the behest of external forces, lacking any individuality or agency. That is not my reality at all. I want to see more reflective depictions of Muslims in TV shows and films, based on real insights and not lazy assumptions. In order for this to be the case, space needs to be made for diverse creative minds to enter the entertainment sphere so depictions of Muslims don’t cause further alienation. There are huge opportunities for richness in our depiction on screen that aren’t being harnessed.