Riz Ahmed, USC’s Annenberg Address Hollywood’s Misrepresentation of Muslims

Two years ago, actor and activist Riz Ahmed approached Dr. Stacy L. Smith — the founder of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative — about conducting a study of Muslim representation in Hollywood. They both knew the numbers would be grim. But Smith, well-known for producing damning data sets that hold the entertainment industry’s collective feet to the fire, was intrigued.

“It’s really important to be able to fill gaps with data,” she said. “And if we can lend the initiative platform and methodology to address a pressing social issue, it’s always a good idea.”

The study — “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies” — is a quantitative and qualitative exploration of Muslim representation in 200 popular films from the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand, released between 2017 and 2019. It found that less than 2 percent of more than 8,500 speaking characters were Muslim. Less than 10 percent of the 200 films featured at least one Muslim character speaking on-screen. In other words, more than 90 percent of the films included in the study, released Thursday, did not feature a single Muslim character in a speaking role. And even when a film does include a Muslim character, they are more likely to be perpetrators of violence (about one-third) or victims of violence (more than half). Muslim women and girls are particularly invisible in popular films; they account for only 23.6 percent of Muslim characters, while 76.4 percent are men or boys.

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The study was commissioned by Muslim advocacy group The Pillars Fund with support from the Ford Foundation and Ahmed’s production company, Left Handed Films. And it includes a “Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion,” spearheaded by Pillars Fund, that details practical steps the industry can take, including the Pillars Artist Fellowship, which will offer $25,000 unrestricted awards to early career Muslim artists in the U.S. and U.K. For its pilot year, the fellowship will focus on TV and film directors and writers with the intention of broadening to other storytelling mediums including literature, music and the visual arts.

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” said Ahmed in a statement accompanying the study. “The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives.”

If the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, profoundly altered the global political landscape, spawning America’s endless wars, creating millions of refugees and giving rise to a vast security-industrial complex, its effect on Hollywood has also been profound. From “24” and “Homeland” (a show former President Barack Obama declared his favorite) to Oscar-winning films including “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the industry mined the tragedy for box-office gold and turned the Muslim-as-terrorist trope into a staple of popular storytelling.

“The film industry really fell into line with the politics of the Bush administration and the politics of homeland security in a way that limited so much of the freedom of Muslims both here and abroad,” observed Arij Mikati, the managing director of culture change at Pillars Fund.

At that moment, America’s TV screens were filled with images of the hijackers, awakening a scourge of Islamophobia that has pervaded popular entertainment for two decades. So pervasive was the prejudice that several years after 9/11, “Muslim” was blithely employed as a pejorative to smear Obama during the 2008 presidential campaigns. Al-Baab Kahn, one of the authors of the Annenberg study, immigrated to America from Pakistan in the months after 9/11. She was five years old at the time.

“My parents were so excited,” she recalled. “We were here to live the American Dream. But what I remember at the time is there was this notion of seeing everything around you as an attack on your character. We weren’t able to write the narrative. The narrative was written for us. What we’re seeing now, especially with this research, is that enough is enough. And we are here to tell our own stories.”

Indeed, after 9/11, it was if Muslims only existed in the context of America’s security-industrial complex. “I think about a lot of things other than national security when I wake up in the morning,” said Mikati, who is Lebanese-American. “Terror tropes are so problematic politically, but they’re really flattening creatively.”

For Smith and Khan, the erasure of Muslim characters in animation is particularly notable and it mirrors research Smith has done around 9/11, when she found that children who were exposed to news coverage of 9/11 had heightened safety concerns even a year after the attacks. The new study found not one animated movie featured a Muslim character and only seven Muslim characters were children. “You’re looking at the complete erasure of a community except for storylines that are violent, disparaging or set in the past,” said Smith.

The problem, like so many of the yawning inclusion gaps in Hollywood, is a dearth of Muslims in the creative ecosystem. The Pillars Artist Fellowship aims to remedy that. But the film industry could also learn from artists working in television, where the barrier to entry has traditionally been less exclusionary.

Nida Manzoor’s “We Are Lady Parts,” about a tight-knit group of Muslim women, is a microcosm of the Muslim diaspora including South Asian, Arab and Black. The comedy, on Peacock, embodies the intersectionality that exists in a community that encompasses nearly two billion people. And it’s unlike anything else on TV. The women talk politics, they have tattoos, they get high, sometimes they don the hijab, sometimes they don’t.

Ramy Youssef’s Hulu comedy “Ramy,” about a first-generation Egyptian-American Muslim Millennial growing up in New Jersey, is an example of the kind of pipeline building the industry will need to commit to if it is to begin to correct the problem. Youssef, who took home a comedy actor Golden Globe in 2020, has stocked his writers’ room with Muslim Americans, including Sahar Ansani. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Ansani started on the show as a writer’s assistant during season one, and by the second season was promoted to writer. And she is not the only one. Youssef and co-creators Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch introduced three Muslim writers to their first writers’ room in season one; by the upcoming third season, there were seven Muslim writers of varying levels, from staff writer to executive producer.

“The writers room embodies the range of race and gender identities that the show projects on screen,” says Mikati, who is a creative consultant on the show. “So he’s really pulling from that place of intimate knowledge. It is such an incredibly smart way to take risks on people. [Youssef] really created his own pipeline program.”

As Hollywood has been pressured to reckon with decades of reductive storytelling, there have been numerous ham-handed attempts at inclusion; a widely mocked 2018 scene from “Grey’s Anatomy” in which a character rips off her hijab to use it as a tourniquet likely would not happen today. But that’s not exactly progress. The #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have forced the beginnings of a reckoning in the industry with Hollywood studios and media companies offering public support for these movements. But what happens after the statements dry up, and after the checks get written?

“Research like this is really important because it has to be used to confront people who say, ‘We’re doing so well with diversity and inclusion,’” says Smith. “These are things that can be changed if producers, studio executives, content creators embrace the imagination that they allegedly have, to tell compelling stories that reflect the world as it exists, instead of the stories that only exist in their minds.”

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