Not all film and television writers claim to be trying to alleviate social injustice with their stories or use their creativity as a catalyst for social change. Some may write personal stories, or stories that are completely fictitious or designed as pure, light-hearted entertainment. However, it would be burying your head in the sand to deny that films and television shows have immense influence. Even if your art is deeply personal, the personal is widely regarded as political with the potential to resonate on a wider level. When an individual writes, it is not in a vacuum; they bring the weight of their own world views, experiences and biases to the table. Individual characters or themes explored in a series may consciously or subconsciously change a viewer’s opinion or reinforce a viewer’s existing prejudice.
If we accept this then we must also acknowledge that with influence comes responsibility. For any writer worth their salt, this is a responsibility to not do more harm than good and to acknowledge the messaging your work puts out into wider society, especially in terms of social justice and representation. If your work makes the lives of people who are already marginalised and discriminated against even more difficult, then you must be held accountable.
This has been highlighted recently in the BBC series Bodyguard, with many critics citing their portrayal of a Muslim woman, Nadia, as Islamophobic. The only hijab-wearing Muslim woman in the series is first showing wearing a suicide belt, which she is about to detonate (representation: a terrorist). Then it is implied that she is being coerced and abused by her Muslim husband into terrorism (representation: oppressed Muslim woman). However, the series finale climaxes with the revelation that it is Nadia herself who created the explosive devices, free from coercion (representation: determined and autonomous terrorist). Her portrayal as either abused or a coerced/calculating terrorist only plays into already existing stereotypes of Muslim women, and is neither progressive nor ground breaking.
Maybe some could argue that it is just a story with fictitious characters. However, as I have explained, stories are rarely just stories – they have power, especially high profile BBC series. Many viewers are unable to see the story-line as mere fiction. In fact, it may reflect, cement and justify their own biases and perceptions about Muslim women, especially if they do not encounter many Muslim people in their daily lives. Therefore, this storyline has a real life impact for Muslim women and has the potential to fuel negative opinions – and it has already begun. Comedian Ava Videl recently tweeted this:
Some obnoxious white guy made a terror related ‘joke’ to the hijabi on my train earlier and kept calling her Nadia. When I told him he was a twat he responded “Chill out. What are you so angry for? Didn’t you see the Bodyguard? It’s just a joke.”
Tell me again it’s only TV.
— Ava Vidal 🇩🇲🇧🇧 (@thetwerkinggirl) September 26, 2018
It is irresponsible to ignore the fact that this show has come at a time when hate crimes against Muslims, especially visibly Muslim women are at an alarming high. It has aired in the wake of the threat of Punish a Muslim day, Boris Johnson’s comments at Muslim women’s expense and at a time when Far-right extremism is rapidly increasing, with recent attacks motivated by Islamophobia in Cricklewood and Finsbury Park. Many Muslim women have spoken out publicly and to us at JAN Trust about feeling scared, isolated and in danger. Many have experienced verbal or physical abuse including being shouted at and called a terrorist, being accused of carrying a bomb and shockingly have been victims of violent assaults. The Bodyguard creative team must know this, and if they don’t, they either haven’t been listening or they don’t care.
This stands in contrast to the praise that some viewers and organisations have directed towards the show’s writer Jed Mercurio, for helping to alleviate the stigma of mental illness, especially PTSD, represented in the show’s main character, David. Moreover, the seemingly deliberate inclusion of women in high power roles within the series has not gone unnoticed by viewers and critics alike. It is a great shame that although positive representation was clearly acknowledged to be important for some groups, it couldn’t be extended to Muslim women or Muslims in general. Clearly, the discussions of diversity, representation and overcoming stigmatisation were happening in those boardrooms; which only underscores the utter starkness of the show’s complete misunderstanding of Muslim representation.
A new test has now been created to measure Muslim representation in film and television called the Riz Test, named after Riz Ahmed who has been a vocal advocate on the importance of representation in the media. The test states:
If the film/show stars at least one character who is identifiably Muslim (by ethnicity, language or clothing) – is the character…
- Talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of Islamist terrorism?
- Presented as irrationally angry?
- Presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?
- Presented as a threat to a Western way of life?
- If the character is male, is he presented as misogynistic? or if female, is she presented as oppressed by her male counterparts?
If the answer for any of the above is Yes, then the Film/ TV Show fails the test.
Unsurprisingly, the Bodyguard fails on each count. It is clear that so much more work needs to be done within the industry to properly represent Muslim people and writers need to acknowledge their responsibility in creating work which isn’t to the detriment of marginalised groups.
At JAN Trust, we understand the importance of representation and know all too well the struggles Muslim women face whether they are facing higher levels of employment discrimination or are more likely to be victims of hate crime. To find out more about the work we do visit our website http://www.jantrust.org