Muslim Representation on TV is Still Lacking and One-Dimensional
According to a recent report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in the top 200 TV series in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand from 2018-2019, only 1% of the 8,885 speaking characters were Muslim, even though Muslims make up about 25% of the world’s population. There were also only 12 Muslim series regulars, and even these series regulars were representative of stereotypes, with 7 out of 12 being perpetrators or targets of violence. 87% of the 200 series analyzed in the report did not feature even one Muslim speaking character.
1% of 8,885 speaking characters on TV were Muslim.
Only 1% of Muslim voices wererepresented at all across 200 series that aired in the 2018-2019 season. Only 1% of 8,885 characters were made to reflect the experiences of 25% of the entire world’s population.
These numbers are staggeringly low. Although by 2022 there have been some high-profile shows that have helped to shift these numbers, including “Ramy,” “Mo,” “Ms. Marvel,” and “We Are Lady Parts,” This is a mere drop in the bucket. While the landscape may have evolved since 2019, it is unlikely that there was any substantial change in those three years.
We are currently celebrating milestones in film and television that we should have met years ago. It is still a relief to see a Muslim woman or girl on screen who does not feel oppressed by her religion. It is still a joy to find a Muslim character that does not have to face hate-fueled violence or accusations of being a terrorist. It is rare for us to see Muslims just existing, facing obstacles that don’t have anything to do with them being Muslim.
There is one caveat, however. As Muslims, we have dealt with stereotypes and misconceptions quite often, so for some, seeing a character go through that experience on screen is a representation that rings true. The problem is the scarcity of representation forces us to try and find all of our experiences represented in characters that are few and far between on TV.
This problem of scarcity also restricts the diversity of the Muslims on-screen. The USC Annenberg report also pointed out that 52% of Muslims on screen were of MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) descent and 28.6% were South Asian. Muslims make up the most diverse religious group in the world. The Muslim representation on screen does not reflect the diversity of the actual community. Simply including Muslim characters is not enough; It is imperative to ensure that they reflect the diverse experiences and cultural backgrounds of Muslims today all around the world.
“Ms. Marvel,” now streaming on Disney+, was praised for its Muslim representation and portrayal of the Muslim community around the main character, Kamala Khan, However, it focused primarily on a Pakistani-American Muslim family. Kamala’s story did a great job of representing this particular community, but it cannot be made to reflect the experiences of every American Muslim. Every Muslim deserves to feel the same way Pakistani-American Muslims, and many South Asian Muslims in general, felt when they watched Ms. Marvel and saw their faith and experience reflected in a way that felt true to them. But with the current lack of diversity within the Muslim characters on screen, that is a goal that can only be achieved with drastic change.
The calls for better representation cannot be answered by tokenization either. Season 2 of Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever” introduced a new character, Aneesa Qureshi, an Indian-American Muslim, to the show. As an Indian-American Muslim myself, I was so glad to see her character introduced, since since most South Asian Muslims represented on screen are Pakistani. However, beyond just a couple of Muslim mom and haram jokes, there was not much depth given to Aneesa’s identity as a Muslim. I would have loved to see her practicing her faith, but it felt like her character was just put in as a placeholder to point to so that the showrunners and writers could say, “look, here is a Muslim character.”
I was optimistic about the potential for Aneesa’s character, but my optimism fizzled out quickly when I realized her character wasn’t going to be used for anything more than a brief introspection for the main character, Devi, and a potential romance with another character. Aneesa is just one example of many hopes of mine that have been dashed by tokenized Muslim characters or characters that are informed by yet another stereotype. The report brought more attention to an issue that has existed for quite some time.
On Sept. 6, the Twitter account for the Inclusion Initiative tweeted, “Interesting. Our studies usually get some press. Pitching our new study on Muslims in episodic content. The response? Crickets. Literal silence. That sums up exactly where journalists and the TV business are on inclusion.”
The lack of acknowledgment of the problems with Muslim representation is also a large part of why so little progress has been made. There needs to be more attention paid to this as an issue that matters, especially considering how Muslims have been depicted and represented in the past (and sometimes, even now).
Muslim characters need to reflect a more diverse range of experiences, away from any association with violence or terrorism, and closer to representation that speaks to all kinds of Muslims. Muslims also need the opportunity to tell their own stories in a way that feels the most true to them.