From On-Screen Othering to Real-World Discrimination

From On-Screen Othering to Real-World Discrimination

Ever wonder what role the media we consume plays in creating biases or perpetuating stereotypes? If the only glimpse into the life of a specific population comes from a fictional account meant to entertain, how does that perception translate to real life? Various studies into the representation of minority groups in media and its repercussions are exploring just that.

The most recent and extremely well-received study, Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies, comes from the Pillars Fund, Ford Foundation, and USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The study evaluated, quantitatively and qualitatively, Muslim representation in 200 recent popular films from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, and—no surprise—found statistically significant amounts of erasure and demeaning portrayals. A few of the more revealing stats are below: 

  • 1.6% of 8,965 speaking characters were Muslim
  • 0 Muslim characters were depicted in animated films
  • The U.S. was the only country to portray Black or multiracial Muslim characters and the U.K. the only to portray white Muslims
  • 1 Muslim character was depicted as LGBTQ and 1 had disabilities
  • 87.8% of primary and secondary Muslim characters were depicted as outsiders, often immigrants, migrants, or refugees
  • 53.7% of primary and secondary Muslim characters were targets of violence
  • 39% of primary and secondary Muslim characters were perpetrators of violence, with the secondary usually using firearms or bombs in mass settings
  • 74.5% of the Muslim characters in U.S. films were men; only 15 of the 200 films had at least 1 female Muslim character that spoke

Abysmal representation and stale storylines aside, the danger arises when, in the absence of real-life encounters, the majority population begins to accept stereotypes as gospel. A lot of assumptions could be made by an uneducated audience: that Muslims are only Middle Eastern/North African, deserving of violence, foreign, subservient to white people, that women are either submissive or rebellious. There are clear limited views of the vast ethnic and racial spread across the Muslim population, Muslim women’s agency and individuality, the ability of Muslim characters to carry a lead or non-action role, and the intersection of fellow marginalized groups within the Muslim community, among other things. When one’s only exposure to Arabic is during a suicide bombing scene, and even progressive movies like Black Panther (not to mention news outlets) perpetuate terror tropes, audiences vicariously begin to view Muslims as threatening, monolithic, and prone to violence.

At least as valuable as the study’s data, however, is the proposed solution to the findings, entailing a forthcoming Pillars Muslim Talent Database, Pillars Artist Fellowship, and the Blueprint for Inclusion, including sunsetting terror tropes in 18 months, hiring Muslim creators, and short-, medium-, and long-term strategies for various players in the industry. By supporting Muslims financially and artistically to tell their own stories, we also facilitate more nuanced, credible roles for Muslim actors, present an opportunity for more humanizing, contemporary, and inclusive depictions for the audience, and address the system rather than the symptoms (a Pillars strategy).

There were of course limitations to the study that should be pointed out, such as sampling only mainstream box office films, which we’re eager to see Pillars tackle in the future. We also imagine the task of categorizing all speaking characters, especially tertiary ones, to be an enormous challenge. Whether a character was Muslim was determined by noting verbal and nonverbal cues, which were further categorized into implicit/latent indicators (e.g., clothing, language, country of origin, artifacts, and setting) and explicit/overt indicators (statements made by the character or others, organizational memberships, and religious behaviors), without the benefit of directorial intent or cues from scripts, etc. Muslim characters were then further evaluated for things like social class, temperament, intelligence, immigration status, and sexual orientation. Though the overwhelming portrayal of Muslim characters in traditional clothing, speaking with accents, or solely within tight-knit Muslim communities does perpetuate othering/foreignness, there’s the strong possibility that ignorant audiences in Muslim-minority countries would not recognize more subtle cues. While Muslims make up 24% of people worldwide and Islam is the fastest growing religion, it’s interesting to note that the percentage of Muslim characters in the U.S. films exactly matched the real-world population of Muslims here (1.1%). Also note the disheartening statistic that the percentage of Muslim speaking characters (1.6%) across all four countries aligns with the portrayal of other marginalized groups in film (e.g., LGBTQ+, Latinx, people with disabilities). Given the enormous diversity and reach within the world’s Muslim population, we imagine that representative depictions are an even greater mire.

Missing & Maligned was the collaborative effort of parties concerned with problems encountered by Muslims in the entertainment industry and is building upon existing research. Because of the recent racial reckoning, Riz Ahmed’s backing, or perhaps people’s attachment to hard numbers, it’s getting a lot of due attention, but previous projects help support the assertions. A 2017 Public Religion Research Institute analysis found that 26% and 36% of Americans, respectively, had seldom or never interacted with a Muslim person in the previous year, and that two-thirds of those who did were more lenient with refugee policies and saw Muslims as important to the American religious landscape. A 2019 scholarly article on cultivation theory showed that television portrayals of Arabs affected viewers’ beliefs about actual Arabs, with college students reporting predominantly antagonistic sentiments. In contemporary India, centering Hindu stories and portraying Muslims pejoratively in Bollywood films has been said to be intentional cultural manipulation and promotion of the radical nationalist discourse. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative—the leading think tank on D&I in entertainment, who had a large hand in Missing & Malignedhas examined 100 top American films annually for inequalities since 2007. They note the especially sparse portrayal of LGBTQ characters and ones with disabilities, and say those shown are almost always white and male identifying. Their yearly suggestions to foster industry change are also stated. Finally, the 2018 report from Pop Culture Collaborative Senior Fellow Dr. Maytha Alhassen, Haqq and Hollywood: Illuminating 100 Years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them, takes a deep dive into twentieth-century Muslim tropes, the erasure of Black American Muslims, the good versus bad Muslim binary, and an initial Hollywood reckoning after Trump’s election. It, too, provides specific solutions for the industry and non-Muslim Americans.

Check out all these thoughtful studies to consider just what stereotypes may have infiltrated your worldview. And listen to American Muslim Project’s recent episode with Pillars Fund co-founder and president, Kashif Shaikh, to learn more about Missing & Maligned. “It’s not like we were expecting anything positive,” Kashif told us, “but I do think that there was a bit of a surprise as to just how intense the erasure was of Muslims in popular culture.”

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