Erasing the Orientalist yellow filter: Why Moon Knight's SWANA representation is a step in the right direction
As people of Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) descent, we’re used to depictions of our countries of origin and peoples in popular media as foreign, exotic, and dangerous. Mainstream Western media, especially action, superheroes, and fantasy films and television perpetuate this Orientalism.
Representation matters on this massive entertainment stage for how easily and pervasively it influences how non-SWANA people view the region and its people.
While we are so diverse in our region, and within our own individual countries, the perpetuation of this flattening gives audiences the mental permission to view us all as interchangeable, violent, “backwards”, and monocultural.
"There are so many new stories from all of us to tell. While it’s important that we undo the Orientalism of material when we can as Diab does with Moon Knight, hopefully, it helps lead to more opportunities to tell our original stories to popular acclaim as well"
Any Arab, Kurd, Turk, Amazigh, North African, or other SWANA person knows the truth of the rich diversity and beauty of our people and region but has not been afforded that opportunity to tell that truth on such a massive platform like Marvel. Until now, with Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s depiction of his home country in the MCU’s current series, Moon Knight.
The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has been far less than ideal in its depictions of the region. In one of the recent series, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, the opening action sequence takes place in Tunisia, with Sam Wilson tracking down criminal Batroc, through dangerous gorges.
We then see Sam and Joaquin Torres sipping tea in a marketplace, and Tunisian locals coming up to them to thank them for being there. All while having the Orientalist yellow filter that American film and tv still love to use for the SWANA region or anywhere else in the Global South.
These elements come together to portray Tunisia (and North Africa by extent) as a dangerous place in need of saving from American soldiers and perpetuate those falsehoods.
As general audiences consume this and other Neo-Orientalist films and tv, like Homeland and Tehran, these notions become harder to break. This is especially evident with the depiction of the villain that Sam was chasing in this scene.
“As far as I know, the MCU’s issues with representing North African countries start with The Winter Soldier (2014), when they introduced Georges Batroc," recounts French-Algerian literature student and Marvel Comics fan Bouamrane Derrar Meftah. "In the comics, he is a cartoonishly Frenchy villain with a thick French accent and a big moustache, but to make him fit the more serious tone of the film, they decided to write him as a French-Algerian terrorist.
"They never fully flesh out his cultural background in the movie, except for this one hurtful line, said by Alexander Pierce to correct someone who refers to him as a French criminal: “for the record, he’s Algerian.” Making a terrorist character Arab for no reason has terrible connotations in itself, but making a French one Algerian is so specifically targeted given both countries’ pasts and how Algerian immigrants are perceived in France," Bouamrane adds.
"Making a terrorist character Arab for no reason has terrible connotations in itself, but making a French one Algerian is so specifically targeted given both countries’ pasts and how Algerian immigrants are perceived in France"
"That specific line about him being Algerian and not French is something that racists and the media commonly use to stigmatise us whenever there are criminals who happen to have Algerian or Arab origins, despite them being most of the time born and raised in France – which seems to be the case of Batroc according to the little backstory they give him.
"When they brought the character back in Falcon and The Winter Soldier, they didn’t retcon his ties with Algeria (it’s said in episode 5 that he was in an Algerian prison) and they made it even worse by having Sam Wilson fight him in a yellow filtered Tunisia."
So, what a delightful surprise it was when Marvel announced Egyptian director Mohamed Diab as the head director for Moon Knight, along with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and that Egyptian-Palestinian-Bahraini actress May Calamawy of Ramy fame will be one of the leads.
Even though I didn’t read his comics, I knew the character of Moon Knight/Marc Spector was a Jewish-American mercenary who was endowed with the powers of the Egyptian Moon God Khonshu.
I knew the comics themselves (like many others) perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes about the region, but if there could be an opportunity to rectify and revise this, then this could be it.
While I was disappointed that they did not cast a known Jewish actor in the role (although it should be noted Oscar Isaac does have some Jewish ancestry), the announcements of Diab and Calamawy filled me with the hope that this series would imbibe Egypt and its people with grounded humanity, grace, and beauty that they are too often unafforded in Western media.
"Any Arab, Kurd, Turk, Amazigh, North African, or other SWANA person knows the truth of the rich diversity and beauty of our peoples and region, but has not been afforded that opportunity to tell that truth on such a massive platform like Marvel"
As a Middle Eastern person, I see potential from Moon Knight for all of us.
Egypt in Moon Knight has no ugly yellow filter. Cairo is not a “backward” place, but a thriving and busy city full of light.
There’s a scene of joy with Egyptians dancing to their beautiful music on the Nile, the bazaar Marc meets Layla in is colourful, showing the Arab female protagonist enjoying a delicious tamarind drink, and is more modern than other depictions of a bazaar.
It’s a real place with real people living their lives, and marvelling at the shifting night sky.
These scenes are mostly brief, with much more focus on the action and psychedelic intrigue of the title character, but still, this is a step forward for other depictions of SWANA people in genre media.
Even the portrayal of the Egyptian gods – maybe minus some of the accents – feels more authentic than the typical Orientalist depictions, with at least a few of the gods played by actual Egyptians and not made to seem so otherworldly, but grounded and thus more relatable.
The largest step forward by far is the riveting Layla El-Faouly as played by May Calamawy. While her analogue in the comics was a white woman named Marlene, the creative team, led by Diab, made the wise decision to make her an actual Egyptian who retains her ties to the country, even as she was previously forced to leave for unknown circumstances.
In Layla, May Calamawy brings tremendous strength, vulnerability, humour, and complexity in a way that is rarely afforded to Arab or other SWANA women.
She has her own goals and journey alongside and connected to Marc/Steven and her own development, especially in Episode 4. And the fact that May Calamawy herself had input for the production on how to avoid stereotyping Egypt and Arabs is wonderful and has clear results on the screen.
Fundamentally, for all of us SWANA people, it’s about portraying ourselves as people first and foremost, and any specific cultural depictions about us must be done with our input and leadership in the case of Mohamed Diab. In that, Layla provides the blueprint for other Arab and other SWANA characters in popular media.
Moon Knight, while a step forward, remains only a step.
The media landscape for Arab and SWANA representation in Western media remains infinitesimal, but hopefully with the reach that a Disney+ MCU series like this has, it compounds the opportunities that Mohamed Diab, May Calamawy, and other North African, Arab, and other SWANA creators get in Hollywood.
There are so many new stories from all of us to tell. While it’s important that we undo the Orientalism of material when we can as Diab does with Moon Knight, hopefully, it helps lead to more opportunities to tell our original stories to popular acclaim as well.
Swara Salih is a writer and podcaster who has written for The Nerds of Color and But Why Tho?. He co-hosts The Middle Geeks podcast, which covers all things SWANA/MENA representation, and is a co-host of the Spider-Man/Spider-Verse podcast Into The Spider-Cast.
Follow him on Twitter: @spiderswarz