Missing and Maligned: How Western cinema perpetuates negative Muslim typecasts, and why it matters
Last week the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released its latest report on diversity in Western cinema entitled Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Cinema and it confirmed a lot of what a particular demographic of culture critics, including myself and The Riz Test, have been making noise about for decades.
The report, the first-ever for the Institute and co-authored by Al-Baab Khan, Dr Katherine Pieper, Dr Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti, Kevin Yao and Artur Tofan, investigated the 200 top-grossing films released between 2017 and 2019. They analysed the prevalence and portrayals of Muslim characters and found they were “erased in popular movies, that portrayals lack intersectional inclusion, and that Muslims still face stereotyping on screen.”
According to the report, roughly one-third of Muslim characters are perpetrators of violence, and more than half are targets of violence
I am not Muslim, I belong to no religion, in fact, but as a critic of Tunisian heritage I’ve often written about MENA representation on screen and it has meant a crossover awareness and commentary of how Muslim characters are depicted too. In recent years, I’ve written about the erasure of Islamic and Arab representation in the new adaptation of Dune, the continued Orientalist trappings in the Aladdin remake and how Guantanamo Bay has been depicted on screen so it was no surprise to me to see the report state that 66.7 percent of Muslim characters are portrayed as MENA. But not all representation is “good” representation.
According to the report, roughly one-third of Muslim characters are perpetrators of violence, and more than half are targets of violence. That statistic is far too high when you consider only 9.5 percent of the films analysed had Muslim speaking characters at all. So when filmmakers predominantly present Muslim lives as being wrapped up in trauma, pain and violence it creates a false reality in the eyes of audiences who may well carry that prejudiced way of thinking into their daily lives.
As Jack Shaheen covered in his seminal work on the subject of Muslim and Arab representation, Reel Bad Arabs (2012), where he looked at some 1,200 screen depictions, he found, “At most, three dozen or so had balance, or what I would call positive images. In the rest of them, Arabs are either terrorists or shady sheikhs or people you would not want to associate with. Those images continue to pervade our psyches.”
Nearly a decade later, even more, films can be added to that list, from overt Islamophobia in the Joseph Gordon Levitt-led plane hijack thriller 7500 to an inadvertent nod in Black Panther where an African man in Middle Eastern headgear says in Arabic, "Wallahi (by God) I will shoot her right now," as he places a gun to an African girl's head. She and the rest of the female hostages are wearing hijabs.
No one is expecting every Muslim portrayal to be positive but the film industry must do better to present the multifaceted way in which it is followed, understood and experienced by people of different races, gender, sexuality and nations
Muslim women fare just as badly. When they are not invisible – the ratio of male characters to Muslim female characters across the 200 films is 175 to 1 and only 23.6 percent of Muslim characters were female – they are mostly depicted as submissive romantic partners who, more often than not, don’t have any dialogue and wear outward signifiers of their religion.
I recently saw examples of this in two major superhero releases: In Wonder Woman 1984, the eponymous hero rescues a little girl in a hijab while The Falcon and Winter Soldier’s opening episode, in a scene set in Tunisia, sees a Muslim man thank Sam Wilson for helping to return his wife, who is standing next to him, silent and wearing a headscarf too.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with depicting Muslims in faith-based garments but when these characters are so often located in countries other than where the filmmakers are from (46 percent have them rooted in MENA regions), or given accents, it serves to separate Muslims from the contemporary cultures in the US and the UK by positioning them as foreigners, when for many of us they are our neighbours.
As someone who has spent most of my life living between London and Doncaster in South Yorkshire, and several years in Tower Hamlets too, my experience of the Muslim community has far more in common with the diversity and inclusion depicted in such TV series as We Are Lady Parts and Ramy than the vast majority of films that have served as a source for this report. They have offered much-needed relief from the problematic stereotypes that still dominate the social and cultural understanding of Muslim people.
As a film lover and critic, I truly believe cinema can be one of the most influential mediums in educating audiences about our world and history. It offers a gateway into different lives, cultures and experiences but for far too long Islam has been treated as a one-note trope to depict negativity in a way that other religions have not. Of course, no one is expecting every Muslim portrayal to be positive but the film industry must do better to present the multifaceted way in which it is followed, understood and experienced by people of different races, gender, sexuality and nations.
Hopefully, now that we have empirical data to show just how Islamophobic cinema has been and continues to be, industry gatekeepers and filmmakers will finally take note.
Hanna Flint is a freelance film and TV critic, writer and interviewer who writes for The Guardian, Total Film, Time Out, Syfy, Yahoo Movies, SyFy and other international outlets.
Follow her here: @HannaFlint