LGBTQ and Other Muslims: A Controversial View on the Silver Screen
With more than 700 English-language films made every year in addition to 500 TV shows produced in the US in general, Hollywood is undoubtedly the world’s largest movie and entertainment industry. This gives a rough idea of how dominant the US and Hollywood in particular in the entertainment industry and how persuasive it can be in presenting its visions and aims. In Hollywood, ideologies, business, and art are inseparable with dominant firms promoting them.
Hollywood’s capitalist power is mainly based on having control over the way people watch or make movies. Capitalist power refers to the ability to control, change or modify, or limit social creation through the rights of ownership. It is the groundwork of capital accumulation. Hollywood’s capitalist power in the film business is the ability of business concerns and ideologies to set the terms that in turn makes the future of cinema. It is the framework of how the film industry is and will be according to the political and social gains and aims. These terms include what kind of movies that are to be distributed, how many movies are to be distributed in addition to the cinematic alternatives that are to be available to the audiences. In fact, examining some of the productions theoretically and realistically on the political ideologies and business of the major Hollywood film companies, Hollywood’s capitalist goals have conveyed stereotypes of minorities, races, genders, nationalities and religions.
Hollywood’s representation of certain groups has always been evolving and improving over time due to business goals, laws and regulations, justice and calls for freedom or simply after specific social movements or incidents. Examining Hollywood’s representation of women prior to the 1960s and later on decade after decade, it is pretty clear how movies’ orientation towards gender equality improved from using women as a lust tool to women from men’s perspective to women and their power from women’s perspective. This shift goes along the feminism movements and applies to the movements’ goals and aspiration. The same thing applies to the representation of LGBTQs from being hated abnormality in the societies to becoming somehow present but not completely welcome in the 1990s, to finally becoming a part of every movie plot or TV show character.
The way religions are represented in Hollywood differs from genders or races due to the diversity of each religion and having issues related to them in terms of beliefs and practices. One major stereotype in terms of religions falls into Islam religion and the way it is framed in movies and TV shows particularly portrays one major stereotype about Islam and Muslims all over the world especially after 9/11 when almost 25% of the world’s population practices Islam. In a study made by USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, 1.1% of the characters shown in the top 100 movies in the US in the period between 2017 to 2019 were Muslims.
To many, this is a harmless portrayal and in some cases it is informative and raises awareness. However, more than 500 anti-Islam incidents happened in 2019 in the US alone in addition to many hate attacks and crimes against Muslims took place in both Wales and England; not to forget the infamous 2019 New Zealand attack in Christchurch targeting Muslims resulting in the death of 51 individuals in the shooting incident. Although causes and motifs behind these violent attacks and hatred might vary, the mass media, especially the entertainment industry that reaches different people with different ages and backgrounds, takes a whole lot part in forming this hatred and fear against Islam. It is undoubtedly the Hollywood hegemony known as “World Hollywoodization”. The term refers to how the American Film industry is employed and used to make a world-wide acceptance of American values, way of life and ideologies no matter if those ideologies are cultural, political, or socio-economic. They become the ideal.
TV shows and movies have always, especially after 9/11, showed Muslim characters as violent secondary characters be it as terrorists or as individuals who are perpetrators of violence even in their life with their families and always seeking hatred and cruelty indicating racial, religious hatred towards others who are not Muslims such as the portrayal of Muslim terrorist group in the movie “Back to the Future” where a Libyan Muslim Terrorist group threatens the doctor and assassinates him. Another example is Fox’s “Homeland” that was completely based on Muslims being terrorists that are planning for violent crimes in the US. The way Muslims are stereotyped as extremists makes it very difficult for those who have never encountered Muslims in real life to believe that those who practice Islam are normal peaceful people who originate from different countries and races and that those in movies are only an exception!
Muslims are not confined to a race or part of the world. They could be from the Middle east, any part of Asia, Europe, Africa or America. What Hollywood usually shows is that Muslims belong to the middle east in majority; they are either foreigners or immigrants, migrants, or refugees or children of immigrants but not American or European Muslims at all which indicates racism in addition to ignorance.
Some might argue about the new perspective Islam is portrayed in movies and TV shows in recent years. In recent shows and movies that do not involve war, Islam as an extremist religion is irrelevant to the plot. However, characters are portrayed in terms of oppression; yes that is the new perspective about Islam, especially female Muslims. In Netflix’s Elite, a show about high school students in one of the fancy schools, the two Muslim characters were shown as oppressed children of an immigrant family seeking freedom in their society. The girl named Nadia is a Hijabi Muslim girl that is restrained and oppressed by her head cover who ultimately rebels against it to pursue her intimate goals. The brother named Omar is portrayed as a shy oppressed young man who is mostly controlled by his dad. Omar being secretly a part of the LGBTQ community struggles with his family to conceal his sexuality which is fact a very uncommon sight in the movie industry as Muslim LGBTQ characters are almost invisible.
A study was conducted by Rachel Anderson Droogsma in 2007 to investigate how oppressed female Muslims feel wearing Hijab where a number of 13 women from different backgrounds – some were originally American citizens not children of immigrants- took part. The study showed that women wearing hijab in the US feel empowered and never oppressed. Some of the women stated that wearing head covers gives them more control of their bodies and helps them stay away from being objectified by men. This in fact draws a comparison between what Hollywood shows and what is real which in turn indicates the ownership imposed by Hollywood and the political ideologies behind it no matter what the reasons are.
Even in Hollywood’s attempts to reflect Islam in its production such as in Ramy, a TV show that talks about a first generation Muslim of immigrant parents from Egypt pursue of life, the US drama industry failed to present a stable young person or to go beyond Muslims of immigrants’ origins.
It is thus important to know that Muslims live around us all over the world. They are a part of our society and who we are. It is impossible to call freedom of speech and thought and then fight against someone’s beliefs and practices to serve some agenda. The world has to know that the things seen on TV and in movies are only one ignorant portrait of the reality of the Muslim community. Muslims are always careful of how people view them and that is recently seen on TikTok where Muslim content creators show what the real face of Islam is and how they are our friends, family and neighbors. In fact, researching well and creating Muslim characters that are reality-based ones, audiences will be able to see and resonate the real Islam that is not only not harmful but peaceful in its core.
Muslim women are not only portrayed as oppressed women but also as submissive or secondary to their male partners focusing on their desirability to potential romantic partners such as the portrayal of the Muslim woman in the movie “Body of Lies” where the female nurse is attracted to the CIA agent and establishes a relationship but only to be based on nothing which indicates that the woman only fell in love with the CIA agent for being strong and handsome or a foreigner! Another example is the comedy film of “The Dictator” that exaggerates objectifying Muslim women in the proposed country to serve the plot. This segregation Muslim female characters in some of the top movies shows even more ignorance towards the Muslim community in comparison with the reality of many Muslim women who have contributed to life, politics, education peace and public life not to mention the various talents and traits Muslim women have in reality.
These ideologies that are used against Islam typically refer to the deliberate distortion or misrepresentation of the reality of Muslims to advance political interests and maintain hierarchies of power. It is a sad truth that the only things seen on TV and in movies are those atrocities that are irrelevant to Muslims. In fact, when looking at Muslims all over the world, in European countries, Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, the Middle east and other parts of the world, it is very difficult to deny the capabilities and contributions Muslims have made to the world such as some of the greatest sportsmen of all time as Muhamad Ali, Mike Tyson, Mo Salah. Other Muslims that have contributed to politics and peace such as Farhana Khera, who fought against Muslim ban and Rep. Keith Ellison who is the first Muslim in congress and many others. Some peace activists and seekers such as Ebit Lee, a convert Chinese-Malaysian Muslim who is one of the world businessmen known for his contributions to the help the poor and homeless.
Muslim communities are bursting with talent – it’s our duty and privilege to support these incredible artists and provide them the opportunity to tell their own stories,” said Arij Mikati, the Pillars Fund’s managing director of culture change. It is time for Hollywood to rebuild the Muslim identity portrayed in their productions beyond ignorance and trivial stereotypes no matter what ideology Hollywood serves incorporating power rather than values. By shifting and improving the portrayal of Muslims in the entertainment industry, the world view towards Muslims will shift as well. People will come to the understanding of respecting Islam as a religion just like any other religion that respects others and does not threaten the safety or peace of anyone. Practicing a religion should be beyond any restrictions a human right to everybody without judgements or stereotypes.