Terrorists, taxi drivers, oppressed, oppressing – these are just some of the stereotypes of Muslims we’re used to seeing on mainstream film and TV.
So whenever we’re treated to better, authentic representation, it’s not only refreshing but potentially influential in shaping people’s attitudes towards the Islamic faith.
Ms Marvel, the new instalment of the Marvel cinematic universe, now streaming on Disney+, is one such show that manages to get this right.
Focused on Pakistani-American teenager Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), the story takes us on a journey as this Marvel fangirl finds her own powers and navigates this great new responsibility alongside school work, family and cultural duties.
Written by British-Pakistani writer Bisha K. Ali, who share the same heritage if not nationality as her protagonist, Ms Marvel depicts Islam as a complementary part of Kamala’s life, as opposed to something to be overcome.
This is a welcome change – Islam is all too often associated with violence, illiberalism and backwardness, not aided by how Muslims are displayed in the media.
In fact, when political scientists recently reviewed more than 250,000 articles, they found Muslims face overwhelmingly negative media portrayals in the UK, US, Canada, and Australia.
And while this study looked at news outlets’ coverage of Muslims, separate research shows the same happens in film and TV too – that’s if these stories depict Muslims at all.
In 2018, Muslim characters were found to be almost entirely absent from 200 top-grossing films, according to a study from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California. In response, the Riz Test was created.
Similar to the Bechdel test that considers female representation, its counterpart looks at how meaningful Muslim depictions are. Inspired by actor Riz Ahmed who talked about this in a House of Commons speech, the test looks at whether a named Muslim character is presented as a victim/perpetrator, someone who’s irrationally angry or is presented as a threat/different to Western ways of living.
Thankfully, Ms Marvel passes the test. And what’s more, we also see a positive portrayal of religion through Kamala’s brother Aamir who practises his faith peacefully, as most Muslims do, without coercion or sermonising.
Watching as a twenty-something Muslim, you realise how rare it is to see younger pious people who aren’t aggressive nor overbearing.
And Ms Marvel’s positive characterisations haven’t gone unnoticed.
For film writer Tanzim Pardiwalla, 26, from Mumbai, these things mean everything. “As a Muslim Marvel fan and cosplayer watching Kamala Khan own her cultural identity along with her inner nerd is amazing,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“She goes to the mosque and she goes to Avengers Con. I genuinely feel seen, aptly represented and I’m only just realising how important that is.”
For Pardiwalla, this show comes at a good time, given the current Islamophobic climate many countries find themselves in.
“Coming from a country that has a rampant Islamophobia problem, it’s truly heartening to see the show’s characters do simple things like say ‘Alhamdulillah’ (praise be to God), offer namaaz (prayer) and reference Shah Rukh Khan (the beloved Indian Muslim star) in a mainstream Marvel show. This is such a huge win for representation.”
“[Kamala] goes to the mosque and she goes to Avengers Con. I genuinely feel seen, aptly represented and I’m only just realising how important that is.”
So, will shows like Ms Marvel change the way mainstream audiences see Muslims, too? Maybe, but more work needs to be done to shift how Muslims are shown on non-fiction platforms such as in the news, says Elizabeth Poole, professor of media and communications at Keele University.
She tells HuffPost UK: “Media companies are recognising the need to be inclusive and demonstrate diversity, and this includes Muslims, even if this is just driven by a profitability motive.
“However, I also think this will continue alongside the kind of negative tropes that have become part of the scripts of coverage about Muslims, particularly in the news. So we could end up with a binary representation whereby these more positive depictions, especially in entertainment programmes, sit alongside more problematic representations.”
The message: while we support shows like Ms Marvel, we should also be calling out other media platforms that undo its good work.
“These positive examples are a welcome development but we also need to continue to challenge stereotypical coverage,” says Poole. “We also need to see the diversity of Muslim experience embedded into every day representations of ordinary life to make more than a fairly superficial progress in this area.”
While most Muslims will love seeing Kamala Khan save the day, we will continue to hope and fight for a future where we’re allowed to be heroes, fools, and every other whimsical character beyond the cinematic universe.