‘Ramy’ and the New American Muslims of TV
‘Ramy’ and the New American Muslims of TV
He’s a rudderless, sexually frustrated millennial. He’s also deeply religious. He’s Ramy, the Egyptian-American at the center of the comedian Ramy Youssef’s semi-autobiographical series, “Ramy,” returning Friday for a second season on Hulu.
For fans, it’s the welcome return of a nuanced portrayal of a young New Jersey Muslim struggling with his identity — a wry blend of sacred and profane that earned Youssef a Golden Globe Award in January.
But the freedom to work out one’s Muslimness on TV has only recently begun to be unburdened from the pressures to be a representative and palatable Muslim.
I’m one of the underrepresented viewers who has waited a long time for more layered portrayals of the American Muslim experience. The problems always lay less in the dearth of Muslim images in popular culture, however, than in the responsibility foisted upon those representations.
Yes, there were the many insidious Muslim characters in series like “Homeland.” But even when Muslims had a chance to counteract that image, their roles were too often reactionary, defined by victimhood, misrepresentation and the problem of terrorism.
What resulted seemed constantly to reiterate the same sentiment: “We are more than terrorists.” It was also rarely great TV. With series like the short-lived CW sitcom “Aliens in America” (2007-2008) and the web-based “Halal in the Family” (2015), efforts to create relatable Muslims felt akin more to public service announcements than to works of art. The TLC reality show “All-American Muslim” (2011-12) was well-intentioned but unwatchable.
“What made that show so terrible was that unlike every other reality show, this was off the formula because it was the only reality show that had a didactic element,” said Zareena Grewal, a professor of religion at Yale. Grewal grew up near Dearborn, Mich., which is home to one of the country’s largest Muslim communities and is where “All-American Muslim” was filmed.
“They would explain Wikipedia Islam, and there was never any real conflict,” Grewal added. “It just took itself so seriously.”
But in the past few years, American Muslims have become a presence on television screens in a way that feels legitimately new. Earlier this month, the former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj returned to Netflix with the sixth season of “Patriot Act.” “Hala,” a semi-autobiographical film from the Pakistani-American filmmaker Minhal Baig, debuted on Apple TV Plus last fall. The Apple anthology series “Little America” concluded with a triumphant episode about a gay Muslim refugee’s arrival in the United States.
For a new generation of artists, the demonization of Muslims is a given — it just isn’t the subject of their stories. The new American Muslims of TV are freer, more experimental and frankly weirder than most who emerged in the burdensome age of countering stereotypes.
“I grew up with so much of the identity of being Muslim and being Arab tied around politics,” Youssef said last week in a phone interview. “I’m just kind of sick of it. The easiest thing would be to make a show that put politics on blast.”
“Or,” he added, “I could make a show that felt true to what I wanted to discuss.”
I was a college sophomore in Virginia on 9/11, and it became clear that my generation of Muslim-Americans would grow up swamped by rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations.” On campus, that meant Islam Awareness Week. Soon enough, it meant Islam Awareness Television.
With the debut of “Ramy” 18 years later, American Muslims finally had an unapologetically Muslim series, but it neither resembled nor aspired to be like anything about Muslims that had existed on television.
In the first season, the show leapt over boundaries of religious propriety and political correctness I had long assumed were sacrosanct. There were episodes about kink, pornography addiction, anti-Semitism and even an imaginary friendship with Osama bin Laden. All of this while maintaining its stylish and moody indie vibe. (The show is produced by A24.)
“I remember seeing the first few episodes, and my thought as a writer was, ‘Oh my God, I cannot believe he did this,’” Minhaj said in an interview this week. “I could not believe what I was watching.”
“That’s the thing I just respect him for,” he added about Youssef — “the audacity of the swings he took.”
Minhaj, known for his own audacious brand of satire, understands a kind of twin pressure on Muslim artists that has emerged in recent years. He performed at the first White House Correspondents’ Association dinner after Donald Trump was elected president, and he knew there had been a “weird orange lining” for his own career, he said. As a candidate in 2015, Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration, and expressing solidarity with Muslims had become a pillar of progressive politics.
“A lot of the breaks I got after 2016 only happened because there was such a heightened attention on the rhetoric around Islam,” Minhaj said.
It was a political moment that, as Grewal described it, risked tokenizing Muslims and other underrepresented groups but “also created a lot of space in popular culture for these representations.” And it coincided with the rise of streaming services, which have since proved willing to take risks on underrepresented voices and emerging stars.
That included Hulu’s gamble on a scripted half-hour comedy from Youssef. By turning his on-screen persona into an insecure, fumbling antihero — by casting off the respectability burden — Youssef’s Ramy may not have been the most eloquent or even likable Muslim protagonist. But he instantly became one of the most honest and realistic ones.
“That level of nuance is something we didn’t have before,” Minhaj said. “A lot of times before, when we were debuting our art, we felt this community responsibility to: A., get the audience up to speed with who we are; and B., debunk any racist inclinations that the country perhaps had. But what I love most about Ramy’s show is that preamble is already done.”
Minhaj and Youssef were among several Muslim screenwriters who told me that they roundly rejected the defensive posture earlier Muslim storytellers felt compelled to assume for the sake of public relations. Baig, who has written for “Ramy” and “BoJack Horseman,” acknowledged that while “it’s important for work to be challenging representation,” the work “also has to be deeply personal, emotional and individual.” Her debut feature film, “Hala,” tells the story of a teenage Muslim-American’s sexual awakening and eventual collision with her religious parents.
“It’s something that Muslim creators are reckoning with and resolving about their work,” Baig said about walking that creative line. “You can hold two truths to be true at the same time. People must be permitted to be individuals within their communities.”
Important to the creators I spoke with was the notion that religious identity did not need to be erased when building complex and broadly relatable characters. Like “Hala,” the finale of the Apple TV series “Little America” is based on a true story and explores the tensions between sexuality and faith. The British-Iraqi memoirist and drag performer Amrou Al-Kadhi, who co-wrote the finale, said that the episode, which is centered on a gay Muslim refugee, was an attempt to portray a difficult personal story honestly without vilifying Islam.
“My main goal in writing that was that I don’t want there to be a goody or a baddie really,” Al-Kadhi said. “I want the Middle East to have lots of wonderful things about it, and lots of color and collectivity and family and faith. And I want there to be homophobia, as well.”
In mining the contradictions and comedy of his own spiritual journey, Youssef said he wanted “Ramy” to be a messy portrait of a personal reconciliation.
“What’s interesting to me is that this is not someone trying to create a separation,” he said about his character. “It’s about someone trying to synthesize the moment that they’re in.”
As a viewer and an American Muslim, I am both inspired by this more assertive wave of creativity and also a hint envious. When I was struggling with how to reconcile my own faith and sexuality, that synthesis seemed impossible to live openly.
But as the age of the respectable TV Muslim passes, so too does the burden of representation begin to lift for the rest of us. We, too, feel freer to broadcast our contradictions and individual tastes, without sacrificing our Muslimness.
“Because of the work the people before us have done, we’re able to take those swings and those chances,” Minhaj said. American Muslims span races and sects, and there are many complex stories still untold. Minhaj said he hoped the successful return of “Ramy” opened “a door for work to be even more complicated and diverse in its perspective.”