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The Comedy of Multiculturalism

When television portrays Muslims without hostility, it’s a small victory

Some time after the 1986 NBC broadcast of a two-hour movie called Under Siege, in which Arab terrorists bomb the U.S. Capitol, Ted Flicker, the late Jewish American writer-producer, noted in a letter to the Writer’s Guild and the Screen Actor’s Guild: “Arabs are portrayed as crazy billionaires, terrorists, devious voluptuaries, barbaric white slavers, etc., ad nauseam. Dear fellow writers, on behalf of my Arab cousins, I say to you, think before you write that Arab.” Flicker continued: “I think honor requires that we, the makers of our nation’s myths, consider the plight of these people . . . and help get rid of the Arab stereotypes.” Under Siege committed many sins; foremost was the xenophobic presentation of Muslims as savage terrorists.

Multiple decades have passed since this exhortation to “think before you write that Arab,” and it’s uncertain how much thinking has actually occurred. That the War on Terror, centered on the idea of all Muslims as terrorists, is a precept gobbled up by movies like Zero Dark Thirty (I remember resonant cheering in the theater where I watched it) and television shows like House and 24, suggests otherwise. But then, in the wake of all this arrived Ramy, a comedy series produced for the streaming platform Hulu that premiered in 2019. In seeming rebellion against its predecessors, Ramy features a young and very confused Egyptian American millennial, based on its creator Ramy Yousseff, who lives at home, is prone to alternating fits of depression and soul-searching, and has a particular talent for landing himself in awkward situations.

Evaluating the show and the shenanigans of its protagonist against the usual stereotypes identified by Flicker in his post-Under Siege letter yields useful insights on the tensions between the need for representation of religious and ethnic minorities—and those inherent in a single narrative of any diverse category. Is an inept, self-absorbed man, whose commitment to his own desires constantly veers into the territory of misogyny and narcissism, a “good” portrayal of the Arab American Muslim? Is his grand gaggle of women, from mother Maysa to sister Dena to eventual fiancé Zainab and cousin/lover Amani, a departure from the harem of old? Does the presence of many women, however singular in dimension, count as an attempt to offer a multiplicity of narratives? Finally, can the militant ordinariness of Ramy expiate, once and for all, against the unrelenting image of the 9/11 bombers whose existence has cursed American Muslims for almost twenty years?

Is an inept, self-absorbed man, whose commitment to his own desires constantly veers into the territory of misogyny and narcissism, a “good” portrayal of the Arab American Muslim?

The first question, of whether Ramy represents an improvement on the terrorist Arab Americans of the constricted American media landscape, is easiest to tackle. Almost in a hurry to get his ordinary American-ness done away with, Ramy, within the first handful of episodes, loses his job at a tech start-up and has sex with a variety of women. Some of that sex happens with flat stereotypes of American Muslim women; one abortive encounter occurs at the end of an awkward semi-chaperoned date in his car (remember, he lives with his parents) and another (yawn) with a head-scarfed married young mother whose husband is away. Ramy’s chorus of mostly Arab American friends supplies censure (Arab) mixed with admiration (American). It is notable that his only American friend, Steve, is severely disabled and wheelchair-bound, signifying either that “normal” (read: white) Americans are uninterested in befriending this lot, or perhaps it conveys Ramy’s odd subservience (he even wipes Steve’s behind in one episode) to his disabled but very demanding American alter-ego.

With his millennial ordinariness established, we move on to more specific themes. One undoubtedly is the question of how to be a man in a society that sees Arab-Muslim masculinity as threatening. Ramy’s Uncle Naseem, whose secret homosexuality is not revealed until the end of the second season, is one example, a man who is a commercial success if overtly misogynistic (in his first appearance, he criticizes Ramy’s sister Dena for what she is wearing and tells her how she should deal with her period). After the dinner in which the character of  Uncle Naseem is introduced, he intervenes in a fight in which a man is beating his date, and wins, with Ramy’s (unwilling) help and because he carries a gun. “She still went home with him” a disgruntled Ramy tells him. “What matters is we did the right thing,” Uncle Naseem replies pointedly; that is, women need the protection of men.

If the uncle is a dated icon of Arab masculinity that misfires, his father is a rendition of near-emasculation. Farouk, who came to the United States against the advice of his father, works a sales job (which he loses in the middle of the second season) and sacrifices his own principles when he accepts a drink of whiskey to please his boss. He is also the nub of Uncle Naseem’s mocking barb “man who works for someone else” and has had to be bailed out repeatedly by this magnanimous brother-in-law. When Ramy says he is waiting to get a new job because he wants to find his “passion,” the utilitarian Farouk delivers his most memorable line: “Passion is a made-up idea. It’s for white people.”

That mode of practicality is not at all appealing to Ramy, so he pursues spirituality. Toward the beginning of the second season, following a trip to Egypt where he sleeps with his cousin Amani, he attaches himself to a Black Muslim Sufi Sheikh, whose comfort with a particularly indigenized form of Islam (the first Muslims came to America in the 1600s as slaves) he hopes will be enlightening and indigenizing for himself. It is not, of course, so simple. Through several obstacles in successive episodes we learn why. The first appears when Ramy, in his fervor to please the Sheikh, brings in a homeless Iraq veteran to the Sufi Center. This white man ends up beating a white protester during a PTSD episode—the Center is surrounded by a xenophobic hate group that does not like the establishment of the mosque at the site of a former Church—and reports of the violent act jeopardize the Center’s donors and its very existence.

Ramy has, unwittingly as usual, ended up (very nearly) destroying what other people, namely the Sheikh, have built. Beyond Ramy’s culpability in it all, the particular episode is also important because it subtly and cleverly illustrates how the crimes of white people, even soldiers in this case, are also heaped upon Muslims, whose position as eternal scapegoats endures in American society. The fact that the man is a veteran is pointed; he has killed Muslims, and yet those who pay for his crimes are also, tragically and truthfully, Muslims.

With the question of how to be a good man or even how to be a man at all left unanswered by the men in whom he places his hopes, Ramy turns to the easiest exercise of manhood: he has a lot of sex. Sex, in fact, seems to be the sum total of Ramy’s masculinity. He has sex with nearly every female who appears on the show, save his mother and sister, with whom he appears to have a somewhat strained relationship.

The Muslim American women of Ramy are perhaps intentionally divided up between those who can and do sleep with him and everyone else. For the duration of much of the series, both categories are lacking in depth or dimension, as if making a statement about their own existence as foils for the more important male characters of the show. His mother Maysa’s forays into the world beyond her home are presented as unerringly furtive and tentative, if not completely wrongheaded. Immigrant mothers, we learn from Ramy, are given to being obtuse about race and trans rights and making awkward missteps to get high ratings as Lyft drivers. This characterization is awkward because far more often it is the efforts of well-intentioned white women with savior complexes who misunderstand the lives of American Muslim women. Given that the show is among the few purporting to present this “other” perspective, it seems bizarre that such an opportunity is missed. It is obvious to make the easily misunderstood the butt of one’s jokes—comedy should do better than that.

The generalizations within Ramy’s portrayals are debatable but also to some extent forgivable. The very existence of the show is an act of social recognition.

The release of the first season of Ramy last year, while largely lauded, brought on criticisms regarding the presentation of Muslim women. In her article for The Atlantic, “What Ramy Gets Wrong About Muslim Women,” Shamira Ibrahim accused the show of revealing a “myopic perspective through its disparate treatment of Muslim women, characters often boxed into stereotypes with no recourse to develop as fully realized individuals.” This is certainly true of its first season, which deploys the most tired counter-argument—sexual promiscuity—against the white penchant to imagine all Muslim women as submissive. The Muslim woman Nour with whom Ramy goes on a date is sexually insatiable; the head-scarfed mother he falls into bed with is similarly inclined. Ramy’s sister Dena cannot wait to lose her virginity, an effort she abandons when the white guy she’s been flirting with asks her to speak in Arabic and mentions her non-existent head scarf as foreplay. There is no dearth of examples of the fact that Ramy’s creators have conflated sexual liberation with some dated sex-and-the-city idea of empowerment. If American Muslim women can be more Samantha than Charlotte, the show seems to say, it’s a kind of progress.

But Ramy’s second season reveals a sensitivity to the sort of critique Ibrahim made. Ramy’s sister is shown (gasp) to have actual ambition when she applies and then gets in to law school. A more complex portrayal of the headscarf accompanies this resurrection and complication of Dena Hassan. After winning a scholarship, she begins inexplicably to lose her hair. Self-conscious, she puts on the scarf, only to have a Mexican American tow truck driver deliver a lecture on assimilation and liberation. She makes him stop and gets out even though it is dark and they are far from the mechanic’s.

If we get some depth in Dena, we are handed two new characters who are just as flat as the women of last season. Ramy’s cousin Amani not only appears to wear the same clothes in every scene, even when she leaves Cairo for the United States; all we know is that she is both divorced and related to Ramy, making her an almost-forbidden woman. Like the orientalist odalisque of previous generations of Muslim woman stereotypes, she loves to sleep with Ramy, even doing so the night before his wedding to another woman. To complete the other half of the tired madonna-whore duality, we have the Sheikh’s daughter Zainab, who Ramy seeks to marry despite his dalliance with Amani. She shows Ramy around her room via Facetime and refuses to take off her hijab until after their wedding, when she reveals herself to be a virgin. Other notable appearances in the second season include the adult film actress Mia Khalifa, who Ramy meets when he visits an Emirati Sheikh (billionaire voluptuaries: check) to raise money for the Sufi Center.

Admittedly, a television comedy show need not be all things to all people, and nimbly avoiding every single stereotype may not yield much humor. Comedy in some inherent sense may be dependent on a few flat characterizations: the gay uncle, a mother grappling with the indignities of old age, a cousin from Cairo who is more American than Ramy himself has been permitted to be. Some of these characters can be chalked up to the nature of the medium, to the necessity of a kind of absurdity in the path to comedy.

The larger question posed by a show like Ramy, however, concerns the ethics of representation. Plural and multicultural America may be under attack, but there is something to be said for any representation of America’s most misunderstood and/or discriminated minority that is a direct challenge to the notion of Muslims being put forth from America’s bully pulpit. Against the uniformly evil shades of Trump’s characterizations—one that millions of the president’s supporters believe without question—this soft dimension of Muslim identity, where Muslims can be (and are) funny, is welcome. In a time of Trump-whetted xenophobia, comedy may be the only means to put through the idea that Muslim Americans are confused, ambivalent, and given to varying levels of profligacy, too.

A wider critique of Ramy could focus on the constraints inherent within the American concept of multiculturalism and its emphasis on the recognition of certain groups rather than, say, the redistribution of resources. Naturally then, it relies centrally on the sort of essentializing impulses required when a category of any sort is created for the purpose of allotting rights and accommodations. American Muslims, Arab Muslims, Egyptian Americans are all various formulations of group identity creation. Out of these generalities, Ramy creates individuals and characters, affording them memorable particularities that dislodge the abstraction they might otherwise be. Not all Americans will have Muslims in their lives, but perhaps in watching Ramy, they can put a face to a category. The stereotypes within its portrayals are thus debatable but also to some extent forgivable. The very existence of the show is an act of social recognition for a group of people whose members are varied and different but also in some definitional sense, the same.

Ramy’s deficiencies lie in its apparent acceptance of the recognition model as the only one that can be deployed to achieve a sort of social (and comedic) equity. This snapshot of a Muslim American community riven by its own internal hang-ups, and differential allotments of privilege, is entertaining: a charlatan act that through its hilarity is meant to sneak past American defenses, thus humanizing Muslims before a hostile audience. But the fact that Ramy Youssef cannot go further than that, or present a version of himself and his family that is only incidentally immigrant or Egyptian or Muslim, reveals the trap that multiculturalism can be. Being recognized and accommodated as an American Muslim also eliminates the possibility of its opposite: of Ramy or Amani or Farouk or Maysa existing as individuals without the hyphen, as simply and unqualifiedly American.