Since its debut in November, TLC’s All-American Muslim has received a lot of coverage (to say the least). Among the highlights, the show has been talked about for its novelty of portraying American Muslims on television, critiques of the portrayal of a singular American Muslim community, critiques from everyone regarding the portrayal of hijab on the show, and the controversy surrounding Lowe’s decision to pull their advertising from the show.
In one of my earlier posts on the show, I noted the show’s main aim seemed to be to portray Muslims’ “ordinariness,” as opposed to a nuanced discussion of spirituality and one’s personal religious beliefs (Nicole recently wrote a review on MMW of a Canadian web series where the portrayals of Canadian Muslims are more nuanced and diverse). I also argued that many of the portrayals of Muslim women were focused on their role within families, and that showing the cultural diversity of Muslims in America was not what the show was going for. Having seen more of the AAM episodes, I noticed the trend continued: the show’s focus on women’s fertility, pregnancy, mothering, and marriage in the show was disappointing.
While there is some discussion of work-life balance and professional aspirations, I felt that these snippets were few and fleeting in comparison to the rest of the show’s portrayals of Muslim women. What about the women and girls in the community who face other concerns? Or of women or girls who don’t fall in the 20-30 year old age range? One glaring example: while Muslim boys are seen playing football in their community during Ramadan, what do girls the same age do?
Another thing that struck me as I watched more episodes was the small number of relationships of Muslims interacting with non-Muslims that are portrayed. Most of the interactions occur among family members or Muslim friends (although one of the characters, Suheila does meet with one of her good friends, a Lebanese Christian woman, several times). As someone who grew up in a community where Muslims were the minority and with friends from a variety of different backgrounds, I found this unusual: where are the everyday relationships with non-Muslims that make up a large part of everyday life in the United States?
The reality show has been touted as a way to dispel some of the stereotypical representations of Muslims and a way to get to know Muslims better. For those who have never met any Muslims in person before, this show might be a good introduction. And there were times, I will admit, where I found myself identifying with the struggles some of the women faced, as Suheila discusses her career and life aspirations (well, maybe only this one example).
But do we really need a show that places a religious identity over any other identity? Why can’t we move beyond this kind of representation (on a reality television series to boot)? And one that focuses solely on one cultural background? For all of the online discussion of how the show is a boon for promoting awareness, I remembered an early critique by my fellow MMW sister, Sana, who wrote about some of the pitfalls of relying on a reality show to educate people about Muslims at her blog:
“If we depend on this show to set the trail for future inclusion of Muslim Americans in mainstream pop culture then we run the risk, however minimal [or not], of being defined on caricatures based on particular ethno-sectarian identities and particular American experiences not shared by other Muslim Americans.”
In 2011, I profiled some awesome Muslim women for MMW whose faith was presented secondarily to their incredible work—women like Ameena Matthews in The Interrupters and Malian singer Khaira Arby. I’m currently reading a collection of essays by American Muslim women in I Speak for Myself (you can read Diana‘s MMW review of it here). And yet, when we look at the coverage these women received in mainstream outlets, or even by Muslim commentators online, it pales significantly in comparison to the media coverage received by All-American Muslim.
All-American Muslim has sparked numerous conversations and controversy—both within and outside of the Muslim community—and revealed just how necessary it is to continue cross-cultural and cross-religious dialogue in the American community. Do I have concerns about the portrayal of Muslims, especially of how women and girls are portrayed on the show? Of course. And yet I find myself reluctant to dismiss it outright, especially as I continue to meet people who haven’t met any Muslims in their life. Hopefully the show will serve as a launching point and help to initiate dialogue about American Muslims, their cultural diversity, and commitment to engaging with their wider communities.