From The Mindy Project to Hamilton and Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, in the 2010s TV, films and books finally began to reflect their consumers.
The year is 2007, and I’ve just been asked by a colleague if me and my family sit around at home discussing terrorism done in the name of Islam. The question was prompted by his viewing, the night before, of Britz, a Channel 4 drama starring a young Riz Ahmed.
It’s a question that stuns me even when I think about now, more than 10 years later, because no, terrorism wasn’t the central theme of conversation at family dinner. Yes, we supposedly share a religion with some terrorists, but that’s where the commonality ends (the Islam I practice doesn’t believe in killing people, so even that commonality is a stretch).
In Britz Ahmed played Sohail, a student who joins MI5. His sister Nasima, training to be a doctor, starts dating a black man. When her family finds out they send her to Pakistan and beat up her boyfriend, who is only saved from worse by Sohail. Enraged, Nasima becomes a terrorist. In one of the final scenes of the two-episode show, we see her in a suicide vest, her brother running to her and hugging her, imploring her not to blow herself up. No prizes for guessing that she does.
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Britz, made in the wake of the 7/7 attacks on London, attempted to explore why British Muslims might turn on the country they have been born and raised in. It was a topical drama, powerful in parts. But, by dint of being a show about British Muslims at a time when we were rarely seen on TV and were only being discussed in the media in relation to terrorism, it was also extremely frustrating for me, a British-Pakistani Muslim.
In his review for Britz Michael Deacon, then a television reviewer for The Telegraph and now its parliamentary sketchwriter, expressed his frustration at the show’s final scene, in which viewers were shown a video Nasima had recorded, where she blamed her actions on the electorate, saying they had enabled anti-Muslim laws.
“Up to this point, Britz had persuaded me to sympathise with Muslims who believe Britain is becoming a police state,” wrote Deacon. “But that jolt of an ending was almost enough to make me side, if only momentarily, with the twitchiest reactionary.”
While Deacon’s reaction was momentary, there are plenty of people who will have watched Britz and come away feeling, at the very least, predisposed to be suspicious of British Muslims. Others, those “twitchiest” reactionaries, will have had their views – that Muslims in their entirety were bad people – cemented.
Because that’s the power of pop culture: it leads people to form views on entire groups of people. In the absence of knowing any Muslims – or black people, or gay people, or people from marginalised communities – society is likely to use television and books and films to form its views, even if it’s done subconsciously. The opposite is true if you’re in a majority; films and TV shows and books about you simply reiterate the fact that your view and experience is the dominant one. The best one. The only one.
Crucially, if you’re in a minority, and you’re never seeing yourself on screen or on the page, then you start to think it’s not a place for you. Or rather, I should say, me.
Pop culture is a window and a mirror, but for so long it’s ignored us (and I use this term to encompass anyone who doesn’t fall into the categories of white, straight and/or cis) apart from to portray us as stereotypes, with few exceptions. Yes, the Masood family joined Eastenders in 2007 and Grey’s Anatomy was inclusive from its 2005 launch, but you’d be hard pushed to cite a dozen examples of well-rounded mainstream representations of a particular minority.
Until, that is, the 2010s, when publishers, film studios and TV networks finally got a clue. Or several clues. They realised that there are audiences out there who want to see themselves reflected on screen, and read about characters like themselves. They clued in to the fact that there’s money to be made by diversifying their output. And they realised that stories about people from marginalised groups aren’t niche: those people have universal stories to tell and experiences to share.
In doing so, they finally allowed me (and a lot of my friends) to feel seen. And seen beyond some ill-conceived stereotypes, too.
The decade brought with it The Mindy Project (2012), which was created by its star, Mindy Kaling. In a revolutionary move, Mindy’s race wasn’t central to the show. Instead, The Mindy Project was a funny, sweet, sarcastic show about a woman trying to balance her personal and professional life. It framed an Indian woman, and a dark-skinned Indian woman at that, as desirable. In western TV shows, this was rare.
The 2010s also saw the introduction of Fresh Off the Boat, starring Constance Wu and Randall Park. It was the first show with a predominantly Asian-American cast since All-American, which aired for one season in 1994. That’s right, an almost 20-year gap. In the meantime, Asian-American characters, like those from many minorities, were often reduced to stereotypes: the comic relief, the submissive, the tiger mum.
Writing in The Lenny Letter, Jenny Zhang said that it was refreshing to see Wu’s character Jessica Huang: “Like many fans of the show, I loved her and was giddy to finally have a female Asian American character whose badassery was both inspirational and aspirational.”
Then, of course, there was Black Panther, the first Marvel film about a superhero of colour (aside from Samuel L Jackson’s Fury, the Marvel films until Black Panther had been a sea of whiteness). The whole film was brilliant, but there was something particularly moving about seeing a group of black women, all very different, all well-rounded, commanding the screen.
Black Panther, along with films like Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time and Jordan Peele’s Get Out contributed to a change in the way narratives about black people were presented; the decade still contained films exploiting black trauma, but there were also romance, horror and fantasy films.
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In books, publishers finally realised that authors of colour didn’t have to write about so-called “minority issues”. That it was perfectly acceptable for black and brown writers to write crime stories and romances and sci-fi that didn’t deal with race or religion (unless the author wanted them to). There have always been a sprinkling of these types of books – Octavia Butler’s entire ouevre, for one – but the 2010s were when we finally started seeing so many that they couldn’t be confined to one shelf in a bookshop labelled “Asian literature” or “black literature”.
YA novels like When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon and My So-Called Bollywood Life by Nisha Sharma (the latter of which I am the UK editor for); both are sweet romances that happen to have Indian leads. They filled me with joy, and are exactly the kind of book I wish I’d had as a teenager.
Ayisha Malik’s Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, released in 2016, was the first time I’d seen a British Muslim romantic lead in a novel. Sofia was funny, sweary, driven but also easily distracted. She was Muslim, which was a core part of her but not the only facet of her identity. She wanted love, success in her career, and the best for her friends and family. In short, Sofia was me.
Authors like Talia Hibbert and Jasmine Guillory wrote sexy, fun romances with black protagonists, but it wasn’t only in romance that the decade saw writers of colour creating space for themselves. Abir Mukherjee and A A Dhand started thrilling crime series, their books standing tall in a genre dominated until then by white detectives.
Then there’s Kamala Khan, who became the first Marvel’s first ever Muslim superhero to headline their own comic book when the G Willow Wilson-written Ms Marvel debuted in 2014. Before Kamala Khan, I’d never seen a teenage character who so perfectly embodied my experiences of growing up. It was extraordinary, and I still feel moved when I read the comics.
And there was plenty more besides, from The Big Sick (more on that in a minute) to the phenomenon that was (and continues to be) Hamilton, to TV shows like Jane the Virgin and How To Get Away With Murder, to Star Wars expanding its universe and casting people like John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran and Oscar Issac in key roles.
That’s not to say the 2010s perfected the inclusion of people of colour in films, TV and books. For one, there’s the BBC’s (much hailed) Bodyguard, which thought that having a female Muslim terrorist was a “twist”, that it imbued the character with power. At the end of the day, though, she was still just a stereotype. I’d rather have watched Britz again, because at least it was doing something new when it aired.
In a way, it’s a good thing I didn’t like Bodyguard. Before this decade, I’d always been predisposed to try and like anything that featured characters that looked like me, because there was so little of it. I felt like I had to be grateful for the tiny bit of representation that I got.
Now that there’s more content, I’m in a position where I can debate its merits properly, and where I can dislike something if I want to. Take The Big Sick, for another example. Many thought it a triumphant piece of storytelling. I, along with many other Muslim and Asian people I know, found the scene where Kumail (Kumail Nunjiani) gives Emily (Zoe Kazan) a box filled with the ashes of photographs of Pakistani Muslim women as proof of his love to be… well, to be problematic.
But you know what? It’s OK, because there is now much more stuff out there I can like, and more to come in the years ahead. I’m no longer bound to that one book or film or TV show that features a character like me, because I have a myriad to choose from. I can treat films and TV shows and books about people like me in exactly the same way I treat those that don’t feature anyone that looks like me. They are simply something that is there to entertain me, or to make me think, or even just have on in the background while I do something else.
Now, at the end of the 2010s, I finally feel seen. And I can’t wait to see what the next decade will bring.
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance journalist and editor. She reads more books a week than is healthy, and balances this out with copious amounts of TV. She writes regularly about popular culture, particularly how it reflects and represents society.