Critic's Notebook: Un-Demonizing Muslims, One Comedy at a Time
Using charm, humor and universal themes, a pair of Netflix shows and a big-screen rom-com are providing a timely corrective to Trump-era alarmism about Muslims.
Amid the inflammatory rhetoric and bigotry of the Trump presidency, film and television seem to be entering a brash new era of social activism. The ban on travel to the U.S. from certain Muslim countries may be in effect, but several smarter-than-fear autobiographical comedies are shattering the kind of ugly stereotypes that, at least in part, have provided the rationale for such a ban: Kumail Nanjiani’s hilarious, emotionally warm rom-com The Big Sick, Aziz Ansari’s brilliant Netflix series Master of None and Hasan Minhaj’s sharply funny Netflix standup special Homecoming King offer a realistic and refreshing corrective to alarmist images of Muslim immigrants and their American-raised children.
Separately, each of these actor-writers has a distinctive style, from Nanjiani’s droll, raised-eyebrow reactions to Ansari’s lightning-quick out-of-the-box social observations and Minhaj’s politely understated barbs. What unites them is the way their work approaches cultural identity — through the relatable theme of relationships between grown children and their parents.
The fictionalized Kumail, played by Nanjiani, pretends to his Pakistani parents that he’s religious, even though he watches YouTube videos while they think he’s praying in another room. He even lets them believe he’s up for an arranged marriage. Ansari’s character, Dev, hides another secret from his Indian parents: He eats pork. Meanwhile, Minhaj recalls in his standup how anxious he was when telling his Indian Muslim father that he wanted to marry a Hindu woman.
Each character respects his heritage but doesn’t want to turn into his parents. Nothing is more universal. The comic fear of being yelled at by your mom or dad, even as a grown-up, spans every ethnicity and religion in existence. In depicting that common experience, social themes emerge naturally in these works, with complexity and ambiguity.
In The Big Sick, Kumail performs a fumbling, earnest one-man show about his Pakistani roots. But the film is a romance before anything else, based on the true story of Nanjiani and his wife, the film’s co-author, Emily V. Gordon. Just before Emily becomes ill and is put into a medically induced coma, the couple breaks up because Kumail’s parents insist he marry a Pakistani woman or be cut off from them forever. “I can’t lose my family,” he tells Emily.
Later, he comes clean to his parents about his love for a white woman and his ambivalence about religion. “Islam has been good for you. It has made you good people,” he says. “But I don’t know what I believe. I just need to figure it out on my own.” His honesty is touching, and his need to find his own way hints at a truth about generational change that goes beyond cultural particulars.
Dev, an actor, is only loosely based on Ansari, but it’s well known that Ansari’s real parents play his mother and father. The older generation’s different grasp of culture is woven throughout the series. The recently released second season of Master of None finds Dev having his own come-clean moment. His mother stops speaking to him because he has admitted he’s not religious and ordered pork in front of religious relatives. In a conciliatory conversation, Dev’s father explains that he can eat pork and drink, but “when you do it in front of Mom, it hurts her feelings.” The exchange is about Islam but applies to hundreds of other situations. In fact, Dev and his Taiwanese-American friend, Brian, often compare their similar generational issues.
The popularity of these comedies — especially The Big Sick, a major indie hit — reveals how effectively they have touched universal emotions. A major part of their appeal is that they make their points without preaching. The resolution of Dev’s quarrel with his mother is wry, loving and irreverent. He pulls out the Quran she gave him when he left for college and texts her a quote: “To you be your religion, and to me my religion.” She replies that at least he read it. When Dev asks if it’s okay to eat bacon, she texts back: “BOY GET OUTTA HERE."
Although these comedies speak across ethnic divides, their creators are astutely aware of countering the demonized image of Muslims that persists in pop culture as well as politics. As Ansari noted in an interview with New York Magazine, if all Muslims onscreen resemble the terrorists on Homeland or 24, of course, the public will be horrified. “If every time you saw a Muslim person on TV, and it’s my dad, you’ll be like, ‘These goofy people! They’re probably gonna ask me for a bite of my sandwich,’” he said.
The parents in these comedies are not just warm and goofy; they are white-collar professionals. Dev’s father and Minhaj’s mother, for example, are doctors. Their professions refute the stereotype of immigrants feeding off America. But Minhaj’s standup reveals that class doesn’t save anyone from bias. A major segment of his routine concerns his high-school girlfriend, whose parents were just fine with him until prom time, when they decided their white daughter could not turn up with a non-white date. The special is virtually a coming-of-age story about a California-born son of immigrants forging his own identity — which in Minhaj’s case includes skewering anti-Muslim images on The Daily Show and triumphing with anti-Trump jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
Traditional comedies tend to deal with immigrants in a more timid way. Network and cable shows have broadened their range of ethnic groups recently to include families like the Taiwanese-American Huangs on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and the Cuban-American Alvarez clan on Netflix’s rebooted One Day at a Time. But most shows have avoided focusing on Muslims. Safely traditional sitcom characters don’t often deal with the type of problem Kumail does in The Big Sick, when a heckler at his comedy show yells: “Go back to ISIS.” And artistically, most series that touch on immigration and conflicts of cultural identity are still bound by the cookie-cutter tropes of the old-time network model. (The exception is Fresh Off the Boat, which deftly blends the parents’ immigrant status and culture with idiosyncrasies of character.)
Though the daring works by Ansari, Nanjiani and Minhaj are taking powerful steps in redefining the image of Muslims, the process may be long. Veep, the most pointed satire on television, reveals the distance between the humanistic optimism of these new comedies and the actual state of American politics today. This season, former President Selina Meyer has a romance with Jaffar, a Muslim diplomat from Qatar. (He’s also the great-grandson of an arms dealer: This is Veep, so no one is pristine.) She seems to have found happiness. Then she decides to run for president again. We have never seen her so emotionally raw or genuine; still, there is no question in her mind or her advisors’ about what she has to do — break up with the Muslim guy to preserve her political life. It’s not as charming a picture of American society as on Master of None, but capturing that brutal reality is its own kind of resistance.