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Before the 2019 premiere of Ramy Youssef’s eponymous hit show on Hulu, the American Muslim community waited with bated breath. Here was the first major show not just featuring Muslim actors, but about the American Muslim experience.
Critics, and many American Muslims, rightly lauded the show for its authenticity as the title character struggled to reconcile his life, his goals and his faith. Finally, we had a show that portrayed how many of us see ourselves, even if it made us uncomfortable at times. So uncomfortable, in fact, that Ramy was not universally well-received within the Muslim community.
Fast forward to 2021 and we have We Are Lady Parts, which premiered June 3 on NBC’s Peacock streaming service. Created, written, and directed by the U.K.’s Nida Manzoor, the show tells the story of five very English, very Muslim women trying to achieve some measure of success through their punk band, Lady Parts.
In so many ways, this comedy, like Ramy before it, is the representation we have been waiting for. It’s complicated, it’s unconventional, it shatters stereotypes – and it’s real. These five characters portray different versions of their faith, but the best part of the show is the humor mined from every dimension of their lives.
“We pray together and play together,” says Saira, the lead singer of Lady Parts. Taken out of context, this could be a throwaway line. But in the world of We Are Lady Parts, the words are imbued with sisterhood and a sense of common cause.
For American audiences, the biggest shock of the series will not be the plentiful F-bombs that emanate from the band members, but the different representations of the Muslim diaspora.
Momtaz, the band manager, wears a niqab (a full-length covering with only the eyes showing), which she frequently vapes through as she works at a lingerie store. Artist and mom Bisma, the band’s bass player, is of African descent, making her part of the largest but most underrecognized part of the global Muslim community. Drummer Ayesha drives an Uber, swears like a sailor and is queer. There are no grieving widows, damsels in distress or oppressed women in We Are Lady Parts.
Because of the diversity of the Muslim community and Muslim experiences, We Are Lady Parts will not be universally embraced. Some will say that it shows Muslim women receiving fulfillment from haram (forbidden) activities, or that it casts the community in a controversial light. Show creator Manzoor brilliantly anticipates this criticism in a meta moment during Episode 5 involving the social media backlash from an ill-fated interview the band gives. The whole scene reads like a modern interpretation of the film critic character in Fellini’s 8 ½, whose comments mirrored the critiques that Fellini himself knew would come for his movie.
In the U.K, the series was put through the Riz Test, and it passed with flying colors. But in the U.S., the Riz Test, which focuses on the history of Muslim vilification, demonization and stereotypes in film and TV, doesn’t capture the current expansion in portrayals and the vast pool of talented Muslim creatives in the industry.
Last year, THR published our narrative test, the Obeidi-Alsultany Test, which evaluates whether a TV or film project presents Muslim characters in dynamic, nuanced and intersectional contexts. We Are Lady Parts more than passes:
- The project that includes a Muslim character(s) does not reproduce or reinvent old tropes but rather explores new stories and contexts. The old tropes of exoticism or terrorism are nowhere to be found in We Are Lady Parts. Instead, we meet characters that we know, who remind us of our friends or people we grew up with, whose Muslim faith is only one part of their story.
- The project that includes Muslim character(s) has a Muslim-identifying writer on staff to ensure that Muslim cultures, religion, characters and storylines are being portrayed accurately and authentically. We Are Lady Parts sets a new standard for authentic writing, fleshing out the characters as whole persons, not merely stereotypes. Manzoor writes the band members with a thoughtfulness that comes from her own lived experiences.
- The Muslim character(s) is not solely defined by their religion. Religion can be part of the character’s backstory but should not be their entire story. Muslim culture and faith should be accurately delineated. For the women of We Are Lady Parts, faith is a part of their identity, but it does not define their narrative.
- The Muslim character(s) has a strong presence and the character(s) is essential to the story arc and has a rich and clearly defined backstory. The Muslim characters are at the center of the story, and we are eagerly hoping for a season two to learn more about them.
- The Muslim character(s) is portrayed with diverse backgrounds and identities. The simple fact that many of the Muslims portrayed are not simply “vaguely Middle Eastern” but are South Asian, Iraqi or African is a huge departure from how we are used to seeing our community depicted.
While We Are Lady Parts is written from an authentically Muslim perspective, the five main characters are as relatable as many find Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Chandler, Ross and Joey of Friends, which was a cultural phenomenon but missed the mark when it came to diversity. Both Muslims and non-Muslims can see themselves in one of the band members, and their struggles mirror our own: fights with friends and parents, job insecurity and dreams deferred.
Soon enough, American fans will be asking, “Which character are you most like?” Are you an introverted Amina, a punky, no B.S. Saira, an all-business Momtaz, an earth-mother Bisma, or a caustically acerbic Ayesha?
At the end of the day, while We Are Lady Parts is a gamechanger for Muslim representation that ups the bar for all shows after it, it will succeed not because of what or who it represents, but simply because it is great storytelling.
Sue Obeidi is the director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s (MPAC) Hollywood Bureau. Evelyn Alsultany is an associate professor at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and a scholar of representations of Muslims in the U.S. media.
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