London, England – Representing characters from minority backgrounds as complex, humanised beings has long been a contentious issue within the British arts landscape.
The season finale on Sunday of The Bodyguard, a BBC drama, is the latest television show to be criticised for how it represented characters from ethnic minority backgrounds.
According to the public broadcaster, 11 million people tuned in to the last five minutes of the episode – the highest ratings since 2008, when Brits were hooked on Doctor Who.
The Bodyguard followed a white, British, male veteran-turned-bodyguard who foils a suicide bomb plot planned by a visibly Muslim woman – to the ire of many Muslim viewers.
The show has reignited the debate over representation of Muslims, with critics arguing they were reduced to stereotypes.
When shows like The Bodyguard perpetuate these negative stories, especially against a backdrop of a rise in Islamophobic hate crimes across Europe and the US, these narratives can have real-life implications.
Shaf Choudry, The Riz Test co-founder
According to The Riz Test, an initiative set up earlier this year to challenge the portrayal of Muslims on British television, The Bodyguard was a failure.
The Riz Test works in a similar way to the Bechdel test, which evaluates the portrayal of women in film and the Duvernay test, which measures racial diversity.
It poses five questions: Have Muslim characters been depicted as hyper-aggressive, a threat to the Western way of life, anti-modern, oppressed if female or misogynistic if male, or perpetrators of terrorism?
“When shows like The Bodyguard perpetuate these negative stories, especially [against] a backdrop of a rise in Islamophobic hate crimes across Europe and the US, these narratives can have real-life implications,” said Shaf Choudry, who founded The Riz Test with Sadia Habib
“Hollywood and the media at large have crucial roles in influencing popular opinions of Muslims.”
The initiative is named after Riz Ahmed, the British actor who delivered a speech to the House of Commons last year about on-screen diversity, the portrayal of Muslims, and how sincere representation could foil “radicalisation”.
Research by the University of Cambridge in 2016 found that hostile media coverage of Muslims contributed to a heightened climate of Islamophobia and hostility towards Muslims.
Habib, who has taught at inner-city schools in London and Manchester for seven years, said that proper representation in the arts is important for young people.
“[They] are fascinated by issues surrounding identity and belonging, but often they don’t get the opportunity to explore what it means to belong because of how they’re represented in media, film, and television. They would jump at the chance to explore more about this,” she said.
What has historically happened is that people who commission books are from the same background, they have certain life experiences. And so, when you look at black and ethnic minority representation, they’re fetishised.
Nikesh Shukla, author and editor
In addition to religious diversity, sectors including broadcasting, performance, film and publishing have also been blasted for failing to represent the working class.
A study by Create London published earlier this year on social mobility in the arts found working-class people were hugely under-represented.
Within publishing, those from working-class backgrounds accounted for only 12.6 percent. In film, TV and radio it was 12.4 percent.
A study by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education found that children from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds are still under-represented in most mainstream children’s books, with only 4 percent of 9,115 surveyed books in the UK featuring black or ethnic minority characters.
Nikesh Shukla, author and editor of The Good Immigrant anthology of essays on race and identity by ethnic minority authors, said there are gatekeepers in the publishing industry.
“What has historically happened is that people who commission books are from the same background, they have certain life experiences. And so, when you look at [black and ethnic minority] representation, they’re fetishised”, he said.
“You don’t get to hear [black and ethnic minority] writers who are sci-fi writers, who are not writers that are just writing about their oppression or their identity. You only hear about one type of thing that resonates with the people who decide what gets published.
“We need to look at who decides what gets published and how we can diversify that because the talent is out there, but the talent isn’t actively being looked for by people who know what’s out there and so they just self-perpetuate.”
Films such as Marvel’s Black Panther, featuring mostly black protagonists, became the 10th-highest grossing filmof all time, according to Forbes, and other titles such as Crazy Rich Asians have challenged mainstream narratives.
In 2016, the British Film Institute analysed 1,172 British films and found that most do not feature a single black character and those that did revolved around stereotypical subjects such as crime and slavery.
Theatre, too, continues to be dominated by a privileged, privately educated, white and male majority. Only 18.2 percent of people working in performing and the visual arts are from working-class backgrounds, according to the Create London study.
Common Wealth Theatre, a women-led theatre company, aims for greater diversity.
The cast of its most recent production, Radical Acts, a play celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage, included Muslim and working-class women from across Bradford.
“What felt really important is how we brought these women together to think about radical acts that they do every day,” Rhiannon White, co-director of Common Wealth Theatre, told Al Jazeera.”We wanted to celebrate these women, to discover some of this history and share it with the world.”
Speaking about the importance of including visibly Muslim women like herself on stage, 21-year-old assistant director Jaasra Aslam said: “It means everything … It’s only once you see people like you doing something that you feel accepted and you get the confidence to think, ‘Yeah, I could do that as well.'”