Master of None is aired on NetflixNETFLIX

In my last column, I looked at the ways in which the trope of the ‘Muslim like us’ is perpetuated in popular media, often by those who are not Muslim. However, the rise of TV shows and movies starring ‘brown’ men has done little to challenge this narrative.

I recently re-watched the entirety of Master of None in a hopeless attempt to enjoy it from a ‘detached’ perspective. Inevitably, I failed. Tired of the lack of South Asian Muslim representation on TV, I found myself desperately clinging onto the few scenes, particularly with Ansari’s real-life parents, which felt tender and real and familiar. Despite being wholesome at times, Master of None – like most TV shows with ‘brown’ male protagonists – fails to really engage with the critical concepts it purposefully brings to the forefront. ‘Brown’ men’s infatuation with ‘white’ women, casual anti-blackness and lack of regard for ‘brown’ women is nothing new on- and off-screen.  The very slowly increasing visibility of ‘brown’ and sometimes Muslim men in film at the expense of their female counterparts is both tired and careless - only reinforcing the status quo. 

‘Brown’ women continue to be the butt of the joke. We are either not featured or at all, or fulfilling lazy stereotypes of undesirable, arranged marriage partners with too much baggage. In Ansari’s show, ‘brown’ women make fleeting insignificant appearances here and there. In Nanjiani’s movie, The Big Sick, ‘brown’ women feature as a stereotypical inconvenience. Nadya Agrawal makes a great point in her detailed article that women of colour are introduced in these shows just to disappear: “they are ground up into the burger that is the storyline, while the pursuit of the white woman bookends the whole project”.

“‘Brown’ women continue to be the butt of the joke.”

That is exactly it, isn’t it? ‘Brown’ women time and time again fade into the backdrop of love stories centred around ‘white’ women, particularly in relation to ‘brown’ men. ‘White’ women are given the luxury of complexity, whilst ‘brown’ women remain one-dimensional. ‘White’ women essentially become the antidote to the burden of ‘brown’ women; as the trope of the ‘brown,’ often Muslim, women weighed down with baggage, unable to think for herself is carelessly recycled on and off-screen with no nuance.

Condemning a show like ‘Master of None’ for failing to include ‘brown’ women is not something I ever planned on doing. Regardless of its lack of representation of ‘brown’ women, the appearance of Muslim men like Ansari and Hasan Minhaj on TV was enough to make me hopeful. I don’t know what it was I was wishing for in Ansari’s portrayal of being Muslim in the West, but I can’t say I got it. In the second season of Ansari’s show, I was excited to see an episode entitled ‘Religion,’ but after watching it twice, I was left feeling a sense of dejection that I don’t think Ansari intended for. The episode starts off harmlessly and comically, with a number of children from different families begrudgingly attending various places of prayer, such as a temple and a church. From there, Ansari tells the story of becoming the embodiment of his rebellious young self, enjoying pork and other things forbidden in Islam. In the final half, he goes on to skip Eid prayer to attend a barbecue festival - enjoying pork with his cousin, eventually attending an Eid dinner with his family. Pretty rudely, he chooses to order pork and accuses his parents of forcing their religion upon him. All is well in the end though. Everyone gets along just fine.

“Ansari’s exploration of Muslim identity is both limited and tired”

There are many ways Ansari’s exploration of Muslim identity is both limited and tired. The show’s co-creater, Alan Yang, talks about how the inspiration for the show came from frustration with the typical depiction of Muslims as terrorists, leading to their attempt to do something ‘specifically funny and relatable’. However, in an attempt to create such a relatable, palatable version of Muslim identity, Ansari further embeds his characters in a familiar, unextraordinary, unimaginative liberal framework that fails to depict Muslims with any nuance.

The Muslim who eats pork (even at a family Eid dinner), drinks, doesn’t pray and whose family plays into the Western gaze - I’ll let you decide for yourself whether that is ‘heroic’ and worthy of praise or not. Muslims are relatable, and silly, and funny and ultimately, ‘human’ like the rest of us. Obviously, that is true of most Muslims today. But the ‘Muslim who acts like us’ continues to be a lazy, one-dimensional response to islamophobia in all kinds of media that attempts to be ‘progressive.’ What would happen if the protagonist was a Muslim woman who wore the hijab, and did pray five times a day? Who is still silly, feels emotions and can fall in love- but isn’t so palatable and relatable? This is not to say that Ansari and other Muslim men making waves in popular culture should not be watched or heard. But if you’re reading this as a non-Muslim person who doesn’t identify with all I’ve written above but feel this is further arsenal for you to critique Muslim men, then know this is not for you.

This is for the ‘brown,’ often Muslim, women who watch and have conversations about these shows that supposedly ‘represent’ them - but feel a sense of dejection and disappointment when they don’t. Here’s to not using ‘brown’ women as lazy plot devices. Let’s explore them as complex characters, not so easy to swallow and able to tell a story on their own terms