One reader reflects on the implications of Hulu’s “Ramy”

The following was published as a Facebook post by the author. It is reprinted here with permission. It has been edited for clarity.

I’ve spent the past week in and out of a lot of conversations about the new Hulu show ‘Ramy’. Those conversations have waded through expressions of disgust and expressions of gratitude. There is a lot of legitimate critique to be made of the show, but what’s been made abundantly clear is that for many, we don’t believe there is room for growth; that if perfection we can’t even define can’t be presented, we turn towards a fatalistic cultural critique that hinges more on complete dismissal versus growth.

As my interests move towards film and television, I’m also caught between balancing my unwavering commitment to my faith (belief and practice), expectations of an industry that is so antithetical to my principles in many ways. I also don’t know how to tell multiple truths without falling into the trap of a mass palatability that strips meaning from any meaning. All of this informs my personal interest in the show and it’s process – as well as my approach to it, which may not be as black and white as I think many feel an approach needs to be to something like this. 

First, some critiques. There is some cheese, there is cringe – specifically early on. The writing can be tighter and as the episodes continue, you can see the writing become clearer in intention & direction. 

…if perfection we can’t even define can’t be presented, we turn towards a fatalistic cultural critique that hinges more on complete dismissal versus growth.

Almost every female character – with maybe one exception – is defined by her relationship to sex: is she having it? Is she not? When will she have? Is it good? Is it weird? There are two whole episodes dedicated to female characters – one of which had my heart in my throat and could be a short film because it’s just so brilliant in its manipulation and navigation of emotions and the story arc – and both rely (to varying extents) to women and sex. Complicated female characters don’t get complicated simply through sex – though I think we would be lying that a woman’s sexuality, because of how much of a public commodity it is, doesn’t complicate her day to day existence both in public and private. 

The only black character is a Muslim woman who wears hijab who adopts a very flippant attitude towards premarital sex – and that’s all there is to her (very brief) character. Given popular tropes about black women’s sexuality (including in our own communities) that present Black women as uniquely over-sexual, through their own volition, this is problematic. While it obviously isn’t intentional, it’s a surprising oversight. 

Then there’s the anti-Semitic misogynist Palestinian uncle. Ramy Youssef has a response for that (watch the interview posted below), and while I get it creatively, it’s hard to ignore how it plays into stereotypes. Even though we all have that uncle or aunt in our families, across backgrounds, who plays into some caricature we wish s/he didn’t. At the same time, there are the characters around him – Arab, Muslim – who don’t put up with that or don’t agree with his approach. A better treatment of the character is possible. 

So, what’s good about the show?

A lot. 

There is surprising character development and depth; there are incredibly sweet relatable and touching moments and laughs. It views as a comedy series versus a preachy attempt at representation for the sake of representation.

The coolest thing, in my opinion, is that Ramy’s character doesn’t hate or dislike being Muslim. To the contrary, he wants to be Muslim & sees the problem as within him, not his faith. That’s a departure from what we usually see from “complicated” Muslim characters.

I genuinely love the very nuanced approach to his struggle with Islam: the problem isn’t presented as though the *faith* is the problem (too rigid, unmoving, outdated), the root of the struggle is Ramy’s own nafs (ego).

It’s a good start to pushing back against the secularization of Muslim identity – where ‘Muslim’ is a self-inflicted racialized category where the laws of the faith, the principles and guidelines don’t matter. Ramy, as a show, pushes back against that – it doesn’t discard or disregard even the most basic guidelines and principles. 

Ramy isn’t trying to *change* Islam to his own whims or justify his actions, which fall outside the realm of Islamic religious law – he’s trying to fit himself into them however flawed his human journey is. 

That’s powerful in this landscape that treats Islamic practice as criminal. 

That’s powerful in this landscape that treats the existences of Muslim men as inherently violent; where religious practice is seen as a direct avenue for violence.

Ramy isn’t trying to *change* Islam to his own whims or justify his actions, which fall outside the realm of Islamic religious law – he’s trying to fit himself into them however flawed his human journey is. 

Ramy also explores the way in which brown women are relegated to very specific positions by the men in our communities – they may respect us, but the white girl still reigns and we become avenues for correcting the behavior of Muslim boys gone bad.

The show’s primary audience also isn’t white and non-Muslim, despite what some critics have been saying. Obviously it’s a show for broad audience consumption – but small things (like protecting your kicks at the masjid at the expense of another’s shoes, being in a total non-halal situation but always saying salaams to your girls or bros, etc.) are small social interactions that define the intricacies of Muslim American culture that we immediately can recognize. As the show continues, I was surprised how much more present Arabic becomes throughout. And sometimes without subtitles!

While there are concerns about how certain un-Islamic behaviors are normalized, it’s also important to note that the show doesn’t romanticize these behaviors but actually uses them to underpin the main character’s illness of the heart.

Lastly, one of my favorite things about the show – and that not enough people are recognizing – is the relationship between Ramy and Steve and how Ramy’s character, without question or explanation, cares for him in a way only unconditional love would allow. The normalization of the brotherly relationship between two men with differently abled bodies is striking.

Sana Saeed is a journalist based in Washington, DC.

Photo Credit: Hulu

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