Muslims Underrepresented And Stereotyped In Top-Grossing Films, USC Annenberg Report Finds

Nearly a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, but only 1.1% of the characters portrayed in the 100 top-grossing U.S. films from 2017-19 were Muslim, according to a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released Thursday.

The study, “Missing & Maligned: The Reality of Muslims in Popular Global Movies,” paints a dark picture of the “erasure” of Muslims from 200 popular films released during those years in four countries – the U.S., the UK, Australia and New Zealand – and posits that their stereotypical portrayals as foreigners and threatening outsiders may have contributed to the rise of hate crimes against Muslims worldwide.

“By one estimate, the number of potential anti-Islam attacks in 2019 exceeded 500 in the U.S.,” the survey notes. “That same year, nearly half of all hate crimes in England and Wales were targeted against Muslims. In March 2019, 51 individuals were killed and more were injured in a shooting at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. The violence against Muslims – online and offline – demonstrates dangerous biases in the population and real threats to individuals in this community. While the causes of such violence are complex, one arena that may exacerbate biased views of the Muslim community is the mass media.”

“The representation of Muslims on screen feeds the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded,” said Riz Ahmed, the Oscar-nominated Sound of Metal and Emmy-winning The Night Of actor who lent his support to the report. “The data doesn’t lie. This study shows us the scale of the problem in popular film, and its cost is measured in lost potential and lost lives.”

The data shows that more than 90% of the 200 films examined did not feature a single Muslim character, and that when they are portrayed, 39% of primary and secondary Muslim characters were shown as perpetrators of violence; that more than half of the primary and secondary Muslim characters were targeted by violence; and that more than 70% experienced disparagement, with 62% of them targeted with racist and/or religious slurs or undertones.

Read the full report here.

The report is accompanied by a set of recommendations from the Pillars Fund to create a Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion. Since its founding in 2010, the fund has distributed more than $6 million in grants to Muslim organizations and leaders who advance social causes.

“Muslims, both on screen and off, have been constrained to a narrative that normalizes them as violent and positions their faith as related to extremism,” the report concluded. “While this sample of movies did not feature a significant percentage of films with narratives focused on war or terrorism, a notable percentage of Muslim characters were depicted in ways that perpetuate a view of Muslims as violent.” More than 17% of primary and secondary characters were shown as part of groups that used violence to achieve their goals, and 19% of Muslim primary and secondary characters died by the end of their respective films.

To convey their “otherness,” nearly half of the primary and secondary characters spoke with an accent that was reflective of a non-native English speaker, while 39% didn’t speak English at all. The report also found that less than half of the films that depicted Muslim characters were set in the present day, 11% were set in the recent past and that more than 40% took place in the historical or fantastical past. It also found at of the 100 U.S. films surveyed, not one featured a major Muslim character in a present-day U.S. setting.

“More than half of the primary and secondary Muslim characters in these films were immigrants, migrants, or refugees, which along with other findings in the study consistently rendered Muslims as ‘foreign,’” said Al-Baab Khan, a project specialist at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and one of the study’s authors. “Muslims live all over the world, but film audiences only see a narrow portrait of this community, rather than viewing Muslims as they are: business owners, friends and neighbors whose presence is part of modern life. By presenting Muslims in an abundance of storylines, audiences can see and resonate with the innumerable experiences of Muslims from all walks of life.”

The report also found that Muslim females are even more invisible than their male counterparts in the films surveyed, accounting for less than 24% of all Muslim characters and only 25.5% of Muslim characters. Of the 200 films from the four countries, 185 didn’t feature a single Muslim girl or woman character who spoke one or more words on screen. Of the 100 U.S. films, 94 didn’t feature any Muslim females in speaking roles.

Of the 144 Muslim characters portrayed in the 200 films, which featured 8,965 speaking roles, 110 (76.4%) were played by male actors, compared to only 34 (23.6%) played by females – a ratio of 3.2 male Muslim characters to every one female Muslim character.

And when they are depicted, Muslim women were primarily shown as romantic partners and family members. “Muslim women are submissive and stereotyped,” the report found. “Muslim women in secondary roles were predominantly supportive to the main and typically male protagonist in the film and/or presented as their potential romantic partners. Stories of Muslim women are still undermined by a focus on their desirability to potential romantic partners, or by character portrayals centered on meek and submissive personalities. The exclusion and minimization of Muslim women in top movies is even more egregious when considering the many Muslim women who have made and continued to make contributions to public life, alongside the various traits and talents of Muslim women off-screen.”

The report also found that youthful audiences will find very few young Muslim characters with whom to identify. “The erasure of Muslim characters is particularly notable in animation, where not one of the (23) animated movies we examined featured a Muslim character,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. “Paired with the finding that only seven Muslim characters were children, popular movies send a strong message to children that Muslims do not belong and are not worthy of inclusion in storytelling. Is this the lesson we want young viewers to learn about themselves or others: that if you are Muslim it is acceptable to be erased?”

Muslim LGBTQ characters, and those with disabilities, were even more invisible. According to the report, only one Muslim character portrayed in the 200 films identified as LGBTQ, and there was just one Muslim character shown with a disability.

The report claims that “Muslims are the most racially and ethnically diverse religious group in the world,” though the followers of many of the world’s other religions are equally as diverse.

The survey examined the 100 top-grossing films from the U.S., 63 films from the U.K., 32 from Australia, and five from New Zealand. In the U.S. sample, 51 of the speaking roles (1.1%) went to Muslim characters, which is their same percentage of the U.S. population. In the UK films surveyed, Muslim characters also appeared in 1.1% of the speaking roles, though Muslims make up 6.3% of the U.K.’s population. In the Australian films sampled, 5.6% of the characters were Muslim, who in 2016 made up 2.6% of its population. None of the New Zealand films reviewed in the survey had any Muslim characters, in a country where 1%-2% of the population identifies as Muslim. “Thus, in two countries, the U.K. and Australia, top films fail to reach proportional representation with the population,” the survey found.

Of the 144 Muslim characters across the 200 films sampled, 66.7% were Middle Eastern/North African, 20.8% were Asian, 5.6% were Black/African American, 4.2% were white, and 2.8% were multiracial/multiethnic. No Muslim characters were Hispanic/Latino, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

A total of 8,965 speaking characters were identified across these 200 films. Of these characters, 144 (1.6%) were Muslim and 8,678 (98.4% ) were not Muslim – a ratio of 60.3 non-Muslim characters to every one Muslim character on screen.

The report concluded that its analysis of the 200 films shows that “Muslim characters are rooted in times and places that promote the idea of the Muslim faith as ‘foreign’ or ‘other.’ While there was not one major Muslim character who appeared in a present-day U.S. setting, this perspective is not only true of U.S. films. Likewise, only a handful of Muslim characters appeared in a modern U.K. locale. Yet, Muslims in both the U.S. and U.K. are notable business owners, political leaders, and community members grappling with current challenges and joys. These experiences find little space in the top movies in our sample.”

Kashif Shaikh, co-founder and president of the Pillars Fund, said that the study “reveals the scope of the problem facing Muslims in entertainment, and the urgent need for solutions that increase the presence of Muslim voices in storytelling.” The fund’s Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion, he said, “offers a direct response to these findings by providing a broad set of recommendations for film industry professionals. We’re excited to support the industry to take practical steps towards more nuanced portrayals that amplify Muslim voices, from sunsetting terror tropes and signing first look deals with Muslims, to including Muslims in diversity, equity, and inclusion programming.”

The Blueprint, the fund says, “Includes short, medium, and long-term solutions for change, concrete recommendations for everyone from production companies to drama schools, and a suite of practical resources and contacts to support everything from script screening to casting.”

The Pillars Fund says it has also partnered with Ahmed and his Left Handed Films on a new fellowship “to transform the cultural landscape by creating opportunities for Muslim storytellers.” The Pillars Artist Fellowship will focus on Muslim artists in the U.S. and the U.K. at the early stages of their careers, offering selected fellows an award of $25,000 and career development support to create a talent pipeline that will help shift on-screen representation. Designed as a multi-year program, the fellowship will focus in its first year on directors and writers from film and television. In upcoming years, it will expand to cover storytellers from other disciplines, including literature, music and the visual arts.

“Muslim communities are bursting with talent – it’s our duty and privilege to support these incredible artists and provide them the opportunity to tell their own stories,” said Arij Mikati, the Pillars Fund’s managing director of culture change. “Right now, a pathway to success doesn’t exist for many Muslim creatives. The Pillars Artist Fellowship addresses this by providing them the funds, connections, and high-support, high-challenge community needed to reach their greatest aspirations.”

“I know the industry has the imagination and the resources to fix this problem,” Ahmed said. “Now it must show the will, and the Blueprint for Muslim Inclusion can offer a practical roadmap for change. The Fellowship also offers a meaningful way to intervene. Having a source of unrestricted funding for Muslim artists and storytellers will be game changing. Muslim communities in the U.S. and UK are amongst the most economically disadvantaged, and yet currently there’s nothing else out there like the Pillars Artist Fellowship which really invests and believes in the talent pipeline. Had I not received a scholarship and also a private donation, I wouldn’t have been able to attend drama school.”

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